The year is 1956. The United States is still eight years away from passing the Civil Rights Act. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is still seven years away from giving his historic speech at the March on Washington. American University men's basketball is playing in the “Mason-Dixon” Conference. They are about to start their first game. And they are about to make history.
On Feb. 3, AU Athletics, the Kogod School of Business and the Washington College of Law co-sponsored an event to commemorate the groundbreaking team that desegregated basketball in the DMV. The event, titled “Desegregating DC Basketball” featured a panel moderated by acclaimed sports journalist and AU graduate David Aldridge. On the panel were D.C. basketball legend and former AU men’s basketball head coach Ed Tapscott, current AU men’s basketball head coach Duane Simpkins and Harvard University professor Davíd Carrasco.
Over the course of the discussion, the panelists shared their appreciation and admiration for the team that finally broke the color barrier in D.C. Davíd Lee Carrasco, son of former AU athletic director and men’s basketball coach, Davíd Livingston Carrasco, detailed how his father demanded that AU desegregate their basketball team as soon as he was hired to coach them. Coach Carrasco previously coached and taught at Montgomery Blair High School and was the first Mexican American to be hired to coach a major U.S. university’s men’s basketball team.
The historic team that Coach Carrasco put on the floor featured Dickie Wells, Willie Jones and Jim Howell, three Black high school basketball legends from the District. These three were not walk-ons, they were on full-ride scholarships to play basketball for AU. The team not only broke racial barriers, but it performed, winning 66 games in its first three years, winning the Mason-Dixon conference three times and earning three national tournament berths.
Carrasco spoke about his father’s incredible ability to “put himself in the world” of his players and give them the utmost support on their trailblazing journey. He recapped stories of his father buying suits for his players, visiting them in the hospital and even defending them with his fists against angry racist mobs. Coach Carrasco faced discrimination himself as a Mexican American in Texas and had spent time in the Navy working with Black servicemen. So, Carrasco said, his father knew how to connect with his athletes.
The journey to desegregate basketball was not an easy one. Carrasco and Tapscott both told stories of all sorts of discrimination that the team faced, from racist chants to unfair officiating to all-out brawls on the court. The team also had trouble scheduling games, as many teams in the all-white Mason-Dixon Conference refused to play them. These stories make the feat that Coach Carrasco and the 1956 American University Eagles pulled off even more impressive.
In the years that followed, other DMV schools followed suit and desegregated their teams one by one, but Coach Carrasco’s Eagles will always be remembered as the team that did it first.
When the opening tip was tossed up on Dec. 3, 1957 against Navy, Dick Wells was on the floor, and history was made.
This article was edited by Penelope Jennings, Delaney Hoke and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Olivia Citarella.