Dixie Youth Grew from Racial Divide

By Courtesy of Fayetteville Online By Michael N. Graff
Updated: March 18, 2006
Story Photo
Photo courtesy of Little League
The Cannon Street YMCA Little League All-Stars watch a tournament game from the stands at Original Field in Williamsport, Pa. The All-Stars from Charleston, S.C., advanced to the Little League playoffs in the summer of 1955, which led to the withdrawal of the state’s other 61 teams.

NORTH CAROLINA–To trace the history of Little League, it’s impossible to stride past 1955 without noticing the hiccup.

As segregation issues began to boil, Little League lost nearly an entire state of youth athletes that year, when 61 leagues from South Carolina refused to play in a tournament with an all-black team from Charleston.

The breakaway leagues became the founding members of what is now known as Dixie Youth Baseball, the predominant youth sports association serving Cumberland County and Fayetteville.

Though Dixie Youth has been integrated since the early 1960s, and has produced well-known black athletes such as Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, its officials still find themselves answering questions about the past.

“Segregation was a way of life,” said Gary McJunkin, a current national director of Dixie Youth who worked with the organization at the time of the secession. “It was a lifestyle of the day back then.

“In today’s world, it’s totally different. Now we’re together in school, we’re together in churches. That’s the way it should be. We’re all together.”

Dixie Youth now has leagues in 11 states, ranging from Texas to Virginia.

Little League, meanwhile, is represented in 80 countries.

One has a history that’s scrutinized more often.

How Dixie Youth was founded is unfortunate, McJunkin said, but the organization that stands today is strong and open-minded.

Dixie Youth, which has as its foundation the granting of autonomy to local leagues, will offer 60 scholarships at $2,000 apiece this year to current high school seniors who were once members of the program.

Dixie Youth has changed its seal to eliminate elements of the Confederate battle flag. And it has always been proactive rather than reactive on issues of gender and race, McJunkin said.

“It’s a good program,” he said. “It’s open to everybody. In the World Series, we’ve had teams that have been all black. We are sensitive to things.”

At its start, though, Dixie Youth was anything but open.

The 1955 dispute started after the regular season, when an all-black league put forth its all-star team — the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars — to play in the district tournament.

Should they have won there, the Cannon Street players would have advanced to the state tournament, then the regional, and possibly the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

All of it was possible. Unless they won by forfeit.

When league directors throughout South Carolina learned an all-black team would be playing in the tournament — and Little League wouldn’t stop it — they pulled their teams and played their own state tournament. The next year, Little Boys Baseball was formed. Its name would be changed to Dixie Youth Baseball in the 1960s following a lawsuit filed by Little League over the name.

So significant was the break, Little League historian Lance Van Auken used the events predominantly in a book he and his wife recently wrote, Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball.

“It was a tough time for Little League back then,” said Van Auken, the current senior communications executive for Little League. “Little League knew by taking a stand, it would lose hundreds of leagues in the South. And it did. Financially, it wasn’t a good decision. But it still was a good decision.”

McJunkin said the marriage with Little League ended because of circumstances, not racism. He said laws prevented the white children from playing youth baseball against black children on school properties, where most of the fields are located.

Regardless, the Cannon Street team could not play in the regional tournament. In special cases through the years, Little League has granted exemptions to teams through one level of play, according to Van Auken. But it’s never jumped a team through two, as would have been necessary for the Cannon Street players after they missed both the district and state tournaments.

Little League did provide a bus for the Cannon Street players to attend the World Series in Williamsport. But the team did not play.

“It was a bittersweet thing for them,” Van Auken said.

Little League honored the Cannon Street team at the 2002 World Series.

Currently, Dixie Youth has no minorities among its 45 national directors, but McJunkin said there are several at the state director level.

McJunkin said Dixie Youth has no immediate plans to expand beyond the South.

A name change, though, may be coming soon.

Carey Wrenn, one of four state directors for North Carolina, said he intends to propose a new name at Dixie Youth’s annual board meeting in August.

Wrenn lives in Rocky Mount, Va., near Ferrum College. Ferrum is a member of the USA South Athletic Conference, known three years ago as the Dixie Conference.

“Some people may perceive the word ‘Dixie’ as being prejudice or racist,” Wrenn said. “I think it was a geographic name. But I think it’s time to move that.

“I always tell people, ‘Please judge us by our character, not our name.’ We welcome anybody and everybody. We just want kids to have a good time playing baseball.”

Staff writer Michael N. Graff can be reached at graffm@fayettevillenc.com or 486-3591.