I grew up in predominantly white rural central Illinois. There was one African American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, who lived in my small home town, Atlanta, when I was young. I remember seeing him at the cemetery leaving flowers for his wife’s grave each Memorial Day and he was always a pleasant man to speak to.
My high school of 750 kids, Stanford Olympia, was an all white school to the best of my recollection. We would occasionally play against some African Americans against schools from nearby Bloomington-Normal.
Of course, I had many sports heroes who were African American, including those on my favorite teams like Lou Brock and Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals and Lynn Swan, Mean Joe Green and Franco Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The only color that mattered to me was the red and white and black and gold of their uniforms.
It was not until I attended Illinois State University that I got to know black kids. I lived right around the corner at 1 North Walker Hall from Thomas Brown of Chicago and “Big Mike” Simmons of Waukegan in one room and brothers LaMont (Dee Dee) and Chris Vinson of East St. Louis in another room, all African Americans.
I’m sure it was just as much as an eye opener to them living with white kids as it was for my roommate, Kip, from my hometown, and myself. We all got along real well playing intramural sports and hanging out in the dorm together. I remember them occasionally calling one another the “N” word, which was a shocker to me that I never understood.
A group of my friends once stopped by my house on the way home to East St. Louis and played some hoops on my driveway court, I’m sure much to the shock of my elderly neighbors. We all got a good laugh.
ISU landed a prized basketball recruit from Indianapolis two years later by the name of Rickie Johnson. He was a high-wire act on the court and seemingly had one of his signature, breakaway slam dunks every game. I became friends with Rickie, who is black, writing for the student newspaper.
I met Stan Shingles right out of college playing semipro baseball in the Corn Valley League in Bloomington. He brought out a few of his fellow African American friends – Willie, Jerrard, Kevin – to play ball and they were just like any of the other guys.
In recent years, I’ve had the good fortune to reconnect with my old friends on social media. It’s been fun to catch up with one another.
When racial tensions began to rise across the country this year, sparked by deaths of African Americans in incidents with police, I reached out to some of my friends to let them I know I was thinking of them and seeing how they were doing.
A few months later, I reached to them to talk about some of their life experiences. I have never walked in their shoes and they shared some very enlightening stories. I am sharing their experiences in my two-part series on racism in America.
Kevin Hieronymus is the BCR Sports Editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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