I lost my dad to eternity on Monday, March 19, at 1 a.m.
Even as I was an eyewitness to this, holding his hand, even then to say, “My father is dying,” was surreal. That the world has not stopped, save a few of us, to acknowledge this remains confusing to me. Irrational and self-absorbed, I know. Maybe that will pass. For now, it is healing to write this for you, and I am grateful that you might pause to read it.
My Dad was so much American history in the 20th century. He was the pain, the climb, and the progress of African-Americans in the last century in their beloved country.
William James Murray, Sr.’s life of courage, love, and service began on March 8, 1926 in the rural town of Reidville, S.C., near Spartanburg. The birth certificate lists him as “Colored.” He was born the fifth child of nine to sharecroppers, descendants of slaves, John B. Murray and Viola Bennett Murray, two powerful community activists who could neither read nor write. He spent his childhood in nearby Duncan.
He received the privilege of attending high school when his Uncle Russell Bennett offered to have him live with his family in the bigger city of Spartanburg. Dad first heard that news while picking cotton on a field that is now a Spartanburg airport. He played football and baseball at George Washington Carver High School, the “Colored” school. He received a full scholarship to Allen University, an historically Black college, in Columbia, S.C., when the star player refused to accept his scholarship unless each of his teammates on this state championship football team also received one.
Overcoming the improbable odds of going first to high school and then to college sealed the example of public service and love for education that we inherited from him.
Known as “Glue Fingers” for his pass-receiving ability, Dad went on to be named as an honorable mention Black College All-American for his football play. He earned money in the summer by playing against Negro Baseball League teams, including fielding a stinging line drive from Hall-of-Famer Buck Leonard of the Homestead Grays that turned Dad all the way around until he touched first base for the out.
“Hot enough for you, kid?” Leonard asked, chuckling as he trotted past Dad.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Leonard,” Dad answered.
At Allen, Dad earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology. He left the segregated South for the promise of Southern California, earning another bachelor’s degree in education and years later a master’s degree in education, both from his beloved University of Southern California. He returned briefly to South Carolina to marry his college sweetheart, Laura.
Dad served as a chemist in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Both he and Laura were employed as teachers, and Dad as a principal in Tulare, where they started a family in 1957. William James, Jr. (1957), Lynne Patrice (1962), and I (1963) were born in Tulare. My birth certificate lists me as the infant of “Negro” parents. Glenn Douglass (1965) was born after we moved to Mountain View, when I was 6 months old. My family left the Central Valley town of Tulare, with apologies from the bank officer, when my parents were not allowed to buy a home in the neighborhood in which they chose to live.
As program director for the Headstart Program and later assistant superintendent at Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto from 1963 to 1972, perhaps Dad’s proudest achievement was being part of early childhood education.
In fact, in his last week of life, at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital’s Hospice Program, his first roommate was an African-American gentleman who told my father his first job was working with these Headstart preschoolers as a junior high school student in East Palo Alto. Mr. Hobson felt that experience put his life on a positive track, as he went on to complete an associate of arts degree and then later to have a career as a train engineer.
Dad went on to become one of the first African-American superintendents in California. His favorite quote was by the Roman scholar and statesman, Cicero (106 B.C. — 43 B.C.): “What greater or better gift can we offer the republic than to teach and instruct our youth?”
Dad was of that generation of American gentleman patriots of African descent who had young families right before the Civil Rights Movement, and who raised their children to value education, to hope in the future, to honor their elders, and to have excellence and preparation be their “luck” when opportunities arose.
In having lived to see the election of the first African-American President, describing his own perseverance through the Jim Crow South and the restlessness of the 1960’s and beyond by saying: “We always had hope.”
As my mom died almost eight years ago, we feel the loss of this special generation and the passing of the baton so profoundly.
Dad was so much more than U.S. History. He was golf. He was devoted husband and grandfather.
Still, I am eager to read the 2012-2013 Campus Community Book Project selection, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson. It is in part my father’s story, of the migration of Blacks from the South in the last century, and of their “immigrant” experiences in the western and northern parts of our country that seemed to hold so much more promise.
To learn more about the shadowed details and bitter blanks my father left out, ostensibly for our good, will help him echo, alive again, in the part of me that is our collective history as a nation.