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Kay and I came from two different worlds. She was born and raised in Indianapolis, IN from a prestigious upper-class family with business interests throughout the city. I was born and raised in sunny California – Oxnard, California to be exact. Ventura County was booming with transplants from all over the nation. It didn’t take much to be a trailblazer. Most of the Black families were from the “Jim Crow” South. They were vigilant to detect any type of discrimination and would physically stomp it out. Indianapolis was closeto the southern cities. Schools, movie theaters and public facilities were separate and of course not equal. Kay lived across the street from Riverside Park – an amusement venue. She and her siblings could only use the park on Wednesday’s (colored day) which was common in the south. Movie theaters didn’t integrate until the mid-sixties.
My roots were totally lower class. My father was a short-haul truck driver his entire adult life. My mother was a domestic for some rather rich white folks. Our relatives would pool resources and that allowed many of my relatives to get by without expending too much money. Utilizing our southern roots several families would get together and go buy a full-grown cow. Then we would go out to the country, shoot the cow, remove the insides and cut up the meat for distribution to the participating families. Our freezers would be packed with good beef for months. This is an example of how we got by on little salaries.
I realized my athletic ability early in life. It became apparent from watching college sports on television that a Black kid can go to college and have a great start in life if he could run, catch or pass. Football became my “hustle” and it took me to the University of Wisconsin. It made me a star on campus and perks and unearned favors came easy. As I started nearing graduation a “glitch” appeared to be in my way. It was the military draft generated from our evil war in Vietnam. I was put into the first draft lottery and my birthdate was assigned Number 4. It was definite! I was going into the Army.
Procter & Gamble had already made me a job offer upon graduation. I would join the sales force for Packaged Soap & Detergent. I informed my contact and he said that would not be a problem. He encouraged me to sign up instead of waiting for the draft call. That way I could apply for Officer Candidate School. He explained: “Harry, you have a future in corporate America and even in the military. Become an officer and that will enhance your portfolio immensely. Corporate American will regard you as a proven leader and your value would increase exponentially. A college-educated Army officer with a strong athletic background makes you have increased value. Procter & Gamble will be here when you return, and our door will be wide open.”
That was great advice! I spent two years, eights months and twelve days in the US Army and came out as a Lieutenant. I graduated from Ft. Benning Infantry Officer’s School, Class #3-72. After two years of stateside service I returned to Procter & Gamble as a managerial candidate in Detroit, MI. Benefits were great, replete with a company car, good cash and a bundle of benefits. This son of a local truck driver and domestic; grandson of a sharecropper; great-grandson of 4 slaves was now rolling in corporate America.
My father was an educator and one of the first 4 Tuskegee Airmen. My mother was an excellent teacher, she often brought her students to our home in Butler Tarkington. We were the first Blacks to move into this neighborhood, and a couple of times we awoke to crosses burning in our grass; but today it is known for being successfully integrated.
The 1970s? Well, I was a kid. I was riding my bike through Butler Tarkington and Broad Ripple with my best friend Lisa. We drank cherry colas at Butler University canteen. We bought matching t-shirts. Our family summered at Lake Michigan. All the cousins on the Stuart side of the family came too. We swam every day and at night we built fires and told horror tales. My parents enrolled me in Ladywood High School with real nuns as teachers. Um, no thank you. I enrolled myself in Shortridge High School. I breezed through high school and found that after just 3 years I had enough credits to graduate, so I did. I enrolled at Indiana University, Bloomington with Lisa, of course.
It’s odd that I was not politically astute at that time because my parents were very politically minded. We had Senator Richard Lugar and Mayor William Hudnut campaign signs in our yard. These two men were Republicans and back then in Indiana it was ok for Black people to support them because they were good to the entire community. My parents had access to them. Oh my, how attitudes have changed.
My parents sheltered me from adversity. I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War except what Freda Payne told me “Fathers are pleading, lovers are all alone, Mothers are prayin’, send our sons back home (tell ’em ’bout it), you marched them away, yes you did now, on ships and planes, to a senseless war facing death in vain. Bring the boys home bring ’em back alive.”
How then did Harry and I connect?
Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce ®.