Athletics were a widely popular pastime within the black communities of High Point from the turn of the twentieth century through the end of the segregation era, and William Penn High School played an integral role in developing these communities’ athletic traditions. Local historian Glenn Chavis indicates that sports began on the campus of High Point Normal and Industrial Institute in 1902, though he does not indicate which sports the students played. Indeed, information about athletics in the city is sparse for the early decades of the 1900s, since the High Point Enterprise rarely covered high school sports, and when it did the newspaper mostly paid attention to the activities of white students. Chavis has discovered evidence that High Point Normal and North Carolina A&T teams played a baseball game in 1919 on the school campus in High Point, but most of his information about the athletic programs begins in the mid-1920s, when the school came under the control of the city.
High Point Normal started basketball teams for both boys and girls in 1925 or 1926, and a football team for boys in 1928. The school baseball team was discontinued in 1929, leaving football and basketball as the most prominent sports on campus for the rest of the school’s existence. William Penn’s teams were powerful during the 1930s (although the football program was suspended from 1932 through 1936 for financial reasons), regularly winning regional championships and capturing a state title in football in 1941 under the leadership of Carl Chavis, perhaps the greatest athlete in the city’s history. The school also developed a successful track program that seems to have emerged out of inter-city meets among the younger students at William Penn and the students at Fairview and Leonard Street Elementary Schools.
Carl Chavis, William Penn Class of 1941. Courtesy of the High Point Historical Society, High Point, NC
Other sports flourished within High Point’s black community beyond the organized teams at William Penn. Several of the school’s students, including Carl Chavis, became successful boxers during this period, and Washington Terrace Park (originally known as the Colored Park) housed a highly competitive swim program. There were a number of table tennis competitions held at William Penn (though not organized by the school) where African-American children from High Point won championships. And golf became a vehicle for advancing civil rights in the city when a number of prominent black men waged an extended and successful battle to integrate the city’s Blair Park golf course in 1956.
For the most part, though, the community focused on supporting the William Penn High School teams. Freddye Dixon remembers the whole community attending football games, basketball games, and track meets. Ron Hutton says that when people learn he attended William Penn, they still ask him whether he was a member of the school’s powerhouse track teams of the 1960s. The football team won a state championship under Coach James Atkinson in 1960, and the men’s basketball team won its own state title in 1968 under Coach George Foree. Both men continued to work at Andrews High School after integration, and the strong teams that school produced during the 1970s were built upon the long and storied athletic legacy of William Penn.
George Foree was born in 1939 in Gary, Illinois. He was a 1961 graduate of Winston-Salem State University (then Winston-Salem Teachers College), where he starred on the men’s basketball team and was later named to the school’s hall of fame. He joined the William Penn faculty as a basketball coach and driver’s education teacher in 1962. He led the boys’ team to two Division 4-A semifinal appearances and a state championship in 1968, the school’s final year. He went on to become the head boys’ basketball coach at Andrews and was named to the Greensboro Sports Commission Hall of Fame in 2007, six years after his death.
James W. Atkinson was born on February 11th, 1921. He attended Friendship College in Rock Hill, South Carolina before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942 to fight in World War II. When he returned home, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Social Studies and Health and Physical Education from the North Carolina College for Negroes and his Master’s degree in Health & Physical Education from Columbia University. In 1953, he was hired as the head football and track and field coach at William Penn. During his fifteen years as football coach (a tenure that ended when William Penn closed in 1968), Atkinson’s teams compiled a record of 95 wins, 34 losses, and 13 ties. During that time, he led the Tigers to three district titles and three regional titles, and in 1960 the team won the State Negro 3-A Football Championship. Atkinson was a tough but beloved and selfless coach and teacher. After William Penn closed, he became assistant head coach at High Point Central High School, where he helped players adjust to integration. That team made the state finals in 1972. Atkinson retired from education and coaching in 1984 and was inducted into the Guilford County Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. He died June 18, 2013 at the age of 92.