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Rosa Keller Library (5:00-9:00 PM)
My House NOLA presents a rolling food vendor mini festival
Maple Leaf (8:00PM)
Feel the Mardi Gras Indian beat with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux
Rebirth Brass Band
Crescent City Farmers Market
Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns
The Antenna Gallery (7:00 PM)
A series of music-themed movies and documentaries, curated and hosted by DJ Soul Sister, and co-presented by Charitable Film Network, Press Street, and WWOZ
Jewish Community Center (7:30 PM)
The second evening of a chamber music festival that has something for classical aficionados and dilettantes alike
Circle Bar (10:00 PM)
Catch the Indie rockers on their North American tour
R.L. Stockard, South Louisiana's First African American Sportswriter, Talks About Integration, Newspapering and Educating
Picket lines and politics weren't the only places where integration battles raged in the 1960s. As the first African-American sportswriter in South Louisiana, R.L. Stockard had a unique vantage point of the on-court battles that were about more than winning the game. Recently, the octegenarian sat down with NoDef to discuss his life and times.
In 1965, New Orleans was split between black and white. The seeds of integration were starting to sprout, but the transition was hardly smooth. High school sports mirrored the racial tensions in the city. Segregation was so deeply entrenched that leagues were divided by color, and the idea of integrating even a basketball court was unfathomable to many in the south.
It was during this era that two private, Catholic schools from separate leagues went head to head in a game that many feared could change sports in the city forever. The “secret game,” between Jesuit High School and St. Augustine had the potential to revolutionize the way sports were played within the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and many would have preferred to keep it a secret.
But Russell L. Stockard, South Louisiana’s first African-American sportswriter, was on the sidelines, and he made sure the boys from St. Aug got the coverage they deserved for their win. The story about the event was just one milestone in a life spent breaking down boundaries. In his home as a loving and devoted father and husband, in the newsroom as an inclusive yet objective reporter and the lecture hall as a professor, Stockard led by example. His actions still resonate today.
In a piece for The Black Collegian, Stockard writes, “I covered the city’s high school sports beginning in 1960 because white reporters wouldn’t.” He made a name for himself as South Louisiana’s first black sportswriter for a daily newspaper, but Stockard’s list of accomplishments far exceeds his success as a journalist.
Now, the recently retired writer cum educator lives in Baton Rouge with his second wife, Mary L. Thomas. His home is tidy, aside from the stacks of Time Magazines, newspapers, and cumbersome piles of framed awards and flyers from various periods in his professional career. Family photos dating back to the 1930’s line his walls.
Stockard has the presence of a man who has treated his body and his mind with the utmost respect throughout his 87 years of life.
“The only regret I have is that I grew old. I never took aspirin until I turned 81, never drank alcohol, even Coca Cola was too strong for me,” Stockard said.
The professor and sportswriter donned a button-down shirt with slacks and a tie for an interview with NoDef, which took place in his own living room. Stockard possesses the calm, confident demeanor of an individual who reflects before he reacts. Throughout the conversation, it was clear that he preferred to praise others, especially his children, before discussing his own accolades.
'I Can Increase Your Readership'
Russell Leon Stockard was born in Tennessee into a family of college graduates. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father a railroad man. Even his great-grandmother possessed a college degree. It is his passion for education, his love affair with newspapers, and his zeal for sports that have shaped his approach to life.
“What I remember is newspapers, what I love is newspapers, newspapers, newspapers,” Stockard said as he reflected on his childhood. His love for print journalism was matched only by his passion for sports. “It’s really something how I got into journalism. What I associate with journalism is sports writing. From the time I can remember my being, I loved sports."
Stockard served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, from 1943-1946. After the war, Stockard studied at the University of Florence in Italy, where he began his career as an academic. He then returned to the University of Tennessee, where he completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Geography and History. It was his background in demography that got him his first sports writing gig, covering the historically black Southern University’s sports in the Baton Rouge State Times.
“When I got to Baton Rouge in 1952, I said ‘there’s something wrong here.’ Being a southerner and having parents who were college graduates, I knew how to exist in the South. You didn’t exist positively in the South during segregation,” Stockard explained. Despite adversity, the writer fought segregation silently, using his education to carve a space for himself as a writer for a “white” publication.
Stockard began his career with the Baton Rouge State Times in 1954.
“I gave them a proposal. I said, ‘I can increase your readership by 73 percent.’ I knew that 73 percent of the residents of Scotlandville were Southern University alumni,” he explained. The sportswriter became the first African-American staff writer for the publication, but this first triumph against prejudice was only the beginning of his long list of firsts.
Stockard maintained dual careers throughout his life, putting in 15 hour days as a Southern University professor by day, then taking to the sidelines as a sports writer by night. “My time at Southern University was from 8 a.m.-4 p.m., and after 4 o’clock I was in the sports world,” explained Stockard. “I worked 14-15 hours a day, but I never worked an hour in my life. I love teaching, and I love sports.” Stockard retired from his position as adjunct professor at Southern in 2005, at the age of 82.
Stockard left the Baton Rouge State Times in 1960 to write for the New Orleans States-Item, where he remained on staff for ten years. It was during his time here that he covered the historic “secret game." Stockard also met fellow legend Peter Finney while he was writing for the States-Item. Finney, Stockard said, was one of the few men who made an effort to welcome him on to the team.
“There were no other black sportswriters. There were only two white sportswriters who came over and said to me, ‘you know, I know you don’t have too many friends here, but consider me one.’ Peter Finney was one of them, and he came over to shake my hand,” Stockard recalled with a contented smile.
Finney had only positive things to say about his former colleague, but the word that seemed to pop up the most was “ideal.”
“I remember how dedicated he was. He asked great questions, the way he handled himself was very disciplined. He had a great personality, and you couldn’t help but admire the way he went about business,” Finney said.
“I think R.L. knew he was breaking ground. The way he did it wasn’t shy. He was ideal, he was one of the guys,” Finney said. “I’ll never forget R.L. The pressure he was under, he knew he was a trailblazer, but he didn’t act like it,” said Finney, reminiscing about the days when the pair worked in the same space.
Sidelines Become Front Lines
R.L.’s academic and journalistic success especially resonated with young African-Americans at the time who were playing in the games that he was covering. New Orleans native Ames Growe attended Booker T. Washington in 1970, the year the city integrated the divided sports leagues, The African-American Louisiana Interscholastic Athletic Literary (LIALO), and the white Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA). Young athletes were positioned on the front lines of a dirty fight.
“The year we were consolidated, the year before we won the title, that was the year Brother Martin won the white title. People were clamoring to see the two teams play,” Growe explained. “We were 28 and 0, headed to a showdown against Brother Martin,” Growe recalled.
It wasn’t long before things got ugly. “Brother Martin started fouling our players left and right. It was blatant cheating,” said Growe. “The referee’s name was Billy Hunter, and he said, ‘ain’t no n____ gonna win no state title. Y’all just got in this league,” Growe recounted.
Stockard fought racism indirectly, knocking down walls with calm confidence. The writer continued to cover high school sports, and Growe spoke for his classmates when he expressed his gratitude for R.L.’s impact on the racial climate of New Orleans. “Mr. Stockard was a bridge between black and white in the media,” Growe said.
The Way It Is
“Schools such as LSU unfortunately put sports before academics. I can tell you they made that decision at Penn State,” Stockard opined. Throughout his time as an educator and sportswriter, Stockard saw too many young people fall through the cracks, only to be floated through by other professors who prioritized sports over academia.
“College doesn’t make you better than anybody else, but it gives you the opportunity to look at the world the way it is, not the way you think it is,” Stockard said.
Stockard raised a family of academics. All of his three children—Sharon, Janice, and Russell Jr., received PhDs from Ivy League institutions and achieved great professional success. Professor Stockard wants to see other young African-Americans aspire to reach the same goals.
“All these black athletes could be good, sound, average students. How can they learn all these rap songs without any ability to memorize?” Stockard asked rhetorically. “Educators and teachers don’t have the patience to want them to become, and to push them in that direction. Many of them have athletic ability. Why? Because coaches take time with them. They bring them through the fundamentals. We don’t do that in academics,” said Stockard.
Although he takes a great amount of pride in paving the way for other African-American professionals in the South and shining a light on African-American athletes, Stockard never acted with an agenda in mind.
“Integration wasn’t something I considered myself doing. I considered myself providing for the newspaper a service that would enhance them as well as enhance the citizens out there,” he said. “Southern University as a historically Black school, gets more space in any paper than any other historically black school in the world... I’d like to think I had something to do with that.”
E.J. Ruane contributed reporting for this article.
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