Civil rights and antiwar activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on March 4, 1968. It was a real eye-opener for me, a time to reflect on what was wrong with white America, especially in the South. The reaction to the shooting from students and teachers at St. Christopher’s was so venomously racist and hateful I can’t bear to acknowledge what was said then—or by whom.
Papa’s reaction befuddled me. Normally quite progressive in racial matters, he switched gears once James Earl Ray was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport and charged with Dr. King’s murder. Papa believed Ray was an unwitting pawn, used by the anti-King faction of the National Baptist Convention—not the Hoover-led FBI or any other part of the government—to stir up civil unrest. Rather than let off some steam from a soapbox, he chose instead to validate those who made crude and meritless remarks about Negroes.
That was certainly not the type of modeled behavior I expected from my male role model. It had hard enough not to have a real dad—yes, I loved and acknowledged my biological father, but I did not want to grow up to be like him. I had preferred taking my cues from my grandfather, but now I wasn’t sure. The luster and shine of Henry Starke Hotchkiss had been sufficiently tarnished.
That summer, matters went from bad to worse. Papa found himself forced to hire a second yardman, a black man much younger and stronger than the elderly black gentleman who’d worked at Halsnochsince itsinception. To Papa’s credit, he let the old “grinder” keep his job and dignity. But he never gave the new hire a chance to prove himself. He kept comparing him to the incumbent, knowing full well that, as a product of the times, he’d never find another man so loyal, hardworking, and trustworthy. “You can’t trust these new nigras,” Papa would say. “They just want too much.”
And he didn’t stop there. He claimed the new yardman had been stealing lawn equipment from the garage, a large detached building in plain view of the big house, with several stalls used to safeguard lawn mowers and a variety of yard implements. If the suspect had been white, my grandfather would have settled the matter quickly with words—and a shot of whiskey. But since the man was black, Papa wanted to catch him in the act and teach him a lesson he’d never forget. I was made to sit sentry at the bedroom window with a loaded Winchester pointed at a key point of entry to the garage. I’d never shot a thing in my life, not even a tin can, but there I was in hot pursuit of a fellow human being. Papa had replaced the buckshot in the shells with rice, and I was instructed to shoot the man in the ass, on sight. Mercifully, I sat there with my eyes closed until the end of my shift, and nothing went missing.
This exposure to Papa’s racism became the catalyst for my newfound support of the civil rights movement. I wore “Free Bobby Seale” buttons to school, advocating the release of the jailed Black Panther. I traveled by bus to the slums of East Richmond and bought my vinyl 45-RPM records from the Churchill Record Shop—paying at least a 40-percent premium over the price charged at Gary’s, where white Richmond shopped.
I also started adding more “color” to my schoolwork. After all, St. Christopher’s was an Episcopal school and preached racial diversity—or so I thought.
Every eighth grade student at St. Christopher’s was required to complete a year-long research project and present it orally to the student body before graduating middle school. The typical project focused on a notable colonial man or woman whose portrait hung in the school hallway. But I chose the path never traveled and researched a group of local radio personalities who were very much alive and making a difference in the poorer half of our community.
The idea popped into my head like the refrain of a hit song. These local soul legends had founded the seminal black radio station, WANT, in 1951. I tuned in regularly to its 990-AM frequency and bought most of my records based on the music I heard there. That got me in the door. When I went to the station for my first interview with veteran disc jockey John “Tiger Tom” Mitchell, he asked if I knew the derivation of the station’s call letters. I had no clue and became worried that he might terminate the interview due to my lack of homework.
“With All Negro Talent,” he cackled, exactly the way he did on air.
We clicked from that moment on. My presentation at school concluded with a recorded message from Tiger Tom instructing the judges to award me an A for my creativity and innovation. That’s exactly what I received, along with a standing ovation from half of the faculty and students.
The other half didn’t take kindly to my presentation. Aside from overlooking true Southern patriots like Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Robert E. Lee, I had also crossed the color barrier. I received a barrage of “nigger lover” comments that fortified my resolve to open people’s minds.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish