On the day of Ernie McCray’s first varsity practice at Arizona on Oct. 15, 1957, the adjacent story on the front page of The Arizona Daily Star’s sports section reported residents of a small Oklahoma town “backing a big Negro high school football player’s fight to recover from a severe injury.”
When Arizona played its season opener on Dec. 2, 1957, McCray’s photo was in the Star signifying the former Tucson High standout’s first career start for Arizona coach Fred Enke after leading the freshman team in scoring the previous season.
In the “Voice of the People” (or letter to the editor) section in the Star that day, members of the Tucson Cowboys professional football team discussed “embarrassing situations” involving “Jim Crowism” concerning their treatment in the city.
“It seems very strange that we are tolerated on Sunday nights at Hi Corbett Field but shunned at public eating places the remainder of the week,” the letter states.
With the racial tension of that time in Tucson and the nation during the Civil Rights Movement, it is very understandable why McCray talked in detail during a Zoom press conference this week about his experiences with racism while growing up in Tucson’s Dunbar Spring neighborhood just west of Arizona’s campus.
The press conference was held in advance of McCray entering Arizona’s Ring of Honor on Saturday at McKale Center during halftime of the Washington-Arizona game. Another legendary basketball player, Al Fleming, a member of Fred “The Fox” Snowden’s Kiddie Korps of the early 1970’s, will also have his name added to the Ring of Honor.
“To be honored, to me, it puts my life in historical perspective,” McCray said. “We’re a nation that doesn’t appreciate history that much. But lately, because of things that have gone on, we’re talking more about what the past used to be and how we can correct things.
“When I’ve gotten these honors, it makes me feel more secure. It’s made me proud of my hometown and my university, both have come a long way since the 1940s. When I was growing up there, the university gave me an opportunity to just share my level of playing ball and having people appreciate it. It’s an honor of a lifetime.”
McCray, who will turn 83 in April, is known in Tucson for many aspects of his life that have become a blessing for this city.
His close relationship with his mother Mary is one of those gifts.
She left an indelible mark on Ernie from when she was raised in Pittsburgh and graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in education.
After attending Howard, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, an infectious bacterial disease that forms in the lungs. She was advised by doctors to move to a place with dry air. Fortunately for Tucson, this city became that place.
“She was just shocked when she found the university,” said McCray, who resides in San Diego, where he became a longtime educator and community activist after he was the first African-American to graduate from Arizona’s basketball program.
“She took me to forums, to recitals, to games, to debates, the Sunday Evening Forum and all that. I would ride my bicycle up there and pester all my (Arizona) sports heroes like Eddie Wolgast, Kenny Cardella, and all these guys … Link Richmond and Roger Johnson. … I’m not a casual Tucsonan. My heart is there.”
His mother, who played basketball in high school in Pittsburgh, was influential in him becoming active in sports.
“I remember being a little boy, my mother was a big (Arizona) fan,” McCray said. “She would be washing dishes and leaning towards the radio, you know, listening, ‘And Eddie Wolgast just took a hand off and he’s at the 50, the 40, the 30 …’ They didn’t say, ‘He could go all the way,’ but that was that was the kind of excitement back then.”
Sharing Saturday’s Ring of Honor ceremony with Fleming is fitting because McCray feels part of Snowden’s family. That stems from his mom’s relationship with Snowden, who was hired by Arizona in 1972 as the first African-American to coach a major college basketball program.
“My mother would have the guys (Snowden’s players) over for dinner and things like that,” McCray said. “I remember when she passed (in 1975), I was driving with my wife across the desert, and I was listening to a game, I can’t remember who was playing, but after the game, I was caught completely off guard. The announcer said this game was dedicated to Mrs. Mary Alameda McCray, my mother, and I went, ‘Whoa.’
“She and Fred were really tight. And she was like a friend, a welcoming friend, to him. He had a seat for my mother at every game because she was a big Wildcat fan. She never missed anything I ever did from sports to being in a play or doing all the kind of things I used to take pride in doing.”
After moving to Tucson in 1937, Mary met Ernest (Mac) McCray Sr., a World War II veteran, and Ernie was born a year later. Mary raised her son as a single parent until Ernie’s grandparents moved in with them in the late 1940’s
His mother’s work ethic as the lone parent instilled a sense of purpose in Ernie. Because of times the way they were, it was difficult for her to get a teaching position at a school as an African-American. She worked a split-shift as a janitor at the Mountain Bell Telephone Company. She did taxes and cut hair for her neighbors to earn a little extra. She went door to door to sell Avon products.
When her son scored 46 points against Cal State Los Angeles on Feb. 6, 1960, at Bear Down Gym, she “was jumping in the stands, she was so proud,” Ernie said. That Arizona scoring record stands to this day.
His grandfather, Charles A. Chatman, another lasting influence, passed away four years previously in 1956 when Ernie graduated from Tucson High School. As Ernie was growing up on the “northside” of Tucson, as he called it, back then near Speedway and Stone, the neighbors referred to him as “Charles,” his middle name out of respect for his grandfather.
“I grew up in the most loving home you could ever imagine … and in my church community, I got all the love I needed. That’s what has sustained me all these years,” Ernie said. “I was taught to pursue everything you do with a spirit of love. My grandfather just drove that.
“He was an amazing person who left his Hawkinsville, Ga., plantation as a sharecropper, which was slavery by another name. When he was 14, he whipped the foreman of the plantation. Of course, he had to leave. He never saw his family ever again. He had to escape.”
Ernie recalled coming home to his grandfather angry from not being served at a Tucson establishment because of the color of his skin. He wanted to spend a little of his hard-earned money doing janitor work but was denied having the same meal white folks could enjoy.
“I said something like, ‘I hate white people!’ He said, ‘Wait, wait, wait a minute, boy, what about that guy at the Cut-Rate Drug Store when he gives you that extra ice cream in your root beer float? Was he like that person?’ I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘That guy at the Dairy Queen who’s always encouraging you and your friends to get good grades and all that, did he treat you that way?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘And that woman at the library who puts stars by all the books you read, she treat you like that?’ I said, ‘No.’
“He said, ‘Then son, what you’ve got a problem with is not white people. You have a problem with a white person. He helped me realize that. Is that not what discrimination and prejudice are all about? One person of a group does something that you don’t like, and then you just paint everybody with that? I was taught not to do that. I really didn’t hate white people, but what else are you going to say? I was a hopeful kid, and I’ve always worked. I had my little quarter in my pocket, and I’d go, ‘I’m gonna buy this hamburger’ at a place that wouldn’t sell it to me yesterday. As a kid, I’m thinking, ‘They’ve got to like me today.’ They would say, ‘Get out of here,’ and then I’d go home.”
Ernie talks of his grandfather “running from a lynch mob” from his experience at the plantation and hopping on a boat in Gulfport, Miss. He “literally traveled around the world,” Ernie said. That included to Pittsburgh, where Mary was born.
“He would tell me the one thing he learned to judge people was not by their color, or by what language they spoke, but how they treated people. He was one of the most incredible people I’ve ever known. He came to live with us from about the time I was in the third grade to my senior year in high school. I’m blessed with being wrapped in love that I chose the profession as an educator. And if you’re not a loving human being as an educator, you’re definitely in the wrong profession.”
McCray, dubbed “Easy Ernie” by his Arizona teammates, embarked on his career as an educator after earning his master’s degree in 1962.
At about that time, still three years from the Voting Rights Act of 1965, news stories in Tucson included alleged discrimination of people based on their race. The NAACP, for example, filed a complaint of discriminatory hiring practices by the Arizona State Employment Service and Mountain Bell when Ernie was finishing his master’s studies.
A representative of the telephone company tried to explain only three percent of the Tucson population was “Negro” at the time, and that “coupled with the dropout rate,” left the number of African-Americans employed for skilled positions relatively small. The man made a racist comment that if the NAACP worked as hard trying to decrease the dropout rate as it does other matters, “it would better serve its people.”
Mountain Bell was the company that limited Mary to lower-level positions in most of her 30 years with the company despite her degree at Howard. Toward the end of her life, she finally was elevated to a technical position there.
Ernie rose far above the hatred directed at him and his family and became an icon to people of all ethnicities. He spread love through being an educator, as a writer and actor in community plays and through his activism here and in San Diego.
His name will join Arizona’s basketball greats in the Ring of Honor on Saturday, a defining moment of how far his life has come from the days of not being able to buy a hamburger at a Tucson restaurant because of the color of his skin.
He is honored “to have my name represented at a university that has just come so far. I mean, it’s almost like I’ve lived two lives. The university wasn’t that forward thinking when I was going there.”
“It’s big for me. I believe in history,” he said. “To think that somebody 30 years from now could be up at the U. and look up and go, ‘Who is that guy?’ That’s something because I love my hometown. (The Ring of Honor) represents a cycle in my life. It represents a time when Tucson has gotten far away from the Jim Crow era. When you’ve experienced something like that, it never goes away.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.