Woody’s Job Corps: A 1973 les­son for ‘squeegee kids’

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Wil­liam B. Robert­son

I have read with great in­ter­est the plight of the squeegee kids in Baltimore — the frus­tra­tions, dan­gers, stereo­typ­ing, buck pass­ing, etc. The sit­u­a­tion re­minds me of an­other in­ci­dent in an­other time.

In 1973, I was serv­ing as spe­cial as­sis­tant to Virginia Gov. Lin­wood Holton. On May 31st of that year, he buzzed me via in­ter­com and asked if I would come to his of­fice. There, he told me that his 13-year-old son, Woody, had been ac­costed the day be­fore by sev­eral black youths while de­liv­er­ing the af­ter­noon pa­per. Woody, who is white, was not hurt, but he was shaken up. The gov­er­nor ex­plained that as a mat­ter of pro­to­col when some­thing like this hap­pens to him or to mem­bers of his fam­ily it is put in the hands of the Virginia State Po­lice.

Woody would be de­liv­er­ing pa­pers that af­ter­noon, he added, and the state po­lice would be close by. He asked if I would also walk the route to be of as­sis­tance if any­thing sim­i­lar hap­pened. And it did. As Woody de­liv­ered his pa­pers, two youths con­fronted him, pushed him around and took three $1 bills from him. The bills were marked, and the state po­lice moved in and ar­rested the boys. No one had no­ticed me stand­ing on the cor­ner pre­tend­ing to read a news­pa­per.

I was able to get the names and ad­dresses of the teenagers, and the next day I vis­ited the area where they lived. What I found was poverty — ab­ject poverty. I re­ported all of this to the gov­er­nor and in­di­cated that I had some ideas on how to ad­dress the is­sue and wanted Woody in­volved. The gov­er­nor gave me the green­light.

First, I wanted Woody to see where the teens lived, which would give him some insight as to why they might rob him. Woody and I went to the area of di­lap­i­dated houses. In a dirty dusty back area, basketball was be­ing played. The youths who com­mit­ted the crime were among the play­ers. Of course, they rec­og­nized Woody, but Woody was not afraid. The ball came my way and I sank a 15-footer. Woody went un­der­neath and made a layup. Ten­sions were re­lieved. Truly this group did not know who this white boy was and they as­sumed I was a po­lice­man. But our basketball play brought high fives and slaps on the back.

Next, I wanted the teens to see where and how Woody lived. We asked them if they would like to visit the gov­er­nor’s of­fice. The an­swer was yes. Now, the gov­er­nor’s of­fice/state capi­tol was only about 5 blocks away, but it could have seemed to them to be a mil­lion miles be­cause they knew noth­ing about a gov­er­nor. We told them to be ready at 2 p.m. the next day. We had the capi­tol po­lice send five cars to the lo­ca­tion. Some 25 black chil­dren, ages 6 months to 15 years, were brought to the state capi­tol build­ing. We walked them around the build­ing, with all of its mar­ble and or­nate ar­chi­tec­ture. Glar­ing from the walls at them were por­traits of old line seg­re­ga­tion­ist gover­nors who would not have ap­proved.

The chil­dren were ush­ered to the gov­er­nor’s con­fer­ence room, where they sat at the con­fer­ence ta­ble in the com­fort­able cush­ioned chairs. I sat the 6-mon­thold baby in the gov­er­nor’s chair at the head of the ta­ble. In­deed, this was his­tory in the mak­ing. It rep­re­sented signs of change. That in­fant could have be­come a fu­ture gov­er­nor.

Here now we are talk­ing about two dif­fer­ent worlds. One know­ing lit­tle or noth­ing about the other. Woody had re­marked that he had ev­ery­thing, and these kids had noth­ing.

The next step was to have Woody meet with the busi­ness com­mu­nity to re­late what he had learned and seek as­sis­tance.

Let­ters signed by Woody were sent to busi­ness lead­ers invit­ing them to a meet­ing at the John Mar­shall Ho­tel. The ses­sion was well at­tended, and Woody went through all that had hap­pened and in­di­cated that ad­di­tional in­ner city chil­dren were in the same sit­u­a­tion as these. He stated that work­ing to­gether in a pub­lic/pri­vate part­ner­ship we could al­ter some of these sit­u­a­tions. He wanted to pro­vide jobs for as many of these chil­dren as pos­si­ble. Woody stressed to the busi­ness peo­ple that they could pay a lit­tle now or a lot more later. The busi­ness com­mu­nity re­sponded to his re­quest by con­tribut­ing $45,000 to what be­came known as “Woody’s Job Corps.” The Mayor of Rich­mond was at the meet­ing and pledged the city’s sup­port. R-CAP (the Rich­mond Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Pro­gram), the Ur­ban League, NAACP, churches and oth­ers be­came a part of the ef­fort.

Mem­bers of the Job Corps, both black and white, all liv­ing in in­ner city Rich­mond, would be paid a weekly salary of $25.00 with a few dol­lars held back to buy school sup­plies and clothes. Over 100 chil­dren par­tic­i­pated in the pro­gram, clean­ing their neigh­bor­hoods, al­ley­ways, etc. They were on time for work and came ev­ery day. They showed re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The city supplied shov­els, brooms, rakes, gloves, waste bar­rels and trucks to haul the trash away. Churches and R-CAP supplied lunches and su­per­vi­sion.

It was a highly suc­cess­ful pro­gram. Take Pride in Virginia re­ported the pro­gram to Take Pride in Amer­ica. As a re­sult, Woody, the two young men who had at­tacked him and about 10 ad­di­tional mem­bers of the corps were in­vited to New York where Keep Amer­ica Beau­ti­ful was host­ing an awards pro­gram. This or­ga­ni­za­tion by way of the em­cee, Shirley Tem­ple Black, pre­sented an award to the Rich­mond group. Ac­cept­ing the award were Woody and the two young men.

As the chil­dren in Rich­mond, stuck in poverty, could not be ig­nored and wished away in 1973, the squeegee kids in Baltimore to­day can­not be ig­nored and wished away. They are the re­spon­si­bil­ity of us all. We need ev­ery el­e­ment of the com­mu­nity in­volved: par­ents, so­cial ser­vice agen­cies, ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions. The busi­ness com­mu­nity should take the lead and part­ner with the city, churches and oth­ers. These teenagers need op­por­tu­ni­ties and a sense that some­one cares.

Let’s cre­ate a teenage job corps on a larger scale in Baltimore. As Woody said then, and it’s true to­day, “we can pay a lit­tle to­day or a lot more later.”

Wil­liam B. Robert­son (Big­[email protected]) was the first African Amer­i­can to serve on the ex­ec­u­tive staff of a Virginia gov­er­nor (1970 to 1974). He is a 1954 grad­u­ate of Blue­field State Col­lege, which named its library af­ter him.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.