Forward Progress

Oct 29, 2018 | Around Chatham

by Sara Heilman | Photography by Beth Mann

Johnny Richardson doesn’t recall there being anything strange about eating grilled cheese sandwiches in Dorothy Shaner’s kitchen. Sure, he was an African-American high schooler in 1971, spending time in a white woman’s kitchen, eating the most white-suburban of snacks, but that never crossed his mind. He just remembers the grilled cheese sandwiches.

“They were good,” Johnny says. “If I wasn’t home for dinner, my mom knew I was over at the Shaners’ house. I never considered it being black and white. They accepted me as family.”

That same year, Johnny was the quarterback for the newly built Northwood High School; the first football star at the last high school in Chatham to integrate. Born and raised just outside of Pittsboro, Johnny attended the all-black Horton High School as a freshman and sophomore. White students went to Pittsboro High School. When desegregation arrived, neither campus was large enough to absorb the other, so Northwood was built just north of Pittsboro. And for many, the symbol of integration was the new, integrated football team. The coach was Jack Shaner, a white man who coached and taught in Chatham for 33 years. He understood the place local high school football held in many people’s lives. If an integrated team succeeded on the field, it might help ease the process. But for that, he needed his players to act like a team. One way he brought them together was to invite players to his house for snacks and meals made by his wife, Dorothy, who everybody called Dot. But Jack knew the team needed more than snacks – it needed a leader.

“Johnny was just a success story,” says John Shaner, Jack’s son, who also coached football at Northwood and is now the athletic director at Bonlee School. Jack died in 2010. “He came over from Horton, and he was one of the first Northwood leaders on the field, in the classroom, in the community. He was the face of that first team.”

When football practices started the summer before Johnny’s junior year, it marked the first time that black and white kids had met as fellow students. As head coach, Jack hired two black assistants, Leo Campbell and Ernest Dark. Despite an expectation of hostility and apprehension, the two groups almost immediately meshed.

“We developed a bond pretty quickly as a football team, and I think it was because of the competitive nature that Coach Shaner and the other coaches put forth to us,” Johnny says. “That competitive nature made us respect one another as individuals, as players. I think they knew that in order for us to be successful, first we had to [have that] respect.”

Integration came late to North Carolina, and later still to Chatham. Just up the road, UNC’s first black undergraduates arrived in 1955, though all left campus, citing harassment. It would be another decade before the university’s basketball and football teams fielded their first black players in 1966 and 1967. Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City integrated in 1968, a process that quickly spilled onto the football field. New black students saw the school’s long-time mascot – the Blue Phantom – as little more than a man in a white sheet. When the school announced a change to the Jets in 1970, a brawl erupted that closed the campus for four days.

By 1971, Johnny was a Northwood senior and the team’s star quarterback. The team was on a roll, shutting out five opponents on the way to an undefeated record in the Central Tar Heel Conference and a spot in the championship game. Their opponent would be the No. 1-ranked team in the state, winners of 19 straight games: Jordan-Matthews.

The game, played November 5, 1971, would come to be known as the “Chatham Bowl.”

“The week leading up to the championship game, the atmosphere around the high school, you know, it was hot,” Johnny says. “Back then, Northwood and Jordan-Matthews, I would say the rivalry was more intense. It was a lot of chatter going on, people bragging.”

On the night of the game, according to newspaper accounts, the Jets even wore No. 1 stickers on their helmets to indicate their ranking. “You could just look and see that both sides of the bleachers were just jam packed,” Johnny says. “The game went down to the wire.”

Northwood never led until the final drive, when Johnny threw a 33-yard pass to set up a touchdown, and then scrambled into the end zone for the winning points. “After that win, it was just jubilation. Jubilation everywhere,” Johnny remembers.

Mattie Smith is an assistant principal at Northwood and the daughter of Ernest Dark, the assistant coach. She said the win over the Jets made the team the face of integration in the area. “Northwood was a new, integrated school,” Mattie says. “There was a lot of tension, and so I feel like this football game helped to ease some of that. That game kind of propelled or opened the eyes of people to say, ‘We can coexist. This is going to be alright. We just won a championship; this is going to be alright.’”

John remembers it similarly. “I think that a lot of people got life lessons about integration from the way the football team handled it,” he says. “It was a team, like a family.”

Johnny went on to play at North Carolina State University and worked for more than 30 years at IBM. He still lives in Chatham, on the same property he grew up on. The 1971 team remains vivid in Northwood’s identity. Every spring, the school hosts the Jack Shaner Jamboree, hosting several teams from the region in a series of pre-season scrimmages. And on October 19, Northwood will honor the 1971 team during a halftime ceremony in their Hall of Fame home game against Orange High School.

“It’s good to know that, from Northwood’s perspective, you can come together and understand people who have different backgrounds and different cultures,” Johnny says. “You’ll always have challenges with people who don’t know one another, but once they get to each know the other, things can change, and you can understand one another.” CM

Sara Heilman graduated from Northwood High School in 2018, where she was valedictorian.

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