Duke’s ‘Secret Game’ of 1944

The 19-1 North Carolina College for Negroes Eagles team of 1944.
The 19-1 North Carolina College for Negroes Eagles team of 1944. Duke Medical School

More than 20 million people will watch Duke take on Wisconsin in tonight’s NCAA basketball championship game. That’s about 20 million more than watched a Secret Game Duke played in a barrier-busting episode in 1944.

Historian Scott Ellsworth, who earned his Ph.D in history from Duke, has written a new book, “The Secret Game.” It tells the story of when an all-white team from Duke played a game against an all-black team from the N.C. Central College for Negroes (now N.C. Central University), breaking Jim Crow laws and jeopardizing their own safety and careers in the process.

Social media went berserk over Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison uttering a racial slur about Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky Saturday night. But it had nothing on that March day in 1944, when a game took place that would remain unmentioned for more than 50 years.

Peter St. Onge, now a member of the Observer editorial board, in 2006 told the story in the Observer that Ellsworth first unearthed and wrote about in the New York Times Magazine in 1996.

Two of the nation’s best teams in 1944 were in Durham: the N.C. Central team and a team of medical graduate students at Duke who had played as undergraduates around the country. On Sunday morning, March 12, when most people were in church, the Duke team got in two cars and took back roads to a gym at N.C. Central. They went in the back door of the locked gym. The gym was empty, most of the windows blackened.

N.C. Central had a new-fangled offense called “the fast break,” which they ran to perfection. The all-black team beat the all-white team, 88-44. Following the game, they mixed up the teams and played an informal game with blacks and whites on each team. The first integrated college basketball game in the South remained a secret for decades, even from many of the players’ friends.

It was a small step toward racial equality, three years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.

Tonight, the starting 10 will feature seven black players, three white ones, and one Native American. And no one will think a thing about it.

-- Taylor Batten