Today in Juneteenth. For too many people, they had never heard the term until today. Definitions are all over social media as the world learns of the significance of a holiday recognized by some people, but not nearly enough. If you did not know what it is, I am guessing that you have been educated some today.
These are tough times in America. Things were challenging enough as the country tried to process the most appropriate and healthy means of preventing the spread of the coronavirus over the last few months, but attentions shifted gears on May 25, 2020, when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I use the term ‘murder’ because that is what it was. A violent and overzealous act, carried on for eight minutes and 46 unnecessary seconds, deprived a man of his life and his family of a son, a brother, and a friend. The tragic death put once again a spotlight on the unacceptable and excessive uses of force displayed by some police officers across the United States, but this time, the loss of life did not come without notice. People stood up, people protested, and thankfully most of that came in peaceful order in most circumstances.
Floyd’s death was not unique. And therein lie just one part of the problem at hand.
I have waited to post on the death of Floyd and the events that have followed for many reasons. I wanted to get my words together right. Much of this was compiled in stream-of-consciousness style writing, jotting down notes in my phone or on random scraps of paper so that I could put it all together logically given the sensitivity of the subject matter. But even more importantly, I wanted to make sure to help keep the conversation going. Protests have continued, albeit at less noticeable rates than the days and weeks that initially followed the tragedy. Conversations are still happening. Hopefully, change will follow. But we cannot sit back and expect the world to make the necessary adjustments if this death, like so many similar in the weeks, months, and years prior, just fades away to history.
The lack of change in the past means that we must remain vocal to improve our futures. I felt it better suited for me to act at this time rather than to be just another voice lost in the shuffle of the early fervor.
I was born privileged. I didn’t know it or recognize it until I got older and became more self-aware of the true nature of the world that I was living in. Life was not always easy as a child or teenager, but I know now how lucky I had it compared to others of my cohort, those before me, and those to come after me.
I am a white man, closer to 40 than 30 with each passing day. I grew up in a northeast Ohio town best noted for its farmland and its prison. Black families were scarce within the city limits and similarly black children were an uncommon part of my schooling experience until the middle and high school years. I saw racism growing up, but the lack of exposure to other cultures in our sheltered little community did not turn me into a racist. I was raised right and raised to be better than those before me. I have made my mistakes, but I have always tried my best to improve the quality of the lives of those around me. That has become the career that has kept me from writing more, serving troubled youth for 14 years and trying to open their eyes fully to the world around them. I have worked with some children brought up in a culture of racist thoughts; I have seen white children senselessly throwing around the “N” word hurtfully towards fellow clients or towards the staff without thought and understanding to the pain caused by their word choices, and black children who were raised through their own experiences or those around them to not trust white people (and particularly white police officers) and to view them all as an enemy because the stakes had made it so that they were not and had never been true equals. Every action of mine to challenge their world views and to get them to consider alternatives has kept me going. It’s the way that I can usher in change for the future, and breaking down those walls gives me great satisfaction.
Cleveland (and even northeast Ohio) has been at the forefront of opportunities for the advancement of black people throughout the years, and while some of the key events in the sports world occurred many decades before I arrived in a suburban hospital outside of the big city, it does not take away any pride that I have in a city that I have considered home. The city has been progressive and understanding in the past and I was not surprised that protests would form downtown in the days after Floyd’s murder, and while I was disappointed that things turned aggressive, violent, and ugly, I do not carry the burdens and pains of centuries’ worth of repression on my shoulders daily to have a say in that matter.
There was a message to send and that message was heard by some (and not surprisingly misconstrued still by others).
Charles Follis, nicknamed “The Black Cyclone”, was the first black professional football player. Born in Virginia but better associated with Wooster, Ohio, he played pro football from 1901 to 1906 and later played catcher in early Negro leagues.
Fritz Pollard was one of the first black players and the first black coach (1921) in the American Professional Football Association, the predecessor of the National Football League. Chicago-born, he played and coached for the Akron Pros. Another black NFL head coach was not hired until 1989, when the Los Angeles Raiders hired Art Shell.
The Cleveland Browns helped lead the charge of re-integrating American football post-World War II when they signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis in 1946. The All-America Football Conference, home of the Browns, was far more active in signing black players than its rival, the NFL, at the time. Motley, born in Georgia, grew up in Canton, Ohio, and played fullback and linebacker during his Hall of Fame career. Willis was from Columbus and attended the Ohio State University before football became his calling.
More familiar to these pages here are the stories of Larry Doby and Satchel Paige and the role of the Cleveland Indians in integrating Major League Baseball. Doby followed Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers less than three months after he broke the color barrier, doing so on July 5, 1947. The St. Louis Browns joined the Dodgers and Indians, bringing aboard Hank Thompson and Willard Brown later that month. Brooklyn continued to be at the forefront of the push for change with Branch Rickey leading the charge (incidentally enough, the Ohioan spent time with Follis during their college and early pro days), adding Dan Bankhead in August and Roy Campanella the following April. The Indians signed the ageless wonder Paige after a lengthy barnstorming tour of the Negro Leagues in July of 1948 in a move that helped lead the club to the team’s last championship. Minnie Minoso, the “Cuban Comet” and first black Cuban in the Major Leagues, and Luke Easter were both on the roster before the end of the 1949 season. The Red Sox finally figured it out in 1959, when Pumpsie Green got his chance and made the Boston club the last team to integrate in MLB.
Cleveland continued to be progressive on the sports landscape decades later, with the Indians acquiring Frank Robinson from the California Angels late in the 1974 season and making him the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball history the following year (while still an active player on the roster). Doby became the second a few years later for the Chicago White Sox.
Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a friend (incidentally enough, a distant relative of Follis). It was frank, heart-wrenching, and eye-opening. It elicited a wide range of emotions from both of us as he tried to explain his experiences as a black man and a black father to me, while I expressed what it is like to be a white adult male trying to aid the changes being attempted nowadays.
Many of the things said will remain between the two of us, but it does not change the impact of the conversation on me and numerous other discussions that have followed. We discussed the differences in our childhood experiences, interracial dating, the treatment that we have received as students, athletes, or employees throughout our respective careers, all the way to basic activities like driving a car, ordering food, or shopping.
He has had to live his life with his head on a swivel, all the while doing nothing wrong. I can’t make the same claims. That’s a problem. It’s systemic. It’s ingrained in the fabric of society.
He is the father of two children, both of a mixed background from his relationship with a white woman. He is trying to raise them right in a world that looks at them differently. It’s unfair and unjust and makes the complicated task of childrearing all the more impossible. As they get older and have the opportunity to explore the world more without him, I cannot begin to even fathom the consistent state of fear and anxiety that he may experience while not there to watch over them at all times.
At one point in the banter, he said to me with tears collecting in the corner of his eyes, “I wish I had the creativity, the ability, and the skin color that you do, because there are so many things I could have done have done differently in life. But I couldn’t. I can’t. And it’s all because of how I look. How is that right?”
We talked of the barriers that he has already broken down, throughout his personal life and throughout his employment history, by helping to educate those around him and by being a consistent role model for others. I encouraged him to stay strong and to stay vocal and that I was doing the same, all the while feeling like the effort was not nearly enough.
Here I am.
I have known the man for more than a decade and the events of recent weeks have escalated his long-existing concerns to a frequent topic between the two of us. I have no answers for him. But I stand with him in his struggle and the struggle of all others who are suffering for reasons that come down to a physical characteristic difference. Underneath that one difference, we are both the same – we are both men looking for fair chances in life, equality, and the never-ending pursuits of happiness. But within that, it is not the same at all, because I have been afforded opportunities that he has not received in our lives.
Black lives matter. White lives and blue lives matter too, of course, but if you are stuck on that part of the current conversation, you are not looking at the big multi-generational picture that is right in front of your face. Some catchy tagline is not the point in this conversation to get lost in, just like those who focused on the rioting and the negative aspects of the protesting lost the real message at hand. We know that white lives matter too, but the white experience is rarely comparable to that of black Americans. We know that the lives of the police, whose role to protect and serve has taken a back seat due to the actions of a few power-abusing, racist, bigoted individuals, matter and are important in the ability for all to live freely and safely moving forward. But the black community has been systematically and consistently discriminated against for hundreds of years, from minor inconveniences or offenses that escalated to extreme levels to legislation and governmental actions that have limited the ability of an entire race to find the same kind of happiness and success that others who happen to look different do not have to endure. While things have changed over the years and the hardships are not on the level of literal slavery, a disproportionate amount of black men, women, and children are still held down by the system in place, one that looks strangely intended to prohibit their advancement.
Those born white have not had those flaming hurdles to jump through their entire lives. There have been hardships for many, for sure, but that number is not comparable to the experiences of the black community.
I know that this is a baseball blog and that during these particularly difficult times, many of you come here to escape and distract yourselves from the stressors in front of us daily. Some things in life, however, are bigger than sports and need to take a far more visible seat up front rather than to be shuffled away to the back of the bus. With a platform and a voice that has been heard time and time again, I would be remiss if I sat back and did not share my thoughts on the state of our country while pleading with those who can elicit change to do just that. Now is the time. Enough is enough.
On this Juneteenth, I encourage you all to look at the life that you live and look at the lives of those around you. Recognize the advantages that you have over others, whether it be based on skin color, gender and sexual identity, religious preference, socio-economic variance, or any other means used commonly across our “land of the free” to hold down others from obtaining a comparable life of happiness and equal opportunity. I challenge those of you who have made it to the bottom of this page to find ways to step up and step out of your comfort zone to help the oppressed, whether it be side-by-side in peaceful protest, through charitable donations to help begin the process of evening the playing field, or simply by checking someone’s privilege on social media platforms where all too commonly the empowered keyboard bullies of this digital generation target their hate too freely and too openly.
If you permit these transgressions to continue, you promote the denial of our four unalienable rights afforded in the Declaration of Independence. Silence and turning a blind eye can no longer be an acceptable response and it stands in the way of equality. If you have reached this point of this work, I appreciate your time and I hope that these words will inspire you to help be a part of the change. We can no longer allow those around us to suffer for any reason. Now is our time to help secure a better future for all. There is no reason for any one person – man, woman, or child – regardless of their differences from you to live a life any less rewarding and fulfilling than others. Be bigger and better than the past. Help us erase the mistakes and sins of those before us by making this time the time that we are united as one to stop the unnecessary suffering of those around us. We live together, we die together. We need to fight together. All lives are important and all lives carry worth. No one should lose that ability to live because of the ignorance and the bigotry of others. Help lift each other up and let’s make this a country that truly stands for equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all – not just some.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project