BRISTOL, Va. – Marvin Beidleman deserved a moment like this.
In fact, all of the folks seated in chairs on opposite sides of the gym warranted the applause they received as their names were announced over the public address system by Virginia High athletic director Brad Harper.
Seventy-three people – 37 who had ties to Slater High School and 36 who were linked to Douglass – were the center of attention during Saturday’s Bristol Classic at Virginia High’s Bearcat Den.
Their moment in the spotlight occurred before the varsity basketball squads as VHS and Tennessee High tangled for the city championship while wearing throwback uniforms honoring the all-black schools that closed in 1965.
The recognition was long overdue and thanks to the legwork of 1970 Virginia High graduate Preston Mitchell and the administrators at both VHS and THS, it came to fruition.
The students in the stands and on the court have learned in history class about the struggles of black people in the South under Jim Crow laws some 60-years ago, but those Douglass and Slater alumni lived it.
Wanted a delicious hamburger or hot dog from one of the established local eateries during that era? You could pick it up curbside or use the backdoor, but you couldn’t sit at the counter.
Were you going to catch the latest John Wayne flick at the Cameo Theatre on State Street? Sure, but you had to sit in the balcony.
Compile a 106-21 record over the course of the final five seasons of the program as the Slater Wolves did under the direction of head coach Dorsey Sims? That wasn’t enough to be ranked in the Bristol Herald Courier’s Top-10 poll of Northeast Tennessee basketball teams each season.
Facing prejudices large and small wasn’t easy.
Yet, the students at Douglass on the Virginia side of town and Slater on the Tennessee side of the state line had each other and that was evident as Saturday’s event was more like a family reunion instead of a class reunion.
“We all were so close,” said Sam White, a 1965 Slater graduate. “We took care of each other whether it was basketball, football or outside of the school.”
There were many exceptional students who graduated from each of the schools, men like Beidleman.
A multi-sport star at Slater, Beidleman was a trailblazer at Tennessee Tech and then served a tour of duty with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam.
“We were best of friends then and best of friends now,” White said. “He was an awesome ballplayer – football and basketball.”
Beidleman joined Joe Neal Hilson and Henry James Jordan as the first black athletes at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, Tennessee, as they enrolled in college in the fall of 1964 and played hoops for the Golden Eagles.
“It was tough at times and integration was still fresh,” Beidleman said. “I didn’t have too many problems with it, but there were still problems. Our team was a pretty good team, but the black guys really didn’t get to play together at the same time that much when we were at home. At the away games, all of us black guys got to play at once and we’d be hawking the ball with that full-court press.”
He had a tour of duty serving his country, a brave member of the 101st Airborne’s reactionary force in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
“Wherever the fighting was,” Beidleman said. “That’s where we were.”
Wherever his life took him, Beidleman always had home.
He was at ease among his former classmates on Saturday.
“I enjoyed this gathering,” Beidleman said. “I can’t believe this many came and you can’t beat that. I really hope we can get together more often.”
It also brought back memories of those memorable ballgames: Slater Wolves vs. Douglass Demons.
“The rivalry was outstanding,” Beidleman said. “It was mean and it started boiling about a month before the games would be played. It really was something else.”
For the first time since Feb. 16, 1965, teams wearing Douglass and Slater uniforms competed against each other. Clad in Douglass blue-and-gold, Virginia High’s girls were victorious, while the Tennessee High boys, decked out in Slater orange-and-black, triumphed.
“This is a great thing with the kids representing us out there,” Beidleman said.
Those teenagers should never forget men like Beidleman, who grew up in a different Bristol during a different time.
It’s one the current generation will never know, but should appreciate.
“I hope and pray that our young kids nowadays will enjoy themselves in sports and every other endeavor of life,” Beidleman said. “It’s out there for them; the only thing they have to do is hit the books and they’ve got all kinds of opportunities to do anything they want in the world.”
It was announced on Saturday the Bristol Classic will occur again next year with Tennessee High playing host.
That’s good news.
Slater and Douglass alums deserve it.