As one of the first black students to integrate Decatur High School in the late 60s, Samuel Favers experienced racism that still chafes nearly a half century later.
He recalled the administration leaving his mother in tears after calling her in to tell her that he wasn’t able to learn. “The principal regularly called black students into his office and told them that they'd never graduate and they were incapable of learning and doing the work required. And, that they should transfer to other schools or go into the military. Many did,” said Favers, a musician who lives in Stone Mountain.
In a fitting buildup to the Martin Luther King national holiday, Decatur High sought to make it up to Favers and other students tonight in one of the few places at the school where he felt connected to the school and his classmates – the basketball court.
Favers belonged to the 1968-69 Decatur Bulldogs team that won the regional championship. The team was extraordinary for more than its ball skills. It was one of the few fully integrated teams in the state at the time, evenly divided between black and white players.
The Decatur Bulldogs coalesced against a backdrop of tragedy and change; Assassins murdered Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the Vietnam war raged; the Civil Rights movement intensified.
Amid the violence, divisiveness and turbulence, people needed reasons to believe America could see its way out of this hopeless place, that a diverse America could be a stronger America. Decatur found hope that year in its champion basketball team.
But when Favers visited Decatur High in 2016, the trophy from that tumultuous season was not among all the others on display. Somehow, it had gone missing. “The story was that it had been stolen or destroyed in a fire at the school. I felt robbed. I'd been discriminated against, tried to play sports, dealt with extreme conditions and there was no trophy,” he said.
He enlisted former teammates Cornell Walker and Harvey Scales to approach Decatur High and found a receptive audience in Rodney Thomas, Decatur’s athletics and activities director.
Nine members of the team walked onto the court tonight at Decatur High to accept a replacement trophy. They are all about 66 now, so there weren’t any jump shots or layups. But there was joy and laughter as a team that last played together 49 years ago reunited before an appreciative hometown crowd.
“Tonight was about going back and remembering a time in their lives when they were part of a team that galvanized through some rough years and came together to accomplish something,” said Thomas, at the reception following the ceremony on the court. “For some of them, it was about healing. For others, it was about speaking out about old wounds.”
Cornell Walker transferred to Decatur High when the city finally closed Trinity, its all black high school, so there was more safety in numbers than when Favers came a year earlier and was one of only a few minority students.
“We needed something to bring us together in that year,” said Walker, sitting behind a table tonight with the gleaming new trophy in front of him. “In the beginning, you would see blacks sitting in one area and whites in another at our games. Once we started winning, everyone was together."