Black Revisionist History Month The untruths behind Remember the Titans endure.

Sign of the Crimes: Titans’ mistruths have found their way into the historical record.
Charles Steck/File

Barack Obama held a town-hall meeting at the T.C. Williams High School field house just before the recent Virginia primary.

In reporting on the rally, the boys on the bus repeated the history ascribed to that high school in the script of Remember the Titans. After noting that Obama schmoozed with former football coach Herman Boone, a Time campaign blogger wrote that Denzel Washington played Boone in the 2000 football movie based on “the 1971 integration of T.C. Williams High School.”

The real T.C. Williams was racially integrated when it opened in 1965. But pushing back the year when integration came to Alexandria schools helps the movie’s storyline, since that jibes with the year the Titans won their first state football championship. And it’s a fine storyline: Obama said during the rally that the film makes “men cry.”

For all its fictions, the film has been quite good for the city and school where it is set—had there been no Remember the Titans, surely the Obama campaign wouldn’t have set its biggest rally in Northern Virginia on the T.C. Williams campus. Perhaps that’s why local and school officials never ask to correct the record when inaccurate histories of the school, ones that agree with Hollywood but not reality, are presented.

“It’s like people in the city don’t care about the truth anymore,” says Terry Greene. “Even people who were there act like they weren’t there, because of the movie.”

Greene, an Alexandria native, regards this revisionism as a crime, and not a victimless one. In 1963, he was among a small group of black students to enroll in George Washington High School. He played football for the school, also. He says the Hollywoodization of his hometown’s history ignores the real foot soldiers in the battle to desegregate the city’s schools and their athletic programs.

The Supreme Court had ruled segregated schools to be unconstitutional in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954, but Virginia was among the most egregious offenders when it came to abiding by the high court’s decision. Alexandria—whose superintendent of schools at the time was a devout segregationist named, ahem, T.C. Williams—resisted all moves toward “race-mixing.”

So when it was time for Greene to go to high school in 1962, eight years after the Supreme Court ruling, Alexandria still maintained two secondary schools for whites, George Washington and Hammond, and one for blacks, Parker-Gray.

But Greene’s parents wanted him to go to an integrated school. So, beginning in eighth grade, they sent him across the river to Gordon Junior High School in D.C., where the public schools had been integrated shortly after the Brown decision was handed down. And the Greenes applied to have their boy enrolled in one of Alexandria’s white schools under what that city’s government called the Freedom of Choice plan.

That program had been put in place in Alexandria after a 1958 lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of 14 black students whose parents demanded that the children be admitted to five of the city’s white schools, including George Washington and Hammond. (One more ugly chapter in the city’s racial history: Blois Hundley, a black parent of eight kids, was fired from her job as a school cook when Williams learned she was among the parents suing the city.)

But because of the antics of Williams and his fellow anti-integrationists, the Freedom of Choice plan was little used and little known.

“I remember there were only eight of us [black students] going into GW in 1963,” says Greene. “I know I thought of it as this big experiment, and I think we all did. We were all very conscious that a lot of people were very apprehensive on both sides. We felt like we had to succeed over here if we were going to move on. And, if kids at that age can field those types of responsibilities, I think we did. It was a very big event, definitely.”

He played on the football team—Greene shows up in the 1965 program for the then traditional Thanksgiving Day game against rival Washington-Lee wearing jersey number 77. Greene’s Washington teams never won a state championship or had a movie made about them.

By his senior year, Parker-Gray closed, and its students were distributed mainly between George Washington and the brand-new T.C. Williams, with Hammond staying overwhelmingly white. George Washington and Hammond, both of which had strong athletic programs, were then shut down in 1971, and all of Alexandria’s public school students were sent to T.C. Williams.

As in the movie, Alexandria had a wave of racial violence in the early 1970s. But that had nothing to do with the school or integration. In May 1970, John Hanna, a white manager at an Alexandria 7-Eleven, shot and killed an unarmed black George Washington student, Robin Gibson, during a dispute in the store. A historic carriage house in the city was torched days later, just one of many violent acts linked to the killing. During Hanna’s trial for manslaughter, the only black juror was dismissed after admitting he couldn’t give a white man a fair trial, and a dry-cleaning operation owned by a witness for the defense was firebombed after Hanna was given a two-year sentence.

Another thing the movie doesn’t tell viewers: The consolidation of three high schools, all of which were majority-white and integrated, into one school effectively tripled T.C. Williams’ enrollment of 11th- and 12th-graders. And though the racial makeup wasn’t changed radically, T.C. Williams became by far the biggest high school in Virginia, which meant it also had by far the biggest football talent pool in the state. The Washington Post didn’t mention integration when it predicted greatness for the team in its 1971 preseason poll, and nobody was surprised when the Titans crushed all opponents and won the state championship.

Greene saw Remember the Titans during its initial theatrical release in 2000 and remembers being pretty perturbed by the level of artistic license. The race-based taunting and cheap-shotting from opponents rang very true, he says, as did the bonding with white classmates and teammates. But the chronology bothered him.

“I know I spent quite a bit of time in the theater saying, ‘This isn’t how it happened! This isn’t how it happened!’” Greene, who now lives in Clinton, Md., says with a laugh.

But after leaving the theater, Greene kept his misgivings to himself. That’s Hollywood, he figured.

But his attitude changed last year when he read a story in the Alexandria Gazette Packet, a community newspaper, about local legend Ferdinand Day. In July 1964, Day became the first black member of the Alexandria school board. In 1971, he was named the first black chairman of that body. But while reading this recounting of Day’s amazing career, and reading another former board member say that no “meaningful integration” took place before the 1971 influx of students at T.C. Williams “as shown in the film, Remember the Titans,” Greene realized that city leaders and even Day had adopted the movie as Alexandria’s official historical record.

So Greene wrote the Gazette Packet and blasted “public officials in and around Alexandria” for being “taken in by the success of the film.”He recounted his own experiences as an integrator at GW from 1963 to 1966, and some of “the moral victories many of us played a part in, both black and white, on a daily basis,” and wrote that ignoring the real history “does a disservice to my classmates at George Washington High School, the School Board, and the city of Alexandria.”

“As black students we joined the debating team, foreign language clubs, and thespian clubs,” he wrote. “We played in the bands, marched in parades, competed in state and regional competitions. We chaired committees and successfully ran for class offices. We were cheerleaders and team managers. We played football, basketball, baseball, and wrestled and it is within this context that there are direct and accurate parallels to the movie…[L]et the record correctly reflect, we, the members of George Washington High School were victorious in fighting racism in Northern Virginia well before there were T.C. Williams Titans.”

His letter to the editor made the rounds. Greene heard from several classmates, including Skeeter Swift, a white basketball and football star at GW in the early 1960s who went on to play hoops in the ABA and was perhaps the greatest athlete the school ever produced.

“I thanked Mr. Greene for telling the truth,” says Swift, who now lives in Kingsport, Tenn.

He did not hear from Day, who has been a friend of the family since Greene was a child. But Day, 89 and still very feisty, read Greene’s letter in the Gazette Packet, and still isn’t happy about what was written. Day, an Alexandria native who went to high school in D.C. because his town had no secondary school for blacks in the 1920s, dismisses the Freedom of Choice program as “subterfuge” used by segregationists to stall wholesale integration.

“This was a full [nine] years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation, but when Terry [went to GW], the city simply was still not ready for desegregation,” says Day. “I don’t know why Terry wants to discuss this now. It’s 40 years later. That doesn’t feel useful at all.

“But if he says that eight guys or whatever were sent to George Washington and weren’t treated especially badly, well, that’s fine, but I don’t think that was especially heroic. It was merely an attempt on the part of the system to placate the people who were protesting the all-white schools.”

Day has no such qualms talking about Remember the Titans, however, a film he calls “fundamentally accurate.”

“I have no problem at all of discussing the merits of those young men from 1971,” Day says. “They are in my book the courageous heroes. That’s what the movie tells, a group of young men got together on a football team and learned from each other and stopped the outcry that was in this city. That’s a great story.”



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Our Readers Say

Now that is believable testimony!
Sadly, John raises the quintessential point about RTT. The inaccuracies depicted in the film are Hollywood-born and not enough was ever done to rectify the half-truths it contains. I was a substitute at T.C. when RTT came out. I recall asking one of the teachers why they filmed it in Georgia instead of at T.C. and the answer I got was "the School Board didn't want to upset and distract the students." Funny, considering all the screaming that went on in those hallways while the explanation was being proffered. As painful as it is for me to sit with my two college degrees in history and watch history take a back seat to the facts, whenever anyone here realizes that I am from Virginia, and they have seen RTT, the questions begin. "How can anyone live in a place where people hate each other and fight all the time?" I live in the State of Israel.
I was a student at TC Williams from 1969 - 1973

I don't know why anyone would ever expect any movie - in particular "Remember The Titans - to reflect any semblance of Truth. The flick was not a documentary, it was a feel-good drama that incorporated a few elements from history and ran with them.

Now, I think an actual documentary on the events at TC Williams in 1971 would be very interesting, but it would likely leave out pretty much ALL of the characters focused on in "Remember The Titans." The football players? Yawn. Very ordinary and uninteresting and definitely uninvolved in anything besides beer, girls, and driving recklessly. "Coach" Boone? Uh ... right. I will say that interviewing guys who were actually in his class would be a hoot. He was never the sharpest tack in the box. And parents as depicted in RTT? Give me break! This was a time long before parental involvement in their children's education was mandatory and few bothered in 1971. This was Virginia high school football, not Texas high school football, thank goodness!

As I recall, the real battles were being fought everywhere but in the locker rooms of TC. Does anyone recall the brown shirted, swastika-emblazoned Nazi party members who showed up in TCW's auditorium during the "K-6-2-2-2" community meeting? The hideous (but hilariously phrased and spelled) white supremacist literature that showed up in boys bathrooms during that time? The reactions of some of the "Old South" faculty at TCW to the changes? The humorous collision of teachers "centralized" at TCW as they battled for dominance in their little departments? Amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War years, high school football really did not count for much.

I recall the steamroller victories of TCW's various overstuffed teams being greeted by a collective yawn in school from the community. Of course they won a lot of games, it was three entire schools worth of junior-senior players! What was interesting was how quickly TCW went back to being a less-than-stellar sports school, despite the numerical advantages. Why was that? There's a PhD in Phys Ed waiting to be written!

TCW was just a pawn for school administrators trying hard not to get sued or fired. All the students I remember were just trying to get through and on to college and the events of the day were just another stupid adult distraction from the main event of growing up, getting out, and - for the boys at least - not getting drafted into that ugly war.
Oh, come on, Jas. It was *exciting* having a winning football team. Even some of us jaded intellectuals felt it. And it did help to unify the school and the city. The tensions before and after combining the schools were different from the way the movie depicted them, but they did exist. Students who started out at Hammond later told me that they were scared stiff of coming down to T.C.

Granted, a lot of other things were going on at the time. My freshman-year (1970-1971) Spanish class must have been interrupted a dozen times because somebody kept phoning in bomb threats to watch us evacuate the school. Weathermen came to campus once, and Vietnam and later Watergate loomed over us. (One of Gerald Ford's sons was in my class at T.C. -- something else you'd never have guessed from RTT.)

As a parable of racial tolerance, I'll acknowledge that RTT is flawed. When I arrived in Alexandria -- in January 1969, at the age of 12 -- the schools were already integrated, and things seemed to me to be running smoothly. The reorganization depicted (simplistically and inaccurately) in the movie was disruptive and took some getting used to, but it's clear that the real heavy lifting had already been done. I'm glad to see some of the credit and recognition going to the people who most deserve it.
Thank you, John, for compiling and presenting the truth behind the history of racial integration in Alexandria schools.

Now living deeper in the South, I, too, get questions and strained looks whenever someone comes to the awareness that I attended TCW during the time depicted by the film. I, too, am thought to be from some backwater, cross-burning community filled with bigots and haters. What I try and point out is what I know - that growing up in Alexandria we were part of a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multireligious community that was very tolerant and forward-thinking (where else could you get an "Excused Absence" to go protest the war?).

Sure, we had issues and disputes like many communities during this time. But I have subsequently lived in other communities far more racially intolerant. Boston, for example.

I must point out one error in John's story, however. He mentions that Geo. Washington and Hammond closed in 1971 and all the students moved to TCW. That is incorrect. Both those schools remain open to this day, I believe (one of them is run by a Principal who is the youngest sister of a class of 1973 mate - Henry Taylor). These schools had the freshman and sophomores of the city 'divvied-up' between them to achieve a 'racial balance' that was supposed to reflect that of the city's then populace. This was termed the "K-6-2-2-2 Plan"
Huh. If everyone was so excited about the Titans how come we were *required* to attend pep rallies during school hours? It was more like an indoctrination camp, and I guess it worked for some.

And just look what happened after the city got *unified*: they closed down public housing in Alexandria, kicked the blacks across the river into Maryland and began gentrifying downtown into the stellar white enclave it is today.

If "unify" is a synonym of "ethnic cleansing" I guess they unified the heck out of Alexandria, doing with money what the South was unable to do with bullets.
Bravo! What stimulating conversation from everyone.
Mr. Greene, if what you view of your entrance in to GW was an "experiment", you have certainly succeeded. You view Mr. Day's comments with clarity and your "Prexie Pride" is evident. Thank you.
If I may add a personal recollection, being shipped off to TC for my senior year was probably the worst thing that happened to me in school. I would not graduate from GW as a "President". It would be really interesting to get several points of view from those who came from Hammond and who were already at TC. My senior year there was a joke. Being raised in Del Ray the only outcry from my city, Mr. Day, was do this to the seniors of GW and Hammond.
To further clarify the record, Francis C. Hammond High School was desegregated in February of 1959 without incident with the admission of Patsy and Jimmy Ragland.

There was also racial violence prior to the 1970's on October 17th and 18th in 1969 following a football game at the GW stadium. For two nights, residences and businesses in the Old Town area were targeted with firebombs (Molotov cocktails), causing extensive damage. Riot guards were posted in the city and the state police were called to assist.

FCHHS 1962
To Joe McLaughlin

You are correct in that Francis C. Hammond and GW remain open - however, they are now middle schools. The last graduating class for each school was in 1971. GW's first graduating class was 1936 and Hammond's first graduating class was 1958.

From 1971-1979, they were two years schools for grades 9-10. then junior high schools for grades 7-9 and since 1993 middle schools for grades 6-8.
I have not much to say, seeing as I was not even thought of at the time at which the rest of you attended high school, but I would like to speak on behalf of current T.C. Williams students.

Seeing as it is Black History Month and though it is talked about often I wanted to do a little research on my school's history, I managed to stumble upon this little bash a movie fest and I'm honestly a little insulted as to be lumped in with a group of people who don't take the time to know the truth behind the movie. I, along with many other people, am aware that the movie wasn't all truth.

I am currently a senior at T.C. and while I have been ask countless times what it is like to attend a school with so much history, it does bother me that the people who are asking are simply referring to the movie. Yes, T.C. was one of the many schools that underwent a dramatic change during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Yes, they had a good football team. Yes, the area around T.C. (as I am told), was filled with turmoil at the time and perhaps the success of the segregated football team did show that segregation could succeed.

BUT, no, the stories of the majority of the characters were not true. And their were some Hollywood-fashioned liberties taken while trying to, I don't know, make the story interesting? The story overall is a nice tale of an example of segregational success in the form of the bonding of a high school football team, and our school is lucky enough to have been chosen to have it be presented as a story about our Titans.

Whether you attended T.C., George Washington, Hammond, or any other school that experienced turmoil about the segregation of schools of that time, the story is about you. Accept it and be proud of what you experienced.

AND BY THE WAY. I hate to disrespect my elders but, I live in Alexandria. And for the record, it is NOT "a stellar white enclave". In fact, my graduating class, along with the rest of my school, is predominantly black. So I guess we weren't all kicked "across the river into Maryland."
Very interesting. Thanks for the history lesson! I would much rather have known the true story of TC Williams 1971 football season. The fact that it didn't continue would be worth hearing about and learning from.
Thanks Terry for telling the truth!!!! I too was angered when I first saw the movie and could not believe that the facts were so easily forgotten!!! Your Mom, Mrs. Helen Day along with my Aunt Helen Miller and a few other parents were true trail blazers in the entire process of intergrating the school system and preparing us for the future in Alexandria, Va. and the World. I graduated from GW in 1968, I remember a lot of our classmates being transferred to TC in their senior year. I also remember guys like Skeeter Swift, Nolan Dawkins, Reggie Miller making up the first intergrated basketball team at GW, before there was a TC. Shame on you Mr. Day , the truth should be told all the time and the trail blazers should all ways be recognized!!!!! That's History and we lived it!!!
As a film producer, the Titans story was just a vehicle for Hollywood to make money. Alexandria was lucky some fictitious Deep South town wasn't substituted for the story. Enjoy the fame and make what you can on it.
Thank you for straightening all of this out. I was in The Alexandria Public Schools in 1971, but I would have been in Kindergarden then. I never felt any of the tensions that any of the older folk dealt with, as my classes were integrated from the start. I went to Mount Vernon Elementary, and then Parker-Gray for middle school. It's always interesting, and informative to hear the real story. And from my townhouse on Leadbeater Street, I could see the former 7-11 where the shooting had taken place. The church used to have revivals that kept my babies awake.

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