For many years I wondered why my close friend in high school occasionally invited one of the few black students at our high school to stay overnight at his home. This was in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and this sort of thing was unheard of. The black friend was a football player and quite popular, but still, this was southern Indiana!
Some years later my friend’s wife died and he confided in me that if the black football player’s sister, who had also died, was still living he would want to marry her. This I found quite surprising, but since I was taught not to be prejudiced or too inquisitive, I did not pursue it.
Many years later I visited my then very successful friend at his office in North Carolina, and found that among the secretaries in his office were black women. Some way or another I finally got around to asking my friend why this affinity for black people.
The answer was straightforward: After his father served in the military in the South Pacific during World War II, his father was employed at a CCC camp (Civilian Conservation Corp), again in southern Indiana. Since the military was not yet integrated, his father’s responsibility was to oversee segregated black CCC camps. Since the camps had specific and somewhat limited environmental tasks in a location, the camps were temporary, often just a year.
(“The Civilian Conservation Corps established by Congress on March 31, 1933, provided jobs for young, unemployed men during the Great Depression. Over its 9-year lifespan, the CCC employed about 3 million men nationwide. The CCC made valuable contributions to forest management, flood control, conservation projects, and the development of state and national parks, forests, and historic sites. In return, the men received the benefits of education and training, a small paycheck, and the dignity of honest work.”)
For three or four years my friend and his brother spent much of their time in a world of young black men, and especially on Saturdays, when their parents would go shopping and leave them in the Day Center interacting with the CCC recruits. His experience was simply great. He came to feel very much a part of the enlisted men’s lives and was undoubtedly a very popular addition to their lives.
He had no reason to be prejudiced; he knew these men as friends and companions. As they said in the musical “South Pacific”, “You’ve got to be taught to hate”, and my friend simply missed that lesson.
Another interesting encounter I had not too much later in my life, and again in southern Indiana, concerns playing pickup basketball at Indiana University in Bloomington with other students who were also taking physical education courses. There was one large and talented black player who was always available and interested in playing. His name was Milt Campbell. Milt was quite concerned with just playing – but not too rough, however.
I later found that Milt’s concerns for remaining healthy were well-founded — he would be participating in the 1956 decathlon at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.
As one writer observed, “Milt Campbell was 22 years old when he won the decathlon… He returned home to Plainfield, N.J., as the greatest all-around athlete in the world, only to discover that his achievements meant very little to his fellow countrymen.”
I never encountered Milt again, and his memory faded until I started writing articles for Black History Month for the News Journal, and for some reason I thought of the semester at Indiana University and the pick-up basketball games. I had no idea how his life would play out – after all, being one of the greatest athletes in our past could not pass without further successes.
But that is now how this story ends. “No one signed Campbell up as a product or corporate spokesman; no one offered to put him on a cereal box … Campbell didn’t earn a penny from his gold medal.” This was quite a contrast to other highly successful Olympian winners.
Some analysts have considered him the greatest athlete ever, but his past 1956 life experiences do not match his self-assessment. In an interview several decades later, he reflected on his life-experiences. “Here’s the greatest athlete in the world in 1956, and in 1958 I can’t get a job in America? With all the things I could do? I think it’s time somebody says, ‘Who the hell are we kidding? This guy got his ass kicked because he fell in love’ [with a white woman]. You see, in America nobody is going to dictate to me who I can love and who I can’t love.”
This outcry is not the whole story. In other ways, Milt lived a constructive and selfless life. He was married to Barbara for 25 years and they raised three children of their own and two others. “We had a good life, but it was always hard on her. She would turn on the TV and see (Bob) Mathias and (Rafer) Johnson and (Bill) Toomey and (Bruce) Jenner, and everybody would be saying, ‘These are America’s greatest athletes.’
“She would just go into the bedroom and cry.”
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.