This being black history month, what follows is some black history from a personal viewpoint:
In Oakwood, Okla., where I was born, and in Veteran, Wyo., where I lived for a time as a very young lad, there were no blacks. But, in Veteran, we learned something about mixing and getting along. At sugar beet harvest time, many Mexican families came north to work. They were called “beet toppers” and they brought along young kids my brothers and I played with as both sides overcame the language barrier.
In Britton, Okla., where I did most of my growing up, I remember hearing black people talked about, and always referred to with the “n” word by young and old alike.
Britton supposedly had a law saying no black person could be in the city limits after dark. This probably was an unwritten law, known as “Jim Crow” law. It was a rarity to see a black person in Britton any time, and it never happened at night.
I learned the implications of the “n” word and “Jim Crow” early, but I didn’t develop any feeling for blacks until an incident at the State Fair in Oklahoma City made me think for the first time what it must be like to be black.
A Britton friend anf I were at the Fair and heard some big-city boys plotting to start what they called an “n” fight. We followed them at a distance, and sure enough, they soon were in a gang fight with blacks, and had a crowd cheering them on.
If that didn’t do it for me, another incident shortly after that did. A friend in Oklahoma City invited me to accompany him to visit some relatives who were prosperous farmers in Kentucky. It was a nice trip, but spoiled at dinner one night when the head of the family told me about the time some good ol’ boys took an “n” prisoner from the local jail, tied him to the back of a car, soaked him in gasoline, set fire to him, and dragged him through “n” town, “to teach all of them a lesson.”
When my friend and I let it be known we didn’t think that was anything to be proud of, he said we should end our visit and go home. Which we did.
I never went to school with blacks, and had very little contact with them. I grew up in a segregated society, with separate water fountains, toilets and seating arrangements. Blacks couldn’t live where we lived, or eat or rent a room where we did, and I didn’t think about it. If you said “black” to me, I’d think first of Amos ‘n Andy of radio fame.
In my first year of college I played basketball at Oklahoma City University, and in Wichita one night we played against a couple of blacks. It was a first for all of us, and we did a lot of talking about it, but there was no problem, not even a redneck suggesting we refuse to play against them.
After college, through the 1950s, I worked on newspapers in Texas and in Topeka, and a lot of barriers came down. Colleges started actively recruiting black players, and the color line disappeared throughout sports. And, the Topeka Owls suited up their first two black baseball players.
Outfielder Solly Drake and catcher Milt Bohannon were Chicago Cub farmhands at the time, but when they were sent here to play they weren’t welcomed by everyone. They had to live with black families and eat in black cafes, at home and on the road, and they had to earn acceptance and respect the hard way.
It wasn’t easy for them, or for me, writing about them. Every time I’d write something, I’d get unsigned hate mail and anonymous calls, calling them and me the usual names. It got so bad it inspired my wife and me to invite them to our house for a Fourth of July feast. We had a good time, and so did our kids, who were in awe of them. Black or white, these were real baseball players.
To be honest, I’m not sure what it meant to the two players, but I know it did a lot for me. It seemed to me a good way to respond to ignorance.
I don’t know what became of Milt Bohannon. Solly Drake made it to the big leagues for a time, and now is a minister in Los Angeles. We talked not so long ago, and he can laugh now about being segregated in Topeka.
The two Owls were firsts for me, but over the years there have been many more like them I’ve known, worked with, played golf with, interviewed and what have you. But all the time I was aware of the black history of segregation, riots, lynchings, murders, burning churches, police brutality and varying degrees of racism.
I knew all about a society featuring signs reading “Whites only” and “Colored” and when I ask myself now what I did about it, I have to answer, not much. Like most Americans, I was mostly just a spectator. We all know now we should have done more.