Monday, July 18, 2011
- by B.B. Branton
Undefeated for a season. People tip their hats.
String together multiple perfect football seasons that translates into long winning streaks.
Fans sit up and take notice and the media come calling.
Throw in 52 straight shutouts. Legendary.
For the all-black Bedford County Training School (K-12) in Shelbyville, Tenn., its impressive 52 straight wins during the 1940s ranks third among Tennessee prep teams behind Maryvllle with 74 and Cleveland at 54 and nine ahead of Alcoa which has the state longest current win streak at 43.
But the kicker comes when one realizes that the Tigers shutout all comers for nearly five years as part of an impressive 78-0-4 unbeaten run from 1943-50 which ended with a 6-2 loss to West End High School (Fayetteville) on Nov. 2, 1950.
Nearly a decade later, another traditionally black school, Chattanooga Howard, made a run at Bedford’s long unbeaten streak, posting a 46-0-3 mark, including 23 straight wins, from the final game of 1958 to midway through the 1963 season.
High school football for 2011 kickoffs in five weeks and Alcoa puts its unbeaten string on the line as it meets Cleveland on Sat. Aug. 20 at 5 p.m. in the inaugural Blount County Bowl doubleheader at Maryville High School. Maryville plays Webb School of Knoxville at 8 p.m.
The 52 straight shutout wins in a national record with dwarfs the second most consecutive wins by shutout at 19 by Arcadia High School (Neb.) 1955-56.
Alcoa football coach Gary Rankin said, “It’s difficult to compare eras, but what Bedford County did with that long scoreless streak is quite impressive. I can’t imagine anyone ever coming close to that record.”
“For two or three years no one cross midfield on us,” said 1948 team captain Sam Abernathy, 82, with a smile.
“We had great coaches who instilled in us hard work, discipline and the pride to do our best.”
E.C. Finley coached from 1937 to 1947 followed by coach Raymond Whitmon who played for Bedford in the early 1940s and was a two-time All-American at Tennessee State (then Tenn. A&I), 1946-47.
The Tigers winning tradition continued under head coaches K.V. Marshall and Will P. Martin until the school closed in 1966.
Football was important, but so were academics as longtime school principal Sidney Harris checked on player’s grades weekly.
“Each Wednesday we had to show Mr. Harris our grades for the week and if not up to his standards then you did not play,” stated Abernathy who started more than 50 games in five years playing next to long time friend Claude Freeman as linemen.
And play they did.
The Tigers won state titles in 1943-44-45-46 and 48 and took on all-comers in the all-black Middle Tennessee Athletic Association (MTAA), including Haines and Pearl (both of Nashville), Carver-Smith (Columbia), Townsend (Winchester), Davidson Academy (Tullahoma), Bernard (McMinnville), Bridgeforth (Pulaski) and Holloway (Murfreesboro), yet without a home field to call their own.
Bedford would use nearly Shelbyville Central’s field – an all-white school located in a predominately black neighborhood (41 West and the corners of Sevier and Lipscomb, a few blocks from downtown Shelbyville) – and play home games on Thursday nights, while Central played on Fridays.
”We actually played two games a week as we played on Thursday, the Central guys played their games on Friday and then we would play each other on Saturday afternoon or Sunday,” stated Abernathy, a teacher and coach at Tennessee A&I for more than 40 years and is a member of three halls of fame; Tennessee State Univ., national black hall of fame and NAIA hall of fame.
“We were all good friends even though we went to different schools, but we had some wars on the weekend.
“No pads, no helmets just good football We would have bloody lips and skinned knees at the end of the day, but would shake hands and look forward to the next game.”
James Claybourne who played for Bedford County in the mid-1960s and is human resource manager for the Bedford County Board of Education in Shelbyville pointed out that the stands were full each Thursday night.
“Players from both schools got along fine and we supported each other," said Claiborne whose father, Edward, and uncle, Marion, played for Bedford in the mid-1940s.
“In the 40s, 50s and 60s, Bedford fans would sit on the visitors side and the white folks from Shelbyville Central would fill up the home side for our Thursday games and even go to many of our away games.”
Whitmon was a member of Tenneesse A&I’s national championship teams in 1946-47 then coached Bedford to a state and national crown in 1948.
“In 1948, coach Whitmon contacted the best teams in the other regions of the country to play for the national title, but no one ever called. I guess they heard how good we were,” said Abernathy with a laugh.
Bedford fielded teams with less than 25-man rosters as everyone played both offense and defense.
Abernathy, a tackle, was one of 17 in the graduating class of 1950 served as class treasurer and dated and later married the class president, Gladys Inell Gibson.
“Our three grown children were quite impressed when I would show them their mother’s report cards which were all As with one B from grade school all the way through college.
The Abernathy’s both have their master’s degrees.
That discipline the classroom has been passed down to their children as Eloise Alexis is the vice president for institutional advancement at Spelman College in Atlanta, Darlene Neely is a teacher at Belmont University in Nashville and Brian Abernathy is in the banking business in Atlanta.
And the Abernathy’s great niece, high school All-American Ariel Massengale, will be a freshman on the Tennessee women’s basketball team in the fall.
He also noted that during his era, Finley and Whitmon were the team’s only coach as the school did not have the budget for assistants.
“We would run a play 10-12 times in practice until we got it right. There was no time to goof off and that striving for excellence was a big part of our success,” Abernathy said.
“As far as life beyond football, Mr. Harris was more interested in knowing how we did in life five, 10, 20 years after high school than on the football field.”
If Mr. Abernathy’s career as a teacher and coach are any indication of how other teammates turned out, then Mr. Harris would have felt his job as principal and mentor was a success.
Abernathy had a successful 40-year career at TSU (1952-1991) as instructor, assistant coach for track and field under coach Ed Temple and equipment manager for the basketball teams.
During his tenure he touched the lives of Olympic gold medal track athletes including Wilma Rudolph and Ralph Boston (Rome, 1960) and Chandra Cheeseborough (Los Angeles, 1984).
For men’s basketball, he served as equipment manager when the Tigers won three consecutive NAIA national titles (1957-57-59) led by three All-American Dick Barnett who had a 14-year NBA career and was a member of 1970 and 1973 champion New York Knicks.
King Hall: “In the early part of my career at TSU, there were no hotels available for the black teams to stay so we made available our 500 beds in King Hall on campus for visiting athletes and fed them in the school cafeteria. Other schools did the same for us when we traveled,” he said.
Bedford County to the NFL: Many talented Bedford County players continued their careers in college and James Mitchell, who was at BCTC in the mid-1960s and an All-American at Prairie View A&M (Texas) was the only one to play in the NFL – an 11-year career with the Atlanta Falcons.
Black Schools in Shelbyville: At the Tennessee Conference in 1885, Rev. Turner of the AME church recommended the establishment of Shelbyville High School, later named Turner Normal and Industrial Institute in 1896 and later known as Turner College … Rev. Bowman was the school’s first principal and also served as pastor of the Shelbyville AME Church … McAdams School was later founded by Turner College … Bedford County Training School was a separate school and had a football team as early as the mid-1930s … School name was changed to Harris High School in the early 1960s after BCTS principal Sidney Harris died … Harris High School closed in 1966.
contact B.B. Branton at firstname.lastname@example.org