September 26, 2017

WE HAVE A STORY TO TELL

I was invited to give the keynote address on 7/23/16 at the reunion of blacks and whites who grew up in Smelterville, the poorest section in my hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I don’t know of any other poverty stricken place in America that has produced a greater success rate of African American men and women than Smelterville. Although we grew up dirt poor we had a support network that got us through. We have some very powerful stories to tell about race relations, persistence and accomplishments. I want my hometown’s image to be much more inclusive than just being about Rush Limbaugh and his hate-filled right wing agenda. I hope you’re inspired by this speech!

PECAN ST

Pecan Street-the street I grew up on-in Smelterville, the “slum” section of Cape Girardeau, Mo. We used to joke if the bathroom burned down, it wouldn’t even make it up to the back porch. My house is the shack with the car in front across the street from New Bethel Baptist Church-photo © Ken Steinhoff All Rights Reserved

If you ever lived in Smelterville make some noise. Well alright-my people!  It’s good to be home and to see so many familiar faces. You see we know each other in ways that no one else ever will….that’s why we have lifelong friendships. As Buster was introducing me I was just thinking that most of my true friends in life are from Smelterville and Buster tops the list. Thank you for that wonderful introduction and generous embellishments Cuz.

It is an honor for me to speak to you tonight. Let me also thank the Vine Street Connection Planning team for their vision in sponsoring tonight’s event. For making it possible for us to fellowship together; to renew old acquaintances and to reflect on days gone by.

When I first learned that I was being asked to deliver the keynote address I didn’t believe it. In fact they called me three times to accept this invitation. I finally relented and told the operator I would accept the charges. You gotta pay that phone bill man. In all seriousness I’m absolutely honored to be home among friends and family. It’s good to see all the folks from Smelterville in the house.

You see Smelterville (where many of us grew up) was the poorest side of town-the slums. If you lived there, you were supposed to feel ashamed. Well I’m not ashamed-in fact I’m proud to be from Smelterville because we have some powerful stories to tell Cape and America about race relations, about our many successful Black residents who beat the odds and about the importance of nurturing young people.

Many of you know that we might have been born dirt poor but we were spiritually rich. Smelterville taught us that we could overcome our circumstances. We learned leadership skills at the Civic Center and in our youth clubs; were given lessons in credit and responsibility from John Dietiker at his grocery store; taught to work hard by our parents and were spiritually grounded in our church. I’m here to tell you tonight that we turned out alright. We weathered the storm. And we have a story to tell.

What we learned transformed our lives and prepared us for the life we’ve been living. We knew diversity before it became popular because we lived side by side with, worked with, played with, and sometimes gently fought with our white brothers and sisters in Smelterville who are in the house tonight.

Blacks and whites got along just fine in Smelterville-thank you. As Madeline said it wasn’t until we went on the other side of Tollgate Hill that we faced racial animosity. I won’t go into all of the history around Smelterville and why poor blacks and whites were forced to live in the conditions that we grew up in but I can tell you that there is a deeper history that reflects the unfinished business of race relations — and the persistence of racism that has never been fully discussed in Cape but I’ll save that talk for another time.

Tonight we’re here to celebrate each other so I will be spending the next 15 minutes talking about three things:

  • First I want to reminisce a little more about Smelterville.
  • Secondly I don’t want the memory that some of you have of Bobby Williams (former community leader) from his remarks last year to be the final thing that you remember about him. As a result I want to share what Bobby Williams meant to those of us who knew him at the civic center.
  • The last topic is intended for our young people because I believe  education is your ticket out
  • I’ll end each topic by saying Word!

REMINISCING

Speaking of reminiscing, do any of you all remember when?

  • Kool-Aid was the drink of the summer  and real candy bars were only a nickel
  • Any parent could discipline any kid, or feed him or her, or have him carry in the wood and nobody, not even the kid, thought anything of it
  • Yawl don’t remember when parents stood on the porch and yelled for you to come home
  • Waking John Dietiker up to open his store on a Sunday morning cause you needed something to get ready for church.

That’s what we had in Smelterville. We had a community, a culture that supported one another, but at the time we didn’t know that’s what we had. Looking back it was that community that gave us the love and courage to face life head on and to pursue our dreams. We all went to church on Sunday and some of us tried to sing in the choir.

Do you remember?

  • Heading out at a quarter to nine, to hit that commodity line, to get that government surplus food and bringing back a block of cheese that would break your knife when you tried to cut it. I overheard a rat asking his spouse if she had made his dental appointment. Even the rats lost teeth from that cheese.  Do yawl remember that?
  • Do you remember no air conditioning and using sticks to prop up the windows in the summertime?
  • Do you remember walking just about every place you needed to go, even to Marble City Heights and not even complaining?
  • Playing outside all day long until you were forced to come inside

There was no such thing as an allowance-if you wanted money you had to work for it and that started in our pre-teen years whether it was picking cotton, selling soda bottles, working with Mr. Pitts mowing yards-we worked.

We learned responsibility and accountability and to depend on ourselves. It’s time that Cape acknowledged its many successful blacks and whites that grew up in Smelterville. I want Cape’s image to be much more inclusive than just being about Rush Limbaugh and his right wing agenda.

We need the main stream press to catch up with us. They’re still limiting our story to the Sports page or the Crime page. But our story is much bigger than that. It deserves to be on the Front page! That’s why I applaud Buster for launching his newspaper and helping to tell our story.

Our story is about perseverance and accomplishment

  • Our story is about one of my best friends from Smelterville who didn’t have a dime to his name, when we were kids, being able to retire two years ago as a millionaire. And I learned just last night that we have another good friend from Smelterville who retired as a millionaire.
  • Our story is about another friend who grew up in Smelterville in poverty but has dedicated his life to establish Restoration Urban Ministries-a ministry for the poor and homeless in the Champaign-Urbana, IL community. His ministry provides jobs and housing and a way out for thousands of individuals. His ministry even extends to Africa.

  • Our story is about a black girl from Smelterville who owns one of the oldest Christian book stores in South Carolina and who also runs a rural ministry of hope and love.
  • Our story is about Brenda Newbern becoming the new voice of Cape and Madeline & Margaret and Dr. Gwen Squires planning this event that brings us all together 40 years later. It’s about the Memory Wall of loved ones whose sacrifices made it possible for us to be here today. We have some stories to tell.
  • Our story is also about a black boy from Smelterville who grew up dirt poor, whose step-mother did everything she could to humiliate him and turned what should have been one of the happiest days in his life-when he graduated from high school, into one of his worse-when she kicked him out of his house and told him that he was 18 years old and had to make it on his own. Although he only had the clothes on his back when he left I’m happy to tell you that 18 year old from Smelterville didn’t give up-he earned his PhD and you invited him home to be your keynote speaker tonight.  We have some stories to tell!

That’s why the Conner Boys: Ronald, Ross and Eddie will always be my brothers from another mother. When I had no place to turn to, they asked their mother (rest her soul) to let me stay until I could get on my feet. -Isn’t God great? We have some outstanding men and women from Smelterville. I’m proud of their stories and it’s time that we start telling them.

We succeeded despite the racism we faced because of a support system that got us through. We learned to depend on each other and to support each other and to encourage each other. Those values that we learned growing up in Smelterville are badly needed today. WORD!

EDUCATION IS YOUR TICKET OUT

I want to speak to our young people in the audience now, because I strongly believe that education is your ticket out. I know some young folks think they can dribble or sky hook their way out, or gangster rap their way out, but that’s like looking at a mule’s behind and predicting how big a load it can pull.

Sports and hip-hop are long-shots-like winning it big at Cape’s Casino. Education is a sure thing. It’s your ticket out. It opens up possibilities, but it requires some sweat equity. As an old wheat farmer once said, you can’t plough the field by turning it over in your mind. You got to work!

Young people listen to me now. We need you to be leaders and fill our colleges and not our jails. We need you in our talented and gifted classes and not our remedial ones. We need you to make the honor roll list and not the suspension list. We need you to take a big swig from the fountain of knowledge-don’t just gargle. We need you to tell out stories. Education is your ticket out.

That’s why we old heads get so frustrated and saddened when we hear young people talking about gang banging or read about kids fighting in school. We should never have to hear about a young person bringing a weapon to school. If you want to bring something, bring your textbooks or better yet a report card scattered with A’s. Whitney Young said “It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.”

We need you to get prepared because in your lifetime, you will have a nation to run. But you have to be ready. Yes, racism will still be your reality but don’t make it your crutch.

As our future leaders I need you to do three things while in school.

  1. I need you to study hard because you can’t teach what you don’t know, nor lead where you don’t go.
  2. Get involved in school activities.
  3. Be academically prepared, which means homework done well, classes attended and research papers finished.

Buster, sometimes when I challenge young people like this I have some students tell me, “Dr. Taylor you don’t understand what it’s like out here because you work with the big people. You have a PhD-you don’t understand.”

I understand. I tell them that my PhD doesn’t stand for public high school diploma. It stands for hard work-paid his dues!

“But Dr. Taylor my situation is different. I’m struggling to survive day-to-day-you don’t understand.”

I understand. In fact, I can tell your story.

I didn’t always have a PhD. If they knew about Smelterville they would understand that I know what it means to be poor. I was 16 years old before we had running water in my house; after we moved uptown behind Altha Mae Roebuck’s house.  I understand. We used to joke if the bathroom burned down, it wouldn’t even make it up to the back porch-I really do understand.

My first grade class was among the first to integrate May Greene School. I know what it’s like when people are mean to you and tell you that you’ll never amount to anything. I understand. I know about labels and name calling.

My father-Ollie Taylor was the hardest workingman I know. He only had a 6th grade education. He worked from can’t see in the morning until can’t see at night so we could have a better life. I was born into poverty, but as Jesse Jackson says, ‘poverty wasn’t born in me’.

So I’m telling any young person who’ll listen-that you can make it, if you’re motivated. Education is your ticket out. Don’t give up; never surrender your dreams. There are people right here in this room that will help you, if you just ask. So don’t you ever surrender because education is your ticket out. WORD!

 ODE TO BOBBY WILLIAMS

Let me re-introduce you to the Bobby Williams I once knew.

We thought we were so cool. We thought we were so hip. My friends and I were all 16 years old in the summer of 1966 when Bobby Williams came to town.

Although there are many people in my life who have influenced me, it was Bobby Williams who politicized my friends and me and taught us about our history and culture.

Bobby Williams and his young family drove into Cape in a brand new black shiny Chrysler. He was only 24 years old, fresh out of college. He was the first College educated African American male director of our community center and he was from St. Louis.

We thought we were cool.

Before he arrived, chasing girls, playing sports and finding a summer job were all that we cared about and in that order. We were in Falstaff field playing tackle football and Bobby asked to join the game. After he scored a touchdown we all looked at him a little bit differently. He knew something about the game. He mapped out a pass route that we hadn’t seen before.

We thought we were so hip.

Hey I got a book you guys should check out, Bobby said. It was summer and booking was the last thing on our minds, so we just laughed it off.

He knew each one of us claimed to be the sixth Temptations and he had an 8-track in his car blasting MY GIRL, although Lou Rawls: Love is a hurting thing was his favorite song.

He only had to ask once if we needed a ride home and 8 guys would pile into that shiny new Chrysler. We sneered at him when he asked us if we knew how to rap to girls, because we knew we were players.

But Bobby kept talking:

‘Sweetness,

A falling star-that’s what you are, from the heavens above. There’s no treasure on earth that could match your birth, you’re a portrait of love. I know to you, I’m just a lovesick guy, but you’re wrong; I need you; I want you by my side. So I’m going to keep on trying until I win your love.’

Why don’t you try that and see what happens, Bobby said

Damn, we thought we knew how to rap. He capped our rap. Of course it was only later that we learned that his rap came from a Temptations song.

You guys ever heard of MLK? How about the brother-minister who was assassinated last year, Malcolm X? Check out his autobiography. This time we listened a little more carefully.

Back in the day there was money available from President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty programs so Bobby got some of us jobs in the civic center. One of the first things he had us do was create a library. He brought in books about black culture and history that we had never heard of before. We learned about African kings and queens and places that we didn’t even know existed.

Bobby would come to work sky-clean, every day-what we used to call ‘styling and profiling’-with Italian Banlon shirts, Stacy Adam shoes and a brim that was way cooler than what our fathers’ wore.

We thought we were cool.

We started having discussions about poverty and racism and why there weren’t any blacks on the school board or on the city council. We noticed how these conversations made our parents nervous.

We didn’t pay much attention to it at the time because we felt the civil rights movement was someplace else, but Bobby made us realize that it had to happen in Cape too, to have any meaning.

He frightened the town leaders just by insisting that the bill of rights should apply to everyone. He told them the most important part of the pledge of allegiance was the part that said…with liberty and justice for all.

Bobby told us that America could offer us more than dope, jail or the military. He challenged us constantly. Bobby led marches and he forced people to take sides. It didn’t take long for him to be viewed as an outside agitator and our hometown’s public enemy number one.

A few years later they sent him to prison on a trumped up concealed weapons charge-a gun he legally purchased to protect his family after numerous death threats and a shooting into his home. I know because I was Bobby’s chief witness at his trial.

I didn’t even know that Bobby was still alive until last year, but that’s not what really matters. I realize now how grateful I was for the time he spent in my life and for all the lessons that he taught me. I was able to use those lessons 10 years later when I became director of the civic center.

Looking back I knew my friends and I were never the same after the summer of 1966. We grew up that summer, because it no longer mattered whether we were cool. Thanks Bobby!

WORD!

TRIBUTE TO MOMMA

I want to close by sharing a personal story because you never know who you touch or who touches you. The Wisconsin State Journal-my adopted home town’s newspaper in Madison, WI did a story on me once and the reporter asked me this question: Who is the one person you would most want to have dinner with, dead or alive?

I knew immediately that person HAD TO be my mother. She died when I was 5 years old in childbirth when my siblings Steve & Stephanie were born. I went on to say there would be so many things I’d like to tell her and then just hold her for a while.

I didn’t know the impact that statement would have. I can’t tell you the number of Madisonians -black and white, men & women who said they cried when they read that and wanted me to know that I had touched them.

Brenda and Madeline-this invitation to come back home and speak tonight really touches me, and it would be one of those things I would tell my mother. I would tell her that you’ve honored me more than you’ll ever know with this invitation. I would tell her there are certainly others more worthy, but none more grateful.

I would tell her coming home made me think of two other women as well–grandma and my first grade teacher.

It was grandma who taught me to believe in myself; to never surrender my dreams. She would say that wisdom knows no skin color; or a light will shine anywhere so Charles-let your light shine. I would sing back to her: this little light of mine-I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

And my first grade teacher at May Greene School-Mrs. Sanders taught me the value of education. She gave me such a great gift. Even after I became an adult, Mrs. Sanders would still write me a letter at least once a year until she died at the age of 90.

After her funeral her daughter wrote me and said Charles you don’t know how much you meant to my mother and I said you’ve got that backwards, you don’t know how much your mother meant to me.

That’s why we must never forget those brave trail blazers who came before us-the men and women whose ribs became ladders for us to climb into the positions that we occupy today. They taught us that when you combine faith with action, that great things are still possible.

I like to have a good time like everyone else but I also wanted my life to have meaning. I can report to you tonight that although I haven’t lived in Cape for over 40 years the lessons I learned growing up here (hard work, faith, compassion, education and kindness) have guided me my whole life and the lives of many of you in this room.

The values I learned from my white neighbors in Smeltervile: John Dietiker, Mrs. Radliffe, Gary Wen, Roy Griffin and many others weren’t defined by skin color but by character. We were told YES WE CAN by both blacks and whites in our community.

We were told by our church that despite our flaws we could succeed. That’s why I’ve always loved the Fable about the Water Bearer who went looking for new pots.

He chose two

One pot was cracked-the other had no apparent defects

The cracked pot wished it could be more like the “perfect” pot

For two years the man made the long walk from the stream to his house with both pots

Each time the cracked pot only delivered half of what the other pot had delivered.

The cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfections

Finally, it couldn’t bare its shame any longer.

The broken pot told the water bearer: “I’m ashamed of myself!

This crack leaks water all the way back to the house.”

The wise old man said “Didn’t you notice?” Can’t you see?

On your side of the path is a string of beautiful flowers.

I knew about your flaw. For two years you have watered these flowers as we walked

Because of you I have been able to pick beautiful flowers to decorate my table with.

Without you being just the way you are-I wouldn’t have this beauty.

When people looked at Smelterville, Madeline all they saw were our flaws. They failed to see the beautiful flowers that were all around them. They couldn’t see our potential.

Well I’m here tonight to tell you brothers and sisters that I see your potential and I’m proud of you. Each one of you matters and each one of you are capable of great things, so go out and plant some beautiful flowers. Go out and tell our stories!

It’s so good to be home. Thank you and may God bless you!

 WORD!

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