When the Parkville High School football team plays its first home game this season, will the players be performing on a turf called Yates Field?
They will if Robert Gartside has his way. Gartside is a proud alumnus of Parkville, Class of 1969. His last season on the football team - where he played on the defensive line - was in the fall of 1968. Joseph Yates Sr. was an assistant football coach at Parkville then. Three years later, Yates became Baltimore County's first black high school head football coach.To say that Gartside has fond memories of Yates would be considerably understating the matter. He raved about the man, apparently so constantly that his wife showed him an obituary for a Joseph Yates Sr. that ran in The Sun in January.
"You're always talking about Mr. Yates," she said, pointing to a picture of Yates in the paper. "Is that him?"
"Yeah, that's him," Gartside answered. It was at that point Gartside decided to attend Yates' funeral. Shortly after, Gartside began his crusade to have the football field christened Yates Field. He sent a letter to Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. He's contacted county school administrators. He's probably driven Parkville's principal just about loony.
Gartside believes the cause is worth it. According to Gartside, Yates deserves the honor not just for being Baltimore County's first black head football coach. He deserves it for being a model of racial tolerance in an era when race relations were, to put it mildly, quite turbulent.
Gartside's 1969 Parkville yearbook - The Odyssey - shows just how turbulent those times were and the kind of environment Yates had to work in. On page 212 of The Odyssey there's a photograph of a rally some Parkville students had in 1968 supporting their candidate for president: former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, then running a third-party campaign.
This was not the kinder, gentler Wallace who later renounced his segregationist stands and race-baiting tactics. This was still the old Wallace, the man who stood in the doors of the University of Alabama to prevent the entrance of a black student.
Yeah, that Wallace.
The photo shows a poster of Wallace with some students in front of it. The poster reads "It Takes Courage! WALLACE Has It! Do You? Stand Up For America." The caption under the photo simply reads "a rally of enthusiasm."
Gartside admitted he has no idea how Yates reacted to the rally. (Gartside said that, to his recollection, Parkville at the time had only one black student and one black faculty member: Yates.)
"He probably just laughed it off," Gartside said.
Yates' wife of 46 years, the former Dr. Edmonia Townes, has a more vivid recollection of her husband's reaction to the rally.
"He mentioned it," she recalled. "He just took that as he did most things. He just went ahead and did his job of teaching students. He just understood racism and what needed to be done to combat racism. You just have to show that you are equal and you are qualified and that you can rise above [racism]."
Without going into specific details, Mrs. Yates hinted that her husband had quite a bit to rise above.
"He went through a lot, " she said, "but it wasn't something he brought home to worry us." Parkville, she indicated, wasn't exactly an oasis of racial tolerance at the time.
It - and other parts of Baltimore County - was actually called "Wallace Country" by many blacks of that period. This was the era in which Baltimore Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin actually wept after Wallace got 43 percent of the vote in the 1964 Maryland presidential primary against incumbent President Johnson. Eight years later, the same Wallace actually won Maryland's primary after he was shot in Laurel just before the election.
That was only a year after Yates became Baltimore County's first black head football coach. On matters of race relations, Wallace eventually changed. So did Baltimore County. Gartside believes it was people like Yates who helped inspire the change.
"You watched this guy's life and followed by example," Gartside said. Maybe that's why Gartside still has, stuck between the pages of his yearbook, a story about Yates from the Feb. 24, 1993, edition of the Northeast Times Reporter. Rich Zink, a Parkville offensive lineman from 1972-1974, is quoted in that story.
"Once in a while, you would hear some racist comments," Zink said. "But you would see how Joe would handle it and have even more respect for him. He would never lower himself to the people."
Gartside believes that Yates' Christian beliefs - the coach led the team in the Lord's Prayer before every game - had much to do with that.
"He lived his faith," Gartside said, "instead of talking it."