Soul of RVA: How the Armstrong-Walker Classic game changed Richmond’s Black community

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — If you’re from Richmond, you may simply know it as “The Classic.”

For more than 40 years, Armstrong High School and Maggie Walker High School met on the gridiron on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to play football. As the City’s only two Black high schools at the time, the event became a spirited reunion and a staple for the African American community in Richmond.

“The game itself was bigger than life,” recalls Carl Baugh, who played cornerback for Walker H.S. from 1975 to 1977. “It was just a great moment and a lot of celebration.”

The Classic began in 1939, and every year, more and more people packed City Stadium, located south of Carytown.

Dr. Howard Hopkins, a former teacher, coach and athletic director for Walker H.S., said he remembers games where some 30,000 people piled in to be part of the experience.

“The stands would be filled. People would be standing underneath the clock and on the ground. The bands would be playing … the cheerleaders cheering. It was just so much going on,” said Hopkins. “The halftime show was one of the great parts of The Classic.”

But as those who attended will tell you, The Classic was more than just a game.

8News Reporter Autumn Childress talks about her coverage of the Armstrong-Walker Classic for Soul of RVA on 99.3/105.7 KISS FM.

For the Black community, it was a time to escape the harsh social climate outside of the stadium and “live in an incubator.”

“The institution and The Classic affirmed meaning. You had significance. You were somebody, and people expected you to go out and be somebody,” recalls former WalkerH.S. running back, Rev. Gordon Pleasants. “It was an opportunity to get your feet under you and find significance.”

McDaniel Anderson, who played quarterback for Armstrong in the 60s, agrees.

“During that time, it was separate but unequal. People thought we weren’t good enough, but we showed the world that we were the greatest,” he said.

Walker-Armstrong Classic game
Walker-Armstrong Classic game in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo: VPM)

Anderson also recalls the economic impact that the game had on the Black community.

“Car washes were making money. Barbershops were making money. Record shops were making money,” he said. “The pact was that we had to go to the Black stuff then …we couldn’t go to the other places. That just did such a great thing for us and gave us so much dignity and pride to say we went to Armstrong or Walker.”

And while the teams did battle out on the field, Walker and Armstrong graduates say, when the game was over, the bigger message was about unity.

“I have goosebumps just being here,” said Baugh, during an interview with 8News. “The game brought the Black community totally together. Even though people from both schools were going to root for their high school … after the game was over, they came together as one. Like we were family.”

In 1979, some would say, that family reunion ended.

It was that year when Richmond’s seven high schools were merged into three schools due to declining enrollment. Maggie Walker High School became Marshall Walker, and Armstrong High School became Armstrong Kennedy.

Graduates firmly believe the end of “The Classic” left a void in the black community that is still felt today.

“When they took away the Classic, they took away the City Reunion,” said Walker graduate, Grace Harrison.

Rev. Pleasants added, “It created a disconnect that evolved into more of a divide that allowed certain conditions to exist that deprived us of our values.”

Walker-Armstrong Classic game
Students line up at the Walker-Armstrong Classic. (Photo: VPM)

This year marks more than 40 years without The Classic, however, the memories are still very much alive and well. And while the game itself can never be duplicated, Rev. Pleasants along with other graduates believe there should be a sense of urgency in renewing the values that this game brought to the community.

“When these people pass away, those values are going to the grave and the memory of it will be lost forever,” he said. “The hope is that while we yet live, those of us who have experienced it, will find the urgency to collectively come together and reinvigorate and ignite the value of what the classic meant.”

In the meantime, these graduates say they will continue to ensure that the memories and the unity of Richmond’s social event of the year, live on.

“You can’t say Armstrong without saying Walker. That unity. We are combined. We had it going on. And it was that real love,” Anderson said.

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