By JONATHAN TILOVE
February 10, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Condoleezza Rice is the first black woman secretary of state. But if she were not both black and a woman, she would be the second of each to attain that high office.
Chris Rock will be the first black man (but second black, after Whoopi Goldberg) to host the Academy Awards, at which Jamie Foxx will be the first black actor to be nominated for two Oscars in a single year.
And then there is Chaus “Charlie Brown” Neal, who, careful readers of the Chattanooga Times Free Press recently learned, took first place in the “compact custom” division at the local World of Wheels Custom Auto Show with his black-on-black PT Cruiser convertible. Neal was, the paper explained, “the first black to win the title.”
It is February, Black History Month, a time for reveling in Black Firsts. The appealing and enduring unit of measuring racial progress _ at least until the election of the first black president _ still has some life left.
But increasingly, in the early years of the 21st century, truly profound black firsts are becoming a little harder to come by. It suggests how far America has traveled with regard to race. And it may signify that we are entering a next-level of the black experience.
Perhaps it’s the succession of back-to-back black secretaries of state, the six blacks now atop Fortune 500 companies, or the sheer inadequacy of describing Tiger Woods or the Williams sisters as “black firsts,” but we are running out of Jackie Robinson moments. The very term “first black” has taken on a sepia, Ken Burns air.
“It sounds so old school,” said Angela Dillard, a professor of history and politics at New York University, who, as far as she knows, was never the first black anything.
When Willie Talton in January became the first black Republican in the Georgia House since Reconstruction, he resisted reporters’ efforts to place him on history’s pedestal, preferring to talk about paving roads rather than blazing trails. “His answer wasn’t about breaking barriers, or becoming the first black so-and-so,” the Associated Press reported.
Maybe, said Dillard, now doing a fellowship at the University of Michigan, “we should start to celebrate the 10th black. That would mean real progress.”
For vast expanses of U.S. history, black lives and prospects were so meanly circumscribed that each first, large or small, local or national, had the breakthrough spirit of collective triumph, of racial uplift _ from Marian Anderson and Jesse Jackson to every burg and borough’s first black principal, police officer, pharmacist, council member and mayor.
Two great waves of freedom especially _ between emancipation and Jim Crow and in the aftermath of the civil rights movement _ created countless opportunities. At these chosen moments, it was almost impossible for a black person to succeed without being a first.
“I was the first black to receive a doctorate from the library school at the University of Illinois,” said Jessie Carney Smith, a professor of humanities and the university librarian at Fisk University. She is also the author of “Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events,” which over 787 pages comprehensively catalogs the achievements of everybody from Hank Aaron to Bruce Yuille, the first black dentist in Maryland to “receive master status from the Maryland Academy of Dentistry.”
“That’s my parents’ generation,” said Joe Leonard Jr., formerly Jesse Jackson’s man in Washington and now executive director of the Black Leadership Forum.
While he was growing up in Austin, Texas, Leonard’s parents were pioneering educators and his father was the first black to run for Travis County office. He lost, but went on to manage the campaign of Berl Handcox, the first black elected to the Austin City Council since the 1880s.
For Leonard, who recently completed his doctorate in civil rights history, his cohort is like the one that followed America’s Founding Fathers _ a big letdown. “I chastise my own generation,” he said. “We haven’t done enough.”
Dillard, on the other hand, was happy not to have been a first. She was glad to have black scholars on her dissertation committee. Being first can be lonely. It can be tough. James Meredith, about whom Dillard is interested in writing a book, still carries the wounds, physical and psychic, of being the first student to integrate the University of Mississippi.
There are still plenty of firsts to come. Doug Wilder, now mayor of Richmond, Va., was the first and still only black governor. But to Robert Smith, author of the Encyclopedia of African American Politics, the recent integration of the American elite _ if not of American society as a whole _ is truly astonishing.
Smith, the first and still only tenured black faculty member in the political science department at San Francisco State University, said that in the 1970s, when he did his dissertation on the incorporation of blacks into federal policy-making, the highest-ranking black in the Ford administration was a general assistant deputy at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Ford later named William T. Coleman transportation secretary, the second black Cabinet officer in history.)
At the time, Smith said, he could scarcely imagine administrations with several blacks in their Cabinets, not to mention blacks responsible for America’s security.
Jessie Carney Smith acknowledges that a lot of the blockbuster firsts _ those that “make people just stop” _ are behind us, but that the day of the black first is not done.
“I think it will always matter,” she said, “but not to the extent that it has, and will for a while.”
Especially in February.
Chaus Neal and “Sassy Ragtop,” his 2005 PT Cruiser, won their first place at the World of Wheels competition back in early January, but there was no newspaper coverage of the larger event, period. But come February, a reporter approached him.
“They were looking for some local black history, something that hadn’t already been done by some brother in the area,” Neal said.
Neal, 58, works as a hospital police officer and owns a custom car wash business. As he tells the story, it becomes plain why the “black first” _ history related on a human scale _ is so engaging.
“I grew up in a little community called Bushtown,” the oldest black neighborhood in Chattanooga, Neal said. “No silver spoon.”
He’s been a first before, he said _ a token. But, he observed, “a lot of times you might start off as being a token and wind up being the real deal,” like at Miller Brothers department store where, he said, “I was one of the first blacks to dress windows.”
Neal has competed in the World of Wheels since 1972. Early on he was turned away, discouraged, stuck in a lousy spot. But he persevered. His motto: “I’m black and I’m back.”
When he won, he said, “I felt like I had won the Oscar; I got big old tears in my eye.”
Carter Hampton, the show’s chairman who had helped Neal get his foot in the door more than 30 years earlier, was happy for Neal though, until the newspaper contacted him, frankly unaware of the moment’s historic import.
“I’ve been used to Charlie all these years,” said Hampton, referring to Neal by his nickname. “He’s just like one of the others to me.”