(Part 7 in a series of posts honoring vintage all-black U.S. military basketball teams. Back to Part 6)
History is the study of what happened, and when. But, to use a meta-pun-idiom, the details are not always so “black and white.”
In lieu of details, one must use whatever information is available to piece together what happened, or may have happened.
Such is the case with the Naval Ammunition Depot basketball team of 1944.
The story of this team unfolds through the forgotten scrapbook of serviceman H. William “Bill” Grady, who enlisted in the Navy and soon found himself in basic training at the Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Illinois.
The Navy opened up enlistment of African Americans in 1942.
The Great Lakes Naval Training Station was famous for its own touring sports teams — in baseball, football, and basketball — known as the Great Lakes Bluejackets.
While Grady was there, the Bluejackets featured future Baseball Hall of Fame members Larry Doby and Bob Feller, future Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian, and future New York Knicks star Dick McGuire.
Grady, whose rank we do not yet know, was a basketball player. While at Great Lakes, he played on a basketball team that apparently won the intramural championship for the base — but it was likely the “colored” intramural championship.
This is a photo of the team:
That’s because the basketball Bluejackets were racially segregated, as was the entire Great Lakes camp. According to a 2003 account by William S. White, a retired justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, who was there:
The experience to some extent followed the pattern of the outside world, in that blacks did play on the Great Lakes football team because in those days there were a few blacks playing on college football teams. It sounds ridiculous now, but blacks could not play on the Great Lakes basketball team. You wonder now how they could get ten white guys who knew how to play basketball, don’t you? But they did. Imagine, blacks played football but not basketball. Prejudice is not a logical thing. So why was it all right for them to play football? I guess because they had more clothes on. I don’t know.
After serving at Great Lakes, Grady was sent to the Naval Ammunition Depot at Hastings, Nebraska.
The N.A.D., as it was known, was the Navy’s largest inland munitions plant during World War II. At its peak in 1943, around the time that Grady arrived, the N.A.D. employed nearly 10,000 military and civilian personnel making bombs, torpedoes, mines, and small caliber ammunition.
Grady was assigned to Unit 2, Building 123. Facilities and living quarters at N.A.D. were segregated there too.
But the N.A.D. basketball team was not.
So, Grady appears in this official Navy photograph of the racially integrated 1943-44 N.A.D. team:
Which, as stated, goes to show that history is not always black and white.
Meanwhile, a portion of that team — all of its black players — represented the N.A.D. in the “Colored Servicemen’s Basketball Championship Tournament of Nebraska,” held in Omaha. Three other African American players from a N.A.D. intramural team also played.
The tournament was sponsored by the Omaha Star, the African American newspaper there, and the Colored U.S.O of Omaha.
Those who made the trip to Omaha were George Stewart, Frank Luster, Fletcher B. Spigner, Jim Hightower, Roddy Anderson, Leonard Hawkins, and “Bill” Grady of the N.A.D. representative team, and Eugene Gomez, Dixon Malone, and E. H. Berry of the Depot’s intramural league.
This “colored” version of the N.A.D. basketball team likely also played other teams in the surrounding region.
That’s all we know so far.
We do not yet know how they performed, and we do not have a photo of that all-black squad.
Additional information and clues are likely to be found within the microfilm archives of the N.A.D.’s newspaper, the Powder Keg, and the Omaha Star.
This short film, produced by Nebraska Educational Television, offers additional poignant insights about the experiences of African Americans stationed at the Naval Ammunition Depot during World War II.
If you believe you might know anything about these teams or its players, please contact us. Thank you.