We know what the Aggie-Eagle rivalry looks like today. But what about 100 years ago?
On Saturday, Sept. 3, Dr. Alvin Smallwood of N.C. A&T and Dr. Charles Johnson of N.C. Central will present a history of the Aggie-Eagle Classic.
The event is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Brooklyn Collective.
Smallwood and Johnson are collaborating on a book, set for release next fall, detailing the history of the century-old rivalry.
They spoke with QCity Metro’s Daija Peeler about their work documenting the game.
The answers below have been edited for brevity.
Can you talk about who you are and your role at the schools?
Johnson: I’m in the Department of History. I’m an assistant professor and director of the public history program at North Carolina Central University. I’ve been here since 2015 and hold a degree from that department.
Smallwood: When we started this project a couple of years ago, I was the Department of History and Political Science chair. I was chair of that department for nine years. But my recent appointment, as of June 1, is the Interim Vice Provost of undergraduate education for the university. So that’s my current position.
You got your degree from NCCU. What made you want to take your career to A&T?
Smallwood: I’m a two-time graduate of North Carolina Central. My undergraduate degree is from the history department; they have a very strong history department. My undergraduate degrees in political science and political science have been vital to many students who have gone on to law school. My master’s degree is in history in North Carolina Central has a very strong history department and a very strong reputation nationally with history.
I’ve spent most of my career out of the state, from northeastern North Carolina, deep roots in the state with school at North Carolina Central, and then left to go to Ohio State for my Ph.D. From there, out to Illinois at Bradley University. I tried to get back to North Carolina throughout my career.
I spent seven years at Bradley and ten years at the University of Memphis, and North Carolina a&t brought me home, and they have treated me like family. So although I am a loyal Eagle, I have to say that I’m an honorary Aggie, and the Aggies have treated me very well. And my brother is an Aggie. He’s an A&T alum, and you’ll see that with many families, you’ll have one member of the family that’s an eagle, one member of the family that’s an Aggie, so our family is definitely in that camp.
How did you two meet?
Johnson: I think it was in 2018. The department had asked Dr. Smallwood to come over for a departmental review, and he interviewed me. The chair of the Department of History at North Carolina Central is Dr. Jim Harper. He introduced us. And wanted Smallwood to get a sense of what I do as director of a public history program. And at that time, I had started a project on the history of Black farmers in North Carolina, and Dr. Smallwood was interested in that.
So after we went through his questions about my work, we had a chance to talk about that. We decided to work to collaborate on that. Out of that contact, we ended up where we are today. Dr. Smallwood organized a course at A&T that we team-taught. I brought some Eagles up. They worked alongside the Aggies. We had a lot of fun with that and got a lot out of it. During that time, he suggested he said, “You know, Charles, we need to make a history of the rivalry and football between these two institutions.
According to a few sources, you two informed everyone that this is the 100th rivalry. Where did you find this information?
Johnson: Much of the history of the rivalry came from the Black press. They covered the games in a way that they’re not even covered today. All of the games were covered in detail. It was a different time. I was in a library in Ruston, Louisiana last summer and going through newspapers, must have collected over 600 for this project. We have a newspaper article for every game between the two teams.
North Carolina Central has gone through several name changes. We were initially at a national religious training school in Chautauqua. Then we became the National Religious Training School and then the National Training School. So I searched to find what I could come across about National Training School having played up at A&T in 1922. It was pretty much that simple but revelatory at the time.
We’re shining a bright light on it now, probably in a way that had not been before.
How important is it for young and old students to learn the history of both schools from this presentation?
Johnson: I think it’s critical. When we were thinking about how best to tell the story, one of the things we agreed that we needed to do was to speak to the players and the coaches, and the alumna from both institutions about the significance of the rivalry and to get their sense of something that they remember from the rivalry and also to talk about the importance of the institution: What it means to be an Aggie, what it means to be an eagle, what is this institution done for you?
That resulted in a couple of story maps at A&T and Central that include those interviews, Congressman GK Butterfield, who’s one of our more prominent alum from North Carolina Central, spoke; he shared the very same thing Dr. Smallwood shared about how iron sharpens iron and the importance of that.
We need our young people to know that they are walking on hallowed ground and have an outstanding legacy they’re standing upon. Right. And this rivalry brings positive attention to the institutions, and it allows us to showcase our excellence. So it’s, it’s essential. I think that people understand the rivalry and the history that it speaks to.
As Dr. Smallwood said, these institutions were born out of a desire to educate people living under Jim Crow segregation at the start of this rivalry in 1922.
It was very difficult to be educated if you were black, but these two institutions and the other HBCUs afforded us that opportunity.
Many of us came off on the farm, to both institutions, truthfully, with very little to return to, so our hope rested on these institutions.
For over 100 years, they have done a remarkable job of providing opportunities and advancement, you know, for African Americans, and doing so, as I said, down into the 1960s, when we had to overcome racial segregation here, in, you know, here in the U.S. It’s critically important that people understand and appreciate the history of the robbery. But beyond the history of these great institutions, I think the rivalry is just one aspect of it. But what a rivalry it’s been.
Why haven’t these photographs been seen before?
I think the simple answer to that is that I don’t think anyone has taken on the same level of scrutiny that small would not have to enough to try to tell the whole story of the rivalry. Each institution has put together program guides with record holders and that sort of thing that speaks to the overall histories of the football programs. But we chose to focus specifically on this rivalry.
Through that process, we were very systematic about how we go about doing the research that we do. Dr. Smallwood talked about us identifying student researchers we trained and then sent them out to mine the archive and bring back any yearbooks and newspapers they could get their hands on.
If I recall, at North Carolina Central, a student named Khadija McNair said, “There’s a photo archive of the Herald Sun.” She went in and took a photo of a negative. It was just absolutely awesome.
We discovered that there was a series of photos of games, starting in 58 and coming down through the Aggie Eagle classic in the 1990s. We went through and selected many of those photos.
Why was the exhibit turned into a presentation?
Johnson: The Charlotte Sports Foundation approached Dr. Smallwood back in January. We were very clear about what we would like to see happen; we did not change what we asked for, and we were very consistent.
We wanted to have that exhibit up for some time, not just one week. We just got to a place in our discussions where I did not feel we had the time to do the exhibit justice and honor the institutions the way they needed to be honored.
There is a standing directive at North Carolina Central University; I have to imagine it’s the same at North Carolina A&T State University: to protect the name and reputation of those institutions. So we always want to put our best foot forward in the window for us to do something that had just gotten too small.
It was too precarious. But rest assured, we will have an exhibit of this. We are committed to that. And we’re going to get it done. But it will be done.
So that when you walk in there, you have a “wow” moment.
Why was the Brooklyn Collective chosen as the meeting place for this presentation?
Johnson: We didn’t; Charlotte Sports Foundation recommended it. It seemed to fit in terms of history. The collective represents almost all that remains of that former historic Black community. For many symbolic reasons it was, it was really important. The space also fits. They’re set up to do what we want to accomplish.
Will the book include photographs and details from this year’s game in the book?
Smallwood: I think we will be able to because it won’t be released immediately. The score should be in this book. This is the 100th game; that score and teams should be there.