Kekionga Black Warrior Series
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THE HACKLEY REPORT By Eric Hackley
The following is an interview with Bob Hawkins, owner of Bob Hawkins House of Fish restaurant at 2619 Weisser Park Ave., at the Corner of Pontiac Street, where he has been in business since 1974. The following is Brother Hawkins’ story in his own words:
My grandfather, who I am named after, was the first member of my family to migrate to Fort Wayne from Pine City, Ark. I’m not exactly sure when he came to Fort Wayne, but my dad came here in 1947. He got a job at Pennsylvania Railroad and in February of 1948, my mother and siblings arrived. Pine City, Ark., was a small town. I had some good times there and some struggling times there. My dad was a good provider. I never went hungry or went without good clothing. As a small child of about three or four years old, I can remember being in the cotton field early in the morning and working basically all day. That was our means of income and is what everyone did at the time.
Everyone in my community was black and my dad was like an overseer. When the white property owners needed someone to pick peanuts, peaches, chop cotton or pick cotton, my dad would get a group of people together and the plantation owner would come with a truck and there would be 30 to 40 of us waiting to be picked up to go to various fields through out the community to do whatever jobs needed to be done. I can remember waking up on my mother’s cotton sack and she would tell me to get on the other side of the row and say, “Baby, help mama pick some cotton.” I know I wasn’t five yet because I would always hold up five fingers and she would tell me I wasn’t five yet. I would ask her the question of when would I be five? Mom said, “You have to wait until Santa Clause comes and that’s when you’ll be five.” My birthday was on Christmas.
We didn’t really interact with whites that much. After we worked all week in the fields, on Saturday we would go into town to the store. This is when we would interact with them. As a kid, I would get a RC Cola, peanuts, ice cream, things like that as a reward for picking cotton all week. As far as white people, we would see them in the store, look at them or we would have to get off the path for them. As a child, I didn’t realize the proper code of conduct for blacks. My mom did. She would tell me to watch my manners and watch my place, things of that nature so that I wouldn’t create a problem or cause controversy with a white person. Basically at that time of our history, black people did not want to cause any problems. Blacks couldn’t dispute anything. Whatever a white person would say is the law. Being put in jail or being fined would keep you out of the field and from earning income for your family. That’s why you always stayed in line. You learned that lesson as a small child.
When I came to Fort Wayne in the late 1940s, still relatively young, I came out of an all black community. I was heart-broken because all my friends who I went to school with, were still in Arkansas. Going to a mixed Harmar grade school was new to me. In Arkansas, all my teachers, the kids in school and everyone in my community were black. Pine City was segregated. I never had a white teacher until I came to Fort Wayne and this was my first time being around whites on a daily basis. I never really talked to a white person until I came to Fort Wayne.
Being a small child in Arkansas, I was protected from insults and putdowns. I remember getting into a fight at Harmar when a white boy called me a nigger. It didn’t mean anything to me because that was the first time I had heard it. I didn’t know what the word meant. But a friend of mine named James Fowlkes, we called him Pete, I was about 11 at the time and Pete said, “You can’t let him get away with that.” I said, “get away with what?” “That word he called you.” It’s just a word to me. But, then I found out it was a racial put down. That’s how I learned about racial prejudice and the word nigger, right here in Fort Wayne. Racial prejudice and the n-word were I’m sure expressed in Arkansas, but as a small kid, I was protected and wasn’t exposed directly to it. But, even at picnics and other associations when large groups of black people would get together in Arkansas, we never argued or called each other names like that. We would have disputes, but I never heard that word.
For fun we would play baseball, have foot races, shoot marbles and play hide-and-go-seek. I think you grew up faster in the south because you had horses and various forms of livestock. You would bet a kid your horse could out run his horse.
The above portion of this article originally appeared in our May 8, 2013 issue.
Read more of Hawkins’ story below and in next week’s print edition.
At Harmar, we had physical education classes. During those classes, we had a teacher named Pete Barley and we had foot races. He would pair up boys of the same size and have us race 50 yards. That’s how I got interested in track. There were guys like Tharnell Hollins, John Kelso, George Middleton, Eddie Russell, Glen West and others who went on to be great athletes at Central, all those guys were at Harmar. And, we raced against each other.
Between Harmar and James H. Smart which was across the tracks, during the major track meets and tournaments, we “black schools” became the major athletic forces among the Fort Wayne grade schools. However, there was one white school that did pretty well and that was Forest Park. But, all the other schools were no competition for us. James H. Smart had I believe, Frank Smith and Earl Coker. Back then, a lot of those guys lived across the tracks and I lived around Eliza Street and you really didn’t affiliate with the guys on the other side of town. The only time I really knew them was at track meets and we weren’t really friends, but Frank Smith was pretty fast. I didn’t know the people from Westfield either. We didn’t become friends until we attended Central High School.
I didn’t get any major athletic recognition until I got to Central. I was always a small, skinny kid. George Middleton, John Kelso, Frank Smith, Tharnell Hollins and Eddie Russell were all bigger and faster than me in the 100 and 220 yard dashes. I weighed about 114 lbs. when I was 14 years old and George Middleton was a lot more muscular. When we had gym classes at Central, we had further distances to run than over at Harmar. Now we had the 440, half-mile, mile and even cross country, which was two miles.
That’s when I found out that after a quarter mile, those guys who could out run me in the sprints, I could hold my own from a quarter mile and longer. That’s when I became a standout because I was out running those guys. I became a standout at Central because as a miler, I was beating white guys. Back then, no black kids were running distances, they were sprinters. If you weren’t a sprinter, you basically weren’t on the team. We had hard track practices. We would run from Lewis Street to Clinton, to Rudisill, to Lafayette back to Central, then I would go to work.
My success was due to my coaching and the recognition I was getting from doing well athletically. Also I wasn’t doing drugs, smoking or drinking. Others were doing that. They would have a cigarette or two. As you know if you run distance, you need lung capacity to do that. But, you weren’t cool if you didn’t have a pack of cigarettes rolled up in your short sleeve shirt. Once I took a puff or two off a cigarette and I had a race the next day and I didn’t have the wind and I noticed that. I didn’t get first. I found out there was more recognition and notoriety if I won the race. So that’s what deterred me from smoking, using drugs and alcohol.
When we would go to track meets, we would go in a truck. Since I was a primary runner, the coach Pete Williams would have me ride up front with him so we could map out strategy. He would tell me who the fastest was from that school. He would tell me I was a natural and talk about the my stride saying to me, “Hawkins, you know running is just like life.” I said, “but Pete, I‘m the only black kid running distance. Black guys don’t run distance, they’re sprinters.” Pete said, “Hawkins, can you outrun Kelso, Hollins or Russell? You can’t outrun any of those kids. Who can you out run as a sprinter?” He said, “You’re a distance runner.” I would tell coach, “but, I get tired.” “Hawkins, that other kid gets tired too. That’s the way life is, you can’t be a quitter. There are going to be times when you’re out of school, when you’re married with a family, and you may not want to go to work. It may be cold outside and if you start quitting early in life, you’ll always be a quitter. Never be a quitter.” He would tell me that over and over and it stuck with me. He was a great influence.
My dad was also a great influence in my athletic success. I had a mom and dad who were both together at home. My dad would often come by our track on Lewis Street. I would see him standing at the fence watching us practice. I didn’t let anyone beat me in front of my dad. When he saw someone beat me he would say, “Boy I thought you could run. You let that little kid beat you.” He would say something like that and I didn’t want to be embarrassed.
My biggest achievements at Central were breaking the half-mile and mile records of Bob and Chuck Kirtz. They were two white guys who were brothers. I broke both of their records as a sophomore. Also in getting my cross country sweater as a sophomore. Most didn’t get theirs until they were juniors or seniors because you had to accumulate so many points.
I remember once when Central had never won a Sectional cross country meet and it was going to take place at Franke Park. We had a bunch of black guys and a few whites on our cross Country team. Back then North Side was dominant and cross country was about all white sport. Rollie Chambers was the track coach at North Side. I can remember Pete Williams telling us that Rollie Chambers said, “He wouldn’t have a bunch of niggers on his track team because they were a bunch of quitters. If they got tired, they didn’t have any heart, they would quit.” In knowing Rollie Chambers, he probably said that. But, I also wonder if that was a tactic that Pete Williams used on us to get us fired up. But, it happened that North Side didn’t win that Sectional meet, we did. That was the first time Central beat North Side and we won the Sectional Cross Country meet. I have a picture of running against Ewing, who was a standout at North Side and I beat him. In fact, I came in first place in that race.
Eric Hackley is a veteran independent journalist, television show host and producer focusing largely on history, particularly family history in the black community. His award-winning public access television shows have featured a host of local and national icons. Hackley recently produced two historic calendars. “The purpose of the ‘2012 Fort Wayne Blacks Declare War on Willie Lynch Slave Mentality Calendar’ and ‘2013 Fort Wayne HIS-Story Reform Calendar’ is to stimulate local interest, debate and action to correct the American History lies and distortions used to brainwash blacks and retard the literacy and relevance of Fort Wayne History,” explained Hackley. Both calendar documents are for sale at the Fort Wayne Urban league. Hackley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.