Mary Popkess marched into the Sand Springs football stadium under a full head of steam. She made straight for the visitor’s sideline where Homer Hill was watching his undefeated Dewey Bulldoggers line up for kickoff in the 1938 Verdigris Valley playoffs. Hill, the wiry, electric coach one sportswriter tagged “The Real Little Napoleon of the Bench,” had won 50 of his last 55 games and two conference titles. This night could be his third.
Popkess leaned into the coach. “They won’t let Henry in,” she said urgently over the noise of the crowd.
Hill walked to the line where players tensed for the whistle and pulled his team captain Carl Burget aside. Words were exchanged. Burget huddled with the other team seniors, leather helmets close together, then the rest of the players were gathered. Game officials were called in and more words were exchanged.
Minutes later, the officials and 4,000 eager football fans looked on in stunned bewilderment as the Dewey Bulldoggers walked off the field. They would understand why soon enough.
Listen to one of Oklahoma’s last surviving Negro League baseball players discuss playing ball in a segregated America:
* * *
The only written history of Henry Kemps’ existence is his obituary. His life has been forgotten by all but a handful of family and friends. On paper, Henry was no one of particular importance—a deliveryman, a janitor, a colored man in a world that was starkly black and white. But he also was a man whose friendship and dignity inspired 30 boys to make an astounding act of loyalty, the memory of which is all but lost.
My dad was one of the boys on that field, and the first to tell me Henry’s story. He knew the good parts. But it took his older brother, my Uncle Louis, to point me toward the hard parts.
One Sunday, Uncle Louis climbed into my car and directed me to drive into Dewey’s west side, which had once been filled with black families. We circled the waning neighborhood and my uncle showed me where the unthinkable had happened in the town my family had called home for nearly a century.
Henry, you see, had lousy timing.
When he came to Oklahoma in 1916, whippings and lynchings were at an all-time high and state legislators were working hard to ensure blacks couldn’t vote. Economic pressures, a world war, and paranoia that black communities would take over the state fed the fear and violence.
Two years after Henry arrived, a black man named Aaron Wardlow shot and killed Dewey’s police chief, Walter L. Mull, on the night of August 11, 1918. A band of enraged white citizens went to the county jail in Bartlesville to lynch Wardlow. They were too late. He had been moved to safety and the mob unleashed their venom on Dewey’s west side.
“The crime aroused the people of Dewey to such a state of anger that they proceeded to wipe out the Negro settlement in west Dewey,” the Bartlesville Daily Enterprise reported two days later. It was an exaggeration, but the truth was bad enough. Twenty-one homes and the Antioch Baptist Church had been burned to the ground. Dozens of black families fled during the night and into the next day when unknown persons went house to house telling them they had to leave Dewey by sundown.
Wardlow was convicted of murder. Thanks to the involvement of Tulsa Star publisher and black activist A.J. Smitherman and Oklahoma Governor Robert Lee Williams, 36 members of the white community—including Dewey’s own mayor—were arrested and charged with the race riot crimes. But the damage was done. A generation of black people had learned the hard way to be wary and quiet, and to keep to themselves on the west side.
Henry Kemps never learned that lesson. Maybe it was because he knew most white people in Dewey were ashamed to the point of silence by what had happened. Perhaps it was because his employer and the town’s most prominent doctor, L.D. Hudson, had driven into the middle of a burning neighborhood to get Henry and his new bride, Willie, out of harm’s way.
Or maybe that’s just who Henry was.
* * *
It has been almost 70 years since Willa Mae Ross last saw Henry Kemps, but when she talks about him her face lights up like she’s still a little girl watching from her front porch.
“Mr. Kemps would pass our house, just smiling,” says the puckish 83-year-old, who has lived on Dewey’s west side her whole life. “His teeth were pearly white and he wore a tie all the time. I admired him and I liked him so much because he smiled all the time. He would have waved at a cat, if a cat could wave back.”
Ross saw Henry leave his and Willie’s spotless, large property each morning in a Model T truck with a two-by-four holding up the front bumper. The entrepreneur would be on his way to several jobs he had cobbled together into a business: carrying patients to and from doctors’ offices, running errands, delivering for two different pharmacies and cleaning office buildings.
Dewey was a small town of 2,000 people, flanked by the smoke-blue Osage Hills on one side and the gray dust of the Portland Cement Company on the other. The four blocks in between that made up Main Street were Henry’s territory. This alone set him apart from almost every other black man in town.
If you worked in Dewey in the 1930s, you were probably one of hundreds of whites, blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics churning out 3,500 barrels of Portland Cement each day. The town’s well-to-do white families owned grocery and drug stores, banks, a dry cleaner, a candy store, and movie theater. Black people shopped in these places. They didn’t work in them.
“In that time, black people stayed in their part of town,” says Charlotte Thaxton, an 86-year-old Dewey native who remembers the rules of a segregated Oklahoma with chagrin. “They couldn’t eat in the restaurants. They couldn’t use the restrooms, they couldn’t drink out of the water fountains. We didn’t have anything to do with black kids; we didn’t see them because they didn’t go to school with us.”
In fact, Henry Kemps was the only black person many white children really knew.
“I didn’t know anybody who didn’t like Henry,” Thaxton says. “He was so friendly, he was always smiling. I can just see him. He would run across the street to one of those stores and be a-waving.”
George “Pete” Morrison, a retired Phillips Petroleum Company executive, retains a sharp image of Henry Kemps, even at 93.
“I remember Henry as a small man with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He was one of us, and that was before colored people were accepted,” Morrison says frankly. “The fact was that he knew everybody and he could call your name, and everybody knew him.”
Henry was usually seen around town in a pressed shirt, pants, and a tie. If working for a doctor or pharmacy, he would don a white lab coat. That made an impact in Depression-era Dewey, where most men went to work in dungarees or worn overalls.
“The people who worked at the cement plant, boy, they’d get off work and you couldn’t tell what color they were. They were covered in cement,” Morrison says wryly.
The issues surrounding color and race weren’t as easy to cover. Thaxton recalls that her father worked at Dewey Portland alongside many African Americans. Yet, he still managed to rationalize the color bar that kept them apart.
“My dad was prejudiced, but he thought the world of all those black men he worked with,” she says with a touch of irony.
The same topsy-turvy, ingrained thinking allowed an entire town to openly adore Henry Kemps while referring to him as “Nigger Henry” without a trace of ill will. I cringed the first time the name came from my own father’s lips. He responded by lifting his shoulders in a sign that was less an apology than a no-nonsense admission that the world he had grown up in was vastly different.
“My kids can’t believe it, but that was what they called him,” Thaxton says. “We didn’t disrespect Henry, we loved him. We just loved him to pieces.”
Contradictions weren’t limited to the white community. Henry’s wife, Willie Ogans Kemps, was a reserved, proper woman who carried herself with great poise. She also was a mulatto so light-skinned that she could easily have passed for white. Willie’s older sister had left Dewey. One day she and Willie met by chance in a local grocery store. Willie greeted her sister with delight, only to be rejected.
“She said, ‘Never, never acknowledge me again.’ She was passing for white and had married a white man,” says Janet Ogans Shirley, Willie’s great-niece. “It was very painful for my aunt.”
Willie and Henry also experienced the pain of being childless. But they had Willie’s nephews and the children of the west side to spoil. Willa Mae Ross and her playmates would watch for Henry, who kept pigs and calves on a family acreage near the edge of town. He would go there after work with vegetable scraps he had salvaged from behind Dewey’s grocery stores and cafes.
“Sometimes, he’d stop and he’d have candy and gum. A treat for the kids,” Ross says. “We’d all be lined up on the porch. I can just hear that little Model T turning the corner.”
Soon, Henry would aim his truck toward his true passion: high school football. He never missed a game, home or away, and rarely a practice. Henry was a one-man pep squad for the Dewey Bulldoggers.
George Morrison was a member of the team throughout high school. “Henry knew the players, he could call them by name. He knew football,” he says.
The team would be working from the moment school let out on a field surrounded by a towering, 7,000-seat grandstand. It had once been home to the Dewey Roundup, one of the world’s top three rodeos, where Henry took his first local job as a horse groom.
He would be with the team until dark. “There used to be a track in front of the field in the old stadium,” remembers Carl Ropp, who was on the squad in the 1940s. “He’d always meet us as we came across there and give us chewing gum.”
Henry could be found in the same spot at the end of each home game. One rare photo shows him in a suit, topcoat, tie, and fedora outside the stadium. He is beaming, and at the bottom is written in white ink, “Henry says, ‘It was a good game, if you did lose.’ ”
Ropp laughs. “After the game, if we got beat, he’d say, ‘Them old boys were sure big and tough.’ The truth was that we just weren’t as good as some of them that beat us.”
There weren’t many teams that could boast they beat Dewey in the 1930s. During the entire decade, the Bulldoggers lost only 17 times.
“Dewey had a history of being a powerhouse team,” Morrison says. “There wasn’t anything to do in Dewey except football, softball, basketball. That was it. That was the entertainment. People came there to see Dewey play football, and they always expected Dewey to win.”
Expectations were mixed on the eve of the 1938 Sand Springs game. Dewey’s undefeated team was described as “a gang of powerful boys with versatility and shrewdness” who had only one tied game to their debt. But Sand Springs had no losses or ties on their record and were the team to beat in the conference. Sportswriters at Bartlesville’s Daily Enterprise put the odds on Sand Springs, writing, “Two of the best high school teams in this section of the state will meet in a game that may decide the football championship of the Verdigris Valley.”
More would be decided in that game than just a championship.
* * *
Under the floodlights in Sand Springs, the Dewey Bulldoggers turned their backs on 4,000 waiting fans and walked to the bench. The choice was clear: If their friend Henry Kemps could not enter the stadium, they would not play.
Henry was totally unaware 30 boys had taken a stand that could cost them everything they had worked for. He was still sitting alone in his Model T, where Mary Popkess had found him while crossing the parking lot. He had told his pharmacy employer that he had been turned away at the stadium gate because of his color. But he wasn’t leaving.
“He was going to sit there and wait until the game was over so he could get the score before he went back home,” says Wilbur King, who was a member of the Dewey High School marching band that night.
Henry had never been denied entrance to a game, and he had not missed watching his team play in 18 years. Oklahoma’s state code segregated everything from coalmines to telephone booths, but stadiums went unmentioned. Henry had likely come across a local ordinance or custom. In the world of November 11, 1938—the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day and the night Kate Smith introduced “God Bless America” on NBC Radio—barring a black man from a high school football game had no consequence.
There were consequences for the Dewey Bulldoggers. The team had won every game that season and held five of their competitors scoreless. Football was a lifetime highlight for those who often had only a cement plant job in their future. Nationwide, boys wearing leather helmets and pads literally lived and died to play. An article in the same week’s paper touted a decrease in football-related fatalities; only 14 boys had died in the previous three months.
Coach Homer Hill, the slight man whose voice carried across an entire school, had not been defeated in conference play for five years. His record and reputation as an innovator who designed plays other coaches never dreamed of would be stained if the Bulldoggers forfeited the conference championship. In spite of that, he sat with his team on November 11 and waited.
Exactly how long they waited is unclear. Accounts vary. Some don’t remember at all. My dad, a sophomore on the team, estimated that the sit-in lasted as long as 30 to 45 minutes. Watch a minute tick away. Think of boys, ages 14 to 18, refusing to surrender to thousands of anxious fans and the mounting, sour pressure of game officials. Does it matter if it was 20 minutes, or 30? What does it say about the character of those boys when the only thing standing between them and ending that pressure was loyalty to a man who couldn’t even drink from the same water fountain? More important, what does it say about Henry?
Finally, someone yielded, and the power of segregation bowed to 30 high-school boys and Henry Kemps. The crowd must have heaved a sigh of relief, expecting the team to take the field. Instead, the Dewey Bulldoggers turned and ran.
“They literally took Henry out of the car, put him up on their shoulders, carried him in and set him on the players’ bench,” Wilbur King remembers. Henry, after all, was one of them.
On the field, the game went nowhere fast, with two experienced defenses battling it out under the lights. The game remained scoreless until the third quarter, when Sand Springs received the ball at its own 20-yard line, then drove the length of the field and scored. The extra point was kicked—and blocked. Sand Springs had six points on the board.
Dewey took the following kickoff at their 35-yard line and ran it to the Sand Springs 19. On the second play from scrimmage, Walter Scott—whom the quarterback writers called a “miniature tornado”—threw a 15-yard pass to fullback John Hill. He caught the ball at the 3-yard line, spun and jogged in to tie the game.
Zeke Scott, the quarterback’s brother and himself a small, speedy running back who doubled as Dewey’s kicker, came to the line for the crucial extra point. Just two weeks before he had been a hero when his kick had made the difference against archrival Bartlesville. If he made this kick, Dewey would win the game and the conference championship. If not, the game would end in a tie, Dewey’s second of the season, and Sand Springs would take the title for their flawless record.
The stadium grew quiet. Zeke stepped back and awaited the snap. The ball went down and his kick went up, and missed. The Sands Springs crowd erupted, realizing that Dewey had just lost the Verdigris Valley Conference championship.
While the Sands Springs fans celebrated, the Bulldoggers headed toward their buses, and Henry toward his car.
A few hours later, a 9-year-old Willa Mae Ross was in her home on the west side of Dewey. She recalls a sudden confusion, loud noises and shouts, adults exchanging worried glances. What they heard was a victory rally. As soon as the Bulldoggers had arrived back in town, they had loaded up in cars and driven into the west side to circle Henry’s home.
“It was such a cheering and an ovation,” Ross says. “You would have thought that it was New Year’s Eve. They were blowing their car horns; you could hear them all over the neighborhood and we thought, ‘What’s going on, what’s happened?’
“I only found out when I went to school the next morning. The principal, Professor Wardell MacNamee, said that Mr. Kemps had had a celebration. They were celebrating Henry Kemps because he had opened up the barrier.
“We asked, ‘What barrier?’ and he said, ‘The color barrier.’ ”
* * *
Before they all could graduate, a third of the 1938 Dewey Bulldoggers would have a new battle to fight. Two of them—Bud Shull and Gene Stead—would not come home from World War II alive.
Henry grew ill the same year that the war began. People recall seeing him use a cane around town, and he quit travelling with the team.
Still, his smiling face was at every home game. In mid-December of 1943, when ads were filled with ribbons, bells and “cheery good wishes,” an obituary four times larger than any other was published in Dewey’s paper, the Washington Countian.
“This community was shocked to learn that Henry Lee Kemps had passed away,” the editor wrote. “Henry Kemps was an exceptional colored man, he was a good citizen, a good provider for his home which he owned, was thrifty in his dealings and was always looking to the future.
“It was about 23 years that he did not miss a Dewey High School football game at home or on a road trip.” Then he added, “To show the respect the Dewey Bulldoggers had for Henry, they attended the funeral to a body.”
A new team had crossed the color line for their friend.
Originally published in This Land, Vol.3, Issue 16. Aug. 15, 2012.