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UNFORGIVINGLY BLACK: Recollections of “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali

By William “Duke” Smither

“Rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, oceans all have different names, but they all contain water. So do religions have different names, and they all contain truth, expressed in different ways forms and times. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family.” (Muhammad Ali: Prizefighter, Poet, Philosopher– and, Humanitarian)  Muhammad Ali

Time stood still for me, on June 4, 2016… That’s when I first heard of Muhammad Ali’s death from the day before.  Initially, only one word came to mind:  “Genuine.” 

Simply put, Ali was a sincere, authentic human being and the world is better off from knowing him, in my opinion. However, being from Kentucky, I can recall times when our segregated world wasn’t so keen on Muhammad Ali—known to us, then, as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (in honor of Cassius Marcellus Clay, a white, 19th Century Kentucky politician and abolitionist). But, Ali’s universe—and, our world, too— was changed forever, when he returned home, to Louisville, with an Olympic gold medal from the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy.  He had competed in the light heavyweight division, at age 18, winning all four fights, defeating thrice-European Champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski (Poland), to win the gold medal. And, America was chest-thumping proud.th052IXO2V

WORD ON THE STREETS…  (“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Muhammad Ali)

Young AliAli first came to our attention within his amateur “Golden Gloves” competition, winning 6 Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, 2 national Golden Gloves titles and an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national title, to boot. The effort compiled a record of 100 wins, against 5 losses, according to most sources. Quite an accomplishment, considering it was the theft of his brand-spanking new, red-and-white Schwinn bicycle, when he was 12 years old, that kick-started the performance.

As I recall the story:  In 1954, a white cop and boxing coach (Joe Martin) at Louisville’s  Columbia Auditorium gym, encountered a fuming 89-pound Ali and friend (attending a merchant’s bazaar for free popcorn and ice cream), pissed off that someone had stolen his $60 bike, ranting about what he was going to do to the thief. A brash, trash-talking Ali said he was going to “whup” the guy whenever he found him. But, Martin, who later became Ali’s trainer for the next six years, pulled in the reins a tad and asked if he could even fight. As the storyline goes, Ali joked, “No, but I’d fight anyway.” Martin cautioned him against making “…any hasty challenges” and asked him to come back to the gym to learn how to fight. Ali returned. Weeks later, young Ali (still Cassius Clay) had his first fight, which he won… and, the rest is history.

Back then, boxing reigned supreme.  And, the long list of black boxing legends was good conversation fodder for neighborhood juke joints, barbershops and street corners, too.  Even around kitchen tables, powerful black legacies, like Jack Johnson’s, Joe Louis’ and “Sugar Ray” Robinson’s, always stirred the gab. No offense intended but, for black kids, most white boxers were simply “villains in the ring,” during the long ebb and flow of Old  Jim Crow—yet, fair-minded, competitively skilled white fighters were highly respected, just the same.

By the time of Ali’s bicycle rant, many of us were already boxing fans, glued to the handful of neighborhood televisions in the waning years of racial segregation, rooting for the various shades of blackness in the ring.  Kentuckians were also fans of welterweight Rudell Stitch, who Ali once sparred with at the famed Bud Bruner’s Headline Boxing Gym.Rudell Stitch  Stitch, another amazing Louisville fighter destined for greatness, died a hero at age 27, three months before Ali’s Olympic Gold Medal win, trying to save a friend from drowning on a river fishing trip. Married with six children, he worked full-time at a local meat-packing plant while boxing to support his family. Posthumously, according to boxing archives, the “Carnegie Hero Fund” awarded Stitch its silver medal, given to “…civilians who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.” Plus, the National Boxing Association subsequently created the “Rudell Stitch Sportsmanship Award,” for fighters best demonstrating sportsmanship, inside and outside the boxing ring.

CHANCE MEETING/ LASTING IMPRESSIONS (“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” Muhammad Ali)  

That fall (1960), I was a 16-year old senior and the first African-American sports editor for the Frankfort High School “Panther” newspaper, in Frankfort, Kentucky, about 49 miles east of Louisville. That’s when I first met Ali during his ceremonial visit to our hometown.  He was in town to receive the “keys-to-the-city” honor from Governor Bert Coombs, the highly respected dad of one of our classmates, Lois Combs.

Lacking a common school cafeteria, students were spilling out of the building, in all kinds of directions, heading for lunch.  I was in a small group of eight or nine black students heading back to our South Frankfort neighborhood. Along the way, Ali, joined us for the 10-to-12 block trip, blending in like any other 18-year-old homeboy. Despite the notoriety, he quickly put everyone at ease with humor. The guy had constant jokes. Right away, you could tell he might have been the ‘class clown,’ from any school he attended. His facial expressions, alone, would sometimes crack you up. But, the fellas were getting kind of irked over the way the girls were swooning and fussing over his presence. Yet, truth be told, Ali did seem more respectful than the way we often joked around with them. Apparently, more worldly-wise and somewhat spiritual, the guy was a natural comedian with perfect timing and tempo.  He could dish out the jokes, as well as take them.

Back from RomeWe took him to a neighborhood restaurant, where we chatted about his Olympic and early-life experiences, giving off more clues into what made Ali tick. It also made me appreciate, even more, the moral stands and ethical leadership he adopted later in life. He was unique and unmoved by the lopsided rules and pea brain etiquette of Old Jim Crow. It’s why we loved him. He was spirited and proud, not snooty. And, no matter the audience, he was unforgivingly black.

After lunch, we went our separate ways, back to various classrooms, after pointing Ali in the direction of the principal’s office.  But, within 10 minutes of the start of my first, after-lunch class, I was shocked to see Ali standing outside my classroom, making characteristically funny facial expressions, pressing his nose against the door’s window pane. Then, the principal cracked open the door and motioned for the Journalism Class instructor (Mrs. Clark) to come outside. Moments later, she returned with Ali and introduced him around.  In the process, the class voted me as the person best suited (as the school newspapers sports editor) to take him around to visit other classes. It was an honor. First, I escorted him to the history class, where my high school football coach, Ollie Leathers, was teaching.  The classroom went wild, totally unruly, but Coach Leathers, as well as Ali, had everything under control and seemed to enjoy the experience. Similar antics were repeated in other classrooms we visited, too.

During the escorting, though honored, I was nervous the whole time, thinking Ali might carry some of his joking a bit far, where I (or, other black students) might have to straighten out some wise-mouthed student, later.  We sometimes had to “re-educate” a few numbskulls, to maintain the respect we demanded in those awkward desegregation years. But, even then, Ali was a skilled entertainer with good, crowd-pleasing instincts and such an aftermath never even came close to fruition.  In fact, the escorting was one of the best moments of my high school years (after certain football and track victories). Afterwards, I turned Ali over to one of the staff members of the principal’s office, knowing he had a previous commitment. But, the whole encounter probably left me ‘hooked for life’ on Ali, also dubbed “the Louisville Lip,” for his colorful pronouncements and annoyingly true fight predictions. How could you not like this guy(?), I often wondered.

SHAKING UP KINFOLK– IN AFRICA, TOO…  (“I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man. I had to show the world.” Muhammad Ali) 

It was just a couple of months following the 1960 Olympics that Ali, still only 18, signed a two-year professional/ managerial contract with a group of 10 Louisville area businessmen. It took care of all management, training, travel, and promotional expenses, including a trainer’s salary, and provided for a percentage of Ali’s income to be set aside in a pension fund, untouchable until he was 25 or retired from boxing. But, it wasn’t long afterwards, when Ali’s ring experience and unique personality began commanding sums into the millions, much of which he quietly gave away, supporting charitable causes. And, through the magic of television and closed-circuit theater productions, I witnessed many of his bouts. Even after 50 years of marriage, those fights remain highlights within the shared experiences, for me and my wife.

Each bout was unique, with its own special footnotes. Against Ken Norton (March 1973), Ali proved he could take a lickin’—and, keep on tickin’–when Norton broke Ali’s

Jaw Breaker

Jaw Breaker

 

Ali - Spinksjaw (some say as early as round 1; Norton thought the 11th round), in the 12-round bout (Norton won by decision).  In Ali’s second fight against Leon “Toothless” Spinks (September 1978), Ali’s persistent jabs and rights made him the first fighter in history to win the World Heavyweight Championship three times! But, 11 years earlier (February 1967), Ali’s merciless punishing of Ernie “What’s My Name” Terrell (Ali’s taunt), forever warned the world never to use his former “slave name”—Cassius Clay– ever again. The 15-round fight was ugly with Ali taunting Terrell, shouting, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom… what’s my name?” Before the “whupping,” Terrell had repeatedly called Ali by his birth name, What's My Name?offending Ali.

Against “The Black Destroyer,” Earnie Shaver (September 1977),  the 15-rounder left me so exhausted from watching Ali taking a beating that I almost had to walk away. Yet, in the final round on wobbly legs et al, Ali found his heart, some legs to stand on and a way to win, by unanimous decision.  Later, he was heard saying Shavers was the hardest puncher he ever faced and claiming, “Earnie hit me so hard, it shook my kinfolk back in Africa.”Ali v Shaver

The Bear is DownIt was after snatching the World Heavyweight Championship from Sonny “the big ugly bear” Liston (in 1964), as Ali use to taunt him, Ali actually shed his “slave name,” converted to Islam and began calling himself “Cassius X” (until renamed ‘Muhammad Ali’ by Nation of Islam’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad) — which made him even more controversial– given Black America’s emerging black consciousness, the Civil Rights Movement and the awestruck bewilderment of diehard white supremacists, covert or overt.

RUMBLIN’ BUT NO CRAWLIN’(“I didn’t want to submit to the army and then, on the Day of Judgment, have God say to me, ‘Why did you do that?’ This life is a trial, and you realize that what you do is going to be written down for Judgment Day.” Muhammad Ali)

In 1966, he shook up the world by refusing to be inducted in the U.S. military, further angering whites and blacks, citing his religion as the core of his conscientious objector reasoning in refusing to fight in Viet Nam, proclaiming “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong…”. He was later arrested and convicted for draft evasion and, in 1967, stripped of his heavyweight title for five critical years and all boxing license were cancelled at, perhaps, the peak of his boxing career (his conviction was overturned four years later). I remember it well, since I was then a recent, proud recipient of an Honorable Discharge from the U.S. Navy and initially befuddled by Ali’s stance. Like many African-Americans, notwithstanding our own controversial decisions to serve in the military, I simply felt we were helping the cause by having some ‘skin in the game,’ so to speak.  Yet, knowing a little about Ali’s mettle and code of ethics from our chance meeting before my military service, I grew to admire and respect his gutsy line-in-the-sand and willingness to suffer the consequences. We needed folk like Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But, I still feel we need some ‘skin in the game,’ in the military, too.

Ali v ForemanBy October 30, 1974, when the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” rolled around to Zaire (now, Democratic Republic of the Congo), the world seemed to have forgiven Ali. The historic fight was featuring then-undefeated, power-punching, World Heavyweight Champion, George Foreman, against the ‘People’s Champ,’ Muhammad Ali, with promoter extraordinaire Don King funding the ritzy event.

Yet, something was different with Ali:  the way he moved (or, didn’t move), the way he danced (or, didn’t dance), more cunning/ less speed, etc., compared to his old self, prior the stripping of his title. And, the famed Ali-Shuffle footwork within this newfangled ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy truly worried me, since it seemed Foreman was using him as a punching bag, with some unforgiving blows to the kidneys and head, while Ali relaxed on the ropes.

But, it was the other way around!  Ali was using him instead, resting on the ropes—scheming– while Foreman was getting increasingly arm-weary from power-banging the body.  Ali finally put him down in the 8th round and won the fight by knockout. I was so happy that it brought me to tears.

The following year, September 30, 1975, Don King promoted another historic event, the “Thrilla in Manilla,” in Manila, Philippines, the final of three fights between Muhammad Ali and “Smoking Joe” Frazier. Before the fight, Ali used to chant that it will be a “killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manilla,” referring to Frazier. Also, Ali repeatedly called Frazier an “Uncle Tom” and the “White Man’s Champion,” infuriating Frazier even more.  The fight was vicious.  It was bloody. Exhausted, both ring warriors Ali v Fraziershowed heart and resolve. But, by the 14th round, Frazier’s legs were rubbery. His corner threw in the towel. Ali, too, suffered from exhaustion, but won by technical knockout. Ali later describes the battle in his memoir, “The Greatest: My Own Story, Muhammad Ali” (w/ Richard Durham, Random House; 2nd Edition, 1975):

“So I’m going to talk about it, the hardest fight I’ve ever had in my life—the deadliest and the most vicious… Should I say that the fight we had tonight is the next thing to death? That I felt like fainting and throwing up?  Frazier is a helluva fighter and when Carlos Padilla, the referee, looks at Joe’s face, and his manager, Eddie Futch, won’t let him out of his corner for the fifteenth round, I’m so relieved, so tired, and in so much pain that my knees buckle and I stretch out right where I am—right in the middle of the ring… Joe’s words come back to me: “You one bad n’…. We both bad n’s… We don’t do no crawlin’.”

Bees and Butterflies“SHE BEES,” BUTTERFLIES… AND PEACE (“I believe in the religion of Islam. I believe in Allah and peace.” Muhammad Ali)

When Muhammad Ali began his 30-year+ battle with Parkinson’s disease, I felt maybe his legacy might someday drift into oblivion, until I saw him in Atlanta, Georgia, 1996, when he not only lighted the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics, he re-lighted the hearts of America– and, the world. Then, I realized his life work will never be forgotten.  It was clear to me that Ali was already living in the hearts of sports fans and citizens around the world.Atlanta

His daughter– Laila Amaria Ali—stepping into the professional boxing arena (October 1999) was great news, despite the hoopla surrounding women boxers at the time. She thULFIH9EJnot only had the looks and persona of a champion, she had all the ring skillsets, too. Obviously “her father’s daughter”– and “pretty”, too– she could back up her own trash-talking, as well. With super-middleweight and light-heavyweight titles (IBA, IBF, WIBA, IWBF belts), Laila (nicknamed, “She Bee Stinging”) retired from boxing, undefeated thNSLBMUDEwith 24 wins (21 by KO). I saw her last professional fight, and 2nd against Gwendolyn the “Stealth Bomber” O’Neill, televised from Cape Town, South Africa (February 2007).

She dropped O’Neill in round 1 so fast, that she apologized to fans and former South African President Nelson Mandela, for being so brief. The “whupping” further confirmed for me that the name, “Ali”– dad and daughter– will never fade from boxing. It’s an idea which was later affirmed on Saturday, June 4, 2016, that day when time stood still, for me.

While I was listening to retired boxing champ, Chuck Wepner (who fought Ali in March 1975, but lost by technical knockout, in the 15th round), in his CNN telephone interview, from his Bayonne, New Jersey home, about Ali’s passing, I heard his wife, Linda, in the background crying, first muffled, then somewhat hysterical. Wepner asked what was wrong. She said, “There’s a butterfly in the room!”  It was in the bathroom and she stressed, like in “float like a butterfly…” Wepner said he’d take care of it, once he got off the phone. Obviously, its significance hadn’t registered right away.

Reportedly, after catching the butterfly, it must have hit him. Wepner said he’d like to release it at Ali’s funeral or put it in the casket, since he never saw a butterfly in their apartment, during their entire 23 years of living there… and that the windows were closed. He then told his wife that “maybe it was Ali, transformed into a butterfly, saying goodbye to us,” because they were close friends. Ali and Wepner became good friends, after they fought 41 years ago. Apparently, their respect for each other was beyond boxing, without regards to race, creed or color.

That’s not hard to believe. Muhammad Ali affected folk that way, beyond the ring, friend or foe, black or white.  And, I can’t help but chuckle when I think of him in heaven, or on the Day of Judgement, proudly inching his way to the front of the line, looking for his friend, Howard Cosell, and a ‘ringside seat,’ cracking jokes and reciting poetry for whomever would listen, like, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see… Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t…”.

Rest in peace, Champ. And, thank you for the memories of a time when boxing truly reigned supreme. And, may God continue to watch over Lonnie Ali– and, bless the entire Ali family.Lonnie Ali

Ali's Funeral

 

 

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THE ESSENCE OF CALVIN PEETE: “In the Lingering Shadows of Blatant Bigotry”

"Backstreet Djeli"

“Backstreet Djeli”

By William “Duke” Smither

“As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black.” (Clifford Roberts, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, from 1931-1976)

There are probably as many theories why more black kids don’t play golf as the preponderance of pea-brain musings and conspiracy theories associated with President Barrack Hussein Obama and his family. Surely, racial stereotyping and discrimination can be heavy in the mix, in my opinion. But, even as a child, growing up in the Jim Crow South of Kentucky, I had a few theories of my own– although at opposite ends of the spectrum of bigoted assumptions gripping irrational, narrow minded protectors and heirs of ‘White Privilege.’ Yet, those were some of the zany presumptions that first came to mind when I heard of professional golfer Calvin Peete’s recent death, at 71, of lung cancer, on April 29, 2015, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jan 20, 1983 File Photo: DailyHerald.com

Calvin Peete, 1983

In reflection, I even imagined the tattered pages of golfing history, turning a tad, in 1975, when Peete earned his PGA Tour card and, that same year, when Lee Elder became the first African-American to play in the Masters Tournament. Two years later, in the wake of those milestones, Clifford Roberts, long-time Chairman of the Masters Tournament, from 1934-1976, and U.S. Golf Association (USGA) administrator, died at age 83, allegedly from “suicide by gunshot… on the banks of Ike’s Pond at Augusta National,” amid reports of ill health, according to newspaper archives. Well known for his comments about ‘keeping caddies black,’ Robert’s death was on the heels of black golfers, like Elder, Peete and others, being routine targets of racialized taunts, threats and insults, at a time when such shameful antics were being toned down.

Black caddies, once required by Jim Crow “color bar” regulations—yet, prized for their intricate knowledge of the game and golf course contours– were beginning to fizzle and fade, when a combination of motorized golf carts, human decency and public respect was emerging, during America’s Post-Civil Rights Era. Racist sentiments, like those publicly expressed by Roberts, at minimum, were heading underground. It was a time when African-Americans eagerly tracked the trails of black activities and accomplishments as the various walls of segregation came tumbling down. You didn’t have to love the game of golf to follow black golfers, back then. So, it was mostly racial pride that made me think about the criticism, threats and hijinks that Calvin Peete and other golfing pioneers must have faced.

On the Shoulders of Black Giants

Of course, to really appreciate the obstacles African-Americans faced in golf, you’d have to go back in time— even before golfing archives recorded Theodore “Teddy” Rhodes (1913 – 1969) as the African-American professional golfer who broke the color barrier in 1948, by playing in the U.S. Open.

And, I still get a chuckle at how John Matthew Shippen, Jr. (1879 – 1968) became the first African-American golfer, before blacks were banned from competing professionally, by ‘passing’ as a Native American. Shippen (whose father was African-American and mother was Shinnecock Indian) entered the USGA-sanctioned tournament with a “full-blooded” Native-American, Oscar Bunn, amid protests and threats at the at Shinnecock Hills golf course, in South Hampton, New York, in 1896.

Because of the history of blacks in golf, deep down inside my own bones, I’ll admit to having some of affinity for the game, but it was football, baseball and running track that I loved the most– like the free air I breathed. Except for the kind of hoops we played on concrete and asphalt playgrounds with steel chain ‘nets’, while talking smack and playing the ‘dozens’, basketball wasn’t my shtick. And, neither was golf– except for that one summer vacation, where I was learning to caddy and shag little white golf balls, between chores on my grandparents farm, for good money, at a public golf course, in Zanesville, Ohio. Even then, though always accompanied by a couple of “Black-Dutch” friends from church, I felt the pricking stings of racism– the stupid looks and ignorant comments from a few rabble-rousing fools– which often forced me to recall these wise lines: “Sticks and stones will break my bones… But, words will never harm me.” But, now, in recalling those awkward days, my musings turn to Calvin Peete, as well as all those shoulders of black golfers he stood on.

Over the years, I’ve met some fairly famous and much-respected athletes. In high school, I met Muhammed Ali– while he was still “Cassius Clay”— but, he’s still one of my all-time favorites. I never met Calvin Peete until recently, not personally, but through some research I was doing for a another contribution to an African-American History reference-and-teaching website (BlackPast.Org). I found that Peete was born during World War II, on July 18, 1943, in Detroit, Michigan. And, though he was born and raised in the North, as opposed to my being from the South, it seemed that the counterproductive silliness of America’s style of racism chased him, too.

Calvin Peete - studying the fairwayYet, it didn’t stop Peete from becoming the most successful African American golfer on the PGA Tour, with 12 wins, a record surpassed only by the famed Tiger Woods who turned professional in 1996, when he was just 20 years old. Peete turned professional just before he reached 30, but became the fourth African-American to win on the PGA Tour, joining Pete Brown, Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder. Later dubbed “Mr. Accuracy” by fellow professional golfers for his ability to regularly put the little white ball onto the fairway, in 1983, he did it a whopping 84.55 percent of the time in 87 PGA Tour rounds!

Peete was widely known and respected, not just for the skill-sets he bought to golf but how he played the game. For right-handed golfers, golf purists say the left arm should remain straight during swings. But Peete, never having a golf lesson before turning professional, came up with his own method to achieve the accuracy stats he owns. While the term “handicap,” in golf, refers to some numerical expression of an individual’s ability to play golf (i.e., the lower the handicap, assumes the better the golfer, etc.), Peete’s physical limitation, a permanently bent left arm, defied golfing rationale as he converted his physical “handicap” into an astonishing benefit while developing his game. He not only chased golf’s little white balls, after hitting them, he chased the bigoted stereotypes, leftover from the bygone years of unbridled racism, too. He was cool… “Kangol hat” cool, like the ones he sported, at a time when many blacks still referred to golf as “the white-man’s game,” no matter what you wore—or, who governed golf’s fairways.

Whites Only… No Blacks Allowed

According to one sports writer, professional golf’s whites-only or “Caucasian-only rule” wasn’t put aside until the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) of America held the area’s first-ever pro tournament at San Diego Country Club in January 1952. According to archives, that’s when the concerted legal efforts of boxing’s ex-heavyweight champion, Joe Louis (1914-1981), and other African-American golfers began to pay off, in their fighting the rule. Among them was Bill Spiller (1913-1988), a two-sport high school athlete who also didn’t take up the game of golf until he was around 30. A college graduate, Spiller had moved from Oklahoma to California for a teaching career, but wound up working as a railroad porter to earn enough money to make a decent living.

Like Peete, at the urging of friends, Spiller took up golf around the age of 30, playing and winning in blacks-only tournaments. Then, after being denied the right to enter the 1948 “Richmond Open” (Richmond, California) by the PGA of America (1916 – ), not the PGA Tour which broke away in 1968, Spiller began his many years of challenging the PGA of America’s authority to say who could participate. At that time, according to archives, its segregationist rules stipulated that participating players had to be “Caucasian.” Spillar and fellow golfer Ted Rhodes filed a lawsuit, expressing that their denial was illegal within the “Taft-Hartley Act” (aka, Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 29 U.S.C.), which effectively restricts the power of ‘labor unions.’ The PGA of America sidestepped the matter by subsequently sponsoring “invitational tournaments.” Blacks were simply not “invited.” In a zany turn of events, Joe Louis was eventually allowed to play in San Diego, within some symbolic gesture, since he was an “amateur.” Spiller, a “professional,” was not allowed to play, something archives reveal that stuck in his craw until he died. They also show that the PGA of America, deep within its annual report, revealed it only quietly erased its “Caucasians-only clause,” in November 1961, long after Spiller had a realistic chance to make it.

Peete, on the other hand, won the Professional Golf Association’s (PGA) “Vardon Trophy,” in 1984, for PGA Tour leaders with the lowest scoring average. He was a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup teams in 1983 and 1985 and among the ‘top 10’ in the “Official World Golf Ranking” for several weeks, during the rankings’ 39-week inaugural year, 1986. Calvin Peete - African American Golf Digest Cover - Winter 2006

No Bed of Roses

However, his run for the winner circles was no bed of roses, either. The eighth of nine children born to a Detroit auto factory worker, he was 12 when he fell from a cherry tree near his grandmother’s house in Haiti, Missouri, breaking his left elbow in three places.  It was set badly, fused and left him with the permanently bent left-arm.

Two years later, he moved to Florida with his dad, but left school, working as a farm laborer, picking beans and corn and cutting sugar cane.   They later moved to upstate New York where Peete didn’t begin his golf pursuits until he was in his early 20s. Yet, from jump, he immediately excelled at the game many kids pickup earlier-on in life. Peete learned the game while peddling goods out of a car to migrant workers in Rochester, New York, playing mostly on the public course at Genesee Valley Park. At 23, he was taken to Rochester’s course for the first time, essentially teaching himself to play. After turning professional, six or seven years later, he eventually became the fourth African-American to win on the PGA Tour, joining Pete Brown, Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder.

His first tournament win came four years after earning his PGA Tour card, when he was 36, at the Milwaukee Open, in 1979.  The next year he qualified for the Masters in Augusta, Georgia and became the first African-American to win The Players Championship in Vedra Beach, Florida, five years later. During his 20-year career on the PGA Tour, Peete finished fourth on the money list in 1982 and had two-win seasons in 1983, ’85 and ’86. Peete’s last victory came at New Orleans in March 1986. But, in addition to his permanently damaged arm, Peete was also dogged by back problems, occasionally taking time off to get back in shape. He had suffered back problems ever since joining the Tour. It was a weak spinal disc that often generated a lot of pain when walking. The back pain, not uncommon for golfers, was mostly a nuisance for Peete, not bothering his swing much. However, it became more aggravated as his scheduled playing time increased in later years. So, he decided to withdraw until he was ready to play without the pain.

His success waned in the 1990s.  Between 1991 and 1995 he appeared in 21 events. His last PGA Tour start came at the 1995 Player’s Championship, ironically the same year that 20 year old Tiger Woods joined the professional ranks.  After retiring from competition in 1999, he continued to play in the Legends of Golf Tournaments until 2009.

Frankly, I still have no desire to play golf.  But, I’ll always remember Peete for just being ‘dead-eyed and dead-on,’ as well as “Kangol hat” cool and tenacious within the awfully long shadows of golf’s unbridled bigotry. To me, Peete’s  legacy exemplifies how success is the result of hard work and dogged determination, not just luck. He, and other pioneers like him, set the bar in golf for others to chase, as the walls of racial ignorance, stereotypes and intolerance continue to crumble and fall, even today.

He and his first wife, Christine, were the parents of five children: Charlotte, Calvin, Rickie, Dennis and Kalvanetta Peete. He and his second wife, Elaine (Pepper) Peete, had two daughters: Aisha and Aleya. Calvin Peete at 71Fittingly, the family resided in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, a seaside community best known as the home to the PGA Tour and The Players Championship, at the Sawgrass Golf Course, where professional golfers of all races gather and chase their dreams.

 

Sources:

Ed Zieralski, “Golf’s Caucasian-only rule began to fade 60 years ago in San Diego,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan 23, 2012; George B. Kirsch, Othello Harris and Claire Elaine Nolte, Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000); Pete McDaniel and Craig Bowen, Martin Davis and Geoff Russell, eds., Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf (Greenwich: The American Golfer. 2000); Crouse, Karen, “Treasure of Golf’s Sad Past, Black Caddies Vanish in Era of Riches,” New York Times, April 4, 2012; http://www.complex.com/sports/2011/06/the-most-racist-moments-in-golf-history; http://www.blackpast.org/aah/peete-calvin-1943-2015.

 

 

 

 

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FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS IN KENTUCKY: Forever Changed by a “Reluctant Hero,” Kermit E. Williams

Backstreet Djeli 5

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.

Kermit Williams - 1956 Frankfort Panthers

Kermit Williams – 1956 Frankfort Panthers

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.

Crude Worship

Crude Worship

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.

Kentucky State Thoroughbred's Kermit Williams

Kentucky State Thoroughbred’s Kermit Williams

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.

Kermit's Hall of Fame Plaque

Kermit’s Hall of Fame Plaque

‘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!

 

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“JIM CROW” BALL: Echoes from the Other Side of Major League Baseball’s Color Line

Backstreet Djeli 5

by William “Duke” Smither

 

“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me … All  I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” (Jack Roosevelt, a.k.a., “Jackie” Robinson, Jan 31, 1919 – Oct 24, 1972, First African American to play in ‘Modern Era’ Major League Baseball)

 

1924 Negro League - 1st “Colored World Series,” Hilldale Daisies vs Kansas City Monarchs
1924 Negro League – 1st “Colored World Series,” Hilldale Daisies vs Kansas City Monarchs

 

Once Upon a Time… Before Integrated Baseball

Way back when African-Americans were conveniently called “colored,” during the pathetic and disgraceful Jim Crow chapter of American history, we had our own baseball heroes and they sure in heck weren’t white—not because we were prejudice, but because we were proud.

Of course, it also had a little somethin’ somethin’ to do with de facto segregation’s— so-called Separate but Equal—“law of the land.” Back then, the term “colored” wasn’t all that offensive and “black” was on the way to being beautiful, like the 1960s culture shock paradox that shook the nation when I was in high school—not because we were prejudice, but because we were learning to be proud, again.

The Eurocentric version of major league baseball history usually suggests that Jackie Robinson was the “first African-American major-league ballplayer.” He was not—not even close! There’s a long line of African-American and other so-called “colored”  Americans after Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker— a purported “Quadroon,” a person with one-quarter black ancestry in slave society’s offensive caste system. He was college-educated (Univ. Of Michigan) and arguably the first African-American to play in the ‘majors,’ on May 1, 1884 (the Society for American Baseball Research claims that another African-American, William Edward White, played one game as a substitute for the National League’s Providence Grays, on June 21, 1879).

When I was a child, baseball was king in black neighborhoods all over America. Other than the black church, it was part of what united us, in the eerie shadows of sophisticated, lily-white justice and a rigid racial caste system, like some newfangled twist on religion, straight out of the same King James Bible that we all read. The unique style of black baseball flowed through our streets, backyards and whatever vacant fields or sandlots we could find, similar to the ancient bloodletting rituals of the great African Maasai warriors. And, we craved for more because it nourished our bodies, as well as our minds.

Wherever we played, we often tried to emulate black baseball’s traveling barnstorming teams. Their entertaining style of play allowed our psyche to soar, punctuating our hopes with spiritual closure, like the aftermath of some passionate, Pentecostal tent revival. Simply put, it was sustenance for the soul. Many times, the only thing white in those games was the doggone ball, consisting of two strips of firmly stitched, bleached-white horsehide, wrapped around a 9-inch cork center, measuring some 3 inches across. That’s when times were good.

When times were bad, its substitute might have been a wad of most anything, wrapped with black electrical tape or no wrapping at all. Just goo-gobs of yarn or rubber bands often served the purpose. Yet, in downright defiance of bigoted white adults’ racist demands, for racial separation in all things, we occasionally played against white kids, in ‘secret’ neutral areas– out of sight and out of mind of grownups. Years later, a few of those kids became good friends and teammates of ours, when school integration shook up the neighborhoods. That’s when white grownups were in a constant tizzy, stirring up trouble and throwing hissy fits all over the place, mostly because white kids would be going to school and socializing with black kids. Surely, Old Jim Crow was dead and gone– at least, we thought so.

Mo’ Better Black?

Integrated baseball became opportunities lost, or aborted, similar to the way many black schools were closed down and black teachers lost careers, as schools began to integrate in the South, still stuck on stupid, longing for the past where only “white is right.” Yet, on the cusp of significant racial and social change, many of us hung on to our belief that baseball was simply mo’ better black, anyway. But, that was only until we became acquainted with bubblegum baseball cards (trading cards) and players like “Pee Wee” Reese, Duke Snider, Ted Kluszewski, Alvin Dark and other white players that we thought had “skillz”— “got game” as we use to say– just as good as some of our black heroes, when we were kids, in the segregated world we came from.

As a child, I recall seeing at least four all-black teams from the old ‘Negro Leagues’ playing in Columbus and/or Cincinnati, Ohio, down the road from Zanesville where my grandparents lived. They were the Indianapolis Clowns, and whomever they were playing, during the time they won back-to-back Negro League Championships, in the early 1950’s. Usually, they played in some white stadium that we traveled to, on the days the white teams were not playing. Other than the Pentecostal church, to which my grandparents belonged (I was their little ‘delinquent’ Baptist), or the occasional tent revivals they attended, it was the only time I recall their joyfully experiencing any outside social function, beyond the area farmer’s collective efforts to help each other out, around planting and harvest times, out of reach from the humiliating insults of Old Jim Crow. Back then, black people found relief and comfort within each other’s trust and company.

The “Indy Clowns” were top-notch, with clowning-around action similar to basketball’s Harlem Globe Trotters. But, they were good– reeeal good. Plus, I recall seeing a couple of women players, too, whom I later learned were “Toni” Stone (infielder) and “Peanuts” Johnson (pitcher). They clowned and cajoled with the fans, just like the guys, and were probably even more entertaining within their choreographed brash and sass. It didn’t matter that they were females. I was more concerned with practicing some of the techniques I saw.

Lady On-Deck!

Mo' Ne Davis - 2014 Little League World Series

Mo’ Ne Davis – 2014 Little League World Series

But, imagine my surprise, while watching the recent 2014 Little League Baseball World Series, televised from South Williamsport, PA.  When I saw this young black girl, an articulate hazel-eyed, 13-year-old, named Mo’ Ne Davis—in front of some 15,000 stadium fans–pitching strikes to the boys, for Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons’ team, my mind raced back to the old days. I was shocked. When I played Little League ball, in my home town, little girls weren’t allowed to play and you probably couldn’t find but maybe 2 or 3 that even wanted to. But, throwing curves and zipping 70-mph fast balls, this pony-tailed little girl reminded me of our 13-year-old granddaughter’s aggressive style of playing basketball, as she smoked some fairly talented boys, with ‘big bats,’ with such class and confidence that simply glued you to your seat. This gurl can hurl! ‘Nuff said!

According to sports reporters, Mo’ Ne was merely one of about 18 girls who had played in the Little League World Series. She was ‘baad.’ Reportedly, she was the 5th female of all-time to pitch for the Little League World Series, but the first to win a game, hurling a 2-hit shut-out in the series’ opening game. She was also the first little leaguer to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine. She was thrilling. She was even more impressive, after the Little League World Series was over. That’s when I saw her again throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, a perfect strike, just before the game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Washington Nationals, at Dodger Stadium (on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014), later autographing a baseball, herself, for one of the Dodger outfielders. Yet, in spite of all the fanfare, her Taney Dragons had lost, 6-5, to the all-black Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago, Ill, in yet another exciting Little League World Series game. It knocked them out from further World Series play, but brought back childhood memories of seeing black women playing in the Negro Leagues.

Jackie Robinson West 2014 Little League World Series
Jackie Robinson West
2014 Little League World Series

 

Muffled Glory, Collective Dignity

This was the team- the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars— that probably resembled our childhood little league team (in Kentucky) the most, except for our tattered, makeshift uniforms. Overnight, this hustling, all-black squad simply flipped the news script, from negative to positive, on kids from the streets of Southside Chicago, where they hail from. I’m certain they made the nation proud. And, the way they represented themselves, even in their heartbreaking, 8-4, loss to South Korea in the Little League World Series championship game, certainly made me proud. But, it was their plain ole grit and style of play which brought tears to my eyes in the preceding game, when they whipped Las Vegas, Nevada, 7-5, making them the first Chicago squad to advance to the championship game since 1967. Settling for the U.S. Little League Championship title, after their losing bid for the World Championship title, was definitely nothing to sneeze at.

Even in their losing bid, these guys were cucumber cool. Coming out of the chute as underdogs to just get to the championship game, they had to really listen to themselves, as well as their coaches. But, the thundering chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A…,” filling the stadium when rallying from being behind by 6 points (8-1) in the bottom of the sixth inning, couldn’t help but kick them in the pants, even more. As my eyes began to swell from tears and painful memories of times past (in little league and high school sports), I saw a bunch of little black kids beat back their own tears with a never-say-die spirit, before some 29,000, mostly-strangers crowd of spectators, as they fought like the little Nubian warriors they were, to me. They scored three times but the potential game-tying run died with their hopes, on deck, as the final out slipped into history.

“Even in defeat, they won,” I thought. But, the crowd noise I heard was more like lingering stadium echoes from the Negro Baseball Leagues. It was deafening, drowning out all of the humiliations suffered by African-Americans, within their stifled quests for peace and happiness, on the playing fields of a nation undeniably filled to the brim with institutional racism and blatant economic inequality. Yet, the beat goes on.

It doesn’t matter that the disease of racism lingers, still. What matters is how you handle it, what you do to neutralize the ignorance outside ourselves. It begins with us. What we do matters. Our actions not only strengthen us, it emboldens others—like the little Jackie Robinson All-Stars, as well as teams from black baseball’s gloried past, like: (1) the Atlanta Black Crackers, and the Birmingham Black Barons, or (2) the Chicago American Giants, the Cleveland Buckeyes and the Cuban Stars – East, or (3) the Detroit Stars, the Memphis Red Sox and the New York Black Cubans, or (4) the Newark Eagles, the Philadelphia Stars and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, just to name a few.

‘Canon Street’ Pedigree 

1955 Little League World Series

1955 Little League World Series

Yet, much of the Little League black experience remains an untold story, like the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars Baseball Team, from Charleston, S.C. They forever formed a part of my childhood memories, during the time I was playing little league ball. They were a bunch of scrappy 11-12 year old kids who also went to the Little League World Series, in Williamsport, PA, in 1955, but became the only team ever which was forbidden to play for the title, once they arrived. They simply sat there, in the doggone stands, and painfully watched the white teams play, listening to the ground swell of chants, “Let them play, let them play…” Some say it was because they were black. It was also because Jim Crow and Massive Resistance shenanigans allowed white teams to refuse in taking the field to play against them. That’s what I remember the most. And, some four years later, I carried those memories with me as I began to play high school football and run track, sometimes with vengeance, during the often hostile years of school desegregation in Kentucky, on a racial landscape where black grownups continually reminded us to remain non-violent, since the issues were much bigger than ourselves.

Newspaper archives reveal that the Cannon Street All-Stars were the only black Little League team in the Charleston City Championships, as well as South Carolina State Championship (in Greenville) and the Southern Regional Championship (in Rome, GA). They did not lose a game, but won all of their earlier titles—by forfeit—because about 75 white teams refused to play them, because they were black. This was a year in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Of course, “Brown…” was the milestone U.S. Supreme Court decision which clamped down on state-sponsored segregation and sanctioned discrimination and bigotry. But, still, the Little League’s South Carolina affiliate was demanding an all-white tournament, in order to exclude what was felt to be a superior, all-black Cannon Street team, with excellent chances to win it all.

To its credit, the Little League’s national office rejected the South Carolina office’s demand, which would have benched the Cannon Street squad. According to Little League Baseball archives, in enforcing its long-standing non-discrimination policy, the Little League’s national office explained to the South Carolina affiliate that it was a new day in youth baseball and no place for their Massive Resistance tactics. It said, “For the boys of these teams there are no barriers of race, creed or color. . . . For the boys, baseball is a game to be played with bat, ball and glove.” However, citing adherence to a rule which prevented teams from World Series competition after “advancing by forfeit,” the national office invited Cannon Street to attend as guests, only.

1955 SC Team (as adults)

1955 SC Team (as adults)

Much of the hushed history and forgotten cruelties for this period have been recounted by a former Cannon Street All-Star, William “Buck” Godfrey, within his 84-page recollections, in the book, “The Team Nobody Would Play” (Dorrance Publishing Co. Inc., Paperback, April 2008). It was published around the time I had retired and returned to coaching youth track and field at a local middle school (Fairfield Falcons) to assist my daughter, then a track coach and teacher. After years of my coaching in AAU competition, it was felt that I might also have some helpful perspectives to share from the time I competed in high school. Sometimes, before practice started, I was invited to give some motivational talks to the team on that period and I often talked about track and football.

Fruits of the Vine

However, one afternoon, as all of the different teams (i.e., track, baseball, soccer, tennis, etc.) spilled out of the locker rooms, heading to practice fields, my thoughts turned to baseball. I overheard a couple of black track team members teasing a couple of black baseball players for playing a “white man’s game.” Ironically, I was even wearing my Negro League Baltimore Black Sox cap, at the time. Shocked at what I heard, rather than interfering, I simply tried to ignore it, realizing that their world was quite different from my childhood, when baseball ruled. The juxtaposition of the moment made me realize that I had become part of the problem I’ve accused others about, in not sharing enough of our rich, storied past in athletics, during those awful Jim Crow years and school desegregation. And, here I was, sporting my Baltimore Black Sox hat, decidedly tight-lipped!

That very moment, coupled with dealing with some medical issues of my own relatives, caused me to think of the dwindling numbers of living Negro Baseball League members, as well as the fading memories (due to Alzheimer’s, Dementia, etc.) of some still living,

I recalled the death, a couple of years earlier (October 29, 2006), of one of the oldest living Negro League players, “Si” (Silas) Simmons, rumored to have memory problems. He was 111! He died just two weeks after the Center for Negro League Baseball Research had staged a special party for him, at a Florida nursing home, attracting some 300 people, including 39 former players of the shrinking, untold number of Negro Baseball League members.

Expected attendees had included a couple of my own aging heroes from Negro League ball. They were: (1) Monford “Monte” Irvin, from the Negro League’s Newark Eagles, who later played for MLB’s New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1973, based mostly on his play in the Negro Leagues and (2) Johnny “Lefty” Washington, from the Negro League’s Chicago American Giants and the Houston Eagles, who later served in the U.S. Marine Corp in Korea, where he received two Purple Hearts and the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest military decoration for combat valor. He also played on the Marine Corp’s national championship baseball team in 1952. Their stories, and other stories I knew, merely punctuated my thoughts that day.

Johnny "Lefty" Washington's Autographed Baseball

Johnny “Lefty” Washington’s Autographed Baseball

Like rare grapes for fine wine, withering on the vine, Negro League ball players are the “grapes” and we have become the “vine,” the way I see it. From working on the farm most summers in my youth, I’m acutely aware that vines need attention, since they nourish the branches which bear these fruits of the vine.

In a sense, the African-American community were the vineyards which yielded some vintage “fruit,” Negro League baseball players. And, time is nigh that we all help cultivate these “vines” for our children– and our children’s children– not because we’re biased, but because we’re proud…

Damn proud!

 

 

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BACK ROADS TO EXCELLENCE: “From Black Lawn Jockeys to African-American Kentucky Derby Winners”

“When a jockey retires, he just becomes another little man.”  (Eddie Arcaro, Hall of Fame Jockey, 1st to ride 5 Kentucky Derby winners)

 

Shucks, you don’t have to be a Kentuckian, or a horse racing enthusiast, to get goose bumps or cold shivers when the University of Louisville Marching Band plays reminiscent melodies, like “My Old Kentucky Home,” with these politically-corrected lyrics dancing in your head, at the Kentucky Derby:

 “The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home, ‘Tis summer, the people are gay;

    The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,  While the birds make music all the day.

    The young folks roll on the little cabin floor, All merry, all happy and bright;

    By ‘n’ by Hard Times comes a-knocking at the door, Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight…

        …Weep no more my lady.  Oh! weep no more today!  We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home,

    For the Old Kentucky Home far away…”   (From “My Old Kentucky Home,” by Stephen C. Foster)

But, I can tell you that being a Kentuckian helps.  The state’s song, alone, can bring back all sorts of memories- some good and some not so good- for those of us raised near the world’s Horse Capital and bountiful Bluegrass Region- especially, coming up in the stupid throes of the pathetic Jim Crow and dippy years of school desegregation.

For some folk, the Kentucky Derby’s true season started when the last derby ended.  But, everything comes to a halt, when the dapper Church Hill Down’s bugler, in his fancy crimson-red track-trumpeter togs, belts out his soothing “Call to the Post” once again.   

“Riders Up!”  That’s when the jockeys, in their colorful racing silks, mount up on some of history’s most beautiful and well-kept thoroughbreds, for the gripping-fast 10-Furlong (1 ¼ mile) run to the lavishly lush blanket of roses, at the finish. The “chalk” boards close. Handlers tighten the grip on their shanks, as the hot-blooded colts and fillies depart the paddocks for the long parade to the starting gates.

But, the gooseflesh and cold creeps are only just beginning.

Lately, it seems like everyone from every corner of the world, every culture, race and occupation, as well as “old money” families, the nouveau riche and, yes, even the destitute, is somehow represented within the carnival-like madness of the derby crowd. The women, in their sizzling hot derby hats, the men, in seersucker, khaki or jeans, hat and hatless, sipping on Tennessee whiskey or Kentucky bourbon and an occasional “Mint Julep,” and their motley mix of emotions are just as diverse.

Then, there are others which the sight of the jockeys, smells of Alfalfa-blended manure and other Derby Day delights, invokes different memories… different meanings- some good, some not so good.  And, some simply misunderstood- like the once-popular, little back lawn jockey- dubbed  “Jocko” by some- which dotted the lawns and driveway entrances to many white homes in Kentucky, as well as all over the South.

Plus, there’s the still-lingering emotional baggage from the buried exploits of a bygone era- akin to “Gone with the Wind”– of a horse racing world once dominated by African-American- or so-called “colored” or “Negro”– jockeys. 

What?  Black jockeys, you say?

Yep, black jockeys, in America…  When the paddock’s call for “Riders Up” went out, in Colonial times, they nearly monopolized the sport, during the post-Civil War period, in the United States, up to 1902. That’s the last time an African-American, a Kentuckian, named Jimmy Winkfield, rode a Kentucky Derby winner, riding a horse named “Alan-a-Dale,” according to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, in Sarasota Springs, New York. Winkfield also won the Kentucky Derby in the previous year, 1901, on a horse named “His Eminence.”

Then, in 1903, he completed his last Kentucky Derby ride with a 2nd  place finish on a mount called “Early,” before emigrating to Russia, the next year, where he later won the Russian Derby four times. According to racing archives, he also became a hero, helping the racing community and 200 horses escape invading troops, during the Russian Revolution, in 1917.

Interestingly, in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 out of 15 jockeys were black. In that race, black jockey Oliver Lewis, aboard a chestnut mount named Aristides, crossed the finish line first, as well as into horse racing history.  

Among the first 28 derby winners, 15 were black. African American jockeys excelled in the sport in the late 1800s. But by 1921, they had disappeared from the Kentucky track and would not return until Marlon St. Julien rode in the 2000 race (Source: Smithsonian Magazine, April 24, 2009).

According to recent archives, Julien, a Louisiana native, became the first African-American to ride in the Kentucky Derby in 79 years, riding “Curule” to a 7th-place finish, in 2000.  He was featured within the ABC Sports broadcast, aired on February 5, 2000, called “Raising the Roof: Seven Athletes for the 21st Century.”

But, one of the greatest African-American riders, Isaac B. Murphy, according to the U. S. Racing Hall of Fame, came from my hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky.  Historical archives reveal that he was actually born on a nearby farm, in Franklin County, on April 16, 1861, with the given name of Isaac Burns.  However, following the death of his father, James Burns, a bricklayer and former slave who died serving in the Union Army, his family moved to Lexington, Kentucky to live with his grandfather, Green Murphy.  There, he later changed his name to Isaac B. Murphy, in honor of his grandfather, an auction crier and bell ringer, in Lexington.

Murphy jumpstarted his racing career when he was 14 years old, after a black trainer, Eli Jordan, at Lexington’s  Richard and Owings Racing Stable, where his mother worked, noticed his small size- significant in horse track parlance- and felt he might have jockey potential.  Records show that in his first winning race (at Lexington Crab Orchard, September 15, 1875), he “…rode upright and urged his mount on with words and a spur rather than the whip.”

By year’s end, 1876, he won 11 races.  In 1877, he won 19 races and rode to 4th place in his first Kentucky Derby. But, it wasn’t until May 27, 1884 that Murphy won his first Kentucky Derby, at Churchill Downs, according to archives. He repeated with two more Kentucky Derby wins in 1890 and 1891, ultimately riding an overall career total of 628 winners, often with racial overtones, on 1,412 mounts, including the three Kentucky Derby winners.

He was reputed to be the “highest paid jockey in the United States,” as well as the first African-American to own racehorses. According to Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro, “There’s no chance that his (Murphy’s) record of winning will ever be surpassed…” And, the Racing Hall of Fame documents Murphy as the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys and the first jockey elected to the Hall of Fame, in 1955.

In 1896, Isaac Murphy died of pneumonia, in Lexington Kentucky. His gravesite remained unmarked until 1967 when he was reinterred and now lies buried next to one of history’s greatest thoroughbreds, “Man O’War,”  at the entrance to Lexington, Kentucky’s Horse Park entrance. Since 1995, the National Turf Writers Association has given the “Isaac Murphy Award” to the jockey with the highest winning percentage, with a 500-mount minimum, in Murphy’s honor.

As an elementary school student, we visited the horse farms in Lexington and Versailles (where my family first lived before I was born in Frankfort), on various school-related field trips, before the Horse Park was opened to the public.  We often talked about Man O’ War in classroom and street corner conversations. The name and fame was always synonymous with horse racing excellence.

For many of us, growing up in the Bluegrass Region, the concept of black jockeys was synonymous with excellence in sports, too, although derby winners were little discussed and never mentioned in classrooms that I recall. Other than “little Black Jocko,” whom we detested, we often heard the other side of the legacy of black jockeys from parents and grandparents, as well as older street corner ‘philosophers’ we all eagerly listened to. They all suggested that blacks disappeared from horseracing because Old Jim Crow didn’t want them to have the big paychecks that the sport was starting to see. From what we were already observing within the racist shenanigans we saw, that certainly made sense to me.

For most kids I grew up with, “little Black Jocko” was as loathsome and offensive as the stings of racist innuendo we felt from the British children’s book, “Little Black Sambo” (by Helen Bannerman, Grant Richards Publishing, London, 1899). 

For years, I felt “little Black Jocko” was just another racist slap in the face, aimed at diminishing the proud legacy of black jockeys, until I began to hear of other versions about the lawn jockeys we saw. It was long after I had graduated from high school, even after my military duties, that I first heard of the “Legend of Black Jocko” being connected to the Underground Railroad, in the United States.

Some versions point to escaping slaves using the lawn jockey to help guide them to freedom, like the way a few coded spirituals assisted in guiding slaves to “safe houses” and secretly pointing the way north, on the Underground Railroad throughout the South and Canada. According to some historical archives, green ribbons or green cloth were tied to the lawn jockey’s arms, or a flag was placed in his hands, indicating a “safe house.” On the other hand, red ribbons or colors meant it was not safe and to keep going.

Then, there’s the version which claims that General George Washington had a hand in creating “Jocko” by coming up with the first groomsman hitching post.  As the story goes, according to the book, “Mammy and Uncle Mose:  Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping (Blacks in the Diaspora)” (by Kenneth W. Goings, Indiana Univ. Press, Oct. 1994), this occurred during the Revolutionary War within Washington’s plans for a surprise attack on the British, using black slaves and free men.  Goings, a history professor at Florida Atlantic University, wrote of Washington declining to use one black volunteer, Tom Graves, because of his youth, but allowed him to hold a lantern for the soldiers when they crossed the Delaware River.

Another version, according to Goings, says it was Grave’s son, with the nickname of “Jocko,” that held the lantern.  But, when the troops rowed back after the battle, instead of finding their horses hitched to post, they found the reins in the hands of young “Jocko” who had frozen to death. As a result, according to Goings, General Washington was moved by the youngster’s supreme sacrifice and ordered a statue made in “Jocko’s” honor. According to the narrative, the Colonials charged the garrison’s “Red Coats” and Hessians, killing or capturing over 1,000 encamped at Trenton.  However, only four patriots died.  Two died in battle and two froze to death, including young “Jocko,” as the tide turned in the war. Ultimately, Washington’s statue of “Jocko,” stepping bravely forward to hold the horses, as if saying “I will,” was set on the lawn of Mount Vernon, his estate, in front of the mansion.

While the shadows of my upbringing taught me that the lawn jockey representations of “little Black Jocko” were all a back-hand racist slap in the face, it is somewhat comforting to uncover these versions of history’s missing pages. Surely, when it comes to racial slurs and the interpretations of American history, ignorance abounds in white AND black communities across the nation.  As a result, many lawn jockeys were destroyed, due to the belief that they were simply racial slurs.

According to the River Road African American Museum in Louisiana, lawn jockeys reveal a proud moment in American history. Yet, in an old television episode of “All in the Family,” Archie Bunker was given a black lawn jockey, as a gift from a friend, for his paying off his mortgage.  However, Archie refused to put it outside, because he didn’t want folk to pester him about the statue. In the movie, “Home Alone,” visitors to the McCallister home often knocked over the lawn jockey in their driveway. And, in the song, “Uncle Remus” (by George Duke and Frank Zappa), the lyrics speak of knocking the jockeys off the lawns of rich people in Beverly Hills, something a few of us “chilluns” can identify with, but may never admit, concerning certain pranks on Halloween.

But, in spite of the commotion, historical confusion and contemporary clamor, on this Kentucky Derby Day, 2012, I simply choose to listen to the positive excitement, the sounds and the sights, of carnival-like derby crowds, dazzling hats and all, as the hushed tribute it has become to some of the greatest riders in history, from darn-near my own backyard where, in the first Kentucky Derby, 13 of the 15 jockeys were black- in an era also “Gone with the wind.”  

Today, I’m toasting my Mint Julep to that, while quoting the British poet, Lord Byron, who says: 

Be thou the rainbow to the storms of life!
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,
And tints tomorrow with prophetic ray!

Shucks, who knows what tomorrow’s derby headlines and history will bring…

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

 

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