I have read with great interest the plight of the squeegee kids in Baltimore — the frustrations, dangers, stereotyping, buck passing, etc. The situation reminds me of another incident in another time.
In 1973, I was serving as special assistant to Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton. On May 31st of that year, he buzzed me via intercom and asked if I would come to his office. There, he told me that his 13-year-old son, Woody, had been accosted the day before by several black youths while delivering the afternoon paper. Woody, who is white, was not hurt, but he was shaken up. The governor explained that as a matter of protocol when something like this happens to him or to members of his family it is put in the hands of the Virginia State Police.
Woody would be delivering papers that afternoon, he added, and the state police would be close by. He asked if I would also walk the route to be of assistance if anything similar happened. And it did. As Woody delivered his papers, two youths confronted him, pushed him around and took three $1 bills from him. The bills were marked, and the state police moved in and arrested the boys. No one had noticed me standing on the corner pretending to read a newspaper.
I was able to get the names and addresses of the teenagers, and the next day I visited the area where they lived. What I found was poverty — abject poverty. I reported all of this to the governor and indicated that I had some ideas on how to address the issue and wanted Woody involved. The governor gave me the greenlight.
First, I wanted Woody to see where the teens lived, which would give him some insight as to why they might rob him. Woody and I went to the area of dilapidated houses. In a dirty dusty back area, basketball was being played. The youths who committed the crime were among the players. Of course, they recognized Woody, but Woody was not afraid. The ball came my way and I sank a 15-footer. Woody went underneath and made a layup. Tensions were relieved. Truly this group did not know who this white boy was and they assumed I was a policeman. But our basketball play brought high fives and slaps on the back.
Next, I wanted the teens to see where and how Woody lived. We asked them if they would like to visit the governor’s office. The answer was yes. Now, the governor’s office/state capitol was only about 5 blocks away, but it could have seemed to them to be a million miles because they knew nothing about a governor. We told them to be ready at 2 p.m. the next day. We had the capitol police send five cars to the location. Some 25 black children, ages 6 months to 15 years, were brought to the state capitol building. We walked them around the building, with all of its marble and ornate architecture. Glaring from the walls at them were portraits of old line segregationist governors who would not have approved.
The children were ushered to the governor’s conference room, where they sat at the conference table in the comfortable cushioned chairs. I sat the 6-month-old baby in the governor’s chair at the head of the table. Indeed, this was history in the making. It represented signs of change. That infant could have become a future governor.
Here now we are talking about two different worlds. One knowing little or nothing about the other. Woody had remarked that he had everything, and these kids had nothing.
The next step was to have Woody meet with the business community to relate what he had learned and seek assistance.
Letters signed by Woody were sent to business leaders inviting them to a meeting at the John Marshall Hotel. The session was well attended, and Woody went through all that had happened and indicated that additional inner city children were in the same situation as these. He stated that working together in a public/private partnership we could alter some of these situations. He wanted to provide jobs for as many of these children as possible. Woody stressed to the business people that they could pay a little now or a lot more later. The business community responded to his request by contributing $45,000 to what became known as “Woody’s Job Corps.” The Mayor of Richmond was at the meeting and pledged the city’s support. R-CAP (the Richmond Community Action Program), the Urban League, NAACP, churches and others became a part of the effort.
Members of the Job Corps, both black and white, all living in inner city Richmond, would be paid a weekly salary of $25.00 with a few dollars held back to buy school supplies and clothes. Over 100 children participated in the program, cleaning their neighborhoods, alleyways, etc. They were on time for work and came every day. They showed responsibility.
The city supplied shovels, brooms, rakes, gloves, waste barrels and trucks to haul the trash away. Churches and R-CAP supplied lunches and supervision.
It was a highly successful program. Take Pride in Virginia reported the program to Take Pride in America. As a result, Woody, the two young men who had attacked him and about 10 additional members of the corps were invited to New York where Keep America Beautiful was hosting an awards program. This organization by way of the emcee, Shirley Temple Black, presented an award to the Richmond group. Accepting the award were Woody and the two young men.
As the children in Richmond, stuck in poverty, could not be ignored and wished away in 1973, the squeegee kids in Baltimore today cannot be ignored and wished away. They are the responsibility of us all. We need every element of the community involved: parents, social service agencies, educational institutions. The business community should take the lead and partner with the city, churches and others. These teenagers need opportunities and a sense that someone cares.
Let’s create a teenage job corps on a larger scale in Baltimore. As Woody said then, and it’s true today, “we can pay a little today or a lot more later.”
William B. Robertson (Bigblue1954@icloud.com) was the first African American to serve on the executive staff of a Virginia governor (1970 to 1974). He is a 1954 graduate of Bluefield State College, which named its library after him.