Thursday February 21, 2013

PITTSFIELD

Happy Black History Month. We have something to talk about.

Don Morehead and Joe Zavattaro continue to carry on a deep friendship at the ages of 80 even though they live 3,000 miles apart. That bond was formed when they were young teens and blossomed at Pittsfield High, where both graduated in 1950 following excellent careers as three-sport athletes.

Morehead is black and Zavattaro white. But they lived, Zavattaro said, in a colorless world.

"Don and I had played sports together since we were kids," said Zavattaro, who spent many years coaching baseball at North Adams State College (now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) where the sports complex now bears his name. "There was no talk or sense of race. Don was just another guy. He was a great friend; he was one of us. I never heard anyone ever say anything about Don being black. If I had, and I didn’t like it, I probably would have knocked the guy down."

Morehead, who now lives in Washington state, remains the only black student at PHS to have been president of his senior class. His story, which I’ve told in print before, is never old and today is worth, in part, repeating. The bottom line? We let a good one get away.

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That colorless world changed quickly not long after Zavattaro and Morehead graduated from PHS. Morehead chose to attend Kentucky State, where he played basketball in the shadow of great University of Kentucky teams coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp.

Rupp would scrimmage his all-white teams against Morehead’s Kentucky State squads in secretive midnight practices on the Kentucky campus. College teams in the South were yet to be integrated in the early 1950s, but that didn’t keep Rupp from using the Kentucky State teams to help his own unit get much better.

When Morehead left Pittsfield by train for his freshman year, he traveled to Cincinnati with John Perrone, the rugged PHS fullback who was bound for college in Florida. Upon arrival in Cincinnati, the two tried to check into a small hotel located near the train station.

The pair planned to part ways the next morning en route to their respective colleges. But the fellow at the hotel front desk motioned to Perrone and said that he was OK to check in but that his friend was not.

It would be Morehead’s and Perrone’s first brush with discrimination. Perrone, Morehead recalled, nearly put the guy through the back wall in anger. The fellow eventually relented and the two spent the night. The Pittsfield kids crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky the next day and their "worldly" education would begin.

Morehead was already married when he graduated from Kentucky State and returned to Pittsfield to live. Morehead and his wife hooked up with a local Realtor, who showed them houses for sale only in areas of the city that were less than desirable. He was financially able to do much better, but ...

It was an emotional blow for the young man who had hoped to come home with his bride and contribute to the city in which he was raised. He eventually left for more accommodating pastures. Perhaps it was an isolated incident and not a true reflection of the city, but it had a profound effect and changed Morehead’s life forever.

"That incident in Cincinnati," Morehead said, "was shocking to both of us."

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Zavattaro had his eyes opened that same year. Drafted as a catcher by the Pittsburgh Pirates, he headed to Florida for his first spring training.

"We were traveling to a game and the bus stopped and all the black players began to get off," Zavattaro said. "I remember thinking, ‘What’s all this about?’ "

Zavattaro had become close friends with an outfielder from New Jersey named Frank Washington, a black player in his second year with the organization.

"He had to pull me aside and explain to me that the black players ate and stayed at different restaurants and hotels," Zavattaro said. "I had no idea."

Morehead, meanwhile, was loved by all.

Said Zavatarro, "We were playing football against Drury in North Adams and his mother died of a heart attack at the game. The coaches told us not to say anything to Don on the bus ride home. He sang and laughed with the rest of us all the way back. That was a tough day. It was tough because we cared so much about him."

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If you don’t think that there continue to be social, political and personal agendas based upon the color of skin, then you’ve been living on that asterioid that just a few days ago brushed uncomfortably close past our planet.

Black History Month, designated for February for almost a century, is a yearly opportunity to use the magnifying glass and bring into focus not just the contributions of African Americans but their history as well.

Pittsfield, for its part, has black history of which most can be categorized as significant. We have Stephanie Wilson, the Taconic High graduate who became an astronaut. We have Margaret Hart of the well-known Harts of Williamstown, who became the first black person to teach in Pittsfield Public Schools.

She was such a classy lady. She died just a few years ago and had a wonderful career as an educator.

There was Larry King, the Taconic athletic superstar of the early 1970s who went on to play football at Syracuse and later professionally in the Canadian Football League.

And there’s Rosemary Durant, Don Morehead’s sister, who died a few years back and who left a lasting legacy on the city’s West Side with her work as director of the Christian Center and other minority initiatives. Her husband, the Rev. Willard Durant, remains a strong black voice in the community.

Durant said this week that Pittsfield has been able to survive any type of racial strife because of its collective ability "to be open and listen to the other side."

The city’s black history timeline now includes a police chief and a high school principal, although perhaps due to no one’s fault in particular there remains a need for more minority teachers in our public schools. Black people have also served on our City Council and School Committee.

Thankfully, we’ve never been a racially charged community. In fact, the history presents little to hide from. It’s a history, I believe, we can stand behind without any level of embarrassment. Maybe even proudly, if you don’t think that’s going too far.

Brian Sullivan can be reached at
mariavicsullivan@yahoo.com.