Racial crisis hits close to home for Witherspoon family

Buffalo

(WIVB) – Early this week, Reggie Witherspoon was re-watching the video footage of George Floyd’s death, the eight-plus minutes where a Minneapolis policeman named Dereck Chavin had his knee on Floyd’s neck. He sighed and turned to his wife, Dawn.

“It’s a lot like a lynching,” Witherspoon said. 

He felt this stab of regret to know that older African-Americans, who had fought and suffered so much over the years for civil rights, could realize that such things can still happen in this nation.

Witherspoon, the head basketball coach at Canisus College, has thought a lot about racism lately. How could he not? His family history is a legacy of protest and struggle and breaking barriers, stretching back to his grandparents’ time in segregated South Carolina.

Reggie’s parents, Phynice and Moses, grew up in South Carolina in pre-civil rights times — specifically in Clarendon County, the site of one of the most famous lawsuits in American history, a case that led directly to the desegregation of the country’s public schools.

Later in life, Phynice would tell Reggie and her other three boys that “You’ve got to go first sometimes.  You’ve got to open the door, do a good job and leave the door open for somebody to come behind you.”

Phynice’s father, Hammett Pearson, and uncle, Levi Pearson, helped kick down one of the biggest doors in U.S. history, the one that prevented black kids from enjoying the same educational benefits as whites. 

The school district would not provide transportation for black kids in those days, even though Clarendon County was 74 percent African-American. So the black families collected $900 and bought a school bus so the kids wouldn’t have to walk five miles to school.

When the bus broke down, the school board refused to provide the black families money to fix it. So Reggie’s grandfather and uncle filed a petition in 1947 to protest, affixing their names to the complaint. 

“They owned the land they lived on, approximately 128 acres which is still in the family,” Witherspoon said by phone on Wednesday. “In fact, the house that my grandfather lived in and my mother lived in was occupied by my mother’s uncle, who died about a month ago of the coronavirus.

“My grandfather’s brother lived on that property, too. They cut down the trees so they could see each other’s front door at all times after they signed this petition. They told people if you come to visit us, come in the daytime, because if it’s at night we’re going to assume it’s the KKK and we’re going to shoot you.”

There were cross-burnings and threats. School officials had a simpler plan. They redrew the district lines so the Pearsons weren’t technically inside the Town of Summerton. So the Pearsons persuaded a neighbor, Harry Briggs Jr., to sign a new petition. The superintendent, R.M. Eliott, rejected it.

In 1949, the NAACP got involved. Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, conducted meetings with the Pearsons and others in a Methodist church. The minister, Joseph DeLaine, was subjected to repeated threats and violence and accused of shooting back at his tormentors. He soon moved to, yes, Buffalo.

Predictably, the Briggs vs. Eliott suit was defeated, 2-1.  Marshall and the NAACP intended all along to take it to the highest law of the land. It was the first of five cases combined into “Brown vs. Board of Education” the famous 1954 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional.

“They told us that story again and again,” Witherspoon said. “I had seen books with my grandfather’s name in there. But it really hit home when that ABC miniseries, ‘Separate But Equal’ came out (in 1991).  Sidney Poitier played the part of Thurgood Marshall.”

Phynice and Moses married and moved north to Buffalo. They had four children. In 1969, they decided it was time to knock down the door again. They moved from Buffalo to Amherst, to Callodine Avenue,  a block from Bailey Avenue just north of Main Street. 

Witherspoon remembers the family rolling onto Callodine in his dad’s truck early in the summer of ’69.   The kids’ bikes were on top of the truck. At a stop sign, four boys standing on the side of the road yelled “We’re going to steal your bikes.”

Moses began to drive away. Phynice would have none of it. She told him to pull over. She got out of the truck and told her four sons to get out with her. She told the boys if they intended to steal the bikes, make sure to come that night so they could get it over with.

“Living in fear was not something she tolerated,” Witherspoon said. Really, some punk kids? Her relatives had waited on the porch at night for the KKK. 

Late that night, the Witherspoon boys were tired and ready for bed. Their mother said no, they were going to wait.

“She made us stay up the whole night,” Reggie said. “The whole night we waited. They didn’t come try to get the bikes.”

Then it was time to register the two oldest boys for high school. Ron and Greg, who was a year younger, would both enter Amherst High as juniors — the fourth and fifth African-Americans in the school. Greg became the first black athlete to play at Amherst, at the time a school of about 1,500 students.

“Let’s just say the people in the office were in disbelief,” Greg recalled. “I distinctly remember them acting like Callodine was not in the district. Clearly, it was. Obviously, that didn’t go over too well with my mom. 

“There was also disbelief at my transcript,” said Greg, now associate elder at Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Buffalo. “I got moved up, because I had gone to Calasanctius and had taken some pretty advanced courses by then. 

“We were pretty aware that it was going to be challenging,” he said, “but at home we weren’t allowed to whine, moan, complain or anything.”

Reggie became a high school basketball star, graduating from Sweet Home before playing at Erie CC (for John Beilein) and Wheeling Jesuit (for Jim O’Brien). He wanted to coach and spent eight years as an assistant at Sweet Home High from 1984-92.

Once, his JV team had a game at a prominent suburban school (which he didn’t name). When Sweet Home got to its locker room, “there was all kind of racist stuff spray-painted on the lockers. Swastikas, racist, just unbelievable. The players got really upset.”

Reggie asked if anyone had a camera. They were outside the locker room at this point. A player’s sister had one. They went back to the locker room to take photos and the custodian had locked the door. He wouldn’t them back in. Phynice (who is now 92 and living with Greg and his wife) was watching the scene from across the gym. 

“All 4 foot 9 of her saw this,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how fast she got over there. She got right in the custodian’s face.”

The opposing school had one black player on the varsity, none on the JVs. As Witherspoon recalls, he was the best athlete in the school. Phynice found the kid’s mother in the crowd and told her she was paying taxes in that district, she needed to see the locker room. She shouldn’t have to tolerate it.

“She basically said ‘I’ve gone through this every step of my life. You cannot let this go on, because your kid goes to school here’,” Reggie said. 

The next day, the woman went to that school’s superintendent and demanded to see the locker room. Witherspoon got a call from his athletic director, who was upset at him for “stirring up trouble.”

Race always matters. You also have to be careful about stirring things up and being seen as “militant”. In 1992, Witherspoon got the Sweet Home head job, becoming the first-ever black suburban high school head coach in Western New York.

When a certain local sports columnist wrote about him before his first season as head man, an employee at the school was waiting the next day to criticize him for encouraging a column that had race as its central theme. 

 “Race matters,” he said. “When coaching at Sweet Home, if I just walked into every building and said, ‘I’m going to make you deal with my blackness,’ I wouldn’t be there very long. I was fortunate to have a lot of support from people. That’s not going to just happen on its own. I had great people I worked with, as you know.”

Witherspoon went to coach at Erie Community College before taking over at UB in the middle of the 1999-2000 season. He turned the Bulls into a perennial contender before getting fired in 2013. He spent time as an assistant at Alabama and Chattanooga before taking the Canisius job in 2016. 

He was the first black head coach at Canisius. Another doorway crossed. At his introductory presser, he talked about Bill Bennett, a revered high school coach at Buffalo East High who had been passed over for the Canisius job 30 years earlier. Some felt it was because the college wasn’t ready for a black head man.

No doubt, there were people who didn’t appreciate that notion being trotted out in 2016. Race is the story of America, racism its original sin, but it’s hard to talk about. Reggie remembers the blowback against Bruce Smith when he discussed getting hate mail during an interview at a Super Bowl.

“See, racism is an uncomfortable subject for people to talk about,” Witherspoon said. “In my experience, it’s never been uncomfortable for black people to talk to black people about. But at times, it’s uncomfortable for black people to talk to white people because you can see the discomfort in their face.”

The George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor cases open old wounds. They compel the discussion. The protests leave people conflicted on both side when violence erupts. But how do you reconcile Floyd dying while crying for his mother?

“It’s horrible, it’s ridiculous, it’s crazy, it’s sinful, it’s depraved,” Greg said, “and it’s not all that surprising. “I hate to sound like that, even to myself, but I’ve seen so many things, I’ve heard so many things, I’ve witnessed so many things, my relatives have been through so many things …”

Reggie Witherspoon has a basketball program to run. It’s been challenging enough with the coronavirus pandemic. He also has to have the talk with his player about race, which is nothing new in a majority African-American sport.

Early in his first season at Canisius, a month or so after the presidential election, a black doll was found in a campus elevator with a noose around its neck. 

“We met and talked about it then,” he said, “and we have ongoing discussions — what to do if you get pulled over, what not to do. There’s always issues that have to be dealt with, how you’re going to be perceived compared with somebody else. You can’t eliminate all of it. But we have open, ongoing conversations. If I started telling you some of the issues, people would be mad I brought those issues out.

“This one’s challenging. This one is really, really challenging.”

There’s a lot of good in the world. Soon after moving into Amherst, Reggie put his arms through the glass of his front screen door. He was bleeding out. A woman across the street filled her bathtub with cold water and recruited an assembly line of kids to bring him cold towels to wrap him arms until the ambulance arrived. He ran into a woman who called 911 that day at the airport, 46 years later. 

So while the scourge of racism persists, there’s reason for hope. As President Obama said in his town hall of Wednesday, there are more white people protesting, clear evidence that young people in America are trying to make things better. A recruit from the Netherlands showed Reggie a photo of 10,000 Dutch people protesting back home. 

“My mother always says, ‘Get to the root of the problem’,” he said. “The protesters that are looting are the fruit of the problem. The root of the problem is racism, inequality and injustice and police brutality. That’s the root of the problem. 

“There has been progress,” Witherspoon said.  “I think there’s been a couple of steps backwards, too. Some things just haven’t moved. We have a videotape of a murder. There have been others that just weren’t on video.”

All the key indicators say it’s a more precarious life in America if you’re black. Reggie believes in the protests. He also doesn’t know if they’re safe, having been infiltrated by people with dubious or violent motives. 

He thinks like a father, which is the most difficult thing of all, worrying about his two daughters. Lydia, 28, and Rachel, 27, want to get involved. “It’s hard because they’re angry,” he said, “and I am, too.”

His daughters feel a strong bond to Phynice, and the Pearson brothers, who stood up to racism weren’t afraid to walk through the door. But how long will it be until blacks can be certain there’s no hate or injustice waiting on the other side?

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