I’ve been a one-person vanguard, though it’s not a job I signed up for.
In 1974, as an eighth-grader, I became, to the best of my knowledge, the first African-American to play basketball for the former St. James Catholic School in Wilkinsburg.
I always wore that status lightly, however. Although I knew in the back of my mind that I was making a statement and opening the door for others behind me, I never felt that was my purpose.
I was there because I could help the team win games, which we certainly did. That year we lost only three, to the teams that met in the diocesan championship; St. Catherine in Beechview, which beat us twice, ended up taking the state. We swept our section, winning each game by double-digit margins if I remember correctly, and were crowned champion of two tournaments, the first in school history.
Crossing those lines has since become somewhat of a lifestyle for me.
My mom got this to a certain extent. Over the last few years we’ve talked about my childhood and adolescence, during which I broke other barriers, often to her consternation (she’s my mother, after all). She said she appreciated that someone had to put his toe in the water, “But did it have to be my son?”
“It was your son,” I said, because I knew even at that age that I could take a lot of crap. And, truth be told, it turned out to be far less than I anticipated.
I occasionally also talked about this with the late James Kelly Jr., who retired as dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh just before marrying Mom. Since my stepfather, too, was a pioneer of sorts — no African-American had held his position before — he ran into some issues, but rarely if ever did I detect any bitterness on his part. Most notably, he was not at first offered membership in the University Club upon his ascension because of his color; however, he eventually got in because university chancellor Wes Posvar, a close friend, refused to belong unless Mr. Kelly also was admitted.
On April 15, Major League Baseball will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, when all players will wear his now-retired No. 42 in recognition of the first game he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
I didn’t know until last year that there was never an outright statutory ban on black ballplayers; baseball owners simply agreed among themselves at the turn of the last century not to sign them, possibly because of the large number of Southerners on their rosters. The inaugural MLB commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who insisted on maintaining that stance, certainly didn’t help matters.
Anyway, Mr. Robinson was tapped not because he was the best black ballplayer, although he was certainly very good. He got the assignment because, in the eyes of Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who had vowed to integrate the game, Mr. Robinson had the ability to undergo the inevitable abuse. Mr. Rickey also wanted a cohesive, winning team with someone or something to rally around, and he surmised that the most effective way to do that was to get his teammates to respond with indignation whenever a slur was directed toward Mr. Robinson — because he would become, in effect, their brother. And that’s exactly what happened.
I don’t think many folks understood or appreciated the steel that it took to withstand the maltreatment without reacting in anger.
For that reason I had no patience with other African-Americans who had it pretty good but constantly complained about mistreatment. I saw this primarily in college, where black students groused about feeling isolated and that the campus community was, shall we say, insensitive.
Of course it was, because the other students and faculty were dealing with an unknown quantity; it takes relationships to bridge the gap, but most of the African-Americans I knew at the time showed no interest in promoting them. Even Martin Luther King Jr., to this day considered the standard-bearer for racial justice, was always focused on reconciliation, which wasn’t popular with a lot of black Americans at the time.
By the way, St. James’s star center (white), whom I originally met at what was then the Shadyside Boys Club, was a long-time friend, and my mother knew the principal (also white).
About four years ago I became aware that St. James has been holding annual reunions during the last weekend in September, and I haven’t missed one since. My class, 1975, has always comprised the largest contingent of alumni, many of whom were cheerleaders back then, and I always enjoy visiting with them.
So far I’ve been the only person of color who’s attended, but I never just “represent.”
I’m also one of them.
Rick Nowlin is a Post-Gazette news assistant (412-263-3871 or firstname.lastname@example.org).