Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Early Development

BOND: Now, before you come to Robert Kennedy and military service, you go to Morgan State College. And –

GRAVES: Now a university.

BOND: Yes, now a university. Now at the Earl G. Graves School of Business celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. But you seem to me you're just working all the time. Not only are you going to school, not only are you active in sports, but you're cutting the grass, you're doing this, you're doing that, you're doing this. How different did that make you from your classmates?

GRAVES: I never even thought of it in terms – first of all, I went to school the first year with $617 – no, that's not true at all. The cost of the first year in school was about $617. Maybe I've got the numbers transposed. It might have been $671. But give me the benefit of the doubt, and let's say it was only $617. And I had about $300 I had saved up. So I went down to school knowing full well that I had to do something to get some money when I was there. I knew at Christmas time I was going to come home and work in the post office. I already had that in place from a friend of my dad's who – because my father was alive, keep in mind, the first two-and-a-half years that I was in school – at college, that is. But I went down and there was a bulletin board in the men's dormitory. Anytime a job was posted – in addition to the fact I was running in the track team – I didn't get any money athletically because I had the distinction of being the slowest person ever to run on Morgan State's track team and I dare anyone to challenge me about that. Now, of course, people remember things differently. As you are successful in life, the track coach remembers me almost being an Olympic – an Olympian. But that has to do, I think, with my success in business more clearly than my athletic success. But in any event, there was this bulletin board in the men's dormitory. Anytime a job went up I would just snatch the paper down. If it said "gardener" I said, "Yeah, I can do that." In fact, I ended up having a gardening business on campus. If it said "Cleaning bathrooms," yeah, I could do that. A security guard? I could do that. Working undercover in department stores – in other words watching to see who might be stealing something by being a [inaudible] going into the situation. So, in other words, people didn't know you were working in the store or watching from the third-floor window, the boxes going back and forth loading and unloading them. When you'd see three boxes come off the truck and two going in the door you'd say, "Well, where'd that other box go?" You'd look and there was another little panel truck sitting off on the side and so some person working for that department store was running a side-business, or at least stealing. But that was the kind of thing that I did.

There was nothing like cutting grass. They had a job where you walked around the campus with an idiot stick with a nail at the bottom, picking up paper. I'd just position myself in front of the girl's dorm and had a great time all afternoon just moving one piece of paper back over to the other side, knocking it down and moving it back over to the other side again. And I think in those days we were paid maybe fifty cents an hour. And I remember having a job before I went away to college in Brooklyn where I was paid fifty-seven cents an hour – and I remember telling my sons this story when they were just starting college. It was, "Dad's gotta be kidding. How could somebody work for fifty-seven cents an hour?” Not only did I work the fifty-seven cents an hour, but when I got home again – this was when I was saving to go away to school – my dad would then take out what he thought was a fair portion of money to go to the house, so that you learned the responsibility, you had to give back something to the family. Maybe he was establishing that, in case he – he was saying in his mind when he got old enough – he never lived for that – that I would take care of them. But we obviously took care of my mother and did that. But fifty years later, it was almost that long, they invited me back to the Brooklyn Public Library not knowing about – knowing that I had worked there, but not knowing the history of really what I had done but clearly the history of what I had accomplished in, if you will, my latter life – to be honored as one of three people – Lena Horne – I think it was four – Lena Horne; Pete Hamill, the writer; myself; and then the Burns family person who wrote – did the history of baseball and also did the history of the Civil War.

BOND: Ken Burns.

GRAVES: Ken Burns. So we all had our original – planted our feet in Brooklyn, in terms of families. So I regaled that I made fifty-seven cents a night. One of the librarians hollered in from the back, "It's not much better now," so – but it was still fun to look back at it, and then, of course, to receive that recognition. I think I've been very fortunate in that area.