Michael Copeland Sr. let out several laughs as he recalled his basketball career at the old Atkins High School off Cameron Avenue. 

Those years on the hardwood for the Camels, he said, were "some of the best years of my life." 

That's not surprising. 

Copeland attended Atkins from 1966 to 1969. As a guard on the basketball team his senior year, he helped the Camels win an N.C. High School Athletic Association title over Asheville in Class 4-A — the division comprised of the largest schools. 

But it wasn't just any championship. Atkins was the first black school to win the title as a member of the NCHSAA, which had desegregated after a contentious vote only a few years before. 

The team's coach, Robert Moore, who led the Camels from 1967 to 1971, was the first African-American to win N.C. Coach of the Year in the wake of the championship. 

For many African-Americans in Winston-Salem and the Atkins community, the title was — and is — a source of pride. At the time, Atkins was an all-black high school, one of four in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. The district was just beginning to desegregate as the Camels went undefeated with 23 wins and marched to the state title. 

And the Camels accomplished their goal with a talented 15-player roster — including the starting five of Copeland, Teddy East, Cecil Bradshaw, Gregory Noble and Steve Joyner. And Atkins was deep: Coming off the bench was Willie Griffin, their "sixth man," who went on to play at Wake Forest as the first black athlete from the city to earn a scholarship to the college. 

On March 16, 1969, the Camels beat Asheville 71-70 at Grimsley High School in Greensboro, sealing their perfect season. 

"I was very excited ... We were very excited," said Copeland, now an assistant coach for the Reynolds boys basketball team. "There was a feeling, though, that we were expected to win it. 

"It wasn't no shock to us. That's what we were fixing to do — and that's how we went into all of our games." 

A changing landscape 

The community around Atkins had the same confidence in their team.

Mary Garber, the pioneering female sports reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, described the championship — the win and atmosphere — vividly in a story that had the headline "Perfect ending of game, season." 

Garber wrote supporters were convinced the Camels could claim the title, even though Asheville led 24-10 at the end of the first quarter.

Garber wrote that, when the final buzzer sounded, "it seemed as though several of the Atkins players would be beaten to death by well-wishers who wanted to pound them on the back." 

Atkins was at the center of Reynoldstown, home to many prominent African-Americans, including Kenneth R. Williams, the city's first black alderman and a chancellor at what is now Winston-Salem State University. 

Atkins was the first "state-of-the-art" black high school erected within the city limits, with partial funding, $50,000, coming from the Rosenwald Fund. Before its accounts dried up in 1948, the foundation had donated more than $70 million to various causes. It was started by Julius Rosenwald — a part-owner and former president of Sears. 

Traditionally, the foundation had given money to build schools in rural areas and those schools focused on training black students for trades.

Atkins was different though, marking the first time a Rosenwald grant had been used for an urban high school in North Carolina. When construction finished in 1931, Atkins was thoroughly modern. Students there had labs and could take advanced math courses and foreign languages, something not offered in many of the state's segregated black schools. 

The building itself was a marvel, the first building in Winston-Salem to have a steel frame and unit ventilation.

In 1999, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places; a metal commemorative sign is now on display near the entrance. 

For Copeland, the school was always special. His mother, Bertha, was an Atkins graduate.

On a recent day, Copeland gazed across the court at the Green-Moore Gymnasium at the school, which is now home to Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy. 

Despite new logos and colors, there was no doubt that the gym, named for Atkins basketball coaches George Green and Moore, held history. Copeland had even played a season under Green. 

Copeland sports a large UNC championship ring from his son, Mike Copeland Jr., who earned that ring as a 6-foot-7 forward with the Tar Heels. He played at Carolina from 2005 to 2009 as the team won both the ACC Tournament and regular season twice. His senior year ended in an NCAA championship. 

Copeland spoke alternately about Carolina and the Camels and how other members of the "Big Four," the district's four black senior high schools, which in addition to Atkins included Paisley, Carver and Anderson, rallied around the team during the playoffs in 1969.  

Everyone was on board, Copeland said. 

"Oh man, it brought the community together," Copeland said. "Everybody loved Atkins, although there was a rivalry with the Big Four. But, once we got in the playoffs and was undefeated, everybody just supported us — it didn't matter where we went." 

Changes coming

Atkins' big win came at a time of transition for prep sports — and education in general in North Carolina. Schools within the state were slowly beginning to desegregate, as was high school athletics. 

Atkins was only in its second season within Group II of the Central 4-A conference, which included West Forsyth, Reynolds, East Forsyth, Parkland and North Forsyth. 

The conference was part of the NCHSAA  — the current governing body for prep sports in the state, which was founded in 1913 and now consists of more than 400 member schools. 

Until 1967, though, Atkins wasn't allowed to join the association, which had a whites-only policy.

In February 1966, the NCHSAA had failed to pass a proposal — already a second attempt — to strike out the word "white" from its requirements for school membership, the Journal reported at the time. 

The proposal would've allowed any public school to join the NCHSAA. A year later, black schools gained entry into the association. 

The Camels had traditionally competed in the Western Negro 4-A, part of the old N.C. High School Athletic Conference. It was comprised of historically black schools — totaling more than 100 at one time. That conference, which disbanded in 1969, included the rest of the "Big Four." 

In basketball, Atkins won five championships in the conference, including three consecutive titles from 1952 to 1954.

When Atkins moved to the NCHSAA and started playing other area teams, its games were played at a neutral site — the old 8,500-seat War Memorial Coliseum, which is where Joel Coliseum now stands. 

Copeland, who also was a quarterback at Atkins, said it was a similar scenario for the football team. Games would be held at Bowman Gray Stadium. 

"I think it was the white community who was afraid to come over (to the east side)," Copeland said. "I don't think anything would've happened, but that's how it was perceived."

And it was never just one game. One matchup would tip off right after another. 

"They used to have a double-header at the coliseum every Tuesday and Friday," Copeland said. "And that was from the effect of having to come to the black community — to the gym, and stuff like that."

Andrew Lindsey, who was a sophomore at Atkins at the time, went to several games at the coliseum during that championship run. 

He knew all of the players and was an offensive lineman on the varsity football team. He also played other sports — including wrestling and golf. 

Lindsey said he noticed something about the referees in the NCHSAA: They made calls that appeared to favor the white teams.

And the black players knew it.

Atkins football players had a mutual understanding — they needed to play to overcome targeted calls based on race, according to Lindsey. 

The same was true for the basketball team, Lindsey said. 

"We knew that if we weren't going to perform at a higher level, we would be penalized for it all over the place. We knew that from the jump," said Lindsey, who was inducted into the Atkins sports hall of fame in 2010 along with Copeland. "There were some bad calls — I saw some bad calls in the game against Reynolds. Those guys overcame a lot of obstacles. 

"You know, the racism was there when you were playing a predominantly white school. We can't hide from that, and we knew we had to compete anyway. And Cecil and those guys knew, at that time, they were the best team on the floor, so they went out there and performed." 

'Dixie' 

Despite the referees, Copeland doesn't recall opposing players showing much racial hostility.

There was one incident that still stands out, 50 years later. 

Atkins was playing East Forsyth and beating the Eagles badly.

That's when East Forsyth's pep band began playing "Dixie," the anthem of the Confederacy and a song that has long been considered racist.

Moore used the band's decision to strike up "Dixie" to strike a fire in his players. 

"Our coach called a timeout, called us over and said, 'Listen to that song they're playing. We need to go out there and really crack down on them now,'" Copeland said. "I just remember the little stuff like that." 

In the stands, as on the court, fans were divided by race in the packed coliseum. Nearly 7,000 fans watched the Camels win their 15th straight game, the Journal reported.

And there were racial slurs shouted at players, Lindsey said. 

The team couldn't afford to focus on those, though. The basketball team was composed — it had to be. 

Lindsey said players paid no mind to the chants and slurs.

"Did we pay a lot of attention to it? No ... You know, that don't win you a game," he said. "I guess when Cecil, Teddy, Mike and them were out there playing basketball, I heard it (in the crowd), so I'm sure they heard it. 

"Even with all that going on, you had to be mentally tough to not let it get to you." 

Camel Pride

Coming out of Kennedy, which was a junior high school with seventh- to ninth-grade, Copeland knew he was going to Atkins. 

He grew up in the nearby Cleveland Avenue Homes, an easy walk to Atkins. Copeland and his friends attended plenty of sporting events at Atkins and had even learned school cheers long before they were students. 

"We just saw how exciting it was, and we said, 'We're going to Atkins,'" Copeland laughed. "At that time, when we left Kennedy, a lot of the kids went to North Forsyth, Parkland, Carver and Paisley."

In the city, integration started earnestly in 1957 — three years after Brown v. Board of Education — when a black student, Gwendolyn Yvonne Bailey, enrolled at Reynolds. 

Five years later, only 44 African-Americans attended previously all-white schools in the city, according to a 240-page study on school desegregation in 10 communities, authored by Martin E. Sloane in June 1973. 

"That was not true integration, when they take one student from the black school — from Atkins — and take her out to Reynolds High and said, 'We are now integrated,'" said Larry Womble, a Winston-Salem native and longtime educator who represented the 71st District in the N.C. House of Representatives from 1994 to 2012. "But be that as it may, black people have borne the weight and the burden of so-called integration in this city." 

In 1969, about 2,100 black students attended predominantly white schools. The district had about 50,000 students at the time, according to an article from the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools website. 

That year, it was reported by the Journal that the Urban Coalition would fund a study of the school system — including desegregation. 

During Copeland's senior year, the district underwent a different kind of transition. White teachers were brought to Atkins as part of a move by federal courts to integrate faculties. 

In 1968, James Brown released "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud." The song's lyric and the Godfather of Soul's power resonated with students around the country, including at Atkins. 

"We had a few teachers that were white and (at first) we didn't really know how to handle it," Copeland said. "They were good teachers and they meant well, but that movement was going on.

"We made it through that." 

In 1969, Womble, an Atkins graduate, was a teacher at 14th Street School, at the corner of 14th Street and Cameron Avenue, not far from Atkins.

Womble said he found out about Atkins's championship title by reading about it in the newspaper. He also heard it on WAAA — the first black-owned radio station in North Carolina. 

And people were talking about Atkins and the win, Womble said. 

"The championship brought pride to Winston-Salem — especially to the black community," said Womble, 77. "That we had students right here go all the way to the state championship, integration was not in full perspective at that time."

At school and in the community, Copeland said the players were were treated like celebrities. 

"After we won the championship, we got all free stuff," Copeland said, laughing. "Anywhere we would go, going out to eat or whatever, 'Atkins? Oh, OK. Your stuff is free. Your meal is free.'

"It was a great time." 

But for Copeland, it was much more than just a title.

With that win, he and teammates joined the ranks of Atkins greats like Carl Eller, who played professional football from 1964 to 1979 and won the NFL Championship in 1969, the same year Copeland and the Camels won the basketball title. 

Then there was Harold "Happy" Hairston, a forward when Atkins won the 1959 NCHSAC championship. He went on to claim an NBA title with Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972.  

Copeland and the remainder of the starting five earned college scholarships, a feat in itself.

"I know for me, it was more about leaving a great legacy at Atkins with my class," said Copeland, who went on to attend Howard University. "It didn't have a whole lot to do with Atkins being a black school, and that type of thing. It was just that, before me, Atkins had some great players.

"We wanted to leave something, too, that the people could talk about — that the young kids could talk about." 

pferlise@wsjournal.com

@PatrickFerlise

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