American University Finally Remembers Dickie Wells

By Harold Bell

On Saturday February 25, 2012 the last weekend in Black History Month American University will welcome a native son back to its campus.  The late Richard “Dickie” Wells will be finally inducted into the school’s basketball hall of fame.   Fifty-six years ago he was a trailblazer and pioneer on the basketball court. The school is located in the far northwest corridor of Washington, DC, at the intersection of Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues NW.

It was the last outpost of higher education in the Nation’s Capitol.   Westmoreland Circle was minutes away from the Maryland suburbs that could lead you to all points south.

When a student/athlete talked about going out of state to attend college he could have easily been talking about American University!

Dickie grew up on Benning Road a corridor located in the far Northeast section of Washington, DC.

Benning Road was minutes away from Kenilworth Avenue.  This road led you to the Baltimore/Washington Parkway leading you to all points north (New York City, etc).

He was an all-around athlete at Spingarn High School where he was a starter and star on the football and basketball teams.

In basketball he was a tenacious rebounder and defender, according to his teammate Andrew Johnson who grew up in the same neighborhood.

Andrew also remembers other qualities and characteristics that made Dickie the ideal candidate for his pioneering role at American University, he said, “He was unselfish and coachable!”  Dickie would often take younger guys under his wing and help them improve their athletic skills.

I remember I was one of those young athletes who benefited from Dickie’s unselfish behavior.  When I arrived at Spingarn I was going to hell in a hurry and he became my mentor.

Dickie was a starter on the 1956 Spingarn football team that beat the legendary QB Willie Wood and his Armstrong teammates 13-7 to win the East Division Championship.  The win earned Spingarn the right to meet Cardozo HS for the DC Public High School Championship.

Spingarn tied the Clerks 0-0 but Cardozo was awarded the championship on a little used and never heard of before tie breaker system called Penetration.  The rule stated the winner in a tied game is the team that crosses the other team’s 50 yard more frequently—winner Cardozo.

The burning question is how did Dickie Wells find his way on to a campus on the other side the city using only public transportation (bus)?  It was a two and a half hour ride each way going and coming to the school’s campus and back home.

Enter, American University Coach Dave Carasco.   He could have easily played the leading role in the Sidney Poitier movie classic “Guess Who is Coming to Dinner!”

Evidently, Coach Carasco had been watching Dickie’s exploits as a DC Public High School athlete and after graduation he found his way to his home on Oklahoma Avenue, NE.  Dickie lived directly across the street from Spingarn.

When Dickie graduated from Spingarn it was still a time of “Civil Uncertainty” recalls his big brother Ed Wells, a basketball legend in his own right.  He was a star player at Armstrong and North Carolina A & T in Greensboro, North Carolina.

It was just a couple years (1954) removed from Brown vs Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in the public schools in America.

Dickie’s teammate the late Spotswood Bolling was the lead plaintiff for the DC Public School system it was Bolling vs DC Board of Education.

The DC Public Schools for example; were still wrestling with the process of integrating or desegregating their schools.

-There had been no march on Washington

-No Million Man March.

-No I had a dream speech—by Dr. King

Big brother Ed remembers that several of his classmates at North Carolina A & T were holding meetings to discuss the possibility of the now historical “Sit-ins” at the lunch counter of the downtown Kreslers Five & Dime store in Greensboro.

It was during these times within this social climate that Coach Carasco came to dinner.

He sat at the Wells’ dinner table and spoke passionately of his vision of a racially integrated basketball program at American University.  After several home visits and fried chicken dinners he was able to convince Mrs. Wells that Dickie was the right man to join him in his quest.

Ed said he found it kind of strange that the coach never talked about a “letter of intent” or basketball in general.

He never mentioned SAT scores, but he thought that he already knew that Dickie was academically endowed.  Mrs. Wells was a DC Public School Administrator and Ed would follow in his mother’s footsteps as a Principal.  Coach knew that an apple does not fall too far from the tree!  Dickie was truly a student/athlete in every sense of the word.

When Mrs. Wells inquired about the duration of Dickie’s scholarship, Coach Carasco simply said, “He can stay as long as I stay.”  American University had already made a commitment to integration, Coach Carasco was Mexican American.

The thing that I think impressed Mrs. Wells was Coach Carasco’s honesty, he said repeatedly “This undertaking was not going to be easy and could be very, very unpleasant at times.”

Coach made it clear to Dickie, there was to be no fighting, no matter what the score of the game.  He said, “If we fight we lose everything.”

The conditions for this unlikely union still puzzles Ed to this day, he says, “My brother was not one to turn the other cheek.  I still can’t understand why he would commit to such an undertaking.  Plus, I thought I knew my brother far better than anyone.  This was not the Dickie Wells I knew.”

“There was nothing in his DNA, nothing in his day to day persona that would lead anyone to select him for this Jackie Robinson role,” according to Ed.

He had several scholarships more prestigious than American University.

Dickie grew up on the playgrounds of Washington, DC and was most at home on the basketball courts of Henry Blow, Kelly Miller, Brown, Bannecker and Park View recreation centers.

Dickie held more than his own on playgrounds like Park View in NW DC where they played hard core basketball—-it was NFL style without the helmets and shoulder pads.  It was truly Bump and Run basketball.

In these vineyards—you asked for no quarter and no quarter was given!  It was protecting yourself at all times and at all cost.

Dickie was 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds of muscle and grit, and when provoked he could be as mean as a snake.

George “Dee” Williams was his Spingarn teammate, best friend and confidant.  He said “Dickie was a greater human being than he was an athlete.  Dickie was a man of integrity and of high character and he could be brutal with the truth!”

American University Coach Carasco was a visionary and he saw something in Dickie that far exceeded rebounds and jump shots.  He hugged Mrs. Wells and shook Dickies hand and the two stepped into the history sport pages of American University.

Mrs. Wells cried when she first saw Dickie run out of the dressing room with no. 24 stitched on his white jersey across his chest, but they were tears of joy.

Ed asked his mother “Why are you crying at a basketball game?” 

Her response, “I am so proud of Dickie and overjoyed to see him do something significant with his life.”  American won its first game.

But the tears of joy were short were lived they became tears of anger.  The team went on the road to play its first road game in the Mason/Dixon Conference.  The experience was surreal!

The host was Mt. St. Mary’s and its student made it perfectly clear that they resented the distinction of being the first college in the conference to host a rival team with a minority coach and a minority starting player.

There were hundreds of disgusting placards reading N—– go home with vile epitaphs and vulgar language directed at Dickie and Coach Carasco.  Ed remembers there were several black cats released upon the floor delaying the game for what seemed like a life time!

The name calling and verbal abuse went on throughout the game and only subsided when Dickie fouled out early in the fourth quarter.  It was than the student body stood in unison and locked hands.  They rocked back and forth with eyes closed as the band played “Bye Bye Black Bird.”

The song was sung with such furor and enthusiasm as if they had practice this ritual many times in anticipation of the moment.

His mother cried tears of anger and rage and asked “How could anyone do this to another human being?”

American University lost the game but won the battle, there were no fights and no physical confrontations.

After the game Mrs. Wells asked Coach Carasco, “Are you expecting all the remaining away games to be this volatile?”

His response was “I certainly hope not, but I am proud of the fact that we maintained our composure.  I think we are going to be okay and we will be back, we will be back!”

The American University basketball team was like General Douglas McArthur when he promised during World War ll “We shall return.”

The next time they returned they had playground legend and the pride of Dunbar HS, Willie Jones!  He was the jump shooting and trash talking guard who would eventually take the conference by storm.  On the team’s next return Willie would help reduce the “Bye Bye Black Bird Choir” to only two choruses and the next year they added several other “Black Birds” that now included Dickie, Willie, John Carroll HS standout Jim ‘Beanie’ Howell and Spingarn’s jumping jack, Gene Johnson.

The student body choir was now faintly heard singing only one chorus in the far, far corners of the gym.

Dickie’s senior year they were operating on all cyclers.  The brash talking and jump shooting Willie Jones and Dickie’s rebounding made the school a “Show time” experience.  You would have thought the offending school had changed its name to Gallaudet.  The silence was deafening.

There were no more Bye Bye Black Bird songs, before, during or after the game.

Ed now says, “I doubted if they would ever sing Bye Bye Black Bird songs again anywhere, at any college or university and in any conference.”

Dickie Wells’ impact on American University men’s basketball is still apparent when you look through the record books.  He is second all-time at American University with 1,184 career rebounds and sixth and eighth with 433 and 412 rebounds in a single season, respectively.  He also ranks third with 16 free throws made in a single game at Towson State.

Dickie was the first African-American player at American University and in the Mason Dixon Conference.  His presence paved the way for Washingtonians like, Willie Jones, Jim Howell, Gene Johnson and all the other black athletes who have followed in his footsteps.

He was also the school’s first Afro-American to receive All-American honors when he was named a Little College All-American Honorable Mention in 1958.  He was also named an NCAA college Division Honorable Mention in 1960.

The pioneering efforts didn’t occur by accident it took American University and men of grit and courage to silence the Bye, Bye Black Bird songs sung across this nation.  Dave Caraso was such a man, Willie Jones is such a man and 56 years later American University has finally remembered and realized Richard “Dickie” Wells was such a man!

Harold Bell is the Godfather of Sports Talk radio and television in Washington, DC.  Throughout the mid-sixties, seventies and eighties, Harold embarked upon a relatively new medium–sports talk radio with classic interviews with athletes and sports celebrities.  The show and format became wildly popular. Harold has been an active force fighting for the rights of children for over 40 years with the help of his wife through their charity Kids In Trouble, Inc.   To learn more about Harold Bell visit his official web site H. B. Sports


7 Responses to “American University Finally Remembers Dickie Wells”

  1. Hey Harold!

    You did it again. Thanks for all you do, and remembering one of D.C.’s athlete poineers in Dickie Wells.

    • Bernie you would have loved the tribute and the loved shown to Dickie today on the campus of American University. I just wished he and his mother could have been here to see and hear it!

      Teammate Willie Jones, the coaches’ son and nameshake Dave Caraso along Dickie’s brother Ed gave a history lesson of a true trailblazer—–Richard “Dickie” Wells!

  2. Margaret Davis Says:

    excellent report – Dickie Wells
    I would like to have seen more pictures.

  3. David Carrasco Says:

    Hello Harold
    Thank you very much for jumping right on top of this story and sharing it with your viewers. I was so grateful to hear Ed Wells’ tell the true story to the American U crowd about how HIS family and MY family joined together (through Dickie and Coach Carrasco) to change American U and college basketball in DC FOR EVER. It was good to meet you and hope to talk with you again.

    David Carrasco
    Professor of Religion
    Harvard University Divinity School

    • Hi David,

      It was men like your father who were leaders in the Civil Rights movement who made it possible for men and women of color to realize Rev. ML King’s dream to some extent.

      I was sadden by the lack of press coverage that was given to this historical event. Especially, during Black History Month. I was disappointed but not surprised.

      We still are not there yet, but your father and Dickie’s historical journey through American University was a “Priceless” moment not only in Black history but also in American history.

      Coach Carraso and Dickie were trailblazers who did not follow a trail but blazed a trail where there was no trail.

      The presentations by you, Willie Jones and Ed Wells were elightening and educational moments for the entire room of well wishers. And it proved there is still work to do!

  4. Jim Williams Says:

    Harold, Thank you, Ed Wells and David Lee Carrasco for this GREAT STORY. It has been tooo long coming and as you said, it is not over yet. Your website is excellent!!!! Thanks again!!! Take Care!!! Jim Williams, AU, Class of ’56

  5. What’s up colleagues, nice article and nice urging commented here, I am truly enjoying by these.

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