Friday, March 26, 2010

Al Allen

One Easter season Al Allen, a man from a previous generation, took pity on a young couple with no family in town, and invited us over for an Easter dinner. As we made our way down his stairs to where a larger than normal table was set up to accommodate us, we stepped into what could have been a Greenville County black history museum.

Every inch of wall space in the finished basement was covered with photographs, certificates, and various nostalgic paraphernalia. There was a young Al with a football team, with some man in a suit, with a group of men in suits, pictures of buildings I had never seen, and some pictures of buildings I had seen. The images were all in black and white, but the people were all black. He told me tales of when he met with so and so, or worked on a commission with you know who, none of who's names I knew then or can remember now; except Sterling Field.

I played rugby on Sterling Field three times a week. It was in the less attractive part of town, we had to share the field with local little league football teams, but it was the cheapest field around for a low budget sports club. "Used to be a great field," Mr. Allen told me matter of factly. "Yeah? What happened to it?" I asked, not really caring as I was more interested in the images on the wall than his list of unrecognized names. His answer to my half hearted question got my full attention.

He told me how Sterling High school used to have the best football team around. It was the county's black school and the pride of all who went there. The kids got a top notch education, the community loved the place, and to top it all off, they won football games. Then came integration.

Integration didn't happen all at once. Like most things, first rumors started, then meetings were held, and finally maybe a couple years later, something would happen. It was the late 60's and the writing was on the wall, the whole state knew it was coming. Word came that Sterling would not be closed, sending their students off to other schools, but rather white kids were to be sent there. This was a top performing school both in academics and on the field; it was going to be a great example and the Sterling community was guardedly excited. Then, the year before it was to integrate...

It burned to the ground.

It caught fire the night of prom and burned down to stubble. The school was never rebuilt, and in 1970 all the kids were bussed off to other schools.

As he told the story there was no anger or resentment in his voice. He was just an older guy telling a "back in the day" story. He moved right from that story to showing me his collection of R&B records. The rest of the night consisted of great food, his wife chiding him for trying to smoke in doors when a baby was in the house, and him later giving that baby a stuffed rabbit the size of a live horse. I've never been the best at keeping in touch and I have no idea how Al Allen is today. I wonder how he is, but I never do anything.

Travelers and visitors to Greenville would never know stories like this, and that is just fine. Everywhere has its ghosts; they need not be put on constant display. So if you ever find yourself half way between Atlanta and Charlotte, enjoy it. Visit the Reedy River with its stunning bridge, get some jewelry at the Beaded Frog, and as you look at the confederate flags. know that Sterling field used to be nice.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tuskegee Airmen

An oft ignored or unknown aspect of post emancipation America is the systematic crushing of black dreams. Those of my generation have always known, or been taught, of the first black this, or first black that. The initial astronaut, millionaire, Oscar winner, or president, have been praised. They have been praised to such an extent that the significance and relevance of such achievements have been lost, rendering the names trivial. Those cynical, young, or simply white, oft find it difficult to not drift towards the all encompassing, “so what.”

I turned off my prescribed path to follow a sign announcing a Tuskegee Airmen Memorial. I was nowhere near Alabama, North Africa, or even a military base. I was intrigued. I found myself at an isolated South Carolina field that had at one time, just a short time, served as an airstrip servicing the squadron of black airmen while in training. There was a small statue under a tree, a couple of plaques explaining some history, and an old searchlight.
The plaques explained that in an effort to squelch the new squadron, officials required all applicants to have a college degree and flight experience. Those same officials were astounded at the number of men who qualified. To that surprise is where my thoughts wandered.

We have been taught, indoctrinated, with the ideal of the American dream. We have been raised with the expectation that in America if you work hard, if you try, you will achieve. I was told by my teachers, my parents, my politics, by my very culture, that I must learn, work, and try. If I did, my goals would be realized. All these African-American firsts helped to prove this. A memorial to the Airmen helped me realize otherwise.

Those surprised officials believed the dream. These Americans had misjudged their culture’s ability to elevate the able. They saw the lack of black doctors, professors, lawyers, and black professionals as proof that black people lacked qualifications. In the land of meritocracy it was assumed that the disparity in achievement was a direct result of who had, or did not have, merit. They were proved wrong. How did they get it so wrong?

Slaves were not allowed to read or write, yet there was still a Frederick Douglass. After Emancipation schools were opened and quickly flooded with students. Most of our books or lessons plot this point on the timeline and chart a vertical trajectory in dramatic fashion. The subsequent glossing over of all that transpired between then and the civil rights movement has left us blind to things we still don’t want to see. All those firsts were not the first qualified, they were the first allowed.

For every one who achieved there were many who had previously learned and worked hard only to be thwarted. They were not held back by inadequacy but by America. W.E.B. Dubois, the first black man to graduate with a PhD from Harvard, a man now considered one of the United States greatest sociologists, was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania to do research and teach their students, but was denied a seat as professor. He could teach the students, but not be recognized as a teacher. Fisk, Howard, Morehouse, and even Harvard and Yale, produced black graduates long before the greater society produced black professionals. It seems the speed of work, education, and legislation, were outpaced by locked doors, hard heads, and burnt crosses.

America is the land of dreams, the land of opportunity? Yes, but it is, and has also been, a land littered with the remnants of crushed dreams and dashed aspirations. Our country has created for itself a dual past and a checkered present. Some were elevated and rewarded, others filled full of hope only to have it pushed back into the ground from which it sprung. Things were not fair. Things were never meant to be completely fair. That is true no matter one's race just as it is true that any man or woman stands a better chance of progress in America than any other land. We can hold our heads high but should never do so with eyes closed. If America is to pride herself in all the firsts she helped create, she must also admit that she is the one who stopped many other firsts from happening.

But the firsts have come. As I looked at the bronze bust of a brown pilot looking up at the sky, I smiled cynically. I smiled because it made perfect sense why these pilots showed no fear of German planes. It was obvious why they proved so adept at avoiding enemy flak. These were men who had a lifetime of having their dreams being shot down. They had previously been trained under ‘friendly fire.’ That is the real triumph of these airmen. I cannot, nor do I know anyone who can, tell me the name of any of these heroes. I can find no real record of any of them later reaching some notable milestone. They weren’t remarkable for any one event or battle. What made them special is that they existed and despite the anti-aircraft fire from home, they still had wings and flew.