Those for Whom Life is Lit by Some Large Vision

I believe in the training of Black children even as white;

the leading out of little souls into the green pastures

and beside the still waters, not for pelf or peace,

but for Life lit by some large vision of beauty and goodness and truth;

lest we forget, and the sons of our fathers, like Esau, for mere meat

barter their birthright in a mighty nation.

-W.E.B. Du Bois-

I have always loved that quote by Du Bois and I am obviously not alone. The late Ossie Davis must have liked the quote so much that part of it was chosen as the title for the posthumously released book of his selected speeches and writings. Along with so many other blessings in my life, I count meeting him and his lovely wife, Ruby Dee, an honor; not because they are entertainers and I was starstruck but because of my appreciation for their unwavering sacrifices during the civil rights movement; for their unquenchable thirst for freedom and equality the world over.

Ossie Davis who emceed the March on Washnigton, eulogized Malcolm X and spoke at one of the first gatherings of the Congressional Black Caucus in the early 1970s was not afraid to take a stand. Where social activism and acts of consciousness in the world of celebrity were concerned, Dee and Davis took their cue from Paul Robeson. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee shared a willingness to fight for what was right even if it meant there would be roles for which they would never be considered let alone cast. I reserve an unconditional love and respect for those who use their gifts for something more meaningful than self-sustenance.

Ossie n Ruby Collage

Some twenty or twenty-five years ago I got to introduce the pair as emcees for an event for some organization; I believe it was a TransAfrica event when Randall Robinson was still at the helm but my memory is sketchy around that fact. However, it is clear the person who was supposed to handle the introduction could not be found … and there I was … able to speak clearly and distinctly … at the intersection of Opportunity and Preparation streets. There is something to be said for just being “there” at the “right time”.

Just before I was to go deliver my line I spied Ossie Davis and moved in his direction. I, a relatively shy, twenty-something thrust myself in the path of this acting icon and stuck out my hand.

“Mr. Davis”, I said interrupting his leisurely stroll to the other side of the room to meet his wife, “it is a pleasure and an honor to meet you”. I continued, “Thanks so much for all you have done for us”.

“Young man, the honor is all mine” he replied, as his hand met mine firmly and with great purpose.

Somehow that was all I needed that day. I immediately reported backstage to deliver my line with no time to rehearse.

“Good evening ladies and gentleman. Please welcome your hosts for the evening, Mr. Ossie Davis and Ms. Ruby Dee”.

That was it. That was my line; delivered in my best radio disc jockey voice, a voice that I had practiced no less than a million times in the comfort of my bedroom and, at times, in the shower.

God afforded me an opportunity that and I made the best of it. I had acted on what felt right in my spirit without knowing how those few moments would linger for years in my mind that I may share them with you … at this moment.

I learned how to discern when it was my spirit or God speaking at a relatively young age. My father used to tell me whenever you find yourself saying, “I knew I should of …” that was God’s way of letting you know that you had just ignored His option. It makes itself known to us with “that feeling in our gut … and it’s not gas”. Dad would often punctuate his comments on heavier subjects with humor thereby making them easier to digest and impossible to forget.

God always gives us the right answer but most of us seldom listen. Many of us are either too weak or self-absorbed to follow God’s directives at the first request. And it wasn’t just Dad but the majority of those with whom he encircled himself reinforced the same sentiment; living proof that iron does indeed sharpen iron.

God has a way of taking the ordinary and ordaining it thus making it extraordinary. Throughout all scripture God used ordinary folk to affect His kingdom in extraordinary ways. And as disparate as these folk may have been they had two things in common … a willing ear to hear God’s voice and a responsive heart ready to respond to God’s call. That day, with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, started out as an ordinary day for an ordinary young man yet something quietly extraordinary happened. Though unbeknownst to anyone in the room, a spark had ignited a flame that still burns today.

We have all met men and women who have heard and responded to that voice in their gut; that voice that lets them know when something isn’t quite right; that voice that whispers charity and justice are not synonymic; that voice that recognizes even though we may be “preachin’ to the choir” the choir must not be singing… or at least not loud enough.

It has become cliché to speak of the passing of the baton from one generation or one person to another but rarely does it happen that way. Usually that baton is carried for as long as one can maintain his or her grasp, for, like power, the baton is never passed or given it can only be taken or perhaps, in this desensitized world of indifference, one need only bend down and pick it up. But for God’s sake let it be from a pool of those for whom life is lit by some large vision of beauty and goodness and truth; lest we forget …

In Memoriam: Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr.

If we have to die (and contrary to the belief of some, we all must) odds show that more people will do so in January than any other month of the year. While three of the most significant and life altering deaths of my existence thus far happened in January – two of them mere days apart in the same year –here lately the month of May has given January a run for its money. My dear friend and “Brother” Michael V. Dobson died in May 29, 2010. On May 9, 2012 another very close friend, campaign manager and “Brother”, Terry W. Taylor died and days later, on May 17, 2012 the Reverend Doctor (“Uncle”) Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr. made the transition and joined with six fellow Goon Squad members who crossed over years before.

After Uncle Marion’s Memorial service Saturday, May 26, 2012, I had the honor, pleasure and self-appointed duty to chauffer around two of the four remaining Goon Squad members, O. Patrick “Pat” Scott and the ever dapper Dr. “Uncle” Homer E. Favor. Lalit “Lal” Gadhia had to get back home for another engagement. Rev. (“Uncle”) Vernon Dobson had already endured a draining week of emotional extremes. The high was a celebration of his life in the ministry and the low was the overpowering fact that Uncle Marion – who certainly would have been physically present for that celebration – had left this earth just three days prior. Understandably overwhelmed, Uncle Vernon was not in attendance. After spending a considerable amount of time that morning wrestling with a bowtie dawned for the first time in my effort to pay respect to Uncle Marion’s signature style, Pat and I rode together to the church. When it was over I had hoped to connect with at least some of the others. Uncle Homer did not disappoint.

“Pooh, you goin’ to the cemetery”, asked Uncle Homer.

“If you want to go…”

“No …” Uncle Homer interrupted, “… had you planned to go to the cemetery?”

“Not unless you wanted to” I replied in a tone reassuring him I was at his disposal.

“Hell no! I saw the funeral director looking at me sideways …”, he bends and leans to demonstrate, “… sizing me up! I told him, ‘Man, stand up and look me in my eye! I’m ain’t plannin’ on goin’ anywhere any time soon”, he jokes playfully.

With that the three of us left the Douglas Memorial Community Church where Uncle Marion had pastored from 1949-1995 and headed downtown to break bread at McCormick & Schmick’s, one of Uncle Homer’s favorite restaurants. The stories and political, socio-economic discussion began almost as soon as I shifted our “chariot” into drive. It seemed as though every block we traveled held memories of both joy and pain. We talked and laughed through our late lunch and then on to Uncle Homer’s home. The conversation never stopped.

Funerals and Memorial Services are bittersweet occasions but, for me, Uncle Marion’s service was much more sweet than bitter. I saw many old friends, heard and retold stories that will never lose their splendor and most importantly remembered the life of one of God’s servants so well lived. Some asked if I were going to write something solely about Uncle Marion as a supplement to The Goons (Take: 1) piece I authored about a year ago. While I knew Uncle Marion’s life was colorful, robust and clearly worthy of its own literary treatment I had yet to process Terry’s death and what his loss meant for my life. So once again, a member of the Goon Squad comes to our rescue. I am publishing Uncle Homer’s unedited words about his dear friend and brother, Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr.

(W.F. Phillips)

 

 

 

Marion Curtis Bascom, My Friend and Brother

Members of Marion’s family asked me to pen a few lines about him that might capture the essence of his being from the view point of one of his many close friends. Reflecting upon the matter proved to be challenging, if not daunting. How can the highlights of one so accomplished be treated adequately in just a few words? I was reminded of my feelings when queried about him by Tosha, our physical therapist. Among the many superlatives that I used in describing him to her, irascible provided the three of us considerable amusement.

I arrived in Baltimore in 1956 to begin a long career in teaching and administration at Morgan State College. The Reverend Gus Roman, Pastor of the First Baptist Church on the east side, took me to meet Marion, whom he held in highest regards. I found him to be imbued with concern about the abject denial of his people, at the time. For instance, there was not a single person of color serving in any capacity above the most menial category in department stores, supermarkets, banks, print/broad-cast media, or any major sphere of economic activity. In fact, there was only one black in the City Council and only a single one in the legislature. Persons of color were not accorded gainful employment in either municipal or state governing bodies. Those with the Federal government were relegated to positions below Grade 5. My colleagues at the Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland and the other exclusively white institutions were welcomed to break bread with me and my faculty at Morgan State. The reverse situation was a no-no. Suffice it to say, this absence of fair play exasperated the economic well-being of Charm City’s black population.

Marion, like Jesus, literally wept. It was at this juncture in 1967 when eleven of us from disparate walks of life were brought together to ponder these disconnects. We become known pejoratively as the Goon Squad. Subsequently, we welcomed the designation as being meritorious. Marion moved us into roles of supporting the development of Camp Farthest Out. This is where Inner City children were enabled to escape the summer’s heat by spending a few weeks in this pristine setting. This facilitated the broadening of their appreciation of nature and improvement of their academic prowess. In another vein, Marion’s then new position as Fire Department Commissioner allowed him to press several of us into service when the city began to burn in 1968. We went into the hot spots in order to ensure the safety of the residents.

I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’ favorite passage in Proverbs, “Seeth thou a man diligent in business. He shall stand with Kings.”  With this fervor we further integrated the Congress by seating Parren J. Mitchell, one of us, as the holder of the 7th Congressional district seat. Additionally, another one of us, Joseph C. Howard, broke the longstanding “Sitting Judge Principle” by winning a seat on the lofty Supreme Bench of Baltimore. Ironically, this is the same body that suspended him for daring to air the racist practices and procedures utilized in the administration of rape cases by Maryland’s judicial system. Subsequently, he was appointed to the Federal judiciary with the endorsement of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Another accomplishment of Marion’s was the opening up of television and radio in keeping with the laws that should have been avoided, assiduously. Two of our members, Vernon N. Dobson and myself, along with Samuel T. Daniels of the Masonic family, served nearly 20 years on a weekly television program, “Look at It This Way.”

There was a lasting bond of brotherhood developed between Marion and me which embraced the highest values of human endeavor. We grew to be such friends and brothers that we were often facetiously referred to as the odd couple. To me he became “Macuba” and to him, I became “Hoelfa.” The endless hours we spent fishing on the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, along with bowling well after midnight in our younger days, provided us with fond memories. Initially, there were eleven of us but with Marion’s passing, only four remain. The spirits of the departed, fortunately, transcend the distance between earth and bright glory.

In ending the discourse I must acknowledge the ecumenical reach insisted upon by Marion and the rest of us. We interacted constantly with others. Persons typifying them would be Sam Daniels, James Rouse, Henry Parks, Chester Wickwire, Peter Angelos, Robert Embery, Martin Jenkins and a host of others too numerous to mention. Curtis, as his grandmother called him, had multifaceted interests and capabilities in many genres. For example, he loved gardening, raising beautiful roses, other flowers, and some vegetables. In another vein, he established a competitive office supply business to demonstrate further that people of color harbored such talents. On many occasions, Marion had me join him in visiting those hospitalized or recovering from illness at home. Parren was not always hospitable, at times, wishing to be left alone. The minister’s persuasive power, however, always prevailed. It was a joy to share the podium each year during Black History Month by addressing the residents at Broadmeade Retirement Community. Spencer Hammond always accompanied us with a musical ensemble. The evening, conceptualized by Chester Wickwire was highly regarded by all and sundry. John Dunn was right, … “Any man’s death diminishes me”. Marion takes a portion of me with him but leaves an even greater share of himself with me.

Thanks for the journey, dear Friend.

Homer E. Favor

ENOUGH! (for Trayvon Martin, et al.)

Like many of you, I, too, am outraged at the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin. I am sure there will be those who will speak of the tension between Blacks and Latinos or Black and whites; and those discussions will deal mainly – if not solely – with blame and victimization. In that discussion there is little talk of solution. Depending on what they believe, one picks a side and is either declared “racist” or “not racist”. If you side with those who are being blamed you will be considered “racist”; side with the victim and you are cleared. But what if I suggest that while we aren’t all racists, we are all victims? Of what, you ask?

We are all altered, if not victimized by what social psychologists refer to as identity contingencies – the things we have to go through based on our social identity (i.e., race, gender, political affiliation, age, sexual orientation). Claude Steele, in his book, Whistling Vivaldi, speaks specifically to a particular type of identity contingency that he calls “stereotype threat”. It has a negative effect on our performance, our psyche, how we view others and even how we view ourselves. Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin is the latest victim of this phenomenon. My prayers are with his family and all parents ( like Christa Olgesby of CNN ) who live with this fear daily.

The common denominator is “Black”. “Black” seems to carry an almost universal nefariousness. Black Monday. Black October. Black Market. Black Male. I have never been any other race but I can assume that white parents don’t have to have “the talk” with their children before they walk out of their homes and into the world. By, “the talk”, I don’t mean sex … I mean survival. The laundry list of “don’ts” that every Black male has heard from one or both of his parents regarding how to simply be in the world; all the things that must be done just to exist. Growing up it was just another inane rule, we didn’t know any different. As an adult and, especially in light of Trayvon’s murder, I shudder to think of the foolish things I did. Trayvon obeyed every rule.

These rules were and (sadly) still are universal. Washington Post columnists, Jonathan Capehart and Eugene Robinson felt compelled to weigh in on this tragedy. First, Capehart stated “one of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions. One minute you’re going about your life, the next you could be pleading for it if you’re lucky”. Jonathan was raised in New Jersey and had the same rules that I had growing up in Baltimore, Maryland years earlier. His colleague at the Post, Eugene Robinson, being raised in South Carolina and nearly ten years my senior certainly knew the rules. “For every black man in America”, says Robinson, “from the millionaire in the corner office to the mechanic in the local garage, the Trayvon Martin tragedy is personal.” Trayvon’s demise struck a low, deep chord that united all Black males in sorrow regardless of social status. It could have been anyone of us growing up.

These statements get at the crux of Steele’s “stereotype threat”. Steele contends while some identity contingencies influence us by constraining behavior, the greater danger, a tad more subtle but exponentially more dangerous, is “putting a threat in the air.” I could recite stereotypes for every social group but since Trayvon is Black, I will summarize the “threat(s) in the air” to which much of society subscribes as it pertains to Black teenagers: they are suspicious by nature, abnormally prone to skullduggery, crime and drug dealing; untrustworthy and generally guilty until proven innocent. Of course all of this is utterly ridiculous but there are those who hold these as self-evident truths. We can place George Zimmerman’s name high atop that list.

What will it take for us to speak life in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s senseless death? What will it take for us to vote those out of office who support legislation that promotes vigilantism – like “Stand-Your-Ground”? Since the passing of that law in 2005, deaths due to self-defense are up over 200 percent. The Tampa Bay Times reported 132 cases where the “Stand-Your-Ground” law was invoked; 74 defendants (56%) were cleared. Now, almost half of the states in America have similar legislation on the books. Laws like these coupled with a growing desensitization to violence and a disenfranchised electorate work to create and embolden the George Zimmermans of the world.

Trayvon Martin was a victim of the stereotype threats that Steele defines. We have allowed these threats to pollute the air for far too long. We will never conquer what we will not confront. Let’s clear the air because all of humanity is gasping, if not choking…pleading for help in the same way Trayvon pleaded for his life. Let it not be in vain.

 

The Help, The “Oscars” & The Questions (Part 2 of 2)

(Continued from March 3, 2012)

I contend, inviting the ire of some I am sure, the standing ovations were less about the performance of the actors and more about assuaging feelings of guilt associated with one of two things (or both): 1) the length of time it took Blacks to be recognized for their talent by the Academy and 2) the type of role they played for which they received the award engendered some guilt, pity or fear. Let’s look at the characters portrayed by the only four Black actresses or actors I have ever seen to receive standing ovations:

BEST ATRESS OR ACTOR

“Leticia Musgrove” (Halle Berry) in Monster’s Ball – the wife of a convicted and executed murderer left to care for her morbidly obese son alone. She begins an affair with the white racist corrections officer, who with his son, assist in the execution of Leticia’s husband. A rough, explicit alcohol and pain induced sex scene ensues that borders on soft porn. While that is not the crux of the movie the scene is burned onto the retina of all who have seen it. – “Make me feel goooooooood!”“Leticia Musgrove”

“Homer Smith” (Sidney Poitier*) in Lilies of the Field – the ex G.I. and itinerant handyman who “carried his home on four wheels”; a “big, strong man” is “just what five lonely women were looking for … just the man to make their prayers and dreams come true” says the voiceover in the movie’s trailer. WTH?! Wait! My younger readers are probably thinking, how can Sidney Poitier win for this kind of smut?! Well, before you go too far down the road I’ve paved so nicely, these five women are nuns in need of a chapel in the Arizona desert. The movie highlights the tension (with tenderness and humor)between a Black passerby and the stubborn, Austrian mother superior, Mother Maria. Seeing this as a very idealistic, “hands across America”, “Kumbaya” kind of movie, the revolutionary in me could attack it but the Christian in me is bigger and can’t argue against a movie that uses the Sermon on the Mount as its foundation. – “I ain’t building no ‘shapel’! Not only am I ain’t buildin’ no ‘shapel’, I’m takin’ off!”“Homer Smith”

Detective “Alonzo Harris” (Denzel Washington) in Training Day – the maniacal sociopathic, highly decorated detective gone bad. A street tough, lying, manipulating, drug peddling, misogynistic, pimp-like thief. – “Myyy nigga!”, “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.” – “ You motherf**kers will be playing basketball in Pelican Bay when I get finished with you … I’m the man up in this piece … who the f**k do you think you’re f**king with? I’m the police, I run (ish) around here. You just live here. King Kong ain’t got (ish) on me!” – “Alonzo Harris”

“Ray Charles” (Jamie Foxx) in Ray – the biopic of a phenomenal American musician and entertainer who happened to be Black and blind. He battled his demons (infidelity and drug addiction) and the demons of this country (racism and segregation) while revolutionizing the world of music with a blend of gospel, jazz, rock and pop music. Charles even crossed over into country music. Biopics are demanding for actors as they are in so many scenes but Foxx masterfully yet believably came to life as Ray Charles. – “I’m gonna make it do what it do…” – Jamie Fox as “Ray Charles”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Mary Lee Johnston” (Mo’Nique) in Precious – the extremely abusive, unemployed, highly dysfunctional “monster” of a mother of the obese, illiterate, pregnant sixteen year old Precious, for whom the film is named. They live in Section 8 housing and deal with one conflict wrapped in another and covered by yet another. A grim, turbulent look at the lifestyle of a dysfunctional “family” that both Blacks and whites alike spend most of their time trying to ignore. While Precious doesn’t exactly ride off into the sunset, I would guess we would have to consider Precious as somewhat triumphant. – “That was my f**kin’ man. That was my man and he wanted my daughter. And that’s why I hated her because it was my man who was supposed to be loving me, who was supposed to be making love to me and he was f**king my baby … and she made him leave … she made him go away.” – “Mary Lee Johnston”

“Minny Jackson” (Octavia Spencer) in The Help – quick witted, wise cracking opinionated maid, cook and caretaker for whites in the Jim Crow south during the Civil Rights era. Minny is the wife of a physically abusive, never seen husband, who has trouble holding jobs due to her uncontrollable outspokenness. – “You cookin’ white food, you taste it with a different spoon. They see you puttin’ the tastin’ spoon back in the pot, might as well throw it all out. Spoon too. And you use the same cup, same bowl, same plate everyday. And you put it up in the cabinet. Tell that white woman that’s where you gonna keep it from now on out. Don’t do that? See what happens.” –(speaking to her daughter, “Sugar”, before her first day on the job as a maid like her mother and grandmother before her). – “Minny Jackson” .

All of these performers were extremely convincing in their portrayals and all were deserving of their awards but was Training Day’s Denzel Washington really that much better than Malcolm X’s, Malcolm or The Hurricane’s, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter? Or was the Academy more at ease awarding an Oscar for the portrayal of a flawed fictional character rather than a real life figure who helped to expose America’s flaws? Am I reading too much into all of this? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But the only place many in the white community would meet an “Alonzo Harris” would be in the movies. As real as the “Alonzo” is in some Black communities he is distant fiction in the white community and thus easily dismissed. Malcom X (later El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) was real and he scared folk, especially white folk – and truth be told, some Black folk, too!

I know there were other Black actors who received Best Actor and Best Supporting actor awards but they didn’t receive standing ovations. However, the roles for which they won their award helps to prove my point:

  • “Pvt. Silas Trip” (Denzel Washington) in Glory – a cocky, ex-slave soldier
  • “Rod Tidwell” (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Jerry McGuire – a cocky jock
  • “Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ DuPris” (Morgan Freeman) in Million Dollar Baby – a not so cocky ex-jock.
  • “Idi Amin” (Forest Whitaker) in The Last King of Scotland – the notorious Ugandan dictator who reportedly murdered no less than 80,000 people.

Again, all well played parts and deserving of awards … but … do I really need to go on?

Let’s look at Monster’s Ball for a moment. Did the standing ovation make those white men feel better? The white men who had father’s like the one the late Peter Boyle portrayed in the movie? The white fathers that told their sons they weren’t men until they “split dark oak”? What about the men – Black and white – who secretly harbored less than noble thoughts about Halle Berry? Did they feel better when they stood and clapped? What about those who wished and hoped they could change places with Billy Bob Thornton just for that one scene? Was their guilt for finding some degree of pleasure, crouched somewhere deep and hidden, in that animalistic sexual display of “Leticia’s” pain somehow washed away?

Many southern whites, even The Help author, Kathryn Stockett were raised and nurtured by “Minnys”, “Aibileens” and even Hattie McDaniel’s, “Mammy” from Gone With the Wind. Was the ovation some way to say thank you? Hell, was the book itself a big “thank you” letter from Stockett to Demetrie, her family’s “Help” in Mississippi for generations? And were those who clapped so feverishly as so many additional signatures upon that letter?

Look, I may have only stirred up a lot of questions but for now, that’s all I have. One of the biggest questions about The Help was raised by Karina Longworth in her piece in the Village Voice: “Why do little white girls who are raised lovingly by black maids turn into raging racist a**holes once they’ve grown to run their own households?” Or let’s take one more trip back to the Awards show when Chris Rock mentioned that a white voiceover actor can portray an Arabian prince but a Black voiceover actor is relegated to “donkeys or zebras”. Yes there was a small amount of nervous, uncomfortable laughter but the question still remains unanswered. Why is that? Are those fair questions? Why does this race thing perpetuate and replicate and, at times, reinvent itself? I think it’s because we won’t have the conversations and we continue to let the opportunities to have those conversations pass us by. We refuse to be uncomfortable for more than about two hours or whatever the average length of a feature film.

I don’t have the answers nor do I claim to … and neither do you. But we, you and I, do have the answers. In fact, we are the only ones who can solve the problems but we will never find solutions to issues we refuse to confront. I’m not looking to blame any one. I’m looking for peace … wanna help?

* – The multiple camera angles and views to which we have grown accustomed were not available to us in the Academy Awards show footage of 1963. I was unable to discern whether Sidney Poitier actually received a standing ovation but the applause sure made it sound as if he did. Since he was the first Black Actor to receive an Oscar, this writer finds it fitting that he be noted regardless.

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 4 of 4)

(Continued from January 16, 2012)

By the eighth grade, I think, emotionally, I had enough and was ready to go. It had gotten to a point where my day was consumed with trying to discern the motives of others. Did that group of kids really forget that I was going to walk to gym class with them? Or did they just leave me because they didn’t want to walk with the Black kid? Was Mr. “So-and –So” pushing me to uncover and develop gifts or talents that he recognized? Or was he picking on me because I was Black and thus too dumb to be there? My grades had dropped off enough for me to believe the latter and the school to feel comfortable enough to declare me “not Gilman material” which was odd because Gilman was the only school I had ever attended and for the seven years prior, one could safely assume I had been “Gilman material”. That declaration, “not Gilman material”, cut my parents deeply but they didn’t mention it to me until years later.

I remember coming to my father on one particular occasion and expressing my concern about the racial tension I felt I had to endure. We talked but I remember not being totally satisfied with the discussion. I couldn’t put my finger on it but the conversation didn’t seem to help much. It may have stopped the pain, momentarily, closed the wound, at least temporarily, but there was still the ugly scar with which I would have to contend.

As a child I had no idea the fine line my father had to walk. It wasn’t until after he died that I discovered this journal entry and as I read it, I was taken back to that moment and I wept. I wept for him knowing full well he must have wept for me in the aftermath of that moment. And the thought of the strength in his restraint is overwhelming. He was unwilling to project what had been his truth on me … all the while hoping against hope that his reality wouldn’t have to be mine. Aside from the loss of a child, God forbid, there is no greater pain for a parent than the inability to “fix it” for their child. While he had some idea of what I was dealing with I had no idea the bind I was placing him in until I read the following journal entry and prayer:

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my son’s education and motivation or perhaps I should say lack of motivation. I’m torn between him leaving Gilman and not leaving Gilman.

Pooh has bad study habits and lacks discipline. Gilman does not help that situation. I cannot help but think that were he White and I a big contributor, things would be different and they would help us help him develop good study habits.

The racism leaks through in every conference I’ve had at Gilman! It’s not blatant – which makes it even more damaging! The phrase is “Gilman material” – that means preferably WASP!

How does one teach his son pride in being Black and the dangers of White racism without it taking effect in his whole educational process? I want so much for Pooh to be the best possible Christian warrior he can be. It’s an uphill pull! They’ve led him to believe he doesn’t have the brain energy to do the work – when I think of that I get hostile!

I pray God that we correct that and that Pooh will get turned on academically. He’s a fantastic son, bad grades and all – lazy study habits or not. I just pray he clicks on before something happens to me. I’ll die much easier knowing that’s happened.

Hear my prayer O Lord –

Turn not away from me or my son –

Though he seeks not thy help –

Turn to him – make known to him his worth to you – his sonship –

Take him and keep him forever in your presence. Amen.”

EPILOGUE

Though this is just one story, of one student at one school, my purpose here was not to shine a light on the school but rather to lift these young trailblazers. I wanted to create a forum where more stories like these could be told and different experiences shared. Yes, I believe we were trailblazers. No, we didn’t lead marches; we didn’t organize protests or stage sit-ins but we were the children of those who did and we carried their spirit through halls they were never allowed to tread. The sacrifices of our parents’ generation afforded us opportunities they all but demanded we take. We were tramping in an environment they had never experienced and that’s what made us trailblazers. These experiences are the types of things that get swept under the rug or dismissed as part of the coming of age experience we all go through. But I submit this experience, for me, was much more than merely another coming of age story. The fact that it’s been more than forty years since the first day of my private school experience and I am still writing about its effects should prove how large this period loomed in my life; yet I rest assured that things have changed for the better and great strides have been made as now concrete has been laid on the raw trail we blazed.

I have no axe to grind nor any score to settle but issues like these are rarely talked about. You need to know that I have some great friendships that still endure. Some of my closest friends in school (and to this day) were Jewish, Greek and yes, even some folks who would be considered by folks other than themselves, WASPs. They are all over the globe doing great things and if I were to call on them they would remember me and be willing to help. I did sleepovers and parties at their homes, learned about their culture and quirks and my family reciprocated. Though I attended high school and graduated from the New Baltimore City College High School and absolutely loved everybody from my graduating class, I still receive information and invitations to class reunions at Gilman and when I can, I attend. In fact, I plan to attend the thirty year reunion this May.

My parents wanted to give me the best of everything they could afford and often reached beyond what they could afford just for me. I can find no other way to thank them than to continue to grow, learn, teach and love my children enough to afford them every opportunity. I am eternally grateful to them for showing me how to love that much. Education was then and still is such a lifestyle determinant. A private school education has always been a hugely expensive endeavor and an academic leg up. That said, I have grown to count all of my years in private school as extremely valuable though not all of my lessons were academic and while I have no regrets, I cannot tell you how many times I have thought back on those years and the two educations that I received; the academic, paid for my parents and the social, offered freely by immersion and without solicitation.

I am hopeful that this story and others like it will help parents and their children better understand the unintended consequences of their choices regarding education. That is not to say the choice to send your child to a private school is a bad choice. In fact, I could argue, without much real opposition, you will not find greater academic resources or intellectual agility than in private schools. But, parents of minority students, please know there will be “home” work that must be done to reinforce self – esteem and define self-identity. I am sure there are those who will argue that – no matter the school or the child – everyone’s self-esteem and self-identity take hits during the coming of age years. However, I believe these normal struggles are only compounded by issues of race and class; the ever-present, rarely confronted elephants in the room.

Gilman has made great strides and continues to do so. It is only fitting that for all his compassion and hard work that Gilman recognizes Finney’s contributions and legacy by naming an award after him that celebrates the student who distinguishes himself “through his dedication to and practice of those human values necessary to eliminate racism, prejudice, and intolerance”.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention with some level of pride, Gilman’s current Headmaster, John E. Schmick who was my fifth grade teacher. Mr. Schmick was also a product of Gilman graduating twenty years after Finney. Like my father knew that Finney “got” it, I know that Schmick “gets” it. He was not only my homeroom teacher but also my Language Arts teacher. It was in his class where I first remember having good feelings associated with my writing. He would invite us to let our imagination run wild on paper. I remember writing a piece that mentioned most everyone in the class and when I read it aloud. They loved it! Mr. Schmick made it a “treat” and if we finished all of our work early he would allow me to read the story to the class again. He would say, “Wendini, come on up and read that story”. I know Gilman is in good hands and there are probably many schools across the country that are to be commended … but so too are the young trailblazers from all private schools from 1965-1985.

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 3 of 4)

(Continued from January 9, 2012)

I have no idea if the same ideology is still employed but back then the teachers in grades one through three were all white females. They taught the basics; reading, handwriting, composition, social studies and the like. Industrial Arts (commonly referred to as “shop”) was the only exception with one of two white male instructors. Shop was taught in the basement of another building with an enclosed drawing room and a work area that would have made any “do-it-yourselfer” proud. I don’t remember even seeing a woman so much as walk through the “shop” and my first and third grade homeroom teachers were married to the shop instructors! But once we got to the fourth grade all of my teachers were white and male. I got along and played well with everybody for the most part. I was invited to birthday parties and sleepovers and my family followed suit and did the same. I had no “behavioral problems” to speak of and managed to stay on the honor roll with consistency through the third grade and into the fourth before things started feeling different. While rummaging through old pictures and papers in preparation for this essay, I ran across one of my fourth grade report cards. I noticed that the teacher made reference to my being “scrappy”. This was a sudden and definite change in the character that had been exhibited in grades one through three. It seemed as if this new character trait was beginning to stick without anyone questioning what might be causing this previously likeable, friendly “young man” to become so “scrappy” all of the sudden.

 

 

Most of the “scraps”, of any kind, happened at recess or on the way to the gymnasium. For me, they were usually the result of being called some name or having to somehow prove my right to be there. One student used to constantly call me “motor oil boy” but because my last name was Phillips I didn’t initially hear this as an insult. Phillips 66 service stations were all across the country back then and they sold motor oil.  Being in school with the children of rich business owners, chief surgeons and law firm partners, I imagined being part of the Phillips petroleum dynasty would afford me membership to the rich kids club. Little did I know that even if my father had owned the entire city, I could never have been a member of that club. With the naiveté of a child, I would smile when he would say it … the first 100 times … then I began to look at him with a tilted head … as the fact that motor oil was black kicked in. I rushed him with fists blazing wildly. Of course, I was viewed as the aggressor because no one heard any profanity. Motor oil ain’t a bad word. And the troublemaking, “Eddie Haskell” types are always keen on where figures of authority are and when they are not nearby. But in those days, calling me or any other Black kid, “boy”, was enough to warrant a beat down. You may as well have called me “nigger”. And some did.

 

 

In January of 1977, Roots, aired on network television.  The miniseries was based on Alex Haley’s semiautobiographical book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family that follows Kunta Kinte from Gambia, West Africa to America spanning from 1750 – 1867, five years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and two years after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. I remember the air being thick with nervous anticipation in the Black community. On the one hand, we felt like the story of slavery in America was finally going to be told on a large scale from our point of view; the same story told to everyone at the same time. On the other hand, with the cynicism that accompanies centuries of murder and abuse, decades of desegregation and years filled with countless broken promises and deferred dreams; some quietly feared the Black man’s story would be whitewashed. Nevertheless, it was reported that 130-140 million viewers, as many as eighty-five percent of American households with televisions, watched all or some of Roots on ABC. Clearly, it wasn’t just Black folk who were watching. The miniseries began airing on a Sunday evening, January 23, and ran through January 30, 1977. I was in the seventh grade, a little less than a month away from my thirteenth birthday.

 

 

As that week progressed so did the depictions of mistreatment and struggle for Kunta Kinte and his descendants. I remember hoping none of my white classmates would mention anything about the miniseries. I felt, either intentionally or unintentionally, it would just come out of their mouths wrong so it was better left alone. If it had to be mentioned at all, I would rather have had it come from a teacher. Acknowledgement on that level could serve as an endorsement and would have given it even more validity. As fate would have it, the opposite happened; I don’t recall any official class time being devoted to Roots. However, I do remember it being mentioned by some of my classmates.  One encounter is to this day as vivid in my mind as if it happened only just yesterday. As you may have guessed, it was outside at recess. Now in middle school, we were much closer to the gymnasium and relegated to playing between it and the middle school building, on or around the curve of the track that served as the “home stretch” or the last leg of the relay races we used to run in gym class during the spring. There was blacktop just inside the curve that held four basketball hoops and ample field space to kick a soccer ball or toss a football around.

It was late one sunny, crisp, Baltimore morning. It was a normal, uneventful recess and then I heard it. The poor imitation of a supposed African chant rose above the snickering and laughter of a small group of troublemakers convened at the end of the track. As far as I can remember, the other Black kids were otherwise engaged with the rest of the kids or too far away to hear. I then began to make out certain words amidst the cowardly incoherent mumblings of my WASP “friends”. “Blah, blah, blah … Roots”. Giggles. I stopped. “Yada, yada, yada … slaves … back to Africa”. More giggles and snickering. I turned. “Blah, blah, blah … niggers”. I began walking toward the crowd that was now dispersing. Leaving this incident’s ring leader to fend for himself.  “What did you say?” I asked, now standing right in front of his face with fists balled at my side. It felt as if everything stopped moving. All the other games stopped and a crowd of kids began to close in around the two of us.

“Nigger!” he said. And as he swung, I blocked then countered with a shot to the gut that robbed him of the wind to produce any words much less derogatory racial epithets, as if there were any other kind. I drew back ready to deliver a hellacious left hook but by the time it reached his face my hand was wide open with fingers fully extended. When my palm made contact with his face it rang out with the loudest slap I had ever heard. As he fell back to the ground I could see his face had reddened almost instantly and his glasses were knocked off his face. The crowd moved in closer as I followed him to the ground straddling his chest with my knees pinning the great wrestler’s arms down. I drew back once again amid the cheers and jeers to “Kill’em Phillips!” Ironically, some of the cheers came from members of the original group of troublemakers that were moments ago part of the problem. He was clearly the underdog and at a definite disadvantage.  Just when I was about to unleash the blow he, while bawling, looked at me and said, “So what?! Hit me! You’re still a nigger!” With that my arm, already cocked, began to tremble and my fist shook with rage. I burst into tears and got up having never thrown the punch. I didn’t understand what had happened but I was momentarily inconsolable.

I was too young to know what I was experiencing but I remember being awestruck at the level of what I then could only describe as hate. How does a preteen child build up enough hate for another anything much less another human being?! Most people in a position of such disadvantage find some way to compromise or plead for mercy even if they are right … but to find someone to be so wrong and so defiant … someone who seemed to dislike me that much solely because of the color of my skin was heartbreaking. If I had to offer some explanation of my tears, I would have to say they were, in part, from the shame of allowing this fool to cause me to lose control and come outside of myself but my tears were also representative of the hopelessness I felt about the possibility of this ever changing. The realization that no matter how many classes or experiences we shared, some would never consider me or anyone who looked like me their equal, was disheartening at best.

By this time one of the teachers monitoring recess was rushing over to break up what I had already stopped. The bell signaling the end of recess was sounding simultaneously. While everyone else went to class my “friend” and I were marched to Head of School’s office. I am sure we must have been a sight for the Head of School.  There my “friend” was with broken glasses resting askew and half of his face reddened and swollen in a spot that, oddly enough, was shaped an awful lot like my hand and me sniffing and drying tears but untouched.

 

 

We sat together but were asked for our account of what happened independently. My “friend” spoke first and said that I “hit him in the face and broke his glasses”. Hearing no denial from me the Head of School looked to me as if to ask, “and what do you have to say, Wendell?” to which I quickly retorted, “He called me a nigger!” With that, I was sent back to class with a note explaining my delay. My “friend” stayed in the office for an extended period of time and while I have no idea what was said I do know that he had to report to detention for the better part of that week.

For those who think my punishment was really no punishment at all I suppose we could argue that point, after all, I was the aggressor but what would a fair punishment for me have looked like? If I were the Head of School what would I have done … especially if I never had to deal with a race issue like that before? This was more evidence of the murky water that Dad and Finney muddled through years before.

The unchartered waters of race relations and other culture clashes made visible an Achilles’ heel not only for private schools but society in general. There were rules on the books that seemed to unintentionally expose the cultural exclusivity of some schools. For example, here’s one rule that actually worked in favor of Black kids; there was a rule that stated your hair could not grow past your shirt collar. Well, we all wore afros and our hair grew straight up and out instead of down our neck toward the collar. We got to let our hair grow as long as we wanted. While that sounded cool to us as kids, as an adult I realized that was proof of the fact that we were never expected to be there in the first place.

My worst experiences regarding race were perpetuated by a small group of “blue-blooded”, “WASP” kids who had an elitist, untouchable air about them and their parents were loaded. They seemed to get some joy from giving me hell for being Black in much the same way they may have gotten joy from teasing a poor white kid from Arbutus or Dundalk. Whatever the reason … whatever the case … this was getting old.

(Continued January 23, 2012)

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 2 of 4)

(Continued from January 3, 2012)

I was introduced to private school without ever having to concern myself with the differences between public and private. My father was bought on to teach a Black History class in the upper school. If he wasn’t the first Black teacher he was among the first. Dad really had a love for young folk and their energy. He had started and maintained a viable and noteworthy Youth ministry at the Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland where he was the founding pastor, so working with or teaching teenagers was not foreign to him, especially not on that subject, and he loved it. What was new to Dad was working with upper middle to upper class white teenagers. The trouble was rarely with the youngster though navigating through the garbage they had been fed at home proved to be more than a slight impediment to the academic learning process.

I remember Dad telling the story of the young white student who stepped reluctantly into his classroom, head down and clearly bothered he slumped in his seat and was silent for the entire Black History class. Sensing something was obviously wrong Dad approached the boy and asked what was wrong. The youngster said that he liked learning about Black history and loved having Dad as a teacher but he would no longer be able to continue with the class. When Dad asked why, the boy replied, “I can’t … well I don’t want to say it”. After Dad reassured him that he was free to say whatever he needed to say, the boy said, “My dad says a nigger can’t teach me anything”. By this time the boy’s eyes were filled with tears. In full pastoral mode, Dad consoled him and told him not to worry. Headmaster Finney’s office was the next stop for Dad.

Redmond C.S. Finney was a warm, likeable and fair minded guy. He was visible, accessible and genuinely concerned about the well-being of each boy on that campus. It was not uncommon for Mr. Finney to show up on the playground at recess and toss a ball, or borrow some kid’s lacrosse stick to play catch with another. He may even pop up in your classroom and perform his legendary headstand. I remember being less impressed that he could do it and more impressed that he, as Headmaster of the entire school, would do it!

Finney was comfortable with a lacrosse stick or football in his hand. After all, he was an athlete’s athlete with a bowlegged, heel-to-toe gait that allowed him to be identified a mile away. His head rolled from side to side when he spoke in much the same way as any John Wayne impersonator. Putting all that together made it look as if he moved on wobbly wheels rather than feet. But none of that seemed to get in the way of his academic or athletic prowess. In fact, to this day there are only two people in the history of the NCAA to be first team All – American in two sports in the same academic year – Redmond C.S. Finney and James Nathaniel “Jim” Brown – yeah, that Jim Brown.

Mr. Finney and my father had a great relationship replete with a tremendous mutual respect. Finney was a change agent for Gilman. He and Dad had many conversations and Dad recognized that “Reddy” Finney “got” it. If that were not the case … if Dad did not believe in Finney’s willingness to do the heavy lifting that all institutionalized culture change requires, he would never have agreed to teach there and I, with absolute certainty, would not have been enrolled in the school.

Finney cared about all of the boys in that school and his concern was both genuine and palpable. He was a great internal and external ambassador for the school. Having graduated in 1947, Finney was a product of the school and had been raised with the exclusionary traditions he was now seeking to broaden to include those who were never meant to be there at the school’s inception. Yet, there was no question that Reddy bled “Blue & Gray”. Stalwart alumni and supporters knew this and where they may have hurled pejoratives at someone else in the face of perceived threats to tradition, they believed in Finney even if they didn’t necessarily believe in the change he was championing.

In spite of the mutual respect, Dad knew his primary responsibility was to the God he was called to serve and the congregation of the young church he pastored. He viewed the instance with the young student as more of a preview of coming attractions and, in all honesty, didn’t have the patience to wage these small battles when he was already engaged in the war for equality and justice on a much larger scale that impacted many more people. Both men knew and expected to muddle through uncomfortable moments, for all parties involved were in unchartered waters: administration, faculty, student and parent.

Dad knew that fighting the proverbial good fight , while important, was no more important than knowing when the fight isn’t yours – doesn’t mean the fight is not worthy … it’s just not yours. Fighting with those who would fight against Gilman’s culture change was both a good and worthy fight but it wasn’t Dad’s fight. More poignantly, it was Finney’s fight and with the tenacity of an All-American football center, he was up to the challenge. He was passionate about the changes he was ushering in but that doesn’t mean there weren’t setbacks and hiccups – like the situation Dad endured – along the way.

Dad left Gilman’s faculty around ’71 or ’72, when I was in the second grade. Because he taught in the upper school and the schedules were so different from the lower school schedules, our paths never crossed so I never missed the fact that Dad wasn’t there. I continued through lower and middle school without ever knowing that incident with the young white student ever occurred. It was never brought up or discussed around me. While I was one of only two Blacks through the first, second and third grades (with no more than five or six in the entire lower school at that time) life in the lower school, for the most part, was pretty cool. Things didn’t begin to become “different” until the fourth grade.

(Continued January 16, 2012)

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 1 of 4)

PROLOGUE

In the mid to late 1960’s, a generation of unwitting trailblazers learned to navigate unsure waters and relationships by constructing new bridges built on the hopes and dreams of their parents. In spite of the culture clashes they would experience along the way, they were still expected to make grades indicative of any student who had obtained the privilege to matriculate at such “prestigious” institutions. Yet the effects of these clashes, though varying in intensity, lingered. The results of these socio-intellectual experiments met levels of success that were equally varied but that was to be expected. Change was coming and there was nothing that could be done to stop it.

In June of 1963, Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway. In November of that same year President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. On July 2, 1964 the Civil Rights Act was enacted. A little more than six months later, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was killed. Wednesday evening, April 3, 1968, while speaking to a group assembled at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. requested that America “be true to what you said on paper”.  Less than twenty-four hours later presidential candidate Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy would help spread word across the nation that Dr. King had been shot dead.  Almost 200 years came and went between the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence and the last words Dr. King would utter in public.

Two months later, in June of ’68, Bobby Kennedy, himself, was killed.  And we were waist deep in the-war-that-wasn’t-a-war that divided our country in ways not seen since the Civil War. It had become crystal clear that change was not high on America’s list of priorities. Our big cities were being destroyed with riots spawned by the outrage of one America that feared change and another America hell bent on assuring its arrival. And in that same year, some seventy-one years after its opening, The Gilman School for Boys (and I will assume schools like it across the county) graduated its first Black students … all four of them. In 1969 we put a man on the moon. And just one year later, in August of 1970, against the backdrop of all the aforementioned, the six year old son of a uniquely radical yet prominent Baltimore City preacher and the secretary for the first Black elected Judge to the Circuit Court of Baltimore City began his first day of private school.

There were revelations and epiphanies galore. Myths were debunked and stereotypes destroyed while new ones were created. Lines were crossed and conclusions were drawn. Feelings were hurt, friends were made, identities were lost … and some were found. But change was coming! There were fights and there were truces; confusion and clarity. There was humor and humiliation. But change was coming! There was confrontation and denial. There were cheers and there was the “gnashing of teeth”. There was Black and there was White. There was Jew and there was Gentile. There was Asian, European, Latino, Mediterranean and Indian. There was gay and there was straight.  And still others who sat on the fence trying to figure all this stuff out. Yet change kept coming! There was teaching and there was learning. There was fear and there was faith that each would grow to recognize the other’s worth. And, thank God, change kept on coming!  Not all experiences were positive and not all were negative but whatever the experience, all lives involved were changed; mine among them.

We were students in these schools at a unique juncture in both America’s history and the history of the schools we were attending. In fact, some of us even made history at these schools. Life’s hard, social lessons and racial tensions were neither part of the curriculum nor were they intentionally exacerbated by the administration, faculty or staff. But it was “out there”. They – social lessons, race and classism – found their way to the playground at recess or the quarter mile jaunt from the lower school to the gymnasium.  Though equality was now a legislative reality, socially it tarried; even, and at times, especially in private schools.

Many, if not all, of us were the first in our family to attend a private school. Our parents stuffed their dreams in our pockets, zipped up their hope in our jackets and sent us on our way – to an academic “promised land” that would all but guarantee a scholarship to “any college we choose”. Some of us were ridiculed in school for being too Black then maligned once more upon our return to our neighborhoods for not being Black enough or “talkin’ white or “thinking you are better than us”. Still others made it through relatively unscathed … or so they’d like to believe.  All in all, our experiences were rich; our stories compelling, empowering and deserved of being told.

(Continued January 9, 2012)

The Black Community & Mayor Clarence H. “Du” Burns

January of 2012 will mark 25 years since The Honorable Clarence “Du” Burns held office as the first Black mayor of Baltimore City, Maryland. The “Du” in his name was fabled and symbolized the fact that Clarence Burns was a person who could “get things done”.

In the late 1940’s Mr. Burns helped to deliver the Black vote for then Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. (Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s Dad) which helped get Burns the job as a shower attendant at East Baltimore’s Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School. Word of his ability to get things done began to spread … so much so that his middle name may just as well have been “Do”.  

And so the “Do” was adopted as his trademark. I suppose spelling it with the “Du” gave more of a surname prefix feel. I would wager there are still a good number of folk would be amazed to know that his last name – as far as Uncle Sam was concerned – was “Burns”. Nevertheless, I am anxious to see how loudly and how clearly the name Clarence “Du” Burns will ring when January 2012 rolls around … or if there will be any real mention of his legacy at all.

When Mayor William Donald Schaefer headed to the Governor’s Mansion in 1987, “Du”Burns, who was the sitting President of the Baltimore City Council, moved into the Mayor’s office to finish out the remainder of Schaefer’s term. “Du” Burns and Schaefer knew each other and worked well together. With Schaefer moving to the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis and “Du”Burns in the Mayor’s slot, Baltimore was well positioned to benefit from both a Mayor and a Governor who knew Baltimore intimately. The fact that Schaefer and “Du”Burns got along well together could only be viewed as a plus … but there were those who felt differently.

Baltimore had been an industrial, blue collar town for many decades but times were changing and the industrial age was coming quickly to an end. Bethlehem Steel and the General Motors plants were closing. Good paying jobs were being lost and undereducated workers were going to be at a tremendous loss if they could not get back to work. Schaefer, ½ Vaudeville showman and ½ mayor but all politician, sprang into action! He began to focus, almost totally, on the revival, reconstruction and repurposing of Baltimore’s inner harbor. One minute he was playing “Trashball” in an effort to promote keeping the city clean and the next minute he donned (no pun intended) an old fashioned bathing suit – replete with sun hat, water toy  and mermaid – in an effort to lure the National Aquarium to Baltimore. He was successful.

William Donald Schaefer became known for what some would call a home grown charm and appeal but he was just as well known for his temper with those who disagreed with or criticized him and could be quite snarky. Billowing in the wings of Baltimore’s cirque de politique was an intelligent group of young, ambitious Blacks who had grown tired of Schaefer, his antics and their belief that he lacked the urgency necessary to remedy the tragedy that had become the socio-economic condition of many of the city’s poor folk. They saw the harbor thriving while the entire public school system and neighborhoods, less than one mile in any direction from the harbor, languished.

Famed attorney, fellow native son and former Circuit Court Judge Billy Murphy, Jr. rolled the angst and impatience of many Baltimoreans into a fiery campaign against Schaefer in 1983. Murphy believed that Schaefer’s neglect of neighborhoods was apodictic rendering his challenge (Schaefer’s camp would probably chose “attack”) both necessary and inevitable.

The 1983 Murphy vs. Schaefer campaign caused further division in the Black community. There were a large number of Blacks, particularly in Edmondson Village, the area in Baltimore’s western region that was Schaefer’s birthplace, who loved William Donald Schaefer. They felt a victory for Schaefer was a victory for Edmondson Village. In like fashion, an attack on Schaefer was an attack on Edmondson Village. But Murphy could not be easily dismissed. He had an electrical engineering degree from MIT and a J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law. Billy Murphy possessed the rare coupling of intellect and pedigree but his unbridled passion made some uneasy and was viewed as reckless by many of the “old guard” Black politicos. The campaign devolved and become less about issues and more about personalities. In the end, the race wasn’t even close. Schaefer won handily but his Achilles’ heel was exposed in the process; “Schaefer didn’t like criticism and (Murphy) was full of it during the campaign.”

As time moved on more of these “young guns” became prominant. None were as quick on the draw as Murphy, but they were all just as ambitious. They believed that if “Du” Burns were to be elected mayor he would be nothing more than Schaefer’s puppet, paving the way for at least four more years of “Schaefer-esk” policies, neglect and further despair for neighborhoods and the public school system.

One of these young, ambitious Blacks was Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Kurt L. Schmoke. Here was yet another young, native son who was intelligent and had been to the “best” schools in the land. In 1967 he entered Yale and after graduating in 1971 he studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University then went on to get his J.D. from Harvard. Twenty years after entering Yale, Kurt Schmoke was running to be the first elected Black mayor of Baltimore City … against the first Black Mayor, one Clarence “Du” Burns.

“Du” Burns was no longer a “shoe-in” for the post. Quite to the contrary, many people jumped aboard the Kurt Schmoke bandwagon primarily based upon his education, though I doubt many (if any) will be honest enough to admit that fact. The irony was that a great number of those folk had less education than “Du” Burns and much more in common with him than with Schmoke. And if we didn’t know then we need only to look to President Obama to learn political prowess and expediancy have more to do with relationship building and trust than intellect.

When the Sunpaper and other polls showed that “Du” Burns was trailing Schmoke badly (some had Burns as many as 30 points behind ) all the “smart” (pun intended) money got behind Schmoke making it extremely difficult for the “Du” Burns campaign to raise money. As one might be able to discern – lack of education, age and inability to raise money (based on what the polls were showing) – all of these factors hurt “Du” Burns’ chances tremendously. The Schaefer connection cut both ways … in some areas of the city it was a help, while in others, it was a hindrance.

Many were expecting a landslide victory for Schmoke, but he only won by about 5,000 votes. It was one of the most competitive elections in Baltimore City Mayoral history. With all that “Du” Burns had to contend with you could almost call that a victory for someone many thought would never amount to much more than a high school shower attendant.

You may ask how I came to know so much about this particular race and if you did I would reply, “Because my father was ‘Du’ Burn’s campaign manager”. Below you will find what Dad wrote in his journal regarding timing, respect, the oneness of the Black community and why he supported, believed and worked for and with Clarence H. “Du” Burns for Mayor of Baltimore City.

Wendell F. Phillips (August 2011)

“Power and growth within the Black Community is dependent upon, at the very least, the following:

  1. The integrity of each individual’s commitment to the overall agenda of the Community.
  2.  The subjugation of personal agendas for the agenda of the Community.
  3.  Each individual’s commitment to heal.
  4.  The commitment to true community (not to be confused with uniformity) must transcend all other commitments and drives, be   they religious, political, social, educational or financial.
  5.  Singleness of purpose and vision: the liberation of all, yea, even the least of these!
  6. Willingness to risk by reaching out and down for a brother or sister who has lost all hope.
  7. A thorough understanding and appreciation of our unique history and struggle that we might better understand from whence we’ve come and that we are where we are in life only through the grace of God and because others who have lived before us were willing to make the supreme sacrifice! There is an interconnectedness which must be passed on from generation to generation.
  8.  A trusting of each other for our destinies are intertwined!
  9. A commitment to look for God in each other rather than searching for that which divides us and causes us to dehumanize one another by labeling each other. (There is a part of each of the disciples within each of us, yea even Judas!)
  10. We must realize that when we encounter those who think differently than we do, the moment of encounter calls for celebration of their uniqueness not denunciation. As they may be difficult to endure for the moment, each one of us has his/her moments of being difficult with others!

I say all this to say that an enormous amount of blood, sweat & tears has been shed in the struggle to achieve one of the high priorities of our total community … a Black mayor of Baltimore City! Finally, through the grace of God and perseverance, we have one, the Honorable Mayor Clarence ‘Du’ Burns!

But now, even before he begins to take the reins, there are those who wish to unseat him and risk losing mayoralty altogether, sending the total community back to square one! Why? Because some ‘don’t like the way he talks’ or ‘he hasn’t been to college’ or ‘he’s just a shower attendant’! But does it not make a significant statement on his behalf that he has been able to move up from a shower clerk to city councilman to President of City Council and finally to Mayor?

The real mark of a man and his character is NOT determined by the heights he may achieve but rather the depths out which he has climbed! Certainly, God has had a hand in the Mayor’s journey! One would also have to admit that the Mayor must have accumulated a tremendous wealth of knowledge about City government and the politics of getting things done. And now, after all the struggle and grief that the Mayor and his family have endured, as he comes to the sunset of his career and life, there are those who not only would oust him but risk our –Blacks – losing the mayoralty for good!

Certainly Mayor ‘Du’ Burns has weak points – so do we all! But why not, where ‘Du’ is weak, shore him up? That’s the history of our whole struggle from Day 1! Can you imagine a more positive statement or a brighter ray of hope for all young Blacks than ‘Du’ being ‘Mr. Mayor’? It says no matter how humble your beginnings, if you have the faith, determination, singleness of purpose and commitment, there is no height to which you cannot ascend!

We now have a city with the major pieces in place; a Black mayor, a Black state’s attorney, a Black city solicitor, a Black superintendent of education and a Black police commissioner … the question is, WHY RISK IT ALL BY PITTING ONE AGAINST THE OTHER, THUS SPLITTING OUR COMMUNITY, ONCE AGAIN, RATHER THAN WORKING AND STRATEGIZING TOGETHER ON BEHALF OF ALL THOSE BEHIND THE “GLITTER” CAUGHT UP IN SEEMINGLY HOPELESS DESPAIR?!  I strongly believe that wisdom and compassion would advise a better alternative: Mayor ‘Du’, the elder and his family deserves an opportunity to be Mayor for four years and then a smooth transition to the “younger” (who would be learning much about the politics of city government and getting things done). We, as a community, cannot continuously fracture and segment ourselves each and every election and then ask afterward, ‘Why can’t we get together?’

The piece we ought be fighting for, which is NOT in place, is ten seats in the City Council! That would be a much more productive and beneficial endeavor for all of us; for if we insist on spilling blood on the mayoralty, the fall-out will negatively impact every other political race in the city and we will lose!

Isn’t it strange that Jesus wasn’t embarrassed by His disciples even though they left much to be desired?! They were just twelve ordinary men … some of whom were crude, rough fishermen! No orators, certainly not scholars but men who had a desire to serve their fellow man! But their experience enabled them to deal with the most powerful of all principalities. ‘Du’ may not be the most learned of all men … he may not have the eloquence of a King but he does have the ‘toughness’ and know-how bestowed upon him by years and years of struggling just to survive and lift himself up. That is what’s needed in these difficult days in which we are presently living. Degrees, has ‘Du’ none but scars from the struggle, many!

Do we let our own struggle to the top just so we can topple them once there or do we enable them to remain there a few years by strengthening them where they are weak and working along with them to make sure they have the best administration ever? Do we not realize that what happens to the first Black mayor, especially, makes a statement about all of us?! Do we honor him and thank him for persevering to this point or do we just toss him aside?

In short, though Du’s politics may differ from some, his struggle has been just as real as many and, in some cases, more severe than most of our own. In spite of all he’s been through, Du has achieved and made history for us all. Let us thank the man, respect his achievements gained against all odds and honor Du as MAYOR CLARENCE ‘DU’ BURNS, THE FIRST BLACK (ELECTED) MAYOR OF BALTIMORE CITY, who has worked the system well to our advantage. His being mayor makes a powerful statement, chocked full of hope, to all those young Blacks caught in that quagmire of hopelessness and despair which says,  ‘It is possible, if only you would dare to dream!’ ”

Rev. Wendell H. Phillips (1987)