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

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 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)