Tag Archives: Footnotes to History

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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“Black Moses,” Belated Honors… And, the Bold Civil War Assault at the ‘River Jordan’

By William “Duke” Smither 

“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”  Harriet Tubman (a.k.a., “Black Moses”)

After my Baptist minister dad had died, when I was five, my maternal grandmother, a tent-preaching Pentecostal evangelist, often spoke favorably of one of his heroes Moses– the “law-giving prophet” who led the Israelites across the Red Sea, out of Egypt and into the desert for 40 long years, and to the edge of the “Promised Land,” a stone’s throw from the Jordan River, the land God promised Abraham, Issac and Jacob, according to the Bible.

Yet,  I knew she resented my mother marrying a Baptist and felt it in her voice when she often reminded me that the Baptist denomination stemmed from “a religion named after a guy who had his head chopped off.”

But, I was too young to let it bother me.  Besides, the stories she shared about why this Moses was his hero were always some of the most fascinating narratives within my mandated bible lessons. And, after a life-time of rebellious questioning the syntax and symbolism behind certain parabolic narrations, they remain just as captivating, today.

“Black Moses” and the River Jordan, in Context… Black Moses

At an early age, I could appreciate the familiar symbolism I saw in the Jordan River flowing within the riverbanks and margins of African-American folklore; but, I never heard of its relationship to the Civil War, until I stumbled across some of the expanded exploits of the Underground Railroad’s “Black Moses.” Years ago, during some research on the Underground Railroad, I came across a reference to the Combahee River, in South Carolina, which referred to it as the “River Jordan.” The reference said that it was given that name by a Spanish explorer whom I later learned was Vasque d’ Ayllon, who used African labor to establish a settlement in what is now America, long before Jamestown and St. Augustine.  However, why he called it such wasn’t exactly clear. And, it wasn’t exactly information you could find in classroom history books.

But, I knew of “Black Moses” through my family’s teachings. That was the nickname given to one feisty black woman, an escaped Maryland slave by the given name of Araminta Harriet Ross (b. circa, 1820, d. March 10, 1913), who later became a staunch supporter of the Abolitionist Movement, an official “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and a spy for the Union Army, during the Civil War, in the United States. While stationed in overseas, I recall some French-Algerian friends once reminding me that in some circles, she was also called, Noir Jeanne d’ Arc– the “Black Joan of Arc”- which was news to me. 

In her younger life, she experienced hardships which seem to have strengthened her resolve for slave resistance.  Legend has it that she was from Ashanti bloodline, a matrilineal society in Ghana, and she derived her courage from Modesty, her maternal grandmother, who came to America on a slave ship from Africa.  Records show that she may have obtained much of her grit from certain exploits she saw of her spunky mother, Rit, in protecting Harriett’s younger brother, Moses, preventing him from being sold further into Georgia slavery. Those hardships included being knocked upside the head and beaten by masters to whom she was hired out, for weaving, domestic chores and muskrat trapping.

Records show that when she was 12, a white overseer inflicted a severe head wound for her refusal to assist in tying up and restraining a slave who had attempted escape.  She was hit in the head by a two-pound weight the overseer threw at the slave, as he ran away. For two days, she received no medical attention but was sent back to work in the fields with a swollen skull and blood still dripping down her face. Afterwards, she experienced bouts of epileptic-like seizures and unconsciousness for the rest of her life. Along the way, according to archival information, she acquired a loving faith in God and tossed out the white interpretations of scripture she learned which taught slaves to be obedient, favoring Old Testament depictions of deliverance. She was said to have powerful visions or dreams which she interpreted as signs from God.

Footnote to Marriage Dispute

According to historical archives, when she was 25 years of age, she married a free African-American by the name of John Tubman.  Five years later, she left him over their dispute with her desires to “go north” to live and avoid the terror associated with the possibility of her being sold again and separated from her husband.  He wanted to remain in Maryland and, according to archives, strongly suggested that he would tell her master, Edward Brodas, if she ran off.  Since their dreams no longer matched, she left her husband in 1849.  With the help of nearby white abolitionists, she eventually found her way to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, obtained a job and began saving money for her treks back to the South, to free others.

In 1850, she launched the first of her many missions (various historians say she made between 12 and 20 treks) to help as many as 400 hundred slaves escape to the North and, eventually, members of her own family, dodging slave catchers, hunting dogs, uncooperative weather and hundreds of miles of harsh travel conditions… on foot. And, the year is significant, since it is the year the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed, making it illegal for any citizen to assist escaped slaves. It further complicated the secret efforts of the Abolitionist Movement, forcing the Underground Railroad to transport its “passengers” further north to Canada, rather than just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the symbolic line addressing boundary disputes in the colonies and legal issues concerning slavery, for certain northeastern states and the Dixie South.

Bodacious Dixieland Raid

Harriet TubmanBut, of the many “Conductors” on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman is arguably the most documented and most well-known.  Due to her heroic and creative exploits of leading many daunting missions back and forth through the marshes and swamps of the Deep South, to guide hundreds of fugitive slaves to freedom in Canada, she was later dubbed Black Moses.”

However, of all the exploits attributed to “Black Moses”- and, there are many- the one that still stands out the most for me involves the stealthy and daring raid- the Combahee Ferry Raid– on June 1 and 2, 1863, with a group of 300 black Union soldiers that she led deep into Confederate territory, reportedly to “harass whites” and “rescue freed slaves” and the first woman to ever lead such a raid, at the time.  In the process, they wound up destroying “millions of dollars of supplies” and “thousands of dollars of property”- without death or injury to anyone in the strike force she steered, to free between 500 and 800 slaves, depending on which records you relied on, not far from current U.S. Marine Corps Boot Camp, Parris Island, and U.S. Rt. 17, in Beaufort, SC. Reportedly, nearly all of the freed slaves had joined the Union Army.

Other archives claim the raid’s strategic objectives as including destruction of area plantations, removal of mines from the river and “encouraging” infantry recruits among male slaves freed in the process. Noteworthy is the fact that Union Army commanders, in the planning stages of the raid, counted heavily on the intelligence gatherings of Harriett Tubman who, returning to the U.S. in 1861 from living in Canada, had enlisted into the Union army as a teacher and nurse to South Sea Island blacks the army had helped escape from slavery.  Two years later, she was working as a scout with Colonel James Montgomery, helping with preparations for the Combahee River Raid.

The entire South Sea Island area in South Carolina and Georgia, as well as the Underground Railroad, has long been of interest to our family.  When our kids were in their middle and high school years, during 1988, we had designed our family vacation around three weeks of travel, zigzagging several states, hundreds of miles and “400 years” back in time to various Underground Railroad “stops” we had researched earlier.  After graduating from high school, our eldest son joined the Marine Corps and attended the Marine Corps Boot Camp at Parris Island, SC, not far from the site of the 1863 raid.  Both, my wife and I have traced some of the previously missing links to our ancestors, and possibly the Gullah culture and descendants of Angola, to the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country marshlands.  This is in addition to known Scotch-Irish and Cherokee ancestry.   And, in 2011, we attended our first Gullah Folk Festival, in Beaufort, SC.  We also plan to return, since there’s more to learn and pass on to others in our family, as yet another “bridge” to our sketchy past.

Belated Honors… Still Timely Bestowed    Harriet_tubman[1]

Given this backdrop, I was very pleased to learn that the “Black Moses,” Harriett Tubman, was finally honored with South Carolina legislation, passed in 2006, to name the U.S. 17 Bridge over the Combahee River as The Harriet Tubman Bridge.  According to an article published in the Beaufort Gazette (“Bridge Honors Tubman’s Heroism,” by Brandon Honig, Sept. 2006), citing state Rep. Kenneth F. Hodges, D-Bennetts Point, “(Tubman) served as a spy in this region for nearly three years, and the Combahee River raid is one of the great historic feats of the Civil War… Hopefully (the bridge) will serve as a means of inspiring more research on Harriett Tubman and… promote and increase historic tourism in the area.”  Construction on the bridge was completed and an opening ceremony conducted in October 2008.

I was also pleased because Harriett Tubman’s life following the raid was not befitting of a hero, according to various historians. During a train ride back to New York, at the end of the Civil War, she was accosted by a white conductor and cursed for refusing to move into a smoking car.  Outraged white passengers then assisted the conductor in physically removing her and, in the process, broke her arm and caused other injuries when they threw her in the smoking car.

Furthermore, after years of difficulty in obtaining a pension for her war services, in 1873, she was lured into a fraudulent financial scheme, tricked into going into the woods with some men, attacked, knocked out by chloroform, robbed, bound and gagged. She was later found by her family, dazed with injuries, and harangued by the public for being naïve and falling for the swindle.  However, most scolded the men who conned her and sympathized with her.

Records show that she died of pneumonia at age 93. However, before dying, consistent with the spirit in how she lived, she gave her home “for the elderly” to the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, not far from where she was buried in Auburn, New York’s Fort Hill Cemetery- with military honors.

Her tombstone reads:

th[7]To the Memory of Harriett-Tubman-Davis, Heroine of the Underground Railroad, Nurse and Scout in the Civil War, Born about 1820 in Maryland, Died March 10, 1913, at Auburn, N.Y., “Servant of God, Well Done”Erected by the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs, July 5, 1937. 

But, thanks to the recent 2016 decision, by U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, her legacy will soon be punctuated with her photo on America’s $20 bill.  According to archivists, Tubman’s picture on the $20 bill will make her the first woman on U.S. paper currency in 100 years. For me, this is noticeably significant… belated, perhaps, yet forever significant! th9FYSU58L




(Backstreet Djeli  w.d.s. – Partial Reprint from Backstreet Djeli’s Blog, 2012)


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“TUSKEGEE OF THE NORTH”: New Jersey’s Racially Isolated ‘Bordentown School’

by William “Duke” Smither

“For a seventy-year period, when America cared little about the education of African-Americans, and discrimination was law and custom, The Bordentown School was an educational utopia. An incubator for black pride and intellect, it taught values, discipline, and life skills to generations of black children…” (Anonymous)


Sometimes, you just have to shake your head and laugh—I mean, a deep down-in-the-belly howl– at how America often looks at itself through misty, racially-tinged lenses of deep-rooted cultural bias. These awkward sensations just seem to creep into the room whenever those touchy “conversations on race” entered certain interpersonal, spatial zones. Though not surprised, I’m often amazed how we easily arrive at different, pigheaded conclusions, given the same evidentiary findings– historical, archeological and geological— while trying to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Instinctively, being the compassionate nation we’ve proven to be, with the intellectual courage we claim to have, we ought to know better. But, I’m beginning to think that our feeble-minded ‘political correctness’ has seriously altered our ability to be straight-up about our past—like with the “Bordentown School,” founded in 1886, an educational and cultural oasis for African-Americans, when segregationist politicians were scheming to keep academics out of black schools (see,

Human Rights Manipulated

Tack on the volume of ‘missing pages’ from our classroom history books– especially the chapters and related footnotes on school segregation, desegregation and, in many cities, re-segregation— and you get some idea of what caused the blurry childhood looking-glasses that many of us—black and white— were peeping through, while growing up, during the waning years of Old Jim Crow.

A recent research project, involving the passionate pride and purpose associated with various all-black schools in the United States, reminded me of those years when African-American educators, in particular, were indeed Black America’s unsung “heroes” and “sheroes.” I recalled my own experiences with the vital, nurturing role they played in developing young black minds, effectively undermining systemic racism and inequality, while planting the seeds for the ultimate demise of skin-deep white privilege and make-believe White Supremacy. This particular probe highlighted the cultural and social landscapes of an institution– the “Bordentown School” of Bordentown, New Jersey— appropriately dubbed, the “Tuskegee of the North.”  The Bordentown School assembly

Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era gave the genteel South’s white ruling class a fit, at a time when the legal and mental constructs which separated the races were easing up. On paper, slavery was abolished. And, the 1870 parchment-paper’s 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, preventing federal and state government from denying the right to vote (based on race, color or prior servitude) was sending the cultural-manipulating, ruling class into a tizzy. The so-called “Enforcement Act,” The Civil Rights Act of 1875, passed by the last biracial U.S. Congress of the 1800s, “guaranteed” African-Americans equal treatment in access to public transportation, facilities, accommodations and the right to serve on juries. But, the walls came tumbling down again, in 1883, following judicial review by the U.S. Supreme Court which declared the 1875 statue unconstitutional.

With the federal government now in retreat from earlier civil rights enforcement activities, and a white-controlled bureaucracy back behind the nation’s steering wheel, the doors to America’s hyper-segregation were pried open even further. Although legislation and abolitionists namely in the North spoke loudly against segregation, America’s black-and-white duality intensified and racial animosities became entrenched.

On the run-up to America’s so-called “Separate but Equal” doctrine, another tier of freedom-suppression tactics entered the picture, blanketing the nation’s political landscapes. Back then, folk were taught that Heaven itself was segregated. It’s when thousands of African-American Civil War veterans were routinely buried in segregated cemeteries, with vanishing headstones, now forgotten or lost to the scourge of time and overgrown bushes and weeds.

Separate but Equal—to What?

The “Bordentown School” started as a self-sustaining, co-educational, vocational school, from a two-story residence in Bordentown (Burlington County), New Jersey. It was unique because most schools like Bordentown were located below the “Mason-Dixie Line,” which distinguished “slave” and “non-slave” states.

Originally established as a private institution under the name, “The Ironsides Normal School,” by Rev. Walter A. Rice, a college-educated, former slave and minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was later co-opted by the state of New Jersey as the “Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth,” in 1894 (Born in 1845, Rev. Rice was from Lauren, South Carolina and fought in the Union Army, during the Civil War, but went to New Jersey to complete his education, following his military service). In 1896, the boarding school relocated to the city’s outskirts where sixth- through twelve-grade boys and girls were instructed in various trades, based on the customary gender roles of racial segregation and “Jim Crow”-sanctioned public education.

Bordentown SchoolAccording to archives, Rev. Rice initially modeled the school on Alabama’s famed Tuskegee Institute (now, Tuskegee University), within the vision and industrial-training-focus provided by Tuskegee’s first president, a beloved former slave and energetic educator, named Booker T. (Taliaferro) Washington. However, between 1897 and 1915, Bordentown was led by James M. Gregory, a Howard University graduate and follower of W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented 10th” hypothesis, a more progressive view that one in 10 black men would become leaders of their race, stemming from scholastic/ classical education, writing books and social activism, in order to “…guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst, in their own and other races” —NOT the industrial education, as proposed by Booker T. Washington and white benefactors. (***Note – Also see WEB DuBois viewpoint/ Sept 1903:

Yet, perhaps the most influential leader at Bordentown was Dr. William R. Valentine, a graduate of both Columbia University and Harvard University. He was Bordentown’s principal from 1915 – 1948, who sought to create a curriculum balance between DuBois’ theory and Washington’s concerns. And, everyone was expected to pitch in to run the school, no matter what their focus happened to be. But, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 1954), declaring that the state-mandated “separate but equal” policy for public schools was unconstitutional, the school closed in 1955, allegedly from its inability to attract white students.

Detached Functionality

That’s about the time I was already attending one of the nation’s many “Rosenwald Rosenwald-School-Frankfort-KY-1957[1]Schools,” Rosenwald Training School, in Frankfort, Kentucky, across the road from Kentucky State College (now, Kentucky State University). It was a “training school” because we were the cross-the-road practicing ‘laboratory’ for KSU’s elementary education majors. “Rosenwald Schools” grew from the partnership between Sears, Roebuck & Co. CEO, Julius Rosenwald, and Booker T. Washington. Similar to Bordentown, these were important institutions within Black America’s unique quest for educational and sociocultural development within the politico-economic system which kept them in a brutal, mostly poverty-stricken underclass. Yet, they became breeding grounds for pride and excellence within the African-American community. And, I’m forever grateful for KSU’s student-teacher brigades and the extra nuggets or wisdom and inspiration they eagerly shared.

In the 10th grade, I was fortunate to attend another school, even more akin to the “Bordentown School”– Lincoln Institute“Lincoln Institute”– an all-black boarding high school in Shelby County, Kentucky, but never fully appreciated its impact until long after I departed for newly mandated desegregated schools. Like many all-black schools, founded after Reconstruction, “Lincoln Institute” was originally intended to be a college, as well as a high school, but wound up offering vocational and academic high school classes. While there, I also worked in the cafeteria and on the dairy farm that produced its own food for the 444-acre campus. It’s when I began to realize the value of my earlier childhood experiences of growing up, working summers on my grandparent’s farm in Zanesville, Ohio, where I herded cows and played with hogs– perhaps, more than most folk played with pet dogs.

Although attending Lincoln for only one year, it was a significant part of my preparation for the desegregated high school, and associated racial realities, in my hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky, the following year. Lincoln’s principal back then, Whitney Young, Sr. (the school’s founder), was a friend of my deceased Baptist-minister dad. But, it was my mother, feeling Lincoln was better suited to steering me away from budding juvenile delinquency, who orchestrated my attending Lincoln. She was right. It had many positive influences.

But, frankly, I was more interested in public schools back in my hometown, where I could play football and run track again, while not having to work for my tuition or room-and-board. Thus, with one of my sister’s help, I sold my mother on the idea of staying with my elder sister and her husband– and their six kids– while my mother continued working and going to nursing school in Pennsylvania. Besides, with my new, surrogate “two-parent family”– with three new ‘brothers’ and three new ‘sisters’ (nephews and nieces)– I felt better-armed for the internal struggles ahead with school desegregation. Unwittingly, black athletes had a unique role within the reawakened fight for Civil Rights. And, like many athletes of the late 1950s, I willingly accepted the bit-part as one of the legions of “soldiers” drafted into the Civil Rights Movement– at least, that’s the visualization which was fixed in my mind, mentally preparing for what lay ahead.

Similarly Proud & Disciplined…

But, before the pivotal years of school desegregation, institutions like the Bordentown School and Lincoln Institute played an important role, too.  They were similar in many ways. As with Lincoln’s environs, except for dress codes, Bordentown was long nestled in the 400-acre, Georgian-architectural style campus, overlooking the Delaware River, before the shifting legal landscapes of the 1950s, the Bordentown School became an elite campus community, fostering black pride and intellectual discipline, with a unique camaraderie between black students, from working class families, and the scholarly the black teachers who taught them. It was an environment where boys, in military uniforms, and girls, in neatly tailored white-and-black uniforms, marched in step to high academic expectations and elevated performance standards, graduating to become entrepreneurs, tradespersons, educators, lawyers and doctors.The Bordentown School steps

In its heyday, it was nicknamed the “Tuskegee of the North,” after Booker T. Washington’s famous historically black university, in Tuskegee, Alabama (according to archives, it was also known as the “Black Forest Hills” because its tennis facilities attracted black athletes barred from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association). It included two working farms, 30 uniquely designed campus buildings— built by students and staff– plus, an auto shop, seamstress department and other vocational instruction, as well as college preparatory programs (Lincoln had only one working farm and half the buildings, but similar-size acreage).  Its academic reputation for excellence attracted visiting dignitaries and lecturers, such as theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, and civil rights activist-actor, Paul Robeson. But, Einstein not only gave lectures, he was moved to sponsoring scholarships to its brightest students, as well. Its invigorating mix of classroom, cultural and social training was stimulating.

…And Inspirational, Still

Even its initial name, “The Ironsides Normal School,” was inspirational. It came from the US Navy’s famed three-masted, wooden-hulled warship, the U.S.S. Constitution, widely known as “Old Ironsides,” during the War of 1812. Sitting on the farm site purchased in 1816 by the U.S.S. Constitution’s commander, Commodore Charles Stewart, the school’s alma mater was metaphorically dubbed “Mother Ironsides.” According to a Delaware Heritage Trail brochure (at, it says:

Bordentown School Alma Mater

“Proudly stands our Mother Ironsides
Framed against the sky,
Overlooking field and river
From her hill-top high.

Ironsides, Mother, School we love!
Loud we sing to thee.
Pledging thee thru all the ages
Love and loyalty.”

Included among Bordentown’s distinguished faculty was Judge William H. Hastie (1904 – 1976), the first African-American federal district court judge, in 1937, who notched another ‘first’ as a federal appellate judge, in 1950, and a contender for the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1961. He taught at the Bordentown Manual Training School between 1925 and 1927, before attending Harvard Law School, becoming the second African-American (behind Charles Hamilton Houston) to serve on the Harvard Law Review where, in 1990, and like President Barack Obama– the Harvard Law Review’s first African-American president in its 104-year history— he was lightyears beyond the mental grasp of white supremacists, further debunking their sickening rhetoric of racial superiority and white-skin privilege. Hastie, a recipient of the NAACP’s prestigious “Spingarn Medal,” was also among the group of committed attorneys and jurists who worked on case strategies that led to the momentous decision in “Brown v. Board of Education,” in 1954.

Interestingly, Simon Haley, the father of author Alex Haley (author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” 1976, and “The Autobiography of Malcom X,” 1965), also taught at Bordentown. Alex Haley’s brother, George W. Haley, past U.S. Ambassador to Gambia (who died in May 2015), graduated from the Bordentown Manual Training School. And, I imagine that deceased, die-hard bigots are scratching to get out of their silky satin-lined coffins.

Storied pasts like the “Bordentown School,” as well as associated faculty and alumni, will be inspirational for generations to come, in spite of the schemes to suppress its mission or mere existence. Of the many lessons learned from racially isolated environments of the past, a quote often attributed to pro-football’s Hall of Fame Coach, Vincent “Vince” Lombardi, stands out for me the most: “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later the man who wins, is the man who thinks he can.”

Understanding America’s inherent, cognitive biases and social realities is complicated—but, not impossible. Getting beyond our feeble-minded ‘political correctness’ is another matter. Sometimes, you just have to shake your head and laugh… and, keep on stepping.

(Also, see:







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CRUSHING THE DOUBLE WHAMMY OF BIGOTRY: The Pluck of Katherine Goble Johnson

Backstreet Djeli 5By William “Duke” Smither

“When the human race neglects its weaker members, when the family neglects its weakest one–it’s the first blow in a suicidal movement. I see the neglect in cities around the country, in poor white children in West Virginia and Virginia and Kentucky–in the big cities, too, for that matter. I see the neglect of Native American children in the concentration camps called reservations. The powerful say, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps….’ What they’re really saying is, ‘If you can, do, but if you can’t, forget it’…” (“Maya Angelou,” American “Poet Par Excellence,” Author, Activist, Actress & Playwright— from her 1995 Interview with “Mother Jones Magazine”)

* “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses…” 

Before the Interstate-64 straight-through-connector, in the Appalachian-Blue Ridge Mountains, between Sam Black Church, West Virginia and Big Sandy River, Kentucky, road trips from Richmond, Virginia to my hometown in Frankfort, Kentucky used to be an arduous task. I’ve long been familiar with the rugged beauty of the Appalachia, as well as the sociocultural challenges of growing up there, since my own family hails from the Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio regions of Appalachia. Yet, until a recent research assignment for, I never knew that an African-American pioneer in Aerospace Engineering– Katherine Goble Johnson— a lion-hearted soul in the face of bigotry, came from those mountains, too (See:

Image Credit: Katherine Johnson

Image Credit: Katherine Johnson

It seemed to me that the Katherine Johnson story was not unlike the narrative of the life journey for many African-Americans, growing up in the Jim Crow South. It was a journey that saw many parents of black, white and Native American families, including my own mom and dad, struggle and sacrifice, not just to survive but to make sure their children charted a course to steer clear of the bigotry and hate within their own pursuits of happiness, in the illusive American dream.

But, it was a “dream” which often became an undeniable “nightmare” for African-Americans– as well as poor whites and Native Americans, too– before, during and after Old Jim Crow’s conjured up legal and social color barriers which continue to plague our nation, today.

You see, in my opinion, the well-kept secret in America is that racism and discrimination not only impacts the African-American, it goes to straight to the bone of its perceived poor, as well– like some invisible and fixed, “fifth dimension” of bigotry– and, like Pawns on the sociopolitical chessboard of life… even like the double whammy of racism and sexism against African-American women in America!

For me, traveling home through the Appalachian-Blue Ridge region was often a stunningly alluring trip back in time. Frankly, words alone cannot express the breath-taking beauty associated with the area’s rising mountain tops and plunging lush-green valleys. Yet, as I approached the various highway signs along the way, my mind often raced back to certain childhood experiences, pleasant and not-so-pleasant, easily triggered under certain circumstances.

The way I saw it, they must have been similar sensations to what Katherine Johnson experienced on her journey– especially after taking the old Route 60 scenic trail, passing White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia where she was born in 1918. She was only seven years younger than my mother, but her life observations weren’t all that far apart. Mother often spoke of racism with joke-filled warnings, as she once spoke of the Antebellum South’s Greenbrier resort area, not far from White Sulfur Springs, where the rich and famous, “…and not-so-famous, sick folk and sicker minds” have been hanging out since the American Revolution. Of course, things are much improved, today.

* “Keep Ancient Lands, Your Storied Pomp…”

On trips home to Kentucky, while snaking through the Blue Ridge Mountains and zigzagging across the Appalachian’s, historic roadside markers, highway signs and names of towns would pop up, like little virtual, on-line advertisements. Though somewhat annoying from the memories it triggered, it was a kaleidoscope of history just the same– like Katherine Johnson’s story– like the story of other accomplished African-American or so-called ‘minority’ professionals in the United States.

Without a doubt, she was a whiz kid!  Heralded as the first African-American woman in Aerospace Engineering, Katherine Johnson was born in a city where schooling for “colored” people then ended with the eighth grade. She was the daughter of Joshua and Joylette Coleman. Her dad, a farmer and janitor who quit school after the sixth grade, moved the family 125 miles from their White Sulfur Springs home to Institute, West Virginia so that Katherine and her older siblings, Charles, Margaret, and Horace, could attend school beyond the eighth grade.  Her father returned home to work the farm while her mother, a former teacher, became a domestic worker and stayed with the children in Institute.

Various biographical sketches show that Katherine possessed signs of being a mathematical genius early in life. She once explained to biographers that she counted “everything”– the steps at home and the plates she washed, as well as the number of steps from her house to the church she attended– citing her father as the one from whom she inherited her love for numbers.  She felt that her gift was inherited from her father. Although he never completed his formal education, she said that when he was working with lumber, he could tell how many boards he could get from a tree, simply by the way it looked to him.

Katherine also explained that she was five years old when she first started school, but went she went straight into the second grade. And, when she was supposed to enter fifth grade, she was selected among the “best” of the fifth graders and placed in the sixth grade for a newly opened school, leap-frogging one grade-level above her older brother.

Skipping grades helped her to start high school at 10. Before graduating at 14, she had also developed an interest in astronomy. Armed with a full scholarship, including room and board, she entered West Virginia State College (formerly West Virginia State College), “across the street from where she grew up.” During her sophomore year, a young professor from Michigan, W.W. (William Waldron) Schiefflin Claytor, the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics, recognized her math prowess and added special courses in advanced math. In one course, analytic geometry, she was reportedly the only pupil. It was Dr. Claytor who planted the seed that she would make a good research mathematician. At 18, she graduated summa cum laude (with highest honor) with a Bachelor of Science degree in French and mathematics.

* “A Mighty Woman With A Torch, Whose Flame Is The Imprisoned Lightning…”

2009 Christmas party

2009 Christmas party

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Katherine began teaching in rural Virginia and West Virginia schools. Her first job was at an elementary school where she responded to a telegram saying, if she could teach math and French, and play the piano, the job was hers. But, on the bus ride to her first assignment, in Marion, Virginia, she ran into a haunting experience with racism.

According to archives, the bus stopped when it crossed from West Virginia into Virginia. Segregation Laws forced Katherine and all of the other black people to move to the rear. Later, when they changed buses, white passengers were allowed on the bus, while black riders were put into taxis. The bus driver’s demand, that “… you colored folk, come over here,” triggered her memory of her mother’s warning, like my mother’s nifty cautioning’s, about persistent racism and “pea-brain” racists.  

A couple of years later, Katherine married James Francis Goble and started a family. They had three daughters, Constance, Joylette and Kathy. She returned to teaching to help support her family, when her husband fell ill with cancer. But, in 1952, the seed that Dr. Claytor had planted began to sprout and, while visiting relatives in Newport News, Virginia, she learned of new job opportunities for black women in mathematics at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, 1915-1958), the agency that preceded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, 1958-   ).

A year later, she was working there as a research mathematician.  Thumbing her nose at racialized intellectual snobbery, her soft-spoken assertiveness, command for respect and mathematical skills led her to assist NACA’s all-male team of engineers tasked with finding solutions to America’s space-flight navigation problems. Unfortunately, while kick-starting her aerospace career, her husband died from a brain tumor in 1956.

Three years later, she married Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson. And, the rest is history, so to speak…

When Virginia public schools began desegregating, in 1959, Johnson was calculating space-flight trajectories in Hampton, Virginia for Project Mercury, America’s first manned space-flight program.  Between 1959 and 1963, as America raced the Soviet Union in launching a human into earth orbit, Johnson calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, on May 5, 1961. When NASA began using computers, she was asked to verify related calculations for the first American to actually orbit the earth, John Glenn, in 1962. Seven years later, she crafted America’s navigational track for the flight landing the first humans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the moon’s surface.

Retiring from NASA in 1986, Johnson’s trailblazing career spanned 33 years of achievements, including: the Apollo Group Achievement Award and the NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations Team Award, given in 1967, an honorary Doctor of Laws from SUNY (State University of New York) Farmingdale in 1998, the West Virginia State College “Outstanding Alumnus of the Year,” in 1999, and an honorary Doctor of Science, awarded by the Capitol College of Laurel, Maryland, in 2006.

NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin and Katherine Johnson

NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin and
Katherine Johnson

People like Katherine Johnson still make me proud!  The ‘missing pages of America’s classroom history books’ reveals many African-American mathematicians, from Benjamin Banneker, William Waldron Schiefflin Claytor (the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics) and Elbert Frank Cox (the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics) to William R. Talbot (the fourth African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics), J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. and Dudley Weldon Woodard (the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics).

But, the trials and tribulations of the inimitable Katherine Goble Johnson are even more compelling, in my opinion, because of the double whammy of deep-rooted racism and sexism against women in America.

(Also, see:, regarding the first the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics.)

* Subtitles Credit:   From the sonnet, “The New Colossus,” written by American Poet Emma Lazarus and engraved in bronze on New York’s “Statue of Liberty.”


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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:

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.



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;;





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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Within the Murky Waters of Global White Privilege…

 by William “Duke” Smither 

Backstreet Djeli 5

“There is no Negro (Black) problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution…”  (Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, a.k.a., “Frederick Douglass,” Abolitionist, Diplomat & Writer, b.1818 – d.1895)

Once again, Black History Month (2015) is front-and-center. For some folk, with all of its reverence, glory and gore, chock-full of falsehoods, sprinkling of lies and distortions- masquerading as “truth”- these 28, sometimes 29, days in the year have become an annual mental excursion, like an African Safari, tippy toeing through the painful landscapes of however we define our past and shape our future.

Goofy Demand?

They’ve become wanderings into an often warmed-over rehash of Eurocentric fables and myths of the inaccurate accountings of accomplishments and behavior of the world’s darker-skinned brethren from Coastal and Central Africa.  Incredulously, it’s also the month which seems to bring about the goofy clamoring for a commensurate “White History Month,” aside from the 11-month point-of-view psychosis historically stoked by the fires of “white privilege,” within the astute observations of Pan-Africanists W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.

On the flip-side, for others, more qualitative and quantitative research analysis has surfaced in recent years,  morphing into higher levels of enlightenment, from the scholarly investigations and collaborative efforts of various historians, sociologists, linguists, paleoanthropologists, cultural anthropologists, archeologists and geologists. From their sifting through the sands of time, the undeniable links to Ancient Nubia and the Sudan, Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa now weave more sensible patterns of assumptions and genetic reconstructions. It’s a premise entangled within the Origin of Man and Cradle of Civilization theories, delivered from the womb of East Africa, some 200,000-plus years ago.

These become the tangible nuggets of straight stuff buried within the reams of “missing pages” and “foot notes” to America’s classroom history books. In my opinion, they are more respectful and factual of the legacy bequeathed by our ancestors.

Chaos in Mandingoland

Such are the roots of the African-American, long before the scholarly research of Dr. Chancellor Williams (“The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race From 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.,” Third World Press, Chicago, Ill., 1987), Dr. John Hope Franklin (“From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans,” Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, New York, NY, 1980), Drs. Philip Curtin, Steven Feierman, Leonard Thompson & Jan Vansina (“AFRICAN HISTORY: From Earliest Times to Independence, Longman Publishing, London and New York, 1995), and many others seeking the truth and charting the demise of the greatness of Africa.

These were merely a few of the scholars I’ve studied over the years, classroom and independent study, who traced significant portions of Ancient Africa’s journey from the Kingdom of the Kush, the Pyramids of Giza and Great Ethiopian Kings and Queens of Africa to the social chaos and cultural collapse of great African Kingdoms, like ancient Mali (a.k.a, “Mandingoland”) and Timbuktu, following the Portuguese invasions of Africa, as well as the marauding Arab hordes and Jaga warriors (African mercenaries). Mali remains in the news, today, regarding the efforts of African and French forces fighting to repel the incursions of al-Qaeda-linked militants, similar to the African continent’s hostile invasions, centuries earlier.

These invading hordes, armies and mercenaries launched a systematic assault and destruction of a culture on the African continent and its people- in effect, a “holocaust,” pure and simple. In the end, slavery, once the instrument of Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Portugal, Spain and Great Britain to enslave militarily weaker enemies, now became confined to blacks and a new brand of bondage. This peculiar brand focuses on color, surfaced within the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  It was launched from the bowels of Angola, the Congo and other regions of Africa, rich in sugar cane, diamonds, silver and gold, as well as the “Black Gold” (free labor) of slavery.

Yet, Mali is in the news once again, not for its glorious past, but for some of the same reasons it’s glorious past began to crumble: overpopulation, invading armies, internal political struggles and poverty. It is similar to the marked decline in other great African Kingdoms, like Songhai and Ghana, before the systematic rape and ravishing of the African continent and its gold-and-ivory rich civilizations.

“Black Gold”– for the Colonies  Chains of Slavery

For many Americans, the beginnings of Black, Negro and/or African-American History merely began with the arrival of 20 “Negroes” at Jamestown, Virginia in August, 1619, on a Dutch Man-O’-War.  According to various archives, they were likely the Bantu-speaking Africans stolen in a high-seas raid from the Portuguese merchant-slave ship, the San Juan Bautista, traveling from coastal Luanda, Angola, in West Africa, to Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico. Four years later, they began showing up in the U.S. Census counts as “indentured servants,” some being assigned land, before blacks could not own property, along with the whites who completed their indenture.

For others, Black History, especially the annals of the culturally and resource rich Ancient African past, predates the “African Holocaust” and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, stemming from the greed, lust and other sins of countries like Portugal, Spain, England, France and Holland. But, this newfound twist on human bondage, based on the race and color of those enslaved, became the basis of Black slavery and Apartheid- A La “Jim Crow”– in America. This included the profound corresponding economic benefit- known as “Black Gold”–   to plantation slavery, as well as the nation.

Power in Psychology

Unfortunately, beyond the whitewashed history of black people in America, and the cooked-up notion that black and brown people were never in the western hemisphere until the Middle Passage, many Americans simply stopped looking for any genetic bonds between African-Americans and Africans or Egyptians, due to the difficulty of wading through the ugly quagmire of slavery where the bloodlines of African-Americans become murky, at best.

For many years, while raising our own family, I often told our children what my parents and grandparents shared with me, that African-Americans were a spiritually strong and culturally rich people who came from royalty, kings, queens and mighty warriors long before the humiliations and denigrations within the “peculiar” Atlantic Slave Trade.  Many times, those conversations were punctuated just the way my mother used to end certain life lessons with me, after my dad had died. She would simply say that, regardless of our humble circumstances and meager means, I could still be anything- “a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g,” she’d often emphasizethat I wanted to be in life, if I only set my mind on the objective.

Of course, being raised in the segregated, “Jim Crow” South, on the cusp of school desegregation, during the U.S. Supreme Court’s  “Brown Decision”  (Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483,  1954), what I saw around me didn’t always square with what she was telling me.  For example, it was still “suicide” for a black woman to get arrested and placed in jail; elderly blacks still seemed to whisper and bow their heads when talking to whites; and, lopsided chain-gang justice was still around.

Genetic Strands of Strength

Yet, I always knew that the 20 so-called “Negroes,” who arrived at Jamestown, Virginia nearly 400 years ago,  spoke something other than the “King’s English” or the language of the street and the black idioms we were taught, as part of our “survival skill,” while growing up in the “Jim Crow” South. It was the kind of stuff used to avoid

Crude Worship

Silly Hi-Jinks

the wrath of racist police and jails, the silly hi-jinks of the pea-brain Klan, but to earn the respect of white classroom teachers, fellow students and athletes. It was all reinforced under the monitored guidance of the black church, during school desegregation years and the Civil Rights Movement.

It reminded me of what it must have been like for the waves of new arrivals to America’s shores- African slaves- without the benefit of speaking the “King’s English” and even without the legal status as an “immigrant,” but arriving by ships just the same, while communicating within the complex progression of dialects among themselves. Linguists recorded that some 45 distinct language groups arrived on the slave ships, during the Atlantic Slave Trade. The way I saw it, these captives had to be spiritually and physically strong to survive the horrible stench and hellish conditions of the slave ships, as well as creatively adaptive and highly intelligent enough to deal with the newfound rigors and risks of simply communicating among themselves.

According to historical slave records, the 10 most prominent language groupings were from: (1) the Akan people (Twi-Fante/ Akan languages and dialects, from Ghana), (2) the Chamba people (Leko and Leko-Nimbari languages and dialects, from Cameroon), (3) Gbe speakers (Fon, Adja, Ewe, Mina, Togo languages and dialects, from Ghana, Togo & Benin), (4) the Igbo people (Igboid, Ika, Ekpeye languages and dialects, from Nigeria), (5) the Mande people (Madinka, Manding, Ligbi, Madingo, Malinke, Soninke languages and other dialects, from Upper Guinea), (6) the Makua people (Bantu, Zulu, Swahili, Portuguese languages and dialects, from Mozambique), (7) the Mbundu people (West-Bantu, Kimbundu, Portuguese languages and dialects, from Angola), (8) the Wolof people (Wolof, Fulani, Serer, French, English, Arabic languages and dialects, from Senegal and the Gambia), (9) the Yoruba people (Edee Yoruba, Oyo, Ibadan, Yoruboid languages and dialects, from Nigeria, and (10) the BaKongo or Kongo people (Kongo, Lingala, French, Portuguese, Bantu, Kikongo languages and dialects, from Angola and the Republic of Congo)

Ancestral Wisdom & Elusive Truths

When the storm clouds of life would circle in my own life, I’ve often imagined how my ancestors survived the angst and horrors of the “Middle Passage,” as well as the strength and will to survive the first days and weeks after arriving in this strange land where, like themselves, the indigenous Native Americans were under cultural assault and battery from the colonial exploitation of European exiles and adventurists.

From spending most of my summers in farming life with my grandparents in Ohio, coupled with worship and work experience with the nearby Dutch and German farming community, I could sense the things which helped form real unity in the Christian community, minus the counter-productive focus on race. Meshing my black religious life beginnings in Kentucky, under my activist Baptist minister dad, with the often conflicting experiences, under my devout Pentecostal Evangelist grandmother, gave me new perspectives of possibilities when people earnestly worshiped and worked together in harmony. In fact, later in life, I often told our own kids that this nation’s racial issues would never go away, until people of various races began to worship together. I stand by that idea today, although I continue to worship in the unique oratory and gospel music environs of mostly black religious services, while appreciating the philosophical merit and occassional context of Black liberation theology.

Similarly, the influence of certain professors in college, after my years of overseas military experiences, taught me what it meant to be able to cross over into other belief systems and cultural experiences and, then, come back with an even greater appreciation for your own.  They included a Jewish world history professor, a white religious studies professor, trained for many years as a Buddhist Monk in Japan, and a black graduate student instructor of Ancient African History who had been under the tutelage of history professors, Drs. John Hope Franklin and Edgar Allan Toppin.

Within this backdrop, I was able to face many of my own prejudices, preconceptions and misconceptions regarding the study of history. Like many religious, political and racial assumptions, I’ve learned that it takes quite a bit of effort to sort out the real stories of the past, since they’re often mired in the slimy soils and dingy waters of fiction, fantasy and fallacy.

For me, Black History Month is an opportunity, not only for reaching back to see how far we’ve come, but for seeing how far we, as a “Pluralistic Society,” still have to go.  If the history of black people in the western hemisphere had been commensurate with the “White History” months already in existence, then “our” Declaration of Independence might have been more accurate by saying, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

But, within the caustic political climate shadowing this nation’s African-American president, coupled with a conspiratorial and corrupt system of justice- with liberty and justice for some, not for all- our nation’s “truths” are still elusive.  Hope

And, in my opinion, the need for Black History Month endures…

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s 

                               Reprint from 2013 post


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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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