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Saturday, December 06, 2008

An examination of a racial relations record

By Dick Hirsch

If you’re of my generation, there is a good chance that you continue to be astonished and inspired with the results, even though the presidential election is already history. To think that Barack Obama, an African-American, could be elected is an event that most of us agreed would never happen.

It’s difficult for many younger persons to understand that feeling. They generally share the opinion that nothing is beyond reach. Of course, they didn’t live through the years when bigotry was much more open and widespread, when the Ku Klux Klan was powerful enough to swing state elections and when the German-American Bund held rallies and parades. When such images are stored in your memory bank, it was an incredible event, a milestone whatever your viewpoint, to elect a man who looks like Barack Obama and who has such a peculiar name.

It resulted in amazement and considerable rejoicing around the world. A friend sent me an e-mail image, reproductions of newspaper front pages from across the US and the world. You may have seen it; hundreds and hundreds of front pages in every language, all paying tribute to the accomplishment of the American electorate. It may even be an indication that in the future the US reputation will soar among those other peoples. Well, maybe not soar; but let’s say improve.

In the wake of the election I examined my own race relations record. It probably isn’t much different from many readers. Zero. There were no colored people in my neighborhood or at my grade school or high school. Colored was the accepted term then. There was one Negro man---that was an appropriate term then---in my class of about 250 at a small New England college. I knew his name, but I never knew him. During my working life, especially as a reporter, I had casual meetings with others, and participated in the verbal transition as the description evolved from Negro to black and from black to African-American. The contacts were cordial, but no relationship ever grew into what could be described as a friendship.

There was just one exception. It developed when I was attending a summer program at a university in Vermont. It was there I met a guy from New Jersey, a fellow student participating in the same six-week program. His name was Fletcher. He had an engaging smile and he dressed like the rest of us, usually khakis and a polo shirt. He stood out in the crowd for two reasons; he was the only African-American in the group, a deep mahogany shade, and he was 6 feet 5 inches tall, the sixth man on one of those great Duquesne University basketball teams of that era.

We were pals. Much of the day involved various classes and organized activities, but afterwards there was time for nights out; movies, restaurants, a few of the local bars where students were welcome. We made quite a sight, a salt and pepper pair shambling down the streets, with pepper towering over salt. I liked him a lot. When the session ended, we vowed to keep in touch. It never happened. We did speak on the phone a couple of times, but long distance calls were more unusual then.

When winter came, he called me from Pittsburgh one evening and asked whether I was going to be in Buffalo over the Christmas vacation. I was. Duquesne was playing at Memorial Auditorium. Would I like tickets? Sure, I said. Great, he said. I’ll leave two at the box office in your name. Terrific, I said. Maybe we could meet after the game and go out for coffee or a snack. Maybe, he said, but he usually stayed with the team. Come down to the arena early; I’ll see you before the game. OK, I said, and I did, along with my friend, Arthur. Fletcher met us and we were outside the locker room and on the sidelines watching them warm up. We had great seats. As I recall, Duquesne won easily.

We met again after the game, but Fletcher returned to the hotel with the team. I never heard from him again, or should I say he never heard from me again.

These days you can often find people if you do a little investigating. I was thinking about Barack Obama and I decided to call Fletcher and discuss the election, the impossible that became reality. I found him. He became a vascular surgeon, but he never had a chance to vote for Obama. Fletcher died in October. What else is there to say? That’s life, I guess.


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