“Dead cats and burning bulldogs preluded the half-finished game with [Birmingham-] Southern. Tension that has mounted and grown game by game during the past several years came to a head Tuesday night. ‘Unfortunate incidents’ come to all our lives, each with a lesson.”
That is how the Howard Crimson described the fracas that broke out during the basketball game between Howard College and Birmingham-Southern in February 1957. The two schools maintained a fierce rivalry most often marked by students traveling to the opponent’s campus for a good-natured tree rolling or some other practical joke.
Rudy Davidson: Leading up to that game, it went on every year, Howard folks would go over to Southern’s campus and throw a prank and Southern people would come to Howard and throw a prank.
For the 1957 season, however, the students from Birmingham-Southern decided to up the ante in a stunt involving the Sherman Oak, a beloved tree located in the center of the campus. The oak was so famous among students that he was parodied with a weekly front-page opinion column written from his point of view in the Crimson. On February 15, 1957 Sherman Oak shared his terrifying tale:
Sherman Oak: The other night, Sunday, February 10, to be exact, when you so rudely attacked our campus, I don’t appreciate at all the damage that was done to me. The very idea, throwing kerosene on me and trying to burn me down. I was so humiliated and scared that I could hardly cry out.
Fortunately, a quick-thinking and resourceful student, who you may remember from our previous post about a certain ghoulish Halloween escapade in Renfroe Hall, was nearby.
Sherman Oak: If the noble Quinn Kelley had not fought your crew off single-handed and very bravely put sand on my flames, I would probably be little more than a burned out stump now.
In addition to the attempted arson of the Sherman Oak, the Birmingham News reported a few Howard girls being woken up in the middle of the night because they heard men chanting “Down with Howard, Up with Southern!” When they looked outside, there were three crosses on fire in front of the burning tree–an ominous warning and a symbol of Aryan superiority during the Civil Rights era.
By gameday, tensions had reached their boiling point. With less than four minutes left in the first half of the game, Howard was beating Southern 33-24. Chriss Doss later recalled the chaos that unfolded when a Southern player named Glen Clem took a cheap shot at Howard player Rudy Davidson (pictured above).
Chriss Doss: Everything was already heated up and they [Howard] had this fellow named [Louis] Doss, who worked full time running a steam shovel in a strip mine . . . but he was also going to school and playing basketball . . . he was one of our leading players, but he was sitting on the bench. The coach had taken him out and put somebody else in . . . a tall, spindly fella, [who] didn’t look like he could stand too much. He needed to be fed more, but . . . was playing forward. Southern had the basketball and they were going toward their goal when a Howard player intercepted the ball and the player named Rudy . . . was way down toward Howard’s goal and this fellow drew back and threw the ball to Rudy and Rudy caught it, bounced it a time or two and went up to shoot, to make the goal and this Southern student hit him, I mean plowed into him, and of course it was an interesting issue for debate. Did he intend to do it or was it an accident? Anyway, it knocked Rudy into the bleachers . . . and Doss is up [off the bench] because Doss is this terribly muscular fella and he has, during the season, been the caretaker for Rudy, and he saw this fella hit Rudy and he was down there in a split second and drew back and hit the Southern player and. . . laid him up in the bleachers with his fist and blood started squirting. The place went wild. We didn’t have any security . . . this is the only time I ever saw Major Harwell Davis just disheveled . . . They finally got things quieted down and he goes out to the center of the court and says, “Those of you who live on campus, go to your dormitories and stay there. Those of you who do not live on campus, as soon as possible, make your way off of the campus and don’t come back!”
According to the Birmingham News’s account, the fight got so out of hand that the coaches decided it was best not to play the second half of the game. Southern player Glen Clem, who some claim instigated the fight, was severely cut “clear through his lip.” His teammate, Hilton Jones, had more serious injuries. He suffered a broken nose, bruises on his back, abrasions on his chest, and had to remain hospitalized due to a brain concussion.
Unfortunately, this was just the first round of fighting as tensions remained high, Chriss Doss explained.
Chriss Doss: They vacated the building, but there’s a lot of [people] milling around on campus and there were, I don’t know, three or four students down toward the north end of the campus . . . saw somebody do something and then all of a sudden a blaze shot up on old Sherman. Howard students came running from every direction, taking off their jackets or getting anything they could to beat it out.
With the fire extinguished, the perpetrators were apprehended and their fates rested in the hands of Howard students who became judge, jury, and…barber. Rudy Davidson recalled the vigilante justice handed out by the students of Howard.
Rudy Davidson: Well some of our fellows captured them and when they caught them, some of our folks talked the night watchman into opening up Old Main, to hold a trial. So it woke everybody up on campus and the auditorium soon filled up and I don’t know if they provided a defense attorney for the perpetrators or not, but we had our pre-law students to judge them and they held court. Of course they found them guilty and they asked what was going to be the sentence.
The Howard students decided that the punishment would be an H shaved into the heads of the offenders, who begged the court for mercy, as this would cost them dearly, in more ways than one.
Rudy Davidson: The Southern boys made a plea, “Please don’t shave an H in our head. We’re ministerial students . . . We have church and we can’t do that. We’ll lose our pay.”
After experiencing two attempts of burning the Sherman Oak, a cross burning, a basketball brawl, and then a third burning attempt, the Howard students were in no mood for leniency, however.
Rudy Davidson: They made their plea and I don’t remember all of it but anyhow the Baptist ministerial student says, “Well we preach the Word and we don’t worry about reimbursement. Shave the heads.” So we shaved the heads, shaved an H in their heads and turned them loose.
It is unknown what became of the men who had to travel home and, assumedly, to church the following Sunday with a “H” reminiscent of a scarlet letter, shaved into the back of their heads.
Howard and Southern’s basketball coaches deliberated on whether or not to have their teams play each other again at all. Howard’s Coach Virgil Ledbetter, explained that he was willing to continue playing Birmingham-Southern in the coming years as long as his opponent was willing. Coach Bill Burch, the head coach of Southern’s squad was unsure, as he explained to reporters after the game.
Coach Burch: I hate to make a statement in the frame of mind I’m in right now. I will say I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. I know I try to control my bench. If my boys can’t play basketball, I don’t want them out.
In the end, the two schools did not play again until 1961, after heated tempers cooled down, bruises healed, and hair regrew.
- Glen Clem went on to a successful career coaching basketball at Walker College in Jasper from 1959 to 1996.
- Hilton Jones recovered from his injuries and graduated from Birmingham-Southern College later in 1957.
- Rudy Davidson graduated from Howard College in 1958 and worked for the State Department of Education and taught school finance and organization at UAB for 24 years.
- Chriss Doss graduated from Howard College in 1957 and went on to study theology, library science, and law. He worked as the law librarian at Samford before working in state and local politics. He returned to his alma mater to work as director of the Samford University Center for the Study of Law and the Church until his retirement in 2005. Today he operates a law office in Hoover.
- Sherman Oak was eventually struck by lightning and cut down in 1998. The oak is survived by several trees at the present campus of Samford University.
The Birmingham News, February 13, 1957.
The Howard Crimson, February 15, 1957.
Oral History Interview with Chriss Doss conducted by Michelle Little, 2014.
Oral History Interview with Rudy Davidson conducted by Michelle Little, 2012.