Students > Back in the Day
Mr. Spurlock was introduced by Robert K. Jones (B.J.), Chief of Police, Retired
Oberlin Police Department.
Thank you, BJ. And thank all of you for being here and being part of a great tradition of advocacy for freedom and justice. Your applause for me is applause for you and yours. This room is filled with friends and the sons and daughters of friends of a special time in my life. People whose influence I have never forgotten.
When Ms. Rumics asked me how I would like to be identified in your program, I responded: “Oberlin High School, class of 1959.” That was, in part, my way of acknowledging the contributions made to the town and the college of two of my classmates, David Ignat and Bill Robinson. And to the nation, by David Lewis in philosophy and Arthur Murphy in music. In larger part, it was my attempt to identify a time in the history of Oberlin that may have represented the best that our country has produced. Looking back from the perspective of fifty years, perhaps a Golden Age.
The occasion of this dinner is made more poignant by its being in this room where my mother worked as a hostess for many years before working at the co-op bookstore, and later returning to finish college and become a teacher in the Oberlin school system. During four summers of her tenure here, I working in that kitchen with Joe ”Boogie’ Smith, who even for a day has never carried himself except with dignity; Myrna, then Morton, who taught me how to dance, and more importantly how to relate; and Joe Harris, who could rack dishes, as fast as he could run, as perhaps the best athlete Oberlin produced since Jim Barnes. Special friends.
Delbert Spurlock is my name,
Oberlin is my station.
Mt. Zion is my Sunday school,
Christ is my salvation.
Mt. Zion was my morning Sunday school. The Missionary Alliance was my afternoon Sunday school. Two ladies named Mrs. Foster and Mrs. Mungeon, who visited with my grandmother, whose house we lived in, made sure of that.
That got me started at about five. And living almost on the corner of Pleasant and Vine, where Paul Arnold’s and Burrell Scott’s Martin Luther King now stands watch, kept it going. Pleasant and Vine was the scene: probably in all of Oberlin at the time. Oberlin’s 7th and T, or Lenox and 125th. I was a little boy who got to hang out with the great big boys – just because they were literally in my yard, at the “Center” or playing touch football in Bill Macarthy’s – Uncle Bill’s – field across the street.
And the people who passed by my yard… Duane Gordon, Leon Russell, working men and women of South Pleasant, Park, Groveland, and Locust; Bernie Holmes, who never came back from Korea, and Freddie Owens and Deacon Denny, who did. And Esther Spotts, who was Oberlin’s first back teacher that I know of, who walked to and from school in high heels, and Mr. Spotts, Mona’s Grandfather, who took me by the hand to Isley’s for the first time. That was the Ben and Jerry’s of the day.
Before we moved from Vine Street after second grade, I had explored all of Oberlin on my bike and had friends all over town: Berry Bourne and Lee Townsel, Johnnie Stephens, Jerry Fitzpatrick. And I was interacting with adults, the sports editor, Bob Champion, Benny Wade at his hardware store.
Baseball was everything to me – playing it and going to Indians games with Oberlin Recreation run by Mr. Chaing. But when Ted Williams of the Red Sox got drafted in the Korean War and lost hearing in an ear, I knew that baseball was not the most important thing. And I was learning about the wider world beyond Oberlin from my uncles and aunts and cousins who came to visit from Richmond, Youngstown, Petersburg, and Buffalo. And from Movietone News, which preceded every motion picture at the Apollo, I was learning the significance of what I was experiencing in Oberlin.
One of the most vivid images was seeing a Lorain crane in a newsreel about the rebuilding of Japan. All of a sudden the gigantic cranes that occasionally came through Oberlin, stopping traffic – Lorain, Bucyrus, Euclid, Galion written in bold letters on the side – meant something grand and spectacular. And I when saw Freddie Owens in a newsreel of Korean War soldiers that meant even more.
I relate all this to capture the freedom to explore, the stimulation to imagine, the confidence to engage I felt in this town before I reached third grade. Looking back, it is clear that that was a remarkable era. Oberlin and the country outside the South were experiencing the benefits of a sense of unity and common purpose; people had jobs; the structures of civil society; and honesty and accuracy in news and comprehensible government offered hope.
The word ”prejudice” was used to describe racial bias. But, I never heard it used to describe my personal interactions before we moved to North Pleasant Street – besides, the Indians were integrated and so were the Browns.
The nature of prejudice, of racism, did not penetrate my consciousness until my mother talked to us about the beginning of another kind of Brown – the Brown litigation – after returning from an NAACP meeting probably around 1952.
This was the near idyllic atmosphere in which the Class of ’59, representative of those born in 1940, ’41. ’42 came to consciousness in this town.
The story of how the country and Northern Ohio began to disintegrate, taking some of Oberlin with it, will be a subject for historians. But we are living the terrible effects of that deterioration now.
We live in a country that has been transformed into the world’s bully for the benefit of a few and the horror of hundreds of thousands of our finest young men and women and their families. They will be with us, struggling, for the next fifty years or more, if we don’t do something about it.
We live in a country that has permitted its Wall Street bankers and Texas Oilmen to subvert and undermine the meaning of America created out of the hardship and sacrifice of millions of American though the previous Depression and Second World War. They have seen to it that we can no longer sustain ourselves as a nation in our current governmental structure.
We live in a country that has mutated a new confederate virus, wiping out the rights fought for and won against terrible odds by the NAACP, and the unbelievably brave black plaintiffs of the South.
It is a virus that works to obliterate the memory of the contributions of the white southern judges of the old Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
It is a virus that has spread to Ohio through word of mouth in right-wing mega churches and by hypodermic injections of rigged electronic voting devices.
We live in a country that raises its young to be economic units incapable of escaping from a lifetime of paying off the company store.
The days ahead will be very difficult for our America and worse for its citizens. The country we bequeath to our young people is a country without bearing, without antecedent, a country with a government most resembling the disfunctionality of the slavocracy, which all people of Oberlin should recognize.
And this place, this Oberlin, in significant part, is where the hope for America lies. This place has the chance to pass the torch to a new generation because here the torch has never gone out. This is the place whose fuel will keep the torch burning.
Three points about Oberlin:
1. Oberlin is a unique and historically significant community in a unique and historically significant part of America. (It was born free and with civic integrity within the Northwest Ordnance and the Western Reserve.)
2. The America that Oberlin was instrumental in building is disintegrating, reforming itself consistent with the greed and plunder endemic to the founding of this nation. No community in the nation could have a greater understanding of what this means.
3. Oberlin can and must resist this new self-destructive America, just as it resisted the old slavocracy. At the same time Oberlin must affirm the human values at the center of the Oberlin experience, made possible by a Constitution capable of producing the best, as well as yielding to the worst in man.
Madison set forth the way to escape the worst:
“A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern Ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”
It is time to know, it is time to resist. It is time for the young people of Oberlin, black and white, to ask, and if not given, to demand the freedom to explore, the stimulation to imagine, and the confidence to engage in saving their own lives and building their own futures.
There was no Kendal or Peace Church Oberlin in 1950, but there is now and they can help you end our wars. There was no Internet in Oberlin in 1950, but there is now and it can help you to know who is coming into your Oberlin to transform it into something unrecognizable to you and inhospitable to your capacity to control your own destiny.
There was a theological seminary in Oberlin in 1950 that represented the best in the Oberlin tradition, and in the religious experience of mankind. The imagination exists here, now, to build a successor for a new age.
There were no choirs of national prominence in 1950 Oberlin, and there are none now, but one – or more – can be built to preserve the legacy of the Negro Spiritual and bring harmony and sustainability and power to this community in the eras to come.
The only light in a descending tunnel is the one you hold in your hand. If Oberlin arms itself with these kinds of power, it will live its tradition, and the light will not go out in America.
Delbert Spurlock has served as Deputy Secretary of Labor, having previously been General Counsel and then Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserves Affairs. He has also served in various capacities in the federal and California State government. He was a law professor at the University of California at Davis and a founding partner of the law firm of Spurlock and Thatch, Sacramento.