In February of my sophomore year at Middletown High, Middletown’s racism reared its ugly head. During football season, it was traditional for us to select homecoming
queen candidates. The problem was that in a school where there were 700 kids in
a class and only 50 of them black, the black girls never had an opportunity to
participate. There simply wasn’t enough votes.
Rick and Guy on the other hand, being the starting guards on the basketball team, got selected as escorts. Two black guys being put in a position to escort white girls in Middletown, Ohio, at that time was scandalous. It was 1969. That is where the rifts began to appear in the fabric of life at Middletown High and by the time Black History month arrived, Middletown High School had become separated along racial lines.
As president of the sophomore class, I was required to meet with the student council to discuss these issues. Unfortunately for us, before these meetings took place, violence broke out and for a week Middletown High School was closed. The black and white communities
separated from each other and, as was traditional, the ministers in the black churches emerged as leaders.
From my perspective though, that was the problem. Slavery, and the racism that followed, was never a moral issue in America (although I personally believe it is morally wrong). In America slavery was an economic issue: America with all its land needed free labor to work it.
Resolving the race issue therefore needed to start with recognizing the
economic contributions that we, as black people, had made to America. I just couldn’t see being angry at a white kid who was just plain ignorant. For one, I didn’t see it as his
fault. He had been “mis-educated”. He didn’t know that a black man had invented
the third rail, or the traffic light, or the machine that made his shoes. He
didn’t know that a black man developed the technique for storing blood for
transfusions. He didn’t know that a black woman invented the washing machine.
He hadn’t been taught this. As far as he knew, all black folks did was take.
America had made him stupid and I just couldn’t make it his fault.
The Ku Klux Klan, which everybody believes to be a Southern phenomenon, was actually quite active in our area. Periodically, during the time surrounding the riots at Middletown High, we would get calls at our house that were threatening. That was the most amazing situation for a sixteen year old. I was not particularly militant; in fact, my only dream was
to complete high school and get on to college. The Klan, however, saw it
Psychologically, I closed down then, and even though I didn’t know it, that was to color how I related to the outside world from then on. I was friendly, I was cordial, but it was clear that I was never going to allow people inside again. To be 16 years old and
have the Ku Klux Klan calling your house threatening your life and your
family’s life was just too much.
Perhaps my personality and my talents were more suited to public office, having been president of the sophomore class, the junior class, and then finally of the student body, but
that episode changed me. That’s why I chose medicine rather than business or
law, and even within medicine I was determined to do research to further minimize my interactions with people.
Toward the end of my junior year in high school, I was nominated by Thomas Cloud, a member of the Nixon administration, to attend the United States Naval Academy. It was quite an honor and realistically my mother’s first choice for me. She loved the notion
of the discipline, believed completely in a structured life, and saw a career in service to our country as honorable. (She had also worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for the last 18 years. It was a life she knew and respected.)
I didn’t have an opinion on it but was happy to please her by doing the right thing. That is also something I adopted as a child. It wasn’t so important to me how I felt, as long as I did
the right thing. That in effect became my mantra: “It doesn’t matter how I feel, as long as I do the right thing.” And so at a very young age I learned to suppress my emotions (as if my life needed the extra help).
It turned out that while the Naval Academy may have been the right thing for me, I was not the right thing for it. During the extensive physical exam I was discovered to have congenital heart disease, a second degree-type 1, AV heart block (Wenckebach/Mobitz I). There would be no naval intelligence, no career flying airplanes onto a warship, and no black James Bond.
I’d like to say I took it in stride but I’m not sure that was the case. I accepted it for
what it was, but emotionally, I don’t think I addressed it at all. I simply
tucked it away, way down deep inside where I suppose I catalogue all things
I put it beside Donette Slusher, clearly the love of my life, and someone who never knew because in Middletown, and certainly in my life, you just didn’t date white girls. Donette sat beside me in homeroom and was in all my classes at Middletown High.
From the moment our eyes met she was the only love for me. Dressed in
a flowing white dress I could see the gentle curves of her hips as they
extended into slender sturdy legs with ample calves and thin ankles that
deposited into tiny flat shoes. Her face was chiseled, and yet soft at the same
time, with eyes that sparkled and said “yes, yes I am yours” as she moved closer
to me. Her arms were gentle and as she hugged me the warm softness engulfed my
soul. I pulled her closer and our lips brushed softly against each other, my
heart rate and breathing pulsating stronger and louder. Our kiss became more
firm as we began to gyrate in each other’s aura. I could not help myself. I
could not stop. The fire between us burned hotter and hotter…
“Mr. Adams, Mr. Adams,” Mrs. McBain, my teacher interrupted. “Mr. Adams, where on earth do you go? I realize you are the quarterback on Fridays, but for now, how about staying with us. We’re doing trigonometry in here”
“Yes mam” I said to the snickers of my classmates. Donette was this beautiful, quiet little angel, whose smile I can still see to this very day. No words were necessary; it was simply love at first sight.
Mrs. McBain on the other hand was a terror. She was this small black woman, with the complexion of a white woman, who was determined to get the most out of all of us. For her, teaching was a calling, not just a job. She was determined to see that we got the best
education we could get and nothing was going to stand in her way, not even the
mindless daydreaming of the starting quarterback. She was on me for the entire
fifty minutes, from the time I walked through the door of her classroom. She
also lived a few doors down on 11th Avenue, my street, which also
made it too close for comfort. She saved me and a lot of black kids over more
than thirty-five years of service, period. I never learned to appreciate her
until I got to college.
I applied to Harvard College and was accepted. In fact, I applied no where else. I received the notice on March 10, 1972. Everyone I knew, and even people I didn’t know, were happy, and proud. Not many black kids from Middletown escape the steel mills to college, and certainly not Harvard. About ten years earlier, John McCluskey, who also
quarterbacked the Middies, had accomplished such a feat in the 1960’s.
Yet no where were they more proud than in the mills. The summer before I left for school, I worked at Armco Steel Corporation as a general laborer. My job was hysterical. I worked at Project 600. If you have ever driven on the Interstate highways you’ve seen these
massive trucks with one, but certainly not more than two circular rolls of
metal sitting on them. The rolls are massive and weigh tons; that’s why you
only see one, not two or three, on a truck. Project 600 is where this steel was
rolled into these coils for transport.
There were four large furnaces at Project 600 and each could achieve temperatures of greater than 2000º F. A four foot by 10 to 12 foot, one foot thick, plate of raw steel was placed in these furnaces and heated to almost a ‘gel’. Once the steel was soft enough it was
pushed out onto a conveyor that ran the length of the building, more than half
a mile. As the steel move down the conveyor it negotiated a series of rollers -like
on an old-fashioned washing machine- that flattened the steel out into a long
serpentine sheet. Toward the end of the conveyor the metal would then be rolled
into a spool for transport.
These furnaces had movable parts that would slide the steel out onto the conveyor. These movable parts had to be lubricated with oil, but understandably, it was so hot, that when oil was placed on them, the oil would heat up and liquefy to a point of where it would
Approximately 65 feet underground in the basement of the structure were
the working mechanisms of these furnaces. That is ultimately where the oil
landed. Now, here we are in Ohio, in the middle of July. It’s 95º outside with
95% humidity. I’m 65 feet underground, under furnaces where the temperature is
greater than 2000ºF, and I have a steam gun, that’s right a long metal tube where steam and hot water came out the distal end, removing oil from the floor,
forcing it into trenches to be carried away and processed. Needless to say,
that job motivated me to study at Harvard.
But Middletown is a good place, and it was a wonderful place to grow up. When it became apparent that I was on my way to Harvard, the entire town rallied around it. Even the whites who worked at Armco Steel Corporation were supportive. They too believed that if I
did my best at Harvard, with emphasis on the best, I would have the opportunity
to enjoy “how the other half lives.”
It also afforded me an opportunity to come out from under those furnaces periodically to enjoy their air conditioned offices at Project 600 (and that alone made it worthwhile). I wouldn’t change any of it.