Integration pioneer’s number retired by Tennessee school

Cameron Smith

Willie Brown (50) competes during the 1963-64 season for Father Ryan — Diocese of Nashville
Willie Brown (50) competes during the 1963-64 season for Father Ryan — Diocese of Nashville

On Tuesday night, Father Ryan High in Nashville, Tenn., officially retired the number 50 on its basketball court. The reasons for the ceremony were 50 years old, and quietly shaped the future of integrated athletics in the state of Tennessee.

As reported by The Tennessean and Sports Nashville, Father Ryan raised a banner honoring the number 50 to its rafters. The celebration was called to honor the late Willie Brown, a former Father Ryan star who — along with teammate Jesse Porter — became the first African American players to compete in the prestigious Nashville Interscholastic League in the 1963-1964 season. While official records are scant, it is believed that Father Ryan competed as the only integrated team in Tennessee from 1963-1965.

That final season proved to be the most memorable in Brown’s prep career, as the senior led Father Ryan to a city title, including the first ever city championship game featuring an integrated squad. In the final game against Pearl High, Brown scored a game-high 21 points to lead the then-Panthers (the school switched its mascot to the Irish over the following decade) to a narrow 52-51 victory.

In two years as a Father Ryan varsity starter, Brown led the program to a 52-6 overall record.

Fifty years later, the school is finally honoring Brown for both his impact both on the court for Father Ryan and opening doors to other African-American student athletes in Nashville. During the ceremony, Father Ryan announced that it was retiring the number 50 from all sports rosters. While Brown died in 1975, his sister Ann Brown was on site to honor her brother and represent the family.

Perhaps the Brown family appearance was just what Father Ryan needed to get its season off to the best possible start. After taking in the jersey retirement ceremony, the Irish edged past city rival Lipscomb Academy, 48-46. The leading scorer in the season-opening victory was Slate Rider, who scored 21 points, the same total that Brown reached in his most significant game half a century earlier.

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Cameron Smith is the editor of Prep Rally on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at preprallyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!