Meadow George Lemon III, 1932–2015

Booklet, His Home Town's Tribute, with inscription on cover from Hugh Morton to Sam Ragan. Copy in the North Carolina Collection.

His Home Town’s Tribute, with inscription on cover from Hugh Morton to Sam Ragan. Copy in the North Carolina Collection.

The moon is not ready for us yet, so we must live together here on earth . . .

I woke up this morning to the news that Meadowlark Lemon passed away yesterday.  I logged into A View to Hugh to create a blog post.  Jack Hilliard had already left a comment about Lemon’s passing in Susan Block’s essay, “Wilmington: Faded Glory to Fresh Achievement” and he mentioned the above booklet.  I retrieved it from the stacks first thing after arriving in my office.  Leafing through its pages alludes to why the city conveyed the honor to Lemon when it did—but it never even mentions the exact date, only “on a day in March 1971.”  Lemon’s visit to Wilmington lasted forty-eight hours (maybe more) and took place only six weeks after the February 6th firebombing of Mike’s Grocery and the rioting that followed, and the arrest of suspects that became known as The Wilmington Ten.  Lemon’s autobiography, Meadowlark (1987) tells part of the story, too, a story that extends beyond an honorific day.

Born Meadow George Lemon III on April 25, 1932 in Wilmington, North Carolina (though some sources state he was born in South Carolina and his family moved to Wilmington when he was about six years old).  When Lemon was eleven years old he saw a newsreel at The Ritz movie theater about the Harlem Globetrotters.  Lemon’s heart raced as he watched the players handle a basketball, passing it around their “Magic Circle” with faking and mugging while dancing to the music of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”  He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “In a flash,” he wrote in Meadowlark, “I knew I wanted to be on that team, the Harlem Globetrotters.”  As soon as the newsreel ended, Lemon ran out of the theater, skipping the feature films, to his father’s house.  He had had a life-changing experience and he had to tell his dad—but he wasn’t home.  Rummaging around he found a nearly empty onion sack and threaded it onto a wire hanger, which he nailed the crudely made hoop to a neighbor’s tree.  He went back to his dad’s house and found a Carnation Evaporated Milk, which he scrunched for his ball.  He played basketball this way for hours until his father came home.

Meadowlark Lemon’s story of his basketball origins proceed through Wilmington’s Community Boy’s Club where he played his first organized basketball just after finishing sixth grade and continued learning the game there into his freshman year at Williston Industrial High School, the city’s only black high school.  During his first basketball game as a freshman he played as a substitute center for an injured teammate against Laurinburg Industrial with their star forward and guard Sam Jones—a future Boson Celtic and NBA Hall of Fame inductee.  Lemon was green and outplayed by the Laurinburg center; the next year, however, Lemon was named all-state and continued to be a star player throughout high school.  He graduated from Williston in 1952

After graduation Lemon was indecisive about going to college despite dozens of scholarship offers.  His father decided for him and sent off Meadow by train to Florida A&M.  Lemon thought he had also earned a football scholarship there but he had not.  Unhappy and unwilling to wait until basketball season, after just a few weeks he returned to Wilmington, prepared to serve in the U. S. Army having received his draft notice while away.

Upon Lemon’s return from Tallahassee his high school coach told him the Globetrotters would be playing in Raleigh in two weeks.  His coach had previously written a letter requesting a tryout on behalf of Lemon to his friend Abe Saperstein, owner of the Globetrotters, but had never heard back.  Lemon asked his coach to call Saperstein and secure a tryout for the Globetrotters while they were playing in Raleigh.  His call was successful: all Lemon had to do was get to the arena in Raleigh and ask for Marques Haynes.  Much to Lemon’s surprise, he tried out by suiting up for the game.  Haynes was nursing an injured knee and decided Lemon could show him what he had on the court during the game.  As he enter the gym wearing the colors he had only seen as black-and-white in a newsreel, the announcer read from a slip of paper: “For the first time in a Globetrotter uniform, the Trotters present Meadow Lemon, from our own Wilmington, North Carolina.”

Full frame scan of Hugh Morton's negative used for the cover of the souvenir program His Home Town's Tribute.

Full frame scan of Hugh Morton’s negative used for the cover of the souvenir program His Home Town’s Tribute.

There’s plenty more to Lemon’s story, which indeed took him around the world as a Harlem Globetrotter.  In 1971, however, Wilmington needed Lemon back home.

According to the booklet His Home Town’s Tribute, talk of having a Meadowlark Lemon Day dated as far back as 1965.  So in late 1970 when the Wilmington Jaycees scheduled the Globetrotters for a date at Brogden Hall for March 1971, the Chamber of Commerce was quickly able to form a special committee that included city and county government officials, and educational and civic leaders.  Shedding more light on those developments, Hugh Morton wrote in his profile of Meadowlark Lemon in Making a Difference in North Carolina (1988):

Tom Jervay, editor and publisher of the black-oriented Wilmington Journal refers to [Lemon] not as the “Clown Prince of Basketball” but as the “Clown Apostle of Interracial Good Will.”  Jervay, whose newspaper office was one of several places bombed or burned in the spring of 1971 during a period of racial violence, remembers that his son, Tom Jervay, Jr. and former Wilmington Jaycee Ed Godwin telephoned from the Journal office to Lemon, whose Globetrotters were playing in Charleston, S. C. at the time, to invite the basketball star to help Wilmington.  Goodwin arranged for a private plane to bring Lemon to the trouble city.

Editor Jervay says, “Meadowlark really cooled things down here when we needed him.”  Looking back on the strife in Wilmington which he helped defuse, Meadowlark says he would do it again, but that he will never have to, because things like that happen due to ignorance on the part of both whites and blacks, and “all of us have grown.”

Meadowlark Lemon Day was Friday, March 19, 1971.  The previous day’s editorial column in the Wilmington Star News began with the headline, “The trouble here must stop now!” Earlier that week racial tensions erupted into riots at Williston Junior High School (Lemon’s former high school, then recently integrated), Hoggard Junior High School, and New Hanover High School.  The school district closed the three schools for Thursday and Friday.

According to a photograph’s caption the tribute booklet, Wayne Jackson interviewed Lemon on television Thursday evening.  On set with Lemon was Earl Jackson and Walter Bess of the Community Boys Club, and Hugh Morton as a member of the Chamber of Commerce committee. (For context, in December 1971 Morton would begin his short-lived Democratic Party gubernatorial race.)  On Friday Lemon appeared for a press conference, followed by a luncheon with city and county officials at the Timme Plaza ballroom.  He then visited schools, including Williston, and the Community Boys Club.  Lemon stressed the need to work together to get the schools open.  In Meadowlark, Lemon says he told students, “Get the education. Stay in school.  Let’s get things together and get this trouble over.”

The tribute booklet includes a letter from Lemon in which he acknowledges the importance of the Community Boys Club in his life.  He noted that in two to three years the club’s outdated facility would fall inside the Urban Renewal area and would be torn down.  He added,

At that time a new and better home for the Club must be built.  I am grateful to Tom Jervay, Jr. and Hugh Morton for contributing, without cost, the pictures and text of this book, and to the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce for publishing it.  All profits from the sale of this souvenir book of the greatest day of my lifetime will go to begin the capital account that has been established in the Wachovia Bank in Wilmington to help build a new Community Boys Club.

There is so much good to be done in the world, I know I cannot do it all, but in the part of it I can do I want Community Boy’s Club to be included.  The moon is not ready for us yet, so we must live together here on earth, and the Boy’s Club makes life mean more to a lot of young boys. . . .

Meadowlark Lemon at the foul line during the Harlem Globetrotters game at Brogden Hall in Wilmington, North Carolina on March 19, 1971.

Meadowlark Lemon at the foul line during the Harlem Globetrotters game at Brogden Hall in Wilmington, North Carolina on March 19, 1971.

In Meadowlark, Lemon devoted about three pages to his account of events and circumstances surrounding Meadow Lark Lemon Day.  He recalled being flown into Wilmington five straight days before the game.  Despite concerns that violence may break out during the game, none occurred.  Lemon wrote in his autobiography, “No threats, no staring down.  Blacks and whites sat together, laughed together, sang together.  I felt it was one of the best things I ever accomplished.”

Closing Note: Were you living in Wilmington during this time?  Do you have recollections about Meadowlark Lemon’s visit?  If so, what level of importance do you place on his role at that crucial time?  Please share your experience by leaving a comment.  I believe there’s more to be learned about this topic!

1 thought on “Meadow George Lemon III, 1932–2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.