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Friendship bridges deep racial divide

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They are fuzzy now on where they met - a baseball field or a basketball court - but they are certain that they were not supposed to play together. Not in the late 1940s. But Roger "Pip" Moyer, who is white, and Joseph "Zastrow" Simms, who is black, played together anyway. And when they talk about it now it's clear that it couldn't have been any other way.

It was fate that made them friends, they say, and loyalty and respect forged in difficult times that kept them together. So it was that 38 years ago this week, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tenn., and Annapolis threatened to burn, Moyer, then the mayor of Annapolis, and Simms stood together again. They calmed black Annapolis in the days after April 4, 1968, by walking the streets of the old Ward 4.

Now their story is being turned into a documentary, Pip & Zastrow: An American Friendship, by award-winning filmmakers Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes. It is being shot in Annapolis and is set to be released by Urcunina Films next year.

Bruce, who lives in Annapolis, heard about Moyer and Simms' friendship six years ago. She couldn't get it out of her head.

"These guys had real segregation to deal with but became friends anyway. Because they went forward with their friendship, things changed," Bruce said. "It's such an important Maryland story."

Moyer and Simms, both 71, speak about their five-decade friendship as if it always was. They knew of each other before they met.

"I'd heard about this guy who could shoot the eyes out of a basketball and I went to go see him play," recalled Simms over lunch at Chick and Ruth's in downtown Annapolis. "It was meant to be and it has lasted all these years. ... My father would say it didn't [get] any better than Pip Moyer."

Moyer remembered seeing Simms, who was nicknamed for a star Navy quarterback, at bat on a baseball field.

"I asked someone who the guy was and he says 'Zastrow,'" Moyer said. A three-sport athlete, Simms was a standout in everything he did. He had a shot at professional baseball but he just couldn't stop looking for trouble.

"He wore a bald head, a Fu Manchu mustache and always had a special lady," Moyer said. "He was all muscle back then."

"I'm all flab now," Simms responded.

Back then, Moyer, whose speech and movement have been impaired by Parkinson's disease, played forward and center at all-white Annapolis High. Simms starred at all-black Wiley H. Bates High. Outside of their segregated schools, they played on neighborhood courts. And Moyer was usually the only white guy around. His friends often tried to run black kids off the court. Moyer chose to join them.

"With Pip Moyer, it begins in his bloodlines. ... His mother was a good person," Simms said. "Blacks were in her house like it was the United Nations."

In 1959, Moyer integrated the all-black Annapolis Falcons, a semipro team that played against teams in Baltimore and Washington, he recalled. Playing "mixed basketball," Moyer said, was a scandal as Annapolis was still segregated. They recalled being spat upon when they'd take the floor.

From those early days, their paths diverged. Moyer spent some time in the Army, graduated from the University of Baltimore then came back home and ran for alderman. He was elected Annapolis mayor in 1965. Simms said he became a small-time burglar and was in and out of trouble.

"He went on to be the mayor and I went on to be a jailbird," Simms said, summing up those early years. "But the end justifies the meaning."

For Simms, the meaning is that Moyer remained a loyal friend no matter the consequences. Moyer was called a "nigger lover," Simms said, and he was labeled an "Uncle Tom." The yacht and Elks clubs refused to admit Moyer. When Simms' mother died, Moyer helped get him a 14-hour furlough to attend her funeral.

Moyer said he was looking forward to hanging out with his old friend after the funeral, but Simms had other plans. Right after the services, Simms bailed on Moyer to spend time with a lady friend, Moyer recalled, ribbing his old friend after all these years.

Months later, when King was fatally shot, Moyer needed his imprisoned friend again, and this time he was there.

King's assassination was "like a wildfire running through the community," said civil rights activist Carl O. Snowden, who was 13 when King was killed.

On televisions displayed in a store window on Main Street, Snowden watched news reports of violence breaking out in Memphis, Washington and New York.

"There was a strong sentiment of revenge; people wanted to strike back," Snowden recalled.

And many people did. In Baltimore, the fires began April 6 and raged for four nights. Six people died, 700 were injured and damage estimates reached $10 million, The Sun reported. City firefighters battled 900 fires in three days. An estimated 1,000 businesses were burned or looted and 5,800 people were arrested.

Though the nights run together in his mind now, Simms remembers hearing some of the sporadic violence from his cell at the state penitentiary in Baltimore.

"Go get Pip," was one of Simms' first thoughts. Moyer had helped Simms untold times in the past. Now it was Simms' turn.

With letters passed through prison bars, the strategizing began. Simms told Moyer who he should contact and Moyer listened. Because there were no black police officers in Annapolis, Moyer deputized a group of blacks who worked for the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Office, among them George Phelps.

Phelps ended up finding gasoline bombs spread around downtown Annapolis. He defused them, but with tensions mounting, and violence spreading in major cities, Phelps knew more had to be done.

Hire a band, Simms suggested. So it was that the Van Dykes played James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to the angry mourners who gathered around Clay Street. Residents of the city's black neighborhoods filled the streets of downtown Annapolis. They were grieving and some were still plotting. Moyer greeted many by name.

"He told us that he grieved the loss of Dr. King and how much it hurt him," recalled Snowden, now an aide to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens. " People who heard him that night knew that he wasn't just saying it."

He rallied the crowds at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church on Clay Street, consoled people who were crying, and promised change. The next day, he was patrolling the streets again, and his old friend Simms, released again from jail, was by his side. "Hold on," they told the crowds, "and remember what Annapolis has been to you."

So, unlike New York, Baltimore and D.C., Annapolis didn't burn in the days after King's death.

And Moyer made good on his promise to bring a community center to black Annapolis, naming Simms the director. Last year, Simms ran unsuccessfully for Ward 2 alderman; Moyer (whose ex-wife, Ellen, is now Annapolis mayor) was Simms' campaign manager.

An Annapolis basketball league is named for Simms.

"Theirs is a friendship that was able to survive a very turbulent time," Snowden said. "Life has taken its toll and they continue to be fast friends."

Simms uses a cane to get around now, and Moyer uses a wheelchair. Moyer lost his home to a fire last month and was rescued by a caregiver who was among those gathered on the streets of the city in April 1968.

Though Simms and Moyer see each other less often, they talk a few times a week on the telephone. And the movie project has taken them back to their old haunts and stirred memories.

When they talk about each they tear up. When they see each other they talk about basketball.

"We had some good times, we're big boys now." Simms said. "I'd give my life for Pip."

Said Moyer: "Zastrow is my best friend. I believe in him and he believes in me."

nia.henderson@baltsun.com

To view a preview of the documentary, visit www.pipandzastrow.com

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