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How Norton integrated Little League Baseball, 71 years ago

Norton 1.JPG
Frank Kilgore and Cardinal News
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Norton Lions Club Little League team in 1951. Front row (left to right): Charles Estep, Tommy Taylor, Bill Rollins, Dennis Porter, Sonny Thomas, Lann Malesky, Robert Strong. Standing (left to right): Assistant manager Bob Peters, Bob Morley, Gary Hubbard, Preston Miller, Charlie Sullivan, manager Gene Mullins.

In 1951, Little League baseball was just getting started in many places, including Southwest Virginia.

That’s where the city of Norton holds a place in history. It’s believed to be the first place in the South to integrate young black and white ball players.

In his story for the online journal Cardinal News, reporter Ralph Berrier, Jr. looked at how Norton launched a Little League team when the region didn’t have one.

That year, a local optometrist named Charles Litton and World War II veteran was inspired by an article on the Saturday Evening Post to start the team. He also got help from other veterans, and sponsorships from the local Lions, Kiwanis, Boosters, and Junior Women’s clubs.

This was just before Virginia would start up “Massive Resistance” to public school desegregation. But Norton did have a number of Black and immigrant families, due to jobs in the coal mining industry.

When the team held tryouts, two Black boys showed up. The league fathers told the boys to go home – not because they were banned from playing, but because they were ordered to bring at least two more Black boys with them. This would allow each of the four teams to have at least one Black player.

Later that summer, Charlottesville was the site of a Little League State Championship, but that city’s league officials refused to let Norton’s integrated team play in its segregated facilities.

The league’s national office then got involved, saying Norton’s team must be allowed to play. So Norton made an offer for the game to take place there instead.

On August 1st, 1951, Norton beat Charlottesville 12-3.

Few players remain from the 1951 team, and none of the Black players are still alive. On June 11 of this year, a marker was unveiled downtown, detailing the team’s accomplishment.

Norton Historical Marker
City of Norton
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Historical marker unveiled in downtown Norton on June 11

“This marker honors the passion and the vision of the people who decided to let any kid who wanted to play baseball play baseball,” Robert Raines, 82, a former longtime Norton mayor and a member of the 1951 Kiwanis ball team, told Cardinal News.

Norton has launched its own website to commemorate that Little League team, with this video of the recent ceremony.

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Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.