The Big O
The world of my childhood has as many ties to the Civil War as it does to today. My great-grandfather Marshall Collier was born in 1838, less than two years after Davy Crockett died at the Alamo. Marshall was raised in slavery, in rural Dickson County, smack-dab in the center of Tennessee’s western highland rim, some thirty miles outside Nashville. Collier was the surname of the estate’s landowner, and I don’t know what Marshall’s family name might have been. Family lore has it that Marshall ran off a lot when he was a slave. He would usually get no further than the Cumberland River. Marshall was always caught, but he was never beaten, or so I’m told. Whenever my father told me this story, he said that Marshall wasn’t beaten because he was the master’s son. He said that this was one of the small ways in which Marshall’s parentage was acknowledged.
Some accounts have set his height at seven feet two inches. I don’t remember him being that tall, but he certainly was a long, lanky man, with light skin and high cheekbones. Marshall had keen features and mixed blood, no doubt about it: part Cherokee, West African, and white. As a boy, he heard of Nat Turner’s rebellion and as a young man saw his unacknowledged father and brothers go away to fight in gray. He saw Union troops in blue, manning nearby Fort Donelson. He lived through Reconstruction, the infestation of carpetbaggers, and later still, the Klan nights.
With the end of the war and emancipation, Marshall received a stretch of land. Like all my other Tennessee relatives, my great-grandfather spent his life as a farmer, a genuine man of the land. He went out into the fields every day of his life, planting and harvesting crops. He worked those fields right up until the day his eyesight failed him and he could no longer recognize his own hand in front of his face. Daddy Marshall lived to be 116. When he passed from the earth, he was the oldest man in the United States, and he had never traveled above the Mason-Dixon line.
My father came from the little nearby community of Bellsburg, a town of just a few hundred residents in the north end of Dickson County. I once did some research and discovered that the town was named after a settler named Shadrach Bell during the early 1800s. Supposedly, Shadrach founded the territory while selling slaves, many of whom also ended up taking the Bell surname. Meanwhile, one of the area’s first white settlers was a man named James Robertson. In 1799, this particular Robertson undertook a minerals survey in the area. On that first expedition, James Robertson brought a Negro man with him. Soon after, he returned with a number of slaves to build a fort on the bluffs of the Cumberland.
Not long after this, James Robertson started the first iron furnace in that area. To this day, the names of Robertson, Bell, and Collier—names that white settlers and farmers brought with them to Tennessee—can still be found there, carried by their descendants, whether acknowledged or not.
One of Daddy Marshall’s daughters, Lonnie Collier, married a former slave from Virginia named Ed Robertson. Ed wound up in Tennessee because the man who owned him died. Not long after that, the man’s widow had to take a mule to Tennessee. My grandfather helped her, and when they got to Tennessee, she freed him. Ed Robertson became a minister at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. He and his brother, Herschel, often took to the road, driving around in an old rumble-seat car, preaching the word of the Lord, often running into members of the Klan. But everyone knew Ed Robertson was doing holy work. “That’s just Ed,” someone would say, and they’d let him go. Later, he married Lonnie. Their son, Bailey Robertson Sr., is my father.
Ed Robertson and Lonnie Collier split up after their children were born. For a time, Ed and his children kept traveling the road with Herschel, preaching, until Ed passed away. I was never told what did him in. My dad was raised by his aunt, Ever Robertson. Dad called her Aunt Ever. For a long time, my father thought Ever was his mother. When he graduated from sixth grade, Dad joined the rest of his family, friends, and pretty much everyone else in Bellsburg, working full-time, farming tobacco and corn out in the fields. The work was honorable, Dad used to tell me, and the white farm-owners treated him pretty well. Dad wasn’t especially tall, five feet eleven inches or so. If you look at a picture of him as a young man, you can see my cheeks and build. I could easily be mistaken for his brother.
Among whites, Mom’s parents went by the nicknames of Uncle Early and Aunt Pearl. Pearl worked as a domestic in white homes, even breastfed white children. The whites refused to call my grandparents Mr. and Mrs. Bell. Nobody in my family—or the rest of the black community, really—called them Aunt and Uncle. Papa and Mama Pearl were the names we knew them by.
As a young man, Papa worked on the Ohio River as a sharecropper. He read the Bible every night, and he worked hard in the fields all day, walking behind a mule and a plow. A white man, Blake Span, and my grandfather worked together in the bottomland. Though they were good friends in the fields, it ended there. Other white people who lived nearby also thought highly of my grandfather, but outside of certain accepted places, such as the fields, socializing between races simply was not accepted.
My grandfather worked the fields and over a stretch of years saved up enough money for a down payment. He bought a plot of land from the white farmer who lived across the road from him. His three hundred dollars, quite a bit of money back then, bought him less than twenty acres. Papa dug his own 187-foot well on the property. He worked his own mills and milked his own cow; he raised hogs and a kitchen garden—one he kept in the wintertime as well as the summertime. He grew crops of corn, black-eyed peas, hay, and tobacco, using a horse and mules even when most other people got tractors. Papa also worked twenty acres along the Cumberland River for a white man named Lightfoot.
Papa wasn’t a complex man. What he did with his life was raise the crops that kept his family and the animals fed, make a little money, and pay off his farm so that his family had something that belonged to them. He read the Bible every night, sang church songs, and talked about the Bible. I have distant memories of him leaving the house before sunrise and returning after dark. He used to sit on his porch all night and rock in his favorite chair, shelling peas and singing hymns.
I wish I could provide a romantic story about how my parents met. But the truth is, I don’t know. Bellsburg, as well as the other bottomlands outside Charlotte, Tennessee, was and remains farming country. Its people are farm people. There aren’t too many ways to meet folks out there, and, when you get down to it, not too many folks to meet. But my paternal grandfather, Ed, had been the minister at Mount Zion; my mother’s side of the family was numerous and spread throughout Dickson County, with the church a center of their social lives. So if I had to guess, I’d say there’s a good chance that my parents met at church.
They were young when they met. My mom, Mazell, was less than twenty, and Dad was somewhere around the same age. Once they were married, they lived with Mama Pearl and Papa Bell in their small farmhouse on State Highway 29 in northern Dickson County.
My older brothers, Bailey Robertson Jr. and Henry, were born in that farmhouse. And on a snowy Thanksgiving Day, 1938, exactly one hundred years to the day after Daddy Marshall’s birth, I was born there too. It was a tough birth, and I was a frail, sickly infant. According to my mother, nobody thought I would survive. If I did somehow make it, then it looked like my left foot would be deformed. Mom and my grandfather took turns massaging that foot during the first weeks of my life, telling each other that I had to pull through.
My childhood memories of Tennessee are of stretching fields of grass and corn, with trees and mountains lining the distance, and a blue sky thick with clouds. We lived what I imagine was, back then, the typical life of a Negro family in the rural South. The Klan was active in Tennessee, but we never saw them, and no one talked about our conditions. We were simply happy to be around our families, see our relatives, go to church, work in the fields, and get together on Sundays and socialize. There were cakes and chickens and other food. My memories of those days are wonderful ones, and it’s not crazy to imagine that my family could have stayed on that patch of land forever, passing the farmhouse and the chores down from generation to generation, with nothing changing except the names on the birth certificates and the names on the gravestones.
But the 1930s were a brutal decade for American farmers—harsh on whites, and you know that only deepened the hardship for blacks. As the decade came to a close, farming throughout the South was in the middle of something of a revolution. Tractors and harvesters were replacing mules and manual labor, and mechanization was in the process of making black tenant farmers and sharecroppers expendable. Though Daddy Marshall and Papa Bell kept working their land, my father started traveling twenty-five miles a day to Nashville to work. Over time, Dad came to understand that no black man had a realistic chance of getting the money necessary to purchase any of the expensive machinery now needed to make a go of farming. He had a wife and three kids, and we were growing. Bailey Jr. was about ready to finish grade school, and Henry and I were not that far behind. I was too young to be attending classes, but rules or not, I’d started going to school with my brothers at nearby Mount Zion, where I was taught by Lizzie Gleaves. She had to be god-sent. I knew the alphabet, could count to a hundred, and listened to a lot of the Bible.
No nearby white high school admitted black children, and none of the black high schools were close enough for us to attend. My father was intent on making sure his children had more chances at an education and a better living than he’d had.
Dad had an aunt named Inez who lived in Indianapolis. She constantly encouraged him to try his luck up north in Indiana, the self-proclaimed Crossroads of America. This was 1942. The attack on Pearl Harbor had the draft board busy issuing letters to every available white male. Logic followed that someone was going to have to stay at home and manufacture those tanks, bombers, and battleships. President Roosevelt had issued executive orders barring discrimination in defense-industry hiring, so all of a sudden, something of a duplication of the chain of events from World War I was underway, and all sorts of jobs were available for black folks in most of the big cities. Inez made sure that my father knew that there were jobs to be had in Indianapolis, and after a cursory stint in Nashville, trying to find work, Dad listened to Inez and ventured over to Indianapolis.
He worked in a defense plant for a time, then got lonely for Mom, came back, and then left again, this time to look for a permanent job. About four months later, my mother, brothers, and I gathered up our meager possessions. We sat in the back of the bus, and became part of history—this nation’s second great Negro migration to the North—making the all-day trip, three hundred miles, through Tennessee and Kentucky. Along the way we ate from the basket of bologna sandwiches that Mom had packed. When the bus stopped, we weren’t allowed in the restaurants on the side of the road. And like every other black person on the bus, we marched around behind the restaurant in order to relieve ourselves.
Aunt’s house didn’t have a phone; that luxury was simply out of the question, so my mom had no way of communicating with my father in Indianapolis. When we arrived at the bus station, nobody was there to greet us, and we had no way of getting in touch with my dad. So my mom, my brothers, and I gathered up our belongings and walked the twenty-four long blocks from the station near the old Claypool Hotel all the way to Aunt Inez’s house on the city’s west side.
Dad answered the door, surprised. He’d had no idea we were coming. I was four years old.
I don’t know if anyone told my dad how racist a state Indiana was. Or, coming from the South, if he just figured every state was segregated by race. The truth was, we weren’t headed to any kind of heaven. In Indiana’s not too distant past, the Ku Klux Klan had openly financed the campaign of the governor, Ed Jackson, as well as a number of pro-Klan judges, mayors, and state legislators. Signs—Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here!—dotted the state’s rural landscapes and fields, and in almost any town, white robes and peaked hats were readily available at six dollars apiece. In Indianapolis, the state’s capital city, things weren’t much better. Yes, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had successfully fought against a city zoning ordinance officially segregating black and white neighborhoods. But as a response, white landowners had constructed what were known as “spite fences” around some properties. Civic leagues had been founded with the sole purpose of keeping whites from leasing to blacks. Handbills frequently circulated asking, Do You Want a Nigger for a Neighbor? Curfews existed for black folks but not for whites. Simply put, if you were black, you could not move freely through the city.
We lived with Aunt Inez for a while, but that wasn’t going to work out. So Dad found a little shotgun house on Colton Street in an area that was your basic black ghetto. Everyone called it Naptown, or sometimes Frog Island. With Century Canal to the east, the White River on its south and west, and Fall Creek to the north, Naptown was a low-lying area surrounded by water, prone to flooding. There was no indoor plumbing, and the city came around just once a year to empty out all the waste, so the air was perpetually full of bad smells and festering diseases.
Colton Street wasn’t much of a street—maybe two blocks long; it wasn’t paved, just surfaced with a mix of gravel and oil that had been packed down over time. We found a small house at 1005 Colton, adjacent to the Lockefield Gardens housing developments. The place was your standard shotgun shack. Its rooms joined in a straight line that you could look through, and the roof was made of tar paper—just strong enough to protect us from rain, but too flimsy to shelter us from cold, windy nights or flies and mosquitoes. There was running water, but the toilet was outside. A big potbelly stove sat smack-dab in the middle of the house, and there was a bin outside, underneath the house’s frame, to hold the coal. The house had four rooms: one for Mom and Dad, one for the potbelly stove, one for me and my brothers, and one room for cooking and eating.
Even with the potbelly stove, there was no heat in the wintertime. You would get under all the covers you could, but the wind would come right through the windows. You would hear people across the street arguing and fighting all the time. And gunshots at night. Later, my father got a toilet put in, a commode, but no bathtub. You bathed in a foot tub. Standing up.
Being black in America at that time was not the greatest thing in the world, let me tell you. At the time I did not know we were poor. I did not know we were being discriminated against. The only time I even saw white people was at a very early age, back in Tennessee—those farmers that my dad worked for. Otherwise I never had any contact with white people. I never thought about them. There were places my parents said we could go and places that we knew not to go, and that was fine with me. My brothers and I had a roof over our heads. We had enough to eat. Yes, there were craps games floating through the neighborhood. Yes, the streets could be rough. Yes, there were druggies, drunks, and people doing all sorts of wrong things. But we were happy in our new home.
Dad’s plans went awry when all the factory jobs had been filled. He ended up landing a job as a meat cutter at Kingan and Company, a meat-packing plant on the White River. It wasn’t what he wanted, and over the years he moved through a variety of different jobs. Dad was a quiet man. He was strict with us, but I do remember him coming home from work at night sometimes with the smell of meat and blood still on him.
Mom was also very strict and stern, very bossy, a strong country woman. She sang gospel in the church, was always quick with an opinion, and was a very good cook. When Dad came home, she’d have dinner ready. Since we couldn’t afford too much beef, we usually had a one-dish meal, without any sides or extras. Just cabbage, beans, or cornbread. But no matter what we had or did not have to eat, our parents never made us feel like we were poor.
I know that it galled my father that he was not allowed to go into the restaurants whose food he helped pack. I know that Mom had her hands full with the four of us and her housework, and soon she’d be working part-time jobs as well. My parents had real problems making ends meet, and Mom was always telling Dad about things our family needed. But they never talked about race. They did not lecture us about what we could not do. Rather, they simply worked hard and did what they could. I can vividly remember my father preaching to us about education and being a good student, dead tired after a day’s work and still making sure to check that we had finished our homework. For me, they embodied the idea that integrity depends on inner dignity, and from their example, I learned that inner dignity is one thing that should never be compromised.
I can remember my mother reciting scripture to us, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah. She would take complicated Bible verses and break them down for us, reducing them to basic elements so that we could understand them. Matthew 25:15, for example, a very complicated passage, she explained this way:
God gave three men a talent. The first one threw it away and the birds ate it. The second man put his in the sun and it melted. The third man took care of his. The Lord will give you more if you take care of what he gave you.
My brothers and I had a lot of time to ourselves. We couldn’t go into the south side of town because it was all white. The east side was very, very tough, so we stayed away from there too. We weren’t wanted downtown and didn’t have money to spend there anyway, so that was out. And while some blacks lived on the north side of town, we didn’t have either the money or the transportation to get there. My brothers and I didn’t roam around Naptown either. Indiana Avenue, long a mecca of African-American commerce in Indianapolis—comparable to Harlem in New York City, Beale Street in Memphis, Walnut Street in Louisville, or Twelfth and Vine in Kansas City—had begun its slow decline. Storefronts were boarded up and residential houses abandoned. Most of the businesses there had turned into nightclubs, and then bars. Two major theaters, the Lido and the Walker, remained on the avenue, but the Lido was a basic, no-frills theater, and at times it could be dangerous. As for the Walker, there were occasional fights there too, and the place was a lot more snobbish—I never liked going there either.
Douglas Park had the only African-American swimming pool in the city, but it was also a place where fights were common. Riverside Amusement Park was along the northern edge of Naptown, but its roller coasters and roller skating rink had scores of “whites only” signs, so that was out too. Every once in a while they designated “Colored Frolic Days.” But so what? Me, my brothers, and all our friends from the neighborhood, we stayed put.
When you are growing up in the ghetto and don’t have any money, sports are king. Everyone plays. If it’s football season, guys tell each other, “Run down six cars and turn left by that green Ford.” During baseball season, fire hydrants and stoops serve as bases, the middle of the street as the field. In Indianapolis, basketball was the emperor of them all. Guys played sunup to sundown. There was a vacant lot a few blocks from our house. Some enterprising guys put up a pole, a backboard, and a basketball hoop on the lot. Soon all the dribbling and running would send dirt, clay, and dust flying everywhere. People started calling the courts the Dust Bowl. Neighborhood kids and even some of the high school players from nearby Crispus Attucks High School would stop by, joining in a pickup game. I used to pretend there was a hoop set up on a tree by our home. Since we didn’t have the money for a real ball, I used a dingy rag ball I’d fashioned, held together by elastic, or else I’d use rolled-up socks, tied together with string. That’s really how it began: me playing make-believe in front of the house, shooting at an imaginary basket with a ball of rags.
When we were old enough for my mom to get us membership cards, I’d follow Bailey and Henry around to the YMCA on Senate Avenue. I should say right now that Bailey was one hell of a basketball player. He had a great nickname: Flap. Flap was a talker. Talked all the time. Talking, irritating opposing players, as they irritated him, doing whatever he could to get an edge, anything to win. Flap got his name because of his shot. He could shoot—much better than I ever could. And his shooting style was very dramatic—all wrist, with this exaggerated forward extension, like he was waving at the ball as it left for the hoop. Even as he ran back down court afterwards, Bailey’s hand kept flapping.
My brothers and I lived an outdoor life, playing basketball and baseball, going to the Y and the Dust Bowl and the courts over at Lockefield Gardens. When the sun went down, we’d come home, do our chores and our homework. On Friday nights we’d gather around the radio and listen to the Pabst Blue Ribbon Friday Night Fights. I don’t remember watching television or listening to the radio all that much growing up, but I do remember listening to boxing. Whenever a black person, a Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, or Kid Gavilan, had an opportunity to fight, it would be great for the black community, a real source of pride and interest. I can remember cheering when Joe Louis knocked out Billy Conn in the eighth round of a championship fight, and listening when the “Brown Bomber” defeated Jersey Joe Walcott in successive brawls.
Basketball and boxing, church and school comprised my young social life. But the day summer came and school let out, Mom got busy, packing up some of our clothes, wrapping a day’s worth of fried chicken in paper bags. The next day, soon as morning broke, she’d walk me and my brothers onto the bus that went back to Nashville. Eight hours and three hundred miles later, my grandmother would be crushing us in her bosom with massive hugs. Aunts, uncles, cousins, half-cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents. We’d make the family rounds on foot, along lengthy dirt roads and well-beaten paths that rose and fell across the hot and rolling land. Whenever we got to my great-grandfather’s house, Daddy Marshall would be sitting on the front porch. He would say hello and whatnot, then we would leave. You couldn’t be around him very long because he would get irritated. I guess when you get to be his age, you don’t want to be bothered by a whole lot. I imagine you sort of live in your own world.
One of his children, my Aunt Nelly, was really fair-skinned, and some of her sisters looked almost white. On that side of the family, you could see the entire range of colors. My mother’s side was filled with dark, handsome men. Every Sunday, the entire extended family met up at the Mount Zion AME church—the women heading inside to listen to a preacher with a big rolling voice, the men lingering outside, sipping whisky, talking, and laughing. I loved those summers, that place, and that time.
Every year on the third Friday in August, there was a huge family outing called the Charlotte Picnic, a huge gathering of relatives and friends from all over. The Charlotte Picnics continue to this day, and I still go every year, but back then white politicians used to attend, stumping, trying to win votes. And they’d always bring liquor with them. Most of the men were country folk, guys who spent all day working the fields and didn’t drink all that often. They’d spend the day drinking all that free liquor, and by the end of the night a lot of them were drunk. Guys would question one another’s manhood, and that’s when the fighting would start. I never participated.
In those days, you could walk for miles in the fields, maybe fall in creeks, and nobody worried about you. I was free to explore the whole wide world. There was this huge gorge near my grandparents’ house, and my grandmother would tell me, “Don’t go fiddlin’ in that gorge.” But that forbidden gorge was so tantalizing, and I wanted to swing across the gorge, wanted to see if I could do it. So I cut this huge tree vine. I swung across it. Didn’t tell my grandmother. I loved the danger of it. We’d pull on a vine, and if it didn’t come down, it must be all right. We’d be out there, just sailing over the danger.
By the time I was thirteen years old, it was assumed I could put in a man’s day of work, but even as a child I spent some time in the field. The day after arriving back in Dickson County, I went out in those fields with my brothers and cousins and picked tobacco or shucked corn. Any other chores Papa Bell told me to do, I did. My grandparents and everyone else on the farm got to working before sunup and stayed at it until past sundown. Papa worked the fields; Mama Pearl cooked all day long. I emulated my grandfather in every way I could. I tried to work like him and talk like him. Once I even made a wagon that was a replica of his wagon, and I used to pull it around, pile it full of rocks, toiling just like he toiled. Unlike my little wagon, however, Papa’s was horse-drawn and full-sized. Though it couldn’t have been crawling along at more than two or three miles an hour in those fields, to me it seemed like it was going twenty times that. As it moved along the fields, we had to pick up the bales, throw them in, and stack them.
I didn’t mind the work. I never even thought about questioning what I was doing. The only thing I didn’t care for down there were the snakes. There were water snakes in the bottomland, rattlesnakes wedged between the rocks of wooden areas, and copperheads all over the place—especially in the shade under bushes and tobacco plants. It got to where I’d be stripping tobacco suckers from the plants, and I’d be able to sense a lurking copperhead. I could smell them—like cucumbers. People thought I was crazy when I told them, but it was true. There was also this big rat snake in the barn—I couldn’t smell it, but a lot of times I’d be working in the loft, all of a sudden I’d discover that big king snake, coiling up, getting ready to strike. Whenever I told my grandfather about it, he used to say I better not kill that snake. It was a good snake. Killed the rats.
Down in Dickson County, the rule was that you let the good snakes alone, so whenever I was in that loft, I just had to be careful. Another county rule stated that you should keep a mean snake dog around to take care of any bad snakes. I didn’t know the difference between a good and a bad snake, but Papa Bell had himself one hell of a snake dog. I guess it must have known how to separate the good from the bad.
Whenever I tried to befriend that dog, it bared its teeth and gave me a snarl. If I complained, my grandfather told me to leave it alone. One day I asked why I wasn’t allowed to feed the dog, why the dog stayed under the house and was supposed to be left alone. Papa told me he fed the dog only once a week because he didn’t want that dog depending on him. “You know,” he said, “that dog’s got to take care of himself. I might not always be around.” I thought about this for a while and soon enough understood.
Instead of waiting for table scraps, that dog had learned to forage for itself. It went and killed what it could, then dragged the kill off somewhere and ate it. It was just an extension of farm mentality. That was a big lesson for me. Everybody had to pull his own weight. Dog included.
I was eleven years old when my parents divorced. It’s a sensitive topic for me even now, all these years later. But I think all the financial pressures may have had something to do with it. Even after the divorce, money was so tight that my father kept living in our house, sleeping in the same room as my mom. He’d get up and leave for work before me or my brothers were out of bed, or while we were getting ready for school. Then at the end of the night, he’d come home from whichever of the three jobs he might have been working. Mom and Dad didn’t talk to each other. And they never told us about the divorce. We just kept living our lives. Me and my brothers wouldn’t find out they’d been divorced until years later, when I was in high school.
By now, mom was working too. Although she was trained to be a beautician, she got a part-time job as a domestic, cooking for a white family. I don’t remember their name, but I’ll never forget the street. It was the 5500 block of Broadway. Every day she arrived at the home of the rich white family she worked for and would walk around back, to the servants’ entrance. She even had to eat her meals on the back porch.
That Christmas, in the middle of all this hardship, she brought home what turned out to be the best and most important present of my life.
It seems one of the boys in that family had discarded a basketball. It was sort of scarred up. Old. Didn’t have the greatest trim on it. But then again, the tread wasn’t lopsided, and the ball was regulation size.
It was my ball.
Located in the heart of Naptown, Crispus Attucks was a source of pride for the black community of Indianapolis. Named after the African-American who had been shot by British troops in the 1770 Boston Massacre, the school was a lumbering, three-story red brick building. The foul-smelling canal was close to its front doors, and Fall Creek was just a few blocks away. The building didn’t have a regular-size fieldhouse or a regular-size track. It was overcrowded, with almost double the number of students it had been constructed to hold. And yet it was a miraculous place. The principal was black, and the majority of teachers were black Ph.D.’s who weren’t allowed to teach in white schools.
Legend has it that the week that Attucks opened, the Klan had a parade and celebrated the separation of black and white students. That was before my time, so I can’t verify the story any more than I can dismiss it. What I can say is that when I was a child, seeing the school’s green, gold, and white colors on a tee shirt commanded my attention. Players from Attucks dominated at the Dust Bowl and the Y.
In those days, if you were black, you were told you weren’t smart. You were bad. You were inferior. Black people needed something to look up to, something to give us hope. This was why my brothers and I listened to Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson on the Friday night fights, and this, I think, is why the Crispus Attucks basketball team was so important to the black population of Indianapolis, why the African-American newspaper, The Indianapolis Recorder, covered the team so fervently. They won games.
Well, imagine how important to our family it was when, in 1950, Flap made it onto the varsity squad at Crispus Attucks.
Standing five feet nine, Flap was just a sophomore. He filled in as a reserve guard on a team loaded with talent. There was Hallie Bryant, the team’s leading scorer, who would go on to become one of the first black players to enroll in the University of Indiana. And Willie Gardner, a tall, thin, six-foot-eight forward, would be recruited by various colleges, but because his family was dirt-poor, he ended up signing on directly with the Harlem Globetrotters. As for Flap, after his high school career, he went to Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis) and set a state collegiate scoring record, with 2,268 points in four years—a record that, as I write this, still stands for small colleges. Flap would also spend a short stretch with the Harlem Globetrotters. But that was later. In 1950 to 1951, the Crispus Attucks Tigers, coached by Ray Crowe, was the first all-black basketball team that played in the state finals of the Indiana High School Basketball Tournament.
I vividly remember watching the regionals and the game that got them into the state finals. The state tournament was broadcast on television, and we watched the regional finals in our home. It was really something—that game was the first Crispus Attucks basketball game I ever watched, as well as the first sporting event I ever saw on television. Even if I didn’t understand that it was the state high school tournament, I knew something important was happening.
With four and a half minutes to play in the 1951 regional finals, the Crispus Attucks Tigers trailed the all-white Anderson Indians by ten points. John “Noon” Davis, the Tigers’ fine forward, was called for his fifth and eliminating foul. My mother’s fist curled around a napkin as she watched a five-foot-nine sophomore checking into the game to replace Davis. Bailey “Flap” Robertson.
A smattering of polite applause came from the sea of black faces stuffed behind the Attucks bench. There were shouts of encouragement from the black fans way up in the corner of the back bleachers, where all the police were on watch, ready to prevent any problems.
Coach Ray Crowe had left Flap’s name off the roster during the sectional tournament for reasons he never fully explained. So this was Flap’s first action in the playoffs. He later told me and Henry that when he got a chance to play, he wanted to make sure the coach would remember him. And he did. The first time Flap touched the ball, he shot. Fifteen-foot jumper. Nothing but net. Anderson’s lead went down to eight.
The Indianapolis Recorder’s Jim Cummings would report that this shot “rekindled a spark of hope in Attucks hearts. If sophomore Bailey Robertson—who didn’t even play in the sectional games—could score so easily, so can we.”
Two quick baskets by Willie Gardner. A free throw by Bob Jewell. Within ninety seconds, the lead had been cut to three.
Fifteen thousand fans were going wild in the Butler Fieldhouse. The Attucks supporters were stomping their feet and shouting. Across the floor, the Anderson fans were just as crazy.
Hallie Bryant hit a turnaround jumper to cut the lead to 74–72. Now the Attucks corner broke into their legendary “Crazy Song.”
Oh, Anderson is rough
Twenty-three seconds left. Anderson ahead by one. We brought the ball up court. A newspaper account of the game says there was light backcourt pressure. And that the Attucks coaching staff was trying to get the attention of his players, or the referee. Ray Crowe wanted to call time-out and set up a last shot. Nobody paid attention.
Twelve seconds left. The ball was in the hands of Charlie West, a substitute Attucks guard. He drove and pulled up and attempted an acrobatic scoop. Missed. Ball out-of-bounds. Referees signal Attucks’s possession.
Seven seconds left.
Center Bob Jewell held up two fingers to set up an out-of-bounds play. The first two options were covered. Flap was not. My brother caught the ball on the baseline far in the corner. He did not look for Hallie Bryant. Did not worry about the called play. Flap jumped, cocked his wrist in its usual style.
“I just grabbed the ball, shot, and prayed,” he told a reporter later.
Some would remember the shot as flat and arcless, striking the side of the rim and bouncing straight up, as high as eight feet. Others offered the opinion that the ball bounced only a foot or so above the rim. Attucks’s coach Ray Crowe would always say that the shot floated with a lovely, high arc. One thing for sure, it hung high enough above the rim for some suspense.
Straight down. Through the hoop.
Final score: Crispus Attucks 81, Anderson 80.
You could hear horns honking on the street and people cheering in the homes up and down Colton Street. Attucks players and fans started hugging in the middle of the court. All of a sudden, the world of black Indianapolis had somehow, magically expanded.
“People told me their relatives died of heart attacks,” Flap would recall. “One lady said when the ball went through that hoop, she started to go into labor.”
My mom and Henry were elated; I was overwhelmed with joy and happiness. I stayed up that night, anxious, waiting for Flap to come home. I did not realize that he had to deal with reporters (Indianapolis Recorder: “Without a doubt one of the most thrilling high school basketball games ever played in Indiana—or the world.”), or that the team would take a victory ride down Indiana Avenue, that the head of the police traffic division would—in the name of caution and security—send extra patrolmen to the west side and tour the area himself, in a squad car, or that the team and coaching staff would stop at Seldon’s Café for a late dinner of ham and sweet potatoes. I did not realize that there would be a celebratory walk back to Crispus Attucks, a bonfire, even a snake dance.
There was no way for me, or anyone else, to know that Attucks would lose its next game, in the state semifinals, to Evansville Reitz. And there was no way of imagining the way basketball would infuse my life, the long, strange, and sometimes heartbreaking journey the game would take me on, the highs of championships and ceremonies, the lows of hardball politics and being blackballed from the sport that I so loved. No. All I knew that night was that things had changed. It was almost as if Sugar Ray Robinson had knocked out his mightiest opponent in the first round, except that on this night my brother was Sugar Ray; on that night the rest of the world was the opponent. I did not know how, could not have explained it for a million dollars. But after Flap’s shot, things would never be the same again for me. I knew it. For the first time, a candle of hope flickered inside my heart.
It was early in the morning when Flap finally made it home. By then I was in bed, dreaming.
Oscar Robertson was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1960-61, played in 12 straight NBA All-Star Games, was selected to the All-NBA First Team nine consecutive seasons, won the NBA Most Valuable Player Award in 1963-64, and helped the Milwaukee Bucks win the NBA Championship in 1971. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 and named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996-97
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