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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hawkins opened doors for countless African-Americans

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dubbed the "Father of Colored Basketball" by the Southeast Kansas Athletic Association, Professor E.J. Hawkins formed the first athletic league for African-American youth in the area. This trophy presented to Hawkins, was donated to the Gordon Parks Museum, was donated by Hawkins' daughter, Anita Hawkins Barnes, who now resides in Los Angeles.
(Courtesy Photo)
Professor E.J. Hawkins, one of this year's inductees into the Kansas State High School Activities Association Hall of Fame, was dubbed the "Father of Colored Basketball" by the Southeast Kansas Athletic Association and boasted an astounding .905 winning percentage while coaching the Whirlwinds, an African-American team from Fort Scott.

But Hawkins produced more than victories during his roughly 25 years of coaching.

The teacher, principal and coach opened doors for countless African-American youth, both athletically and academically, throughout Southeast Kansas, forming the Southeastern League for black athletes and conducting professional development for African-American teachers throughout the Midwest.

Hawkins' teams won five consecutive state titles from 1928 to 1933, nine Southeastern Kansas League Championships and at one point played 67 games without a single loss. He achieved this success despite daunting odds. Although Fort Scott High School was integrated at the time, the sports teams were still segregated.

Myrtle Ann Colum, now a Fort Scott Community College trustee, attended the Plaza School where Hawkins was principal. She said Hawkins knew that black male high school-aged students "needed and deserved some organized activities."

Plaza School educated African-American students grade one through nine and later one through eight.

In a nomination letter to KSHSAA, Colum told the story of how Hawkins organized a basketball team, the Whirlwinds, with permission from the USD 234 school board. Although the board approved his request, Hawkins and his all-black team were given no financial support by the board, unlike like their white counterparts.

Colum said the team could only use the gym for games or practices if it was not being used by the white community. Hawkins received no money from the school board -- any funds came out of his own pocket, or from anything the families of the players might be able to pitch in.

"Professor Hawkins coached the basketball team and drove them to wherever he could find a team to play them," Colum said.

According to a March 2, 1994, Tribune report, Hawkins' Whirlwinds took the court for the first time on Jan. 1, 1921, defeating Olathe in Fort Scott. After that, he was instrumental in starting the Southeastern League, providing opportunities for other black athletes to compete throughout Southeast Kansas. Hawkins teams played teams from Parsons, Chanute, Oswego, Atchison and Topeka. Other teams were later created in Independence, Baxter Springs, Coffeyville, Pittsburg and Kansas City.

The 1994 Tribune report offers a glimpse of some of the adversity Hawkins faced, telling the story of how he and his entire team were placed in a Chanute jail one night. The athletes were waiting outside a Chanute hotel for their bus to pick them up and take them back to Fort Scott on a cold winter night. The kids decided to go inside the hotel and warm up near the stove, but were told to leave because it was a "white only" establishment. The team stayed in the hotel, the police were called and Hawkins and his entire team were transported to jail until someone from Fort Scott arranged for their release late that same night.

Hawkins mandated that his players be members of Ad Summa, an elite academic organization.

"In 1924, the Whirlwinds went on a nine or 10-day traveling schedule in Oklahoma," historian Arnold Schofield said. "He (Hawkins) insisted they bring along their books and that they study while they were traveling, so that they would maintain that academic excellence."

Roy Colum, who still resides in Fort Scott, recalls Hawkins as "very professional, authoritarian and strict, and very hands-on."

Roy, who became a member of the Whirlwinds two years after Hawkins' passing, but attended Plaza School during Hawkins' tenure as principal, said Hawkins always stressed doing the right thing.

"He wanted you to do good," Roy said. "He put it out to you that way."

Numerous accounts describe Hawkins' motto and message to African-American youth as "Look Sharp, Be Sharp, Be Somebody."

Roy said the tradition of scholarship and citizenship that Hawkins instilled in youth was handed down to Walter Hall, Whirlwinds coach and principal of the renamed Hawkins School (Second Plaza School) after Hawkins died in 1946.

In a project funded by the Kansas Humanities Council entitled, "The Buried Roots of African-American Ancestry in Fort Scott, Kansas," Roy described Hawkins as "a lifelong role model for me and most of the black kids in Fort Scott."

Schofield said Hawkins remains the longest tenured coach in the history of Fort Scott basketball and also carries the highest winning percentage of any Fort Scott coach.

Hawkins' teams went 380-40 during his 25 years as coach, Schofield said.

"Nobody comes close to that," Schofield remarked.

Hawkins coached the Whirlwinds until his death in 1946.

Schofield said Hawkins was the founder of the Southeast Kansas Athletic League for African-American athletes and that when Hawkins started his team in 1921, there weren't many teams, but by the late '20s, there were a number of squads divided into two divisions -- the northern and southern divisions.

"The southern division contained teams in Baxter Springs, Coffeyville, Chanute and Walnut," Schofield said. "The northern division included Fort Scott, Iola, Pleasanton, Osawatomie and Mound City."

He said around 1924 a league championship was developed. The championship trophy, won by the Whirlwinds, now resides in the Gordon Parks Museum.

KSHSAA Executive Director Gary Musselman will present Hawkins' Hall of Fame plaque to FSHS on Friday, Jan. 25. Schofield said a duplicate plaque will be part of the Gordon Parks Museum's African-American History display.

He hopes that publicity of Hawkins achievements might unearth some artifacts of the Whirlwinds for the museum's exhibit.

"One thing we are hoping as an outcome is that somebody may have in their attic or in a trunk a jersey or a pennant," Schofield said.

"We would like some memorabilia of some kind," Jill Warford, director of the Gordon Parks Museum said.

Currently, the museum has a few photographs, a couple of trophies and some box scores from games.

Kirk Sharp, who is assisting on the project, said even if someone did not want to part with their memorabilia, they would still like to take pictures of it for the museum.

Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part series leading up to the presentation of a plaque to Fort Scott High School commemorating the achievements of Professor Ernest Jocquito Hawkins, who was recently posthumously inducted into the Kansas State High School Activities Association Hall of Fame.

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