What I went Through – by Cecil Wright
Quick Note: This piece is by my friend Cecil Wright, who is a sports reporter from Nova Scotia Canada. He gives us some insight on what it’s been like to cover sports as a black journalist and the struggles he’s faced growing up in the suburbs of Boston as person of color.
Originally, I am from a historically small black community just outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. My ancestors settled there after escaping slavery in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia. My parents and I moved to Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1961 as they were unable to find meaningful employment in and around Halifax, but their little 6-year old boy was totally comfortable being raised in a community surrounded by his cousins and friends. When the decision was made to relocate to a strange new city in a different country, I was an angry youngster who boarded that plane at the insistence of my maternal grandmother who had remarried and moved to Beantown.
The next summer, escorted by my father, I attended by first Red Sox game, followed soon by a Boston Patriots game and a Celtics game. When he learned that I connected with sports, for the rest of my childhood and adolescence, he used it as a weapon to ensure I toed the line. In the summer of 1963, we moved to Holliston, a small town southwest of Boston where dad began a career with the Holliston Highway Department. What we didn’t know, at the time, is that we were the 6th black family to move into this fairly quiet little town known for being the site of Breezy Meadows, a camp of some repute.
I had gone from growing up amongst mostly black people in Beechville and Roxbury, having attended the now defunct Boardman School, to a community where seeing another black face was a rarity. There was one other black guy in my school and he was in my grade, but not in my class for another two years. We were friendly but not close. Today, Michael would have been undoubtedly diagnosed with ADHD as he found it difficult to stay still and concentrate for too long, but he was a good person.
My first friend was Skip who I had met when we came to Holliston for a visit to the Highway Department Superintendent’s house. Skip lived a couple houses away and was playing with their son. So I was thrilled to find out we were entering 4th grade in the same class. That pleasure was somewhat balanced by the fights I was getting into on the playground before school, which was a very short bike-ride from our small two-bedroom home. At first, I was continuously sent to the Principal’s office who kept asking why he kept seeing me in the office on a regular basis. He seemed completely ambivalent that anyone in his school was picking fights with the new kid who happened to be a black guy.
After school one day, I told dad that I would no longer be returning to that school since I kept getting into trouble each morning when he floored me with his solution. He claimed to have knowledge of the one thing to ease my burden. ”You’re going to sign up for little league baseball! As soon as they see how you can throw that ball, all of them will want you on their team!” While the initial thought was appealing, I couldn’t get past those morning fights on the playground. I reluctantly went to the tryout and was selected to play for the Giants instead of the Red Sox, so I was a little perturbed when I got home. When asked how it went, I exclaimed that “I couldn’t even play for the Red Sox but rather the stupid Giants.” Dad cried out “THE GIANTS HAVE THE BEST PLAYER IN BASEBALL…WILLIE MAYS…WAIT UNTIL YOU SEE HIM, HE’S AWESOME!” Dad couldn’t have been more right as the social activity was much better on the playground because my teammates brought their gloves everyday so we could play ball at recess.
My first isolated incident of overt racism came in grade 6 as we were lining up to return to our classroom from gym. We had played basketball that day and I always envisioned myself as Sudden Sam Jones on the hardwood, and on this particular day, Sam was on point, which seemingly upset my defender who used the N word in describing me after the session. I was confused because I had never experienced a problem with the guy in question, but then again, it was the first time we squared off on the court, which was quite the success in my eyes. One of my classmates told our teacher and he exploded, yanking him out of his seat and marching him up to see the Principal. When he returned, Mr. G had a serious talk with our class regarding “our alikeness” and how it better be the last time he heard about anything like that happening again.
As junior high approached, like the rest of the boys in my neighborhood, sports were now a major part of my life. I had moved on to the Senior League in baseball and had the pleasure of playing against other towns and meeting new people. It all seemed to fly by so quickly. When I got to high school, the fun really began starting with football. Freshmen year was our introduction to organized football and most of my friends were also on the team. In our locker room, we had these enormous steel hangers perched about allowing you to drape jerseys over to air them out. We were preparing to travel to Hopkinton for one of our first games when my buddy, Steve, accidentally hit one of the hangers as he was putting on his jersey. The damn thing boinked me on the head and knocked me out cold for a few moments. When I came to, I was surrounded by a scared group of 9th graders, but I was fine, except for a little bump on the noggin. My problem, however, was that my coach would not let me play until I was examined by the doctor who arrived just before the game.
I was on the kickoff team but couldn’t take the field until the doc gave me the once over. I was a cornerback and had to miss the first defensive series and was on the verge of tears when Doctor Lubke made his way over to me with an “alright, let’s have a look at you.” He gave me the all clear and those Hopkinton kids must have thought I was nuts when I finally got on the field, jumping around like crazy. We were not very good by virtue of only winning 2 games but we were a tough group who understood that we were just learning how to play the game.
Shortly thereafter, my buddy Skip had a family tragedy and moved away, while Michael was killed in an automobile accident. I was devastated by both events but was an emotional wreck who could not even attend Michael’s funeral. I stayed home in my room for almost that whole day.
Our team improved over the next couple years led by my All-State teammate and best friend, Gary, a big fullback who would go on to lead the state in scoring. By the time our senior year rolled around, we had become part of an extremely successful Holliston High Panthers football program who were very well coached led by the brilliant Tom Caito and his staff. We were coming off a junior season where we tied for the league title and were right back in the weight room in preparation for our last year together as brothers on the field. We went to Boston College football camp that summer where I was switched to defensive end after bulking up to 195 lbs, up some 25 lbs from the previous year. I took to the position quite well and really looked forward to wreaking havoc on defense, when just before we began our double sessions in August, I was told that I would be moving to linebacker.
I was discouraged yet ecstatic. I had put in hours learning how to become a defensive end and was prepared to unleash the new me on the rest of the Tri Valley League, but I was happy with the knowledge that the linebacker position was in on the action with every snap. So with that as a backdrop, Holliston went on to an unblemished 9-0 record becoming the first Panther team to do so, winning the TVL and Class D State Championship in the process, while leading the state in scoring with 388 points averaging 43.1 points per game. Believe me when I say that we celebrated…HARD!!
I had stopped playing basketball to concentrate on the weights for football and baseball, which, in my opinion, was my best individual sport. Coming off the undefeated football season, expectations were high for the baseball Panthers as we had won our division the previous two years. Buddy and I had been selected co-captains and we tried our best to lead by example, especially since he was our QB on the gridiron and SS on the diamond. I alternated between LF and RHP, but it was one day when I patrolled LF that it happened. Our pitcher for a game versus Medfield also happened to be an offensive tackle in football. Zim marched to his own drum and had a great sense of humor, but you let him be, when he was irritated.
Zim hit a batter in the ribs with a heavy fastball and the batter went right down. After a few seconds, he got up with the bat still in his hands and raised it over his head as if to gesture his intent to inflict some retaliation. Zim, with that football mentality, dropped his glove and motioned to bring it. Everyone came running into the infield to protect Zim and somehow, I ended up on the visitor’s side of the diamond. Suddenly, a spectator from the Medfield stands started screaming at me. “Hey 20, get back out in the field where you belong” he shouted. I was shocked that anyone would point at me because I was completely innocent. I looked up in the stands and made eye contact with a person who I figured was an opposing parent when he bellowed “yeah that’s right, I’m talking to you!” And then I did something I should not have done…I yelled back “It’s people like you who make this game less enjoyable than it should be for people like me!”
The situation quickly returned to calm and I trotted back out to my position, when after a few seconds, our catcher stood up, stepped in front of home plate and yelled “HEY CECIL, WE’VE GOT SOMEONE TO TALK TO!” I thought he was talking about the man in the stands, so I wasn’t very concerned about it. We got the 3rd out of the inning and I started jogging to our bench. Almost everyone was waiting for me at 3B asking if I “heard what he said?” I told them I wasn’t worried about the man in the stands, now let’s go win a ball game. Tony, our catcher, said “not that guy, but Peter!” I said “I didn’t hear anything because I was running back to LF.” Apparently, Peter told me to get back in the outfield N….. Now this was a game at our field and I remember we had some of our track and field members in our stands, but I had no clue of what was really going on. I remember seeing Coach Reilly calling time and going up towards the plate and gesturing to their coach but being out in left, I couldn’t hear what he said. It was verified to me later that Coach told his counterpart “If you don’t get him out of here right now, I will not be held responsible for what happens!”
We looked for Peter, who was their RF but he wasn’t there. We looked at each position but he was missing. Finally, Zim tapped me on the shoulder with “THERE HE IS!” He was climbing the steps to their team bus way out in the parking lot. We went on to win that game and Zim went the distance. In fact, all our pitchers went the distance in most games that year with Bob Caldwell and I leading the staff, both with 6-0 records.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that teammates, real teammates, have each others’ back. My guys were ready to go to battle because they felt I had been disrespected in which case, they were wounded too. Most of them were my teammates in football and we had that emotional connection that will never be broken. I’d like to think they saw me simply as their teammate.
Later on, I became a football official and had one of the oddest experiences ever. I was working a freshmen game in Medfield, when one of my partners yelled “Cecil, get that guy off the field!” I had no clue what he was talking about, so imagine my shock when I turned around and this man was standing right behind me. I said “hey pal, you gotta move off the field, we’ve got a game going on.” He response was “why don’t you move me, BOY.” I was flabbergasted and had to replay his words in my head again. One of my partners, a very large man came over and gently guided the man off the field with “c’mon man, you know you can’t interfere with the game, get back in the stands.” The Medfield coach apologized. I told him “it wasn’t your fault,” but I really felt badly for whomever that man was there to support. Imagine the embarrassment that youngster must have felt?
I have more stories, like getting arrested at gunpoint and assaulted for being a passenger in a speeding car by a former opponent in baseball who later told me, “I recognized you the minute I saw you. We could never beat Holliston in baseball.” He arrested me anyway. I don’t have enough space to adequately tell them all and still have you comprehend the impact those incidents have had on me, my family and my friends/teammates.
Can sports be a catalyst for change? Absolutely, but only if those who have never been the target or have never been victimized by those kinds of insensitive circumstances, open up to the realization that they cannot allow them to continue inflicting such damage without the voices of anti-racist practitioners speaking up and taking action. That’s why the entire world is protesting right now after being brought to the brink by so many unnecessary lives lost.
Anybody who has been in similar situations will tell you they’re the most degrading, humiliating and frustrating moments of their lives. Society must do better. A person can only take so much!
Cecil Wright graduated from Holliston High School in 1972 and returned to Halifax, Nova Scotia in the fall of 1984. He retired two years ago after a 20-year career with Public Safety Canada. He’s written many opinion columns for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald and hosts a community cable television show on Eastlink TV in addition to a sports talk show and a music show on CIOE 97.5 FM where it’s streamed online at communityradio.ca.
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