Leesville to honor coach who led Vernon High Lions during segregation

Published: Sep. 22, 2022 at 10:49 PM CDT
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Lake Charles, LA (KPLC) - Sometimes great stories are hidden from plain view, like the story of Vernon High School in Leesville.

Vernon High is where African American students went to school before integration in the ‘60s. During that time, the school’s football team made its mark under the leadership of Coach Foster Thomas, who is set to be honored at Friday night’s football game at Leesville High.

The bright lights of Friday night football weren’t always so bright. They were dim if you go back more than 50 years ago, when segregation was the order of the day.

“In Leesville, we had a Black school. That’s the way things were till 1969 when the federal government made the decision that separate but equal did not work. It did not work. And we had to integrate,” said Leesville resident Charles Owen.

But before then, from the 1930s to the ‘60s, it was on Nona Street where Black students attended school. And a great story unfolded at Vernon High School, home of the Lions.

“Well, Vernon High School was the only high school in our community. So the entire community got hyped up when it was football game night,” Vernon High alum Don Mallet said.

The Lions became the only football team in the history of Vernon Parish to win not one, not two, but three state championships. And they did it under Coach Foster Thomas.

“Foster was my oldest brother. He was a man of few words, and short sentences. He meant what he said and he said what he meant,” Mallet said.

This isn’t just a story of football - it goes deeper. It’s a story of challenge and circumstances, and triumph on and off the football field.

“In my view, in my day, Vernon High was perhaps the greatest high school around because we were a community. We had a faculty and staff who insisted that kids learn, parents supported teachers at that time. And teachers were really the folk who made the thing work,” Mallet said.

And it did work in spite of obstacles. Black schools didn’t have the same books as white schools, and when it came to athletics, they certainly did not have the same equipment. Still, Vernon High rose above it all.

“Some of the white kids used to slip over on Saturday and watch them,” Owen said. “Only one football stadium in Leesville. The Wampus Cats would play on Friday. The Lions would come to Wampus Cat stadium and play on Saturdays. They would go over and watch them and be amazed, Because the Wampus Cats never did anything like the Lions did.”

The Lions earned their state titles in 1963, 1967 and 1968.

What’s even more fascinating is the undeniable talent of one of their star players, Carl Howard, a running back with one arm.

“I was tough, man. I wasn’t scared of nothing,” Howard said.

He was a force to be reckoned with, rushing over 1,000 yards in a season.

“Everybody wanted to see that young man with one arm,” he said. “That’s what the whole thing was about.”

In 1969, the old Vernon High School was closed and merged with the present-day Leesville High. Many believe the peaceful transition to an integrated campus there was in part thanks to Coach Foster Thomas.

“They knew him. This tall man that looked like a bear. A man of character. He was their guy. He was everybody’s guy. He was my assistant principal. He was revered and loved,” Owen said.

And so ended an era in Leesville - one for the record books.

Charles Owen is the state representative from the Leesville area, and he has written a book about the Vernon High Lions so they’re never forgotten.

Thomas will be inducted posthumously into the Leesville Sports Hall of Fame at Friday night’s game.