Black History Month has never been much more than another one of those areas that receives emphasis during the school calendar. It’s March now, and that means another ethnic holiday is to be celebrated soon. Even though it’s now over, Black History Month became very poignant to me this morning as I read through the obituaries of my hometown newspaper. I noticed the name of a fellow that sounded like an old friend of my father’s. After reading the obituary, I suspect that my dad and I were not alone mourning the loss of Ron Parker, a man who referred to my father as “Cuz.” Dad returned the favor, and the joke, whenever he saw Ron across the desk, store, or street.
Ron Parker was the first African-American I ever remember encountering. I remember him coming into a barbershop while I was there. I don’t remember his business there, but I’m sure it was just to say hi and catch up with all the regulars. His crisp, white uniform shirt stood out to me, but so did his demeanor. He exuded confidence, friendliness, and all those other qualities six-year-old boys read about policemen having.
I knew that Ron was an African-American, but that seemed to be as about as important as me being six. Those were just the facts of life. I knew Ron liked people because he spoke to everyone, including me, and treated everyone the same. What I did not know at the time was that Ron had become the first “person of color” to join the police force almost thirty years prior to my first encounter with him during the 1960s.
The details of the obituary provided more information about the man my dad called “Cuz.” The details of his career seemed as brilliant and crisp in retrospect as my first memory of that starched white shirt. He had served the city’s police force in nearly every capacity possible, including a short tenure as acting chief. After retirement he began working as a driver’s education teacher. People learned how to drive, but I surmise they learned a lot about how to treat one another too. Had I known Ron better, I probably would have heard some of his own accounts of integrating a city’s police force.
Perhaps Black History Month needs more personal stories about the Ron Parkers of this world, and less about the event itself. My primary and secondary education mentioned slaves, and that was the extent of it. We need to know African-American history, because at some point, it becomes our history too. I was fortunate to be a very small footnote in a page of history that included Ron Parker. We have a shared and common history at one small point in time. However brief the encounter, it has shaped my thinking and my acting for a number of years. Good history lessons are not only informational; they challenge us to take action. It has taken more than forty years for me to grasp the origin and fullness of this lesson. Perhaps it will not take others so long.