By William “Duke” Smither
“I grew up in the South under segregation. So, I know what terrorism feels like – when your father could be taken out in the middle of the night and lynched just because he didn’t look like he was in an obeying frame of mind when a white person said something he must do. I mean, that’s terrorism, too.” Alice Walker (Georgia-born Writer, Poet and Winner of 1983 Pulitzer Prize for “The Color Purple” Novel)
The Jim Crow ‘Zoo’
Being born in the sunset of a ‘Jim Crow South,’ and raised during the erratic dawn of public school desegregation, provided unique quality-of-life perspectives and certain survival strategies which assured your living to see another day. That is, another day and opportunity to slap some surreptitious revenge on a racially sick and socially retarded society, like America’s zoo-like doctrine of ‘Apartheid’— our own peculiar social order, contradicting the eloquence of our nation’s “supreme law of the land.”
Some 50 years following my military service and move to Virginia to raise a family, a popular sports drama/ film—“Remember the Titans” (written by G. A. Howard, produced by Walt Disney Pictures, Sept. 2000)—crept onto the nation’s stage. It concerned how the 1970s racially charged, high school football landscape was changed forever in Northern Virginia. But, for me, it brought back many memories of how Kermit Williams, a lone black “Panther,” in Frankfort, Kentucky– from Frankfort High’s 1956 “Panthers” football team– forever impacted my own life, spearheading the way for many of us to follow.
For many African-American high school athletes during those awkward school desegregation years, the socio-cultural scramble for racial equality and dignity probably left more psychological scars than physical wounds than one would care to admit. But, as we ‘accidental soldiers’ of the Civil Rights Movement carried out our “missions” and frustrations, on athletic fields, the courts of a befuddled South remained focused on “what to do with the plantation Negro.” This same “Negro,” especially within the ragged cultural lines of the good ol’ Dixie South, was now redefining its own blackness; and, the change was forever. Furthermore, it was way too late for the white status quo to turn back their antiquated, ‘Antebellum’ clocks—especially, after Kermit Williams grabbed the opportunity to transfer from the Northside “Craw” section’s all-black Mayo-Underwood School, in his sophomore year, to Frankfort High, the cross-town white school for upper crust and common folk, alike, more convenient to where we actually lived, in ‘South Frankfort.’
Before my family had moved north, to Wilmington, Delaware, when I was in the 7th grade, I also attended Mayo-Underwood (following Rosenwald Elementary), where many of my neighborhood friends went to school. Between that time and the 11th grade, when I moved back to Frankfort, my sophomore year was at the historic Lincoln Institute, a private, all-black boarding school in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky, 35 miles west of Frankfort. The school’s president, then, was Whitney M. Young, Sr. (also, president of the Kentucky Negro Educational Association), a close friend of my father before his death whom mother felt “…would definitely steer (me) in the right direction.”
What Would Kermit Do?
But, finally, coming back to Frankfort and the friends I grew up with was heaven-sent. And, playing football in Kermit’s footprints, the year after he graduated, was bliss– no matter what the racial climate happened to be. For me, the musty whiffs of limestone yard-line markings on Sower Field, a stadium nestled within an all-white, working class neighborhood, called “Bell Point,” and previously off-limits to blacks, became some of the sweetest smells I recall.
As a child, constantly on bike-riding excursions with three of my closest friends, Mason Harris, “Buzz” Metcalf and Darryl Willis, deep inside white-only ‘territory’ for miles around, I recall “Bell Point” as one of those risky areas our parents warned against. It often carried explicit signs with racial warnings “not to be caught” there, after dark. And, judging from the filth often dripping from the lips of a few residents, the “’N’ word must have been the first thing “Bell Point” parents taught their toddlers, back then, although often mispronounced in their deep Kentucky drawl. But, being used to such babble, merely beefed up our awareness for racial high jinks and further heightened our senses of adventurism. Besides, we figured no fool hearted redneck, on their best day, could ever catch us on bicycles, or even running if necessary. Plus, we always had a few “pay-back” high jinks up our sleeves, as well.
Later, in high school, that kind of confidence helped me excel in track and field. And, I even played football on the same team with Mason and “Buzz,” while Darryl attended school in the county. But, finally, as Panthers, the occasional racial taunts and jeers on the way to and from practice was of no consequence or concern. It was good, pre-game sensitivity training. But, I was always aware of the loony atmosphere of hatred and fear, as the Civil Rights Movement began to notch more courtroom victories, and the racialized clouds of mob violence began to circle again throughout the South.
Yet, whenever confronted with racial shenanigans, it was the calming effect of the image of Kermit’s first year that helped me keep my wits. Many times, I simply asked myself, “What would Kermit do…?” whenever I ran into unexpected yahoo behavior, mostly at “away games,” in other cities. The “answer” for me was always rather simple: “Ignore the rednecks… sticks and stones can break yo’ bones, but words can’t hurt you none… play hard… play smart… but make them crackers respect you,” especially when on defense where the hits were “legal” and clean. That year, my junior year, there were 6 or 7 black athletes, as I recall, all childhood friends; and, we always took care of each other and watched each other’s back. I simply reasoned we were much better off than Kermit, during those times he was the lone black “Panther” on the field.
In my senior year, it was only two African-Americans on the football team, myself and Phillip Douglas, a hard-nose, 4-letter athlete, just as hard-headed and stubbornly proud as I. We ran out of the old “Wing-T” formation, he at tailback, and myself at wing-back. Together, coupled with some enlightened white teammates, who often didn’t recognize racists taunts from overzealous praise by fans, we fed off each other’s determination and drive to best “represent our people” on the field. Neither of us believed in “non-violence,” at the time– a critical strategy for social change back then. We swore the literal translation of the biblical “eye for an eye” retribution. But, the wise counsel of more-reasonable, prudent-minded adults, like “Momma Jenny” Metcalf, Ms. Bertha (Willis) Fleming, Mrs. Edna Patton and Sherman Collins (my brother-in-law), kept us out of more serious racialized harm’s way. This included some rather raw insight from South Frankfort’s resident “philosopher,” a street-wise ex-marine, named John Dukes. I’m certain he must have counseled Kermit, as well. That’s just how black folk in Frankfort were, collectively taking care of their own.
Yet, I also have some fond memories of how Phillip’s grandfather (whom we affectionately called “Blinky” because of his failing eyesight) attended every game we played, “home” and “away,” faithfully packing his small-caliber pistol—“just in case,” as he put it. Many times, he chose not to sit in the main bleacher sections, to avoid the racialized hazing and taunts that often came with it. Instead, he would simply walk up and down the opposite sidelines, where no bleachers existed. Of course, I imagine the growing numbers of decent-thinking whites simply assumed that he was kind of anti-social. Liberal-minded white folk just didn’t view things the way conscientious blacks and our relatively-few, polar-opposite, hostile white brethren did, during those times.
But, I’ll never forget how Mason Harris, our rugged senior linebacker in my junior year, was viciously attacked by the white dads of an opposing archrival team (many, supposedly upstanding citizens) because of the clean hit he put on one of their running backs, not far from where they sat on the field, during their homecoming game. It emptied the bench for Frankfort’s players, black and white, who came to his aid. But, the nasty fracas, and other incident’s under those Friday night lights, still reminds me that this complex notion of prejudice and discrimination is probably forever skewed, far outside the squiggly lines of reason and cultural misunderstandings. As one trusted friend once pointed out, “…some things just aren’t meant for us to fix.” I simply reasoned that God might have allowed some things to be that way, because the alternative was probably much worse.
In the Shadows of Discouragement
But, even today, what really sticks in my craw, is how “Buzz” Metcalf, perhaps, the best candidate for quarterback back then, became so discouraged that he hung up his cleats for good, in our junior year. But, you’d have to go back to the sick remnants of White Supremacy to understand why. High-profile positions, like quarterback (and pitcher in baseball), were decidedly “off-limits” to black athletes, back then. What’s even sadder might be American history’s untold number of ‘dispirited’ black athletes– discouraged by the steady drumbeat of cultural roadblocks, including threats of physical harm or death— who chose other pursuits of happiness, ignoring their own dreams and calling.
“Buzz,” a walking encyclopedia of sports statistics, was one of those athletes, but later obtained a Master’s Degree and became successful in business. Now retired, he recently said, “My big memories of Kermit and his athletic prioress stem from about my age of seven (him being about 10) and even then he seemed to be so much more mature and a man amongst boys. He was so very balanced, fast and with such an aloof quality. You always wanted him on your team knowing whichever team he was on determined the winning one. He was the best hitter, fielder, pitcher in baseball; no doubt the best running back, tackler, passer in football, the fastest/highest jumper in track and field, and best all-around basketball player. But the most strikingly thing about him was he was the least fazed by it all… He was always the choice of the older crowd if selecting one of us to work or help out or accompany an event. Man, the best I can say about him he was truly “All Around”.
It was guys like Kermit who continuingly challenged the status quo, seemingly oblivious to the dangers and hostility around them, shattering time-honored myths, beliefs and bigoted mindsets that strengthened the resolve of black athletes that followed their lead, in all sports. Even in the streets and backyard ball games, before high school, it was obvious to us that knew him that he was ahead of his time, seemingly chosen by God. A natural leader, he seemed blessed with an unusual set of skills and drive, best-suited to challenge the rabid-rousing rednecks, as well as Old Jim Crow, himself, when the nation was confronting mirror-images of its own compassionate, bigoted self. The way many whites likely saw things, their long-held views of a post-Civil War South “which would someday rise again,” was now beginning to crumble and fall into shameful oblivion, punctuated by the idea of white kids socializing with black kids in school- further snuffing out the fake myths of white superiority.
I still recall how Coach Ollie Leathers called Phillip and I aside to explain that he had received a number of threats. He said they came from unnamed white parents and fans, because he continued to choose to start two black running backs, for their white sons to block for, when the “black-boy-line up front” had all graduated the year before. It seemed to bother the coach a little. But, it didn’t bother us a bit. We simply wanted to play ball, no matter what. Such is the profane reality of those zany school desegregation years, in America’s Upper South.
No Blacks Allowed
When Kermit first trotted out on Sower Field—a football stadium bequeathed to FHS in 1923 with the stipulation that “no blacks” would ever play on the field—he became the first African-American to compete in sports (football, basketball and track) at Frankfort High, scoring two touchdowns, giving Frankfort the win, the same night a cross was burned, nearby. In his senior year, he was named Captain in football and later became the lone black player in Kentucky’s East-West All-Star game.
But, it might have been those ‘forbidden’ childhood sandlot games we played with white kids, against their parent’s wishes, coupled with Johnny Sykes’ unique childhood relationship with some fairly cool white ball players, before school desegregation, which helped ease the racial tension and transition to high school athletic fields. By that time, we probably had more white “friends” than “enemies,” except for when we played “away games,” which were all out of town. As Sykes joined Kermit in football, during their junior year, they and other, older black ball players (like June Greene, Stony Brown, “LJ” Brown, George Calhoun, Bubba White, Donald Hutsbath, Gary Spellers, Ray Simmons, Willie Washington—and, many more who attended black-only schools before desegregation) became not only our heroes, but were like surrogate brothers who guided you around harms’ way, in sports, as well as in life, although they might not have thought of it quite that way.
Perhaps, even one of Kermit’s unmentioned heroes and mentor might have been Coach Alvin Hanley, whom I recall at Mayo-Underwood from the 6th and 7th grade, before I moved north. Coach Hanley sometimes had that serious glare in the eyes, similar to what we occasionally saw in Kermit’s eyes when he was agitated about something, like if you messed up while on a team he had carefully hand-picked, during sandlot or playground ball. The only other person we knew with a glare like that was Darryl’s mom, Ms. Bertha (Willis). When you saw it, you knew to keep your distance, or heed whatever was about to come next, not because it would be some kind of physically violent response. It was worse, they simply had a way of embarrassing the dickens out of you, just calling you out or giving you a dressing-down, verbally.
Yet, Coach Hanley was cool and a great athlete. He once played professional football with the Los Angeles Rams, but had sustained a career-ending knee injury. He was a coach and teacher at Mayo-Underwood and, at some point, convinced by Coach Leathers to join Frankfort High’s coaching staff as an assistant, during the time that Kermit transferred to the Panthers. Personally, I believe Coach Hanley’s guidance and support must have been one of Kermit’s secret weapons for surviving those years. Both, Kermit and Coach Hanley were highly respected in the black community and sometimes “feared” by us younguns.
Later, Life Magazine’s feature story about Kermit (“The Halting and Fitful Battle for Integration” Frankfort, KY football halfback, Kermit Williams, Sept. 17, 1956), coupled with the urging of a few of my childhood friends, solidified my resolve to move back to the South. My running wild in the streets, in defiance of my older sister (Mary) and her boyfriend, after mother moved on to Philadelphia to work and attend nursing school, provided the impetus which set things in motion, although not exactly how I first had anticipated. During my sophomore year, it was arranged that I attend the private and historic, all-black Lincoln Institute, a 400-acre campus-boarding high school in Lincoln Ridge, KY. But, I was unable to play football because of the need to work on its farm and in the cafeteria to help pay for tuition.
Damn the Klan!
However, during my junior and senior year, I went to live with my other older sister (Barbara), her husband and their six kids, now a family of nine, where they all teasingly called me “Number 7,” for the number of kids’ plates they had to set for mealtimes. Finally, “Number 7” was in heaven, again, being with family and able to join the FHS Panthers’ football and track teams in my final two years of high school.
By that time, Kermit had already left a trail for others to follow which was hallowed. In our senior year, Phillip Douglas and I probably had one central idea: “Damn the rednecks out here, just make sure you don’t mess up Kermit’s work and the reputation he built.” And, several adults in our church often helped to remind us that “non-violence” was still the best policy, consistent with national desires and efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, no matter how we felt about on-the-field shenanigans by a few whites. Our only recourse was to play ball even harder, with even more determination than the white kids.
I often thought about that ‘mission’ during home games, gazing off in the direction of where the Klan burned their cross, when Kermit began to play football. On defense, as I waited for the next play and my chance to exact some revenge for all those victimized by years of inbred bigotry and systemic racism, I swore that I could sometimes smell the burning embers from those crude, fiery crosses, worshipped by the Ku Klux Klan. But, the “sweet,” musty smell of Sower Field’s limestone dust easily overshadowed the imagery.
Slowly, the many years of my own childhood biases and hardened opinions, no matter how innocently obtained, began to melt away, when I saw and felt the sincerity of many white teammates, who began to change before our eyes and quickly came to our aid, when certain racialized shenanigans began. It wasn’t just football, anymore. It was more life lessons, not taught in the classrooms. We didn’t quite look at it that way, then, but those were some of the revealing ‘lessons learned’ about my own biases, during those awkward years. They later served me well in the military, in civilian life, raising a family, and even today, as a grandfather of six. When you realize and admit your own prejudices, no matter how they were formed, you begin to appreciate how easily the ugliness of racism creeps into our homes and neighborhoods, as well as our hearts and minds, long after slavery’s inhumanity was abolished.
With God’s Grace and Mercy
But, whenever I think of Kermit, I can’t help but recall his strong-willed, much-respected family. Mr. and Mrs. (John Stanley and Evelyn) Williams, as well as their many children, were family friends of our entire family. Kermit’s sisters were good friends of my own older sisters. Our families connected in several ways. Early on, the way I saw it, the Williams’ family were the kind of folk truly blessed by God.
A younger sister, Georgia, whom we fondly referred to as “Peaches,” was my escort to the football banquet, in my senior year. And, to this day, I don’t think she realized how terrified we were of Kermit’s veiled promises to “hurt” any of us in the neighborhood, if we ever messed over his sisters. That’s how effective Kermit’s reputation was, strengthened from childhood observations, playing ball in the streets and respecting his ability to carry out those “promises,” whether he was teasing or not. The guy could scrap with the best and was good at boxing. But, he was mostly a peaceful guy. I always imagined that his sisters weren’t even aware of the “extended protection” their big brother provided, even while in the Army, or later in college, at nearby Kentucky State University, where he played football and graduated. But, the rest of us understood and, as if “commissioned” by Kermit, himself, humbly accepted the unspoken responsibility for looking out for his sisters, as well. But, my mother used to say, he was a “real nice young fellow, about as unselfish and responsible as they came– just a young reluctant hero of our time.”
Another sister and childhood friend, Linda, who still called me ‘homeboy’ when sending some photos of Kermit, had this to say about his sustainable fortitude, as well as that of their family: “If it wasn’t for my strong father, it would never have happened. It was all about a father wanting the best for his son and giving him opportunities. I remember the threats, the calls, the cross burning, the knocks at the door, and the promise of losing his job. The worse that could have happened to us was that we would have to leave Frankfort and move to the family farm in Versailles. My father hated being a farm boy and swore he would never again make a living doing that kind of work, but he would give it all up for Kermit. With God’s Grace, it all worked out. I believe it was an awful heavy burden for Kermit to bear as he felt he put the whole family in jeopardy. I was young, but I remember those days…” She also felt strongly about the significant impact Kermit’s experience had on the rest of his life, in the Army, playing football at Kentucky State University and, later, raising a family.
‘Noblesse Oblige’ Rewarded, at Last
During August 2006, the local newspaper in Frankfort (“The State Journal”) published an article about Kermit, titled “The Enlightened One.” It was a worthy human-interest story about how Kermit, “a typical teenager growing up in a not-so-typical time,” became the first African-American to play football for the “Panthers” and, then, at age 65, was being inducted into Frankfort High School’s “Football Hall of Fame.” I was unable to attend the event, but in talking with friends and family that did attend, I became so proud that I fought back a few tears of joy, as they shared the story by telephone.
In those events leading up to Kermit’s Hall of Fame induction, according to the “The State Journal,” he was asked about the lessons he had learned from his first game and experiences at Frankfort High. Kermit replied, “The greatest thing it taught me is… growing up coming from a black neighborhood, they tell you to be leery of white folk. In high school, I met some very great people like (basketball coach) Homer Bickers, Ollie Leathers (football coach). They were my guidance counselors. They were my friends. They took me into their homes, their wives fed me, treated me as equal. I started to trust. That’s what I got out of it…” He called the experiences “Memorable, unforgettable and educational…” and “Enlightening” because he realized there was basically nothing different in white and black, except skin color. “You have to look on the inside. It’s not on the outside. The thing I saw in many white people was just goodness and nothing more than that,” he said.
As for that first game, where a cross was burned, the newspaper quoted Kermit as saying, “I really didn’t realize the magnitude of it all… I was just into what I was doing. I just knew why I was there, that’s all.” When asked if he ever found out who burned the cross, he simply laughed and said, “I know no black folk put it up…” That’s the quiet essence of the Kermit Williams that many of us probably remember. In spite of everything, the guy had jokes!
From the movie, “Remember the Titans,” I recall how Denzel Washington (as “Coach Herman Boone”) summed up the challenges of life for his players, as the societal cultural clashes, between black and white athletes, aggressively found its way into the locker room and onto their “new world,” the football field. Challenging them, he said,“You look like a bunch of fifth grade sissies after a cat fight! You got anger, that’s good. You’re gonna need it, you got aggression that’s even better. You’re gonna need that, too. But any little two year old child can throw a fit! Football is about controlling that anger, harnessing that aggression into a team effort to achieve perfection!” And, Frankfort High’s Panthers immediately came to mind.
I also remember those prophetic words of Hayden Panettiere (as “Sheryl Yoast,” the 10-year-old, witty football-smart, daughter of “Asst. Coach Bill Yoast”): “People say that it can’t work, black and white; well here we make it work, every day. We have our disagreements, of course, but before we reach for hate… always, always, we remember the Titans.” But, I remember the Panthers.
While the issue of race and color remains the number one social problem in the United States, in my opinion, “Remember the Titans,” brought back many, mixed memories of how high school football forever impacted my life, during Kentucky’s awkward years of school desegregation. But, what I’ll always remember most is our neighborhood’s “reluctant hero” and gifted athlete, our ‘homeboy’ and friend, Kermit Ellison Williams, who seemed to always think of others, before he thought of himself. May God continue to bless him and his family, as well as the legacy they graciously leave behind. What a blessing! And, I’ll never forget it. Thank you, man!