Sunday, February 26, 2012

Football standout Johnson grew up in a segregated Kingsport


Contact Vince Staten at vincestaten@ or via mail in care of the newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at

It was a different time, when downtown water fountains were labeled “White” and “Colored,” when a laundromat on West Sullivan had the sign “White Patrons Only” in its window, and when Kingsport’s black youth went to a “separate but equal” school of their own, Douglass. Equal meant textbooks were 10-year-old hand-me-downs from the city’s white schools and the football team’s uniforms were passed down after the Dobyns-Bennett football team got new uniforms.

That was the world Bobby Joe Johnson grew up in, lived in, and played in.

Bobby Joe, who died earlier this week, was raised in a segregated Kingsport.

The last time I talked to him, at an event at the V.O. Dobbins Sr. Center, he told me about how the great Douglass football teams of the late 1940s overcame that adversity to win two state Negro championships. Bobby Joe was the star quarterback on those squads.

Their uniform jerseys were passed down from D-B, maroon and gray shirts, D-B’s school colors. Bobby Joe told me the Douglass coach, John Cox, didn’t want his team wearing maroon and gray. Douglass’ school colors were blue and gold.

Douglass didn’t have a budget to get the jerseys dyed. So coach Cox took a barrel of blue ink — at the beginning of each school year the school board gave Douglass a quantity of ink for the inkwells on the student desks. Cox dipped the jerseys into the blue ink until the gray had turned blue and the maroon had a blue tinge.

Bobby Joe said it worked just fine. In cold weather.

“Sometimes it got pretty hot in those September games.”

Bobby Joe said he would pull up his jersey to wipe the sweat off his brow.

“I’d look down, and my belly was blue from where the ink had come off in the heat!”

Most seasons Douglass had fewer than 20 players on the team. Bobby Joe said they’d have to go out in the neighborhood to round up a couple of guys just so they could scrimmage.

But the team never let these obstacles hold them back.

Bobby Joe was the star of the 1948 game that secured the “State Championship for Negro high schools,” as this newspaper called it. Because of segregation black schools were prohibited from playing white schools.

This newspaper reported that even though he was tightly guarded Bobby Joe pulled down a “sleeper pass” in the end zone from halfback Buddy Bond that gave the Tigers a 14-13 win over Knoxville’s Austin High.

To get to that championship game, Douglass had to beat two powerhouse Chattanooga teams, Booker T. Washington and Howard.

More than 3,000 turned out at J. Fred Johnson Stadium to see Douglass upend Washington 19-7.

Douglass traveled to powerful Howard, a school that was three times the size of Douglass.

Bobby Joe told me that the Douglass team took a rickety old school bus down to Chattanooga.

“We got off the bus in front of Howard. That was a big school. We were all looking up at how big the building was with these tall columns. A couple of their players were standing on the front steps. One of them looked down at us and said to his friend, loud enough for us to hear, ‘I wish somebody had told me the circus was coming to town. I wouldn’t have come to school today.’ ”

Bobby Joe laughed as he told me the story. Because Bobby Joe and Douglass got the last laugh that day, defeating Howard 26-13 with Bobby Joe catching two touchdown passes.