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Matriculation

Mom left John Hope School #26 in 1955 for a better paying job at the “Fort,” Fort Benjamin Harrison. The Fort was and still is the payroll center for the entire US Army. I never really knew what she did there, a clerk I imagine. But at quitting time, women of all colors would stream out of the building and across the parking lot to fall back into their traditional roles as housewives and mothers, not bread winners. That fall at the age of 5, I was enrolled in the second grade at Elder W. Diggs School #42, named for the first African American to graduate from the Indiana University's School of Education and where he served as principle for 26 years. It was an 8-block walk across the railroad tracks and over a section of the Indiana Central Canal.


The canal was inspired by New York’s Erie Canal completed in 1825 to expand travel and trade beyond horseback and wagon. In 1836 work on the canal was begun. It was originally intended to connect the Wabash River and the Erie Canal to the Ohio River, a total of 296 miles. Millions of dollars were spent and the state nearly went bankrupt when the project was abandoned. The end result certainly wasn’t much to look at. It didn’t inspire any romantic dreams or visions. It did collect tires, appliances, stolen cars and whatever else was difficult to discard. But in the winter when it froze over, it would occasionally collect a child who had ignored their parents’ warning not to play on the ice. None of my friends ever made that mistake.

School was school and kids were kids. I was a straight A student, which made me a target for the class bullies. I once had to get a ride home from my teacher to avoid the boys waiting for me near the canal. As we passed by them it was clear they were armed for some serious “punk” kicking. It was the same spot where I was stabbed in the butt with a weaving needle as Lance, our neighborhood bully, ran by. There might be a scar there but I have no interest in checking.

Dad had visions of me becoming a basketball star. My dad was a rabid fan of the game. I spent hours climbing the bleacher seats and running the ramps at Butler Fieldhouse, now Hinkle Stadium, during March Madness while mom and dad cheered on Oscar Robinson, young future Hall of Famer from Crispus Attucks High School. The Attucks Tigers were so talented many white schools refused to play them, in addition to the fact they were black. White teams had walked off the court when parents refused to let their sons play. They refined their skills in in dusty alleys during the summers. Their play was like a tryout for the Harlem Globetrotters. They studied professional greats who could be found in Indianapolis during the off season playing in the Dust Bowl Tournament. Crispus Attucks High School was the first all-black high school to win a state title in America.

Too young to appreciate the greatness on the hardwood below, I came to understand my dad’s undying fascination. So, I joined the team in the sixth grade perhaps to win his admiration. But I was a “runt” compared to my classmates, a kid more interested in drawing pictures and building things than sports. I was short, skinny and sometimes called “Peanut.” The coach gave me the smallest jersey he had. My number was 00 appropriately. The openings for my arms tucked into my shorts, which were also too long. I may have been the trend setter for what the pros wear today. However, my journey to the NBA ended at the foul line during one game. There I stood, ball in hand, one dribble, two dribbles, steady, aim, let it fly. Good rotation. Good arc. And … nothing. The ball fell well short of the rim. The roar that went up could have qualified for a last second, game winning shot against a most hated nemesis. The coach dropped is head into his hands. The walk back to the bench was long and in slow motion. I took my final resting place on the end of the bench and dismissed any hopes my dad may have had for me to be the next Oscar.

The 6th grade was the only time I was ever disciplined in school. A playful skirmish broke out in the classroom. It was hard to tell who was after whom. Kids were ducking and diving around the desks. Then I was struck. I picked up the small piece of eraser that had found my head and fired it back at my attacker as I tracked him across the front of the room. I missed my target but found another. My teacher. Laughter erupted and I was sent to the coat closet. That was the end of my school villainy. Thank God my dad never knew.

I finished the 8th grade in ’63 and took a typing class that summer at the hallowed Crispus Attucks High School. It was named for an American stevedore of African and Native American descent, widely regarded as the first person killed in the Boston Massacre and thus the first American killed in the American Revolution. Historians disagree on whether he was a free man or an escaped slave, but most agree that he was of Natick (or possibly Wampanoag) and African descent. According to a contemporaneous account in the Pennsylvania Gazette, he was a "Mulatto man,” a derogatory term for the child of black and white parents meaning mule, the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey.

Crispus Attucks High School was familiar to me besides attending the basketball games with my parents. Mom had grown up in a rustic house on 12th Street across from the northside door to the school. It was the same house grandmother, who was born in 1899, had lived in as a child. A coal oil furnace sat in the front parlor that heated the entire house. There was no running water. The pump was just out the back door from to the kitchen and an outhouse was a short trot further. Across the alley stood the historic Phillips Temple Colored (later Christian) Methodist Episcopal church where I was baptized. Mom would sometimes leave me with grandmother when she and dad would travel.

Crispus Attucks High School on the corner of West and 12th streets.


One of my earliest memories of that house took place on the sidewalk out front. It was a Sunday morning and we were heading to church. Mom had me decked out in a bean cap, shirt, bow tie, a jacket and shorts. Of course, I was sporting a pair of bright, white shoes and socks. Mom was holding my hand as we stood by the car at the curb waiting to be loaded into the back seat when she turned to respond to someone. It only took me that moment to reach down, grab a handful dry, dusty dirt and shove it into my mouth. As mom turned back, all she could see was a stream of slurry-like mud dripping from my chin right down the front of my Sunday best and onto my white shoes and socks. I have no memory of what happened next. Probably for the better.

The Crispus Attucks was established as the all-black high school for Indianapolis in 1927. Because of segregation, it had the most over-qualified high school teaching staff in the city. Educators had been recruited from colleges across the country who could not teach in white schools. Many came with Masters and Doctorate degrees. Its reputation drew such notables as Thurgood Marshal and Langston Hughes to address and encourage the student body. Mom and my aunts all graduated from Attucks, mom in the class of '42. Still my summer typing class there was enough to qualify me as an alumnus of which I am very proud.

But my dad had big dreams for me to become an architect because of my drawing skills. He feared the school’s curriculum would not be sufficient to prepare me for my career. So, in 1967, we changed zip codes. We moved to the suburbs to an area called the “Golden Ghetto.” It was an area of black professionals and those, like my parents, who had saved enough to build a home where their children had a chance of a better education. I had matriculated from the cocoon of our all-black community into a white world where I would have to learn to fly.

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