Obituary: Kenneth E. Whitlock / Star Sewickley athlete, first black Marine from area
Kenneth Whitlock, a star Sewickley athlete who became the first black Marine from Allegheny County and then spent three decades as a school administrator in Virginia, died Tuesday. He was 91.
He lived in McCandless and had gained some acclaim locally with his 2000 book, "Breaking Barriers," which recounted his experiences in facing racial prejudice in the segregated Marine Corps during World War II and at home after the war.
"Young people don't know what went on in the past," he said in a 2005 interview with his hometown newspaper, the Sewickley Herald. "It's important for all races to know what happened because racism is still going on today. What I want is for kids to think. Just to think."
Fiercely proud of his heritage -- he counted 18th-century scholar Benjamin Banneker among his ancestors -- he had served as commander of Sewickley's mostly black American Legion Post 450 and helped piece together the history of local Tuskegee Airmen, famous black aviators who fought the Luftwaffe in the skies of Europe while battling racism in their own military.
Regis Bobonis Sr., a Sewickley historian, said he and Mr. Whitlock started researching the airmen in 1997. A memorial honoring them is now under construction in Sewickley Cemetery, and the big-budget movie "Red Tails" is generating national attention.
Seven of those airmen came from Sewickley.
"He loved two things besides his wife: The Tuskegee Airmen and the Marines," Mr. Bobonis said. "He was a great personality, a very strong people-person, easy to talk to."
Born in 1920 in Sewickley, Mr. Whitlock was the son of Frank Whitlock Sr., the first black athlete on Sewickley High School's football team in 1906. Known as "Snake Hips," his skill at halfback led to the creation of the Frank W. Whitlock Memorial Award given every year to the best running back at Quaker Valley High School.
Kenneth Whitlock followed his father into athletics, playing baseball and football and earning a scholarship to Virginia State College for Negroes. He told the Sewickley Herald he sought in sports refuge from prejudice.
"We couldn't go to the movies or even [play on] the YMCA's grass," he said. "This wasn't just Sewickley, it was all of Alle-gheny County. We weren't even allowed to try on shoes. Women weren't allowed to try on dresses or even go to most parts of Pittsburgh. We weren't allowed to go to the Sewickley Theatre at all; we had to go to Coraopolis."
When the war came, Mr. Whitlock enlisted in the Marines as a member of an all-black combat unit, the 51st Defense Battalion based in North Carolina. In his book and elsewhere, he described the strange reaction he faced in the South as a black Marine, preparing to fight for his country yet not able to use the same facilities as white Marines.
"People in the South were used to disrespecting blacks, but they weren't used to disrespecting Marines," he told the Sewickley paper. "So when they saw me, they weren't really sure what to do."
He shipped out to the Marshalls and other Pacific islands near the end of the war, but his unit never saw combat.
Mr. Whitlock returned to school, where he met his first wife, Sarah, and changed his major from agriculture to physical education. In 1948, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1993, he became the first black man and the first American to play for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. After just two games, however, he went back to Virginia to get his master's degree in education.
In 1953, he embarked on a long career as a principal in various schools in the Richmond district while raising his three children. The family later moved to Reston, Va., where Mr. Whitlock took an administrative position with the Fairfax County school system.
After his retirement in 1986, he moved back to Pittsburgh with his second wife, Melusena. They settled in McCandless, but Mr. Whitlock remained active in Sewickley as a member of the historical society, the St. Matthews A.M.E. Zion Church, the American Legion and the Senior Men's Club at the YMCA.
Besides his wife, Mr. Whitlock is survived by his children, Linda Whitlock and Kenneth Whitlock Jr., both of Massachusetts, and Renee Chargois of California; and a sister, Marion Whitlock-Jones of Washington, D.C.
There will be no visitation. The family is planning a service for the summer.
Memorial donations may be sent to the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Project, P.O. Box 183, Sewickley, PA 15143.
First Published February 4, 2012 12:00 am