Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Learning to Lead in a Bowling Alley

BOND: Now, there has to come a point in your life where you say, and you may not say it in these words, but at least you think, "I am a leader." Did that happen?


BOND: When did it happen?

CLYBURN: It had nothing to do with politics. It had nothing to do with school. It happened in a bowling alley. I used to teach bowling. I've always been sort of -- aside from baseball, I've always been sort of in the individual sports: golf and bowling. Bowling was a big big passion and pastime for me when I was living in Charleston. So after teaching I would go over to the bowling alley and I would teach kids on Saturday mornings and I had a lot of adult bowling classes. This was back in the '60s. Well, it was in this bowling alley that people started coming to me asking questions and people would start seeking advice, and I think it was in that setting that I first started to realize that I had some real leadership qualities.

BOND: In a way, I find that odd, only because earlier on, when you're 12, before that, when you're winning these school elections, we have a definition of leadership as 'a leader is able to make things happen,' but a larger definition is you get elected to an office. You're a leader.


BOND: And I'm wondering why that earlier -- why those earlier achievements didn't make you think that?

CLYBURN: It never did. It never did. To me, as I said, I didn't know if I knew what I was supposed to do. I mean, I always knew how to carry a motion. My father made us learn Robert's Rules of Order very early, so I had this little book and I knew how to do things like that. But I never thought of myself as any kind of a real leader. It really was in that bowling alley interacting with just ordinary people.

BOND: How did people know -- I'm sure the people that you're teaching know you're there, but how did people not connect it with bowling? How'd they know to come there to find you?

CLYBURN: Well, because it was new in the black community. This was when bowling alleys were not integrated and people were from all walks of life would come to that bowling alley, and so there I was. I was the only black guy who really knew how to bowl and so I got -- I was somewhat of an oddity to them, and I don't know. I've just had some -- I never really had any real bowling lessons. I taught myself to bowl, but I was a darn good bowler.

BOND: I know this is a little off the point, but how did you learn how to bowl in a world in which there are no integrated bowling alleys? Were there black bowling alleys?

CLYBURN: No, no. I used to go north to work in the summers and I'll never forget, I was up in Baltimore and trying to find a job, couldn't find a job. And it was hot one day and so I went into this bowling alley, and up there, they had this thing called duck pins.

BOND: Yes, a big Baltimore game.

CLYBURN: Yeah, yeah, so I was sitting back there watching these people out there and I said, "You know, I think I could do that," so I went out there and I think it was about fifteen cents or something. I went out there and I started bowling. Well, I did not realize it at that time and somebody was watching me. Well, I thought bowling was two balls a frame. Well, in duck pins, it is three, and I was just bowling two balls a frame and scoring pretty well and a guy came up to me. He said, "You know, why are you only doing two balls?" He said "That's in ten pins; in duck pins, you get a third ball," and he says "You've got some real good scores for only be doing two balls a frame," and so the next day I went to this ten pin place and applied for a job. Didn't get the job, but I got the bowling ball and started bowling and then I got a book and learned the steps, and I just taught myself. And so when I got -- this was when I'm still in college, so when I went to Charleston to teach school and they opened this bowling alley, I went by there and applied for a job, and the guy said we need somebody to organize leagues and all that kind of stuff. And so they hired me and I started organizing the leagues and I started -- I'm out there bowling and nobody else there they knew who could bowl, so they said, well, you're going to be our teacher so they sent me away to school.

BOND: Really?

CLYBURN: Yes. I went down to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to AMF, the school to learn how to teach bowling, so that's how it happened.