It was November 1972. I was a graduate student at The Catholic University of America, living on Capitol Hill, and had just fallen madly in love with the woman who would become my wife.
To earn a few dollars while in school, I had become a soccer referee. I hadn’t played the game as a kid, but I had learned the rules and could do well enough officiating games played by nine-year-olds. If I got older kids, they actually understood the flow of the game better than I, and their playing was better than my officiating.
Howard University’s men’s soccer team had won the NCAA championship in 1971, the first predominantly black college or university to win any Division I title. Their 1972 team was even better. It was loaded with talent from all over the world, a remarkable multi-cultural accomplishment in a well-segregated country. I love sports, and I wanted to see soccer played at a high level.
(It’s not the point of this essay, but I can’t go on without noting that at that time the NCAA was investigating the playing and recruiting histories of several Howard players. The NCAA eventually concluded that some rules had been broken, and every NCAA soccer tournament game the university had won during the previous few years (including the 1971 championship win) was forfeited. To many, the penalty was unusually harsh, given that in those days the rules were fairly general and not nearly so well defined as they are today. To many, Howard lost its 1971 NCAA championship for one violation only: winning in a white man’s game.)
I asked my new girlfriend, who was Black (still is, actually) if she would like to go with me to see the Howard soccer team play. She probably was wondering what would make me think she’d want to go to a soccer game, but she had just come to D.C., I was the only person she knew there, and she had nothing better to do, so she said yes. Carolyn doesn’t have the same recollection the events as I, but I’m quite certain my version is reasonably accurate.
It’s maybe best to understand the social and cultural context in which my attendance at the game took place. It was 1972. In 1968, major multi-night protest demonstrations and rioting in Washington, D.C. had followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. When I arrived at the University of Maryland in 1968, much of the destruction in some neighborhoods remained. Militant Black organizations were in the news regularly. The Viet Nam War was raging, and major demonstrations in D.C. were common. The mood, if not riotous, was still tense.
By 1972, things had begun to settle down, but much of the destroyed neighborhoods remained. For Blacks, change was still in the air. Black studies programs were springing up around the country. A new black intelligentsia was emerging. Some of their ideas continued to be at least racially aggressive and sometimes revolutionary, if not outright militant. Maybe it’s simplest to say that there still was a high degree of racial tension in D.C.
The one and only time I have been on the campus of Howard University was to attend game. I don’t recall what streets I took to get there, I don’t recall where we parked, I don’t recall anything except this: We were standing in a crowd behind a chain-link fence, watching the game. The crowd was maybe four or five people deep behind us; I was one of only a few white people. Howard was really good; they were winning, but it was more than that. They were a force, and the opponent was just trying to keep from getting run over.
At some point, I noticed that the sound of the crowd around me was different from a typical home crowd watching their team win. I began to listen more carefully and began to notice that mixed in with the normal crowd noises was the sound of a few people muttering things. Then I realized that the mutterings were about me and maybe about Carolyn: I or we shouldn’t be there, a white man shouldn’t be with that woman, not at Howard. Whatever they actually were saying, one message was clear: I was a problem. When I turned to see who was talking, the eye contact seemed to say “yeah, we’re talking about YOU.” Everything about the situation felt hostile to me.
I told Carolyn we had to leave. We turned, worked our way through the crowd without incident. We walked through the gate in another six-foot tall fence and began walking to my car. Then I heard someone call from behind us.
I looked back and saw a young man who had climbed the fence so his torso was above the top of the fence. He threw a chunk of concrete the size of a brick toward us. The chunk was heavy enough so that he couldn’t throw it very far; it fell harmlessly short of its target.
We kept going.