A lesson in race relations

By Jim Whitt

There was one summertime activity that dominated all others growing up in my little hometown of Shidler, Oklahoma — baseball. And no one loved baseball more than my father. It would be hard to count the boys who grew up playing on teams he coached. The first league he coached in that I can remember consisted of two teams — the Mules and the Frogs. As I recall, my brother Marc played for the Mules.

A few years later Dad coached the town team Marc played for and I was the batboy. The team won their league and advanced to the district championship. Each league champion was allowed to select a member from another team in the league to play for them in the championship tournament. Dad selected Billy Elston, a pitcher from Pawnee. Dad arranged for my mother to pick up Billy in Pawnee and take him to meet the team in Claremore where the team would be staying for the tournament which was to be played in nearby Pryor.

It was a sweltering summer day when my mother and I pulled up in front of Billy’s house. We climbed the steps to the front porch and Billy’s mother met us at the screen door. Even though she had agreed to allow Billy to play for our team we discovered she had changed her mind. She had no intentions of opening the screen door, let alone letting her son leave with us. Her apprehension was understandable — they were black and we were white. Why would this black woman trust a white woman to take her son to play ball on an all-white team from another town? She didn’t know us. She had only watched Billy play against our team during the regular season.

As much as my mother reassured her that Billy would be safe with us she could not convince the woman on the other side of the screen door. After a few minutes of fruitless discussion my mother said, “It’s awfully hot. I wonder if I could have a glass of water?” The screen door swung open as a result of Mom’s simple request. That was the first barrier to overcome. I suppose it was maternal bonding that broke down the last barrier. After a long visit in Mrs. Elston’s living room she decided that mother could be trusted with her son.

Billy and I sat in the back seat on the long ride to Claremore. We visited a little but I can’t recall any of our conversation. We met the rest of the team at the Will Rogers Hotel in Claremore and Dad proceeded to check everyone in. The desk clerk pointed to Billy and informed my father that he was not welcome. Segregation was on its death bed but the clerk was determined to keep it on life support. Dad, on the other hand, was about to drive another nail into its coffin. He looked the clerk straight in the eye and gestured toward Billy, “If he doesn’t stay, we don’t stay.” Apparently, the clerk was much better at math than race relations. A lot of money was about to walk out the door and economics won out over discrimination. The team stayed — and Billy was part of the team.

After Dad wrapped up his lesson on race relations with the clerk everyone went to their rooms and behaved like typical small-town boys on a trip to the city. The hotel was six stories tall and we were excited to have rooms near the top. Would you believe someone came up with the idea that it would be cool to toss water balloons out the windows? Everyone piled into one room to engage in the fun. Billy was welcomed into the room with open arms. But I wasn’t. After all I was just the batboy and you know what a nuisance the little kid can be around the big kids. They let me know I was persona non-grata. I was on my way out the door when someone spoke up and said, “If he doesn’t stay, I don’t stay.” You guessed it. It was Billy. I stayed.

No one in that room could relate to me any more than Billy. When he was rejected by the hotel clerk Dad stood up for him. When I was rejected by the big kids he stood up for me. A white person stood up for a black person and a black person stood up for a white person. Now, forget about color. In both cases one human being stood up for another human being. Why? Because they chose to. It was the right thing to do. It can’t get any simpler than that.

Jim Whitt’s purpose in life is to help people reach their full potential. After graduating from Oklahoma State University Jim spent a dozen years in sales and marketing with two Fortune 500 companies. In 1988 he launched his career as a consultant, writer and speaker. Read More

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