From the 1930s to the early 1960s, Thanksgiving Day high school football in Arkansas was the time for big rivals to meet. In addition to Little Rock playing NLR (later morphing into Central playing Hall), many a Thanksgiving Day schedule involved seeing Jonesboro face off against Paragould or El Dorado play Camden. Fayetteville vs. Springdale, Morrilton vs. Conway, Newport vs. Batesville, and DeQueen vs. Texarkana were all longtime traditions.
In these days, football classifications were much more fluid. It would not be until the 1960s that the Arkansas Activities Association would permanently institute state playoffs in football. This led to the demise of Thanksgiving Day games throughout the state. Either the schools were not in the same classification and/or they were in a classification that had playoffs starting in mid-November. Gone were the days when a regular football season extended from September to Thanksgiving.
The two exceptions to this were the largest classification of schools and the segregated African American schools. The largest class, which eventually became known as the AAAAA (it had previously been the Big 6, 8, 9–whatever number of schools were in it), had few enough members that they were all in one conference. A conference championship was tantamount to a state championship.
The African American schools were ignored in athletics as they were in other areas. While the schools fielded teams and played each other, they did not have playoffs or Arkansas Activities Association recognized championships. Up through the late 1950s, a mention of their games in the Arkansas Gazette or Arkansas Democrat was rare.
For several years, Little Rock’s Dunbar High School Bearcats took on the Scipio Jones Dragons of North Little Rock on Thanksgiving Day. Due to the lack of coverage in newspapers, there are few records of these games. Unfortunately the yearbooks of neither school shed any light. Due to limited budgets which led to thinner yearbooks, the football team usually got one page that was devoted to showing the players and left no room for details about their exploits on the gridiron.
In the 1955-1956 school year, Little Rock opened a new high school for African American students – Horace Mann High School. The Bearcat mascot of Dunbar (now a junior high) became the new Horace Mann mascot. Mann carried on the tradition of playing Jones on Thanksgiving.
Many seasons the African American LR-NLR football game was the second meeting of the two teams. They usually played against each other in September and then again on Thanksgiving. This second game seems to have been as much about ensuring that their students, fans, and alumni had the chance to have a Thanksgiving Day game – just as most white schools throughout the state had.
Due to the lack of African American high schools fielding football teams in Arkansas, often the LR and NLR schools would also play out-of-state teams. While it was not unusual for Little Rock’s white high school to play teams from other states, this was because of prestige, not necessity. The same luxury was not afforded African American schools. In 1963, for instance, Horace Mann played teams from Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas. Their in-state rivals that year were segregated schools in North Little Rock, El Dorado, Pine Bluff (two schools), Camden, Hope, Hot Springs and Texarkana. Horace Mann’s travel schedule was much more extensive than either Central or Hall had on a weekly basis.
From 1956 through 1965, Mann and Jones met at Wildcat Stadium. After that season, the Thanksgiving game would alternate between Wildcat and Quigley. Since the Central v. Hall and NLR v. Catholic matchups were in the morning, the Mann v. Jones games were afternoon affairs.
As the Little Rock School District was gradually integrating its high schools in the 1960s, the Mann vs. Jones game continued. (Both school districts seemed to be more focused on the “deliberate” part of the Supreme Court directive than on the “speed” aspect.) With the demise of Jones High in the spring of 1970, the Mann vs. Jones series ended.
Because of the lack of records of the Dunbar games, here is the breakdown only of the Mann games. In the fourteen Mann vs. Jones games, Horace Mann won ten of the outings, while Jones captured four. The Bearcats shut out the Dragons twice, while NLR only once blanked LR. Horace Mann scored 332 points over the fourteen Thanksgiving games to Scipio Jones’s 126 points.
|Horace Mann||Scipio Jones|