Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Social Consciousness: Race and Society

BOND: What about this incident at the Y and your mother's intervention?

GRAVES: Well, you know, I grew up knowing and understanding – not understanding – but knowing segregation and understanding what it was. But my mother was always out there saying, "You don't have to stand for being a second-class citizen at all." And in Brooklyn, New York, now because people are without the sense of all of that racism was happening down South. But down South wasn't Brooklyn, New York. I was a member of the Carlton YMCA, which was an African-American YMCA. It was set up through the YMCA system to be for African-Americans. At that time they called us Negroes, or we called ourselves Negroes. So there was always a discouraging at least once or twice a year where they would take the various branches of the Y and they'd all come down to this central Y which is just downtown Brooklyn. It's further in Brooklyn but in the downtown part of Brooklyn. So here we were. We came into a pool that was six times the size of anything we had at the Carlton Y. I was very impressed with it, and so they took us down a second time that same – and it was in a certain period of about a month or two. I enjoyed swimming. I was already swimming in the deep water. So I said, "Well, I wonder how you come back – if you have to come with the counselor or can you come by yourself?" So I asked the lifeguard. He said, "No, you just come back." So I went home. The first time I went down by myself and there was no issues at all. I went in the pool. Went swimming. We all used to swim naked in those days, also. A little bit different than today. No one said anything until the second time I came back on my own to visit this Y, being a part of this African-American Y. And the lifeguard said, "You know, when you finish swimming the athletic director wants to see you." So I got dressed and went bouncing into the place. I guess I was maybe all of ten or eleven because I was able to ride the subway and the buses by that time. So I had to have been about that age because my mother was so protective that I can't imagine she would let me do it much younger. And he said – you know, he said, "Tell me your name." I said "Earl Graves," and he said to me "Well, you know we enjoy having you down here, but there's a Y we have set aside for the colored boys" – literally he said colored boys. I said, "I know, but I happen to like this one." And he said, "I know, but you can't come back here again."

I was upset about it, not from the racist point of view, but the fact he said I couldn't come back again. So I remember coming home and saying that to my mother. My mother was five-two and as she got out of the chair it seemed to me I saw someone get up that looked like they were ten feet tall. She picked up the phone and called a woman who was very – an activist in our community, Ada Jackson. Lived right around the corner on Halsey Street. All of this was when I was ten years old. It's very vivid in my mind. And she told her, "Mrs. Jackson, you go marching right down there and confront that person. And if he says that he's not going to let your son swim, then we'll all go down there, and we'll tell him about it, and we'll find out what this Christian YMCA is all about.” But my mother went there to see this guy. She walked into the office and the guy knew he was in trouble already. She said, "Now tell me again about what you told my son. Not only did I get to swim from that point forward, but that Y became integrated because my mother explained to him what he could expect and the wrath of God that was going to come down on him if her son and any other black boys, as he called them – or called us – were not allowed to swim. So, there was – I mean, those are vivid memories. My mother – I remember her telling me that you don't have to let anyone talk down to you in terms of – but you have to be respectful of adults, but not talk down to you. She made us very race conscious, and so when you're that way early on – I found myself in the old days, when somebody said black before they said shoes, I was ready to get up and jump and fight. So in some instances it made us more sensitive than we needed to be. And so today – still, I mean, there's an antenna up all the time that says, "I want to know, I want to see where this racism may be coming from," and it's still very much there and it's still very much in our favorite New York.

BOND: What about the difference in this race consciousness between mother and father? What might your father have done had he been confronted with this?

GRAVES: I don't know that. You know, it's interesting. I was – as I said, I was in college at that time. We were not close. I very much wish we could have been, meaning my father and I. We didn't have a relationship where he put his arm around me and said, "Let's walk on down the street" or – I remember he and my uncle taking me to a Negro league baseball game. I saw Satchel Paige play. I saw some of the players that eventually ended up in the Major Leagues playing in the African-American league. So when I wear that shirt that says National Negro League, I knew what that was. But my father, I never got a chance – he wanted me to do well in school. He wanted me to own something and not rent. He said to me, "Renters are people who end up being beggars for the rest of their lives." So therefore us owning a home was a natural thing. His working on it – every Christmas he changed the linoleum in the house. He painted it all, he painted it again. Myself, and I should say my three sons and I, and their wives, and our wives all own homes. The oldest of our sons, he's owned his home now at least ten years, and so it meant that by the time he was thirty he owned his own house. Each one of our sons has subsequently has done the same thing and they all know to fix up their own homes. They all know that if you own it, then you have to do it right. We have invested together as partners, and other things, where we again are owners and not renters.

BOND: Is it fair to say that your father's interest in this is both racial – this is something black people need to do – as well as this is something people generally need to do?

GRAVES: Absolutely. It was racial as well as – it was racial as well as economic. He saw it as the thing that was going to lift us up. And as a matter of fact, as I look back – and I think I mention it in my book, How To Succeed in Business Without Being White – he also wanted to own a business. He used to talk about a candy store. He used to talk about if he could have a candy store – and because there was cash money all the time. So there was a sense that – and that was his level of vision at that time, because how could a person who indeed was a high school graduate back in the twenties hope to aspire to anything at all, when everything around him seemed to be racially motivated and racially put in cells where he was not going to have this opportunity. But owning a candy store in our own neighborhood was something I remember him discussing and mentioning. It never got any further, nor did it have a meaning for me.

But it had to have done something because when I had the option at the tragedy of Robert Kennedy's death, and I'd been working for him from '65 to '68, and where you and I had a chance to meet in the civil rights movement, it wasn't – when we had that option of, "Do you want to get a job with IBM?" Because Tom Watson who then was alive at IBM and the founder, offered all of the people who had worked for Robert Kennedy – there were sixty-five full-time staff people – he offered all of us jobs. I had elected to go and take a personal loan of $25,000 and to start a business. I wanted to be a consultant because I do remember working for Kennedy, the consultants. I wasn't sure what they did and it was always a little vague. But it seemed to me that they were able to point themselves in the direction of their interests, and so that's what I did. So the rest of it's history. Yes. When he talked about "here's why you ought to do something" there was always a racial tone that said you can be somebody, and that was driven home.

Again, I think it goes back to the West Indian culture. And if you were to examine it in terms of what – many people say, "What makes West Indian people as arrogant as they are?" I think part of it is that they have a place to go back to, if you're Jamaican, which we're not. Our family's from Barbados. There's a place that they think of as being much better than this place called the United States, at least in terms of where there are opportunities. In other words in the thirties and forties and fifties, every Jamaican or Barbadian or Trinidadian, if you went back home you were a citizen, because to an extent you were getting ready to run governments. All of those countries became run by African leaders in the fifties and sixties. So therefore that was already in place, and therefore the progress that we still have to make in this country was already being accomplished in those places, so therefore you had a sense of you came from a better place, and that gave you a sense of arrogance or a sense of importance, that other persons might not have had.