West of Woolwich: “The Elmira Express” speaks to me

Posted Wednesday, January 25, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: “The Elmira Express” speaks to me

Ernie Davis

by Fred Kahrl

I had an “aha” moment last week.

Not a big one … like “EUREKA !!!”

Just a lower case one, but it was provocative nonetheless.

Cable TV was running an old movie called “The Express”, and after years of just missing it when it came around, this time I caught it.

It was about a young black man who was on his way to probably becoming an NFL legend when he was struck down by incurable leukemia.

His name was Ernie Davis and we grew up in the same little city in the Southern Tier of New York State. When I was expelled from boarding school and happily returned home to complete my first year of high school at Elmira Free Academy, Ernie was a senior there and was already famous across the state for his prowess as the unstoppable fullback.

The next year Ernie went to Syracuse University on a full football scholarship.

I was sent off to another boarding school, and lost track of Ernie’s blossoming career.

As a sophomore in 1959, Davis led Syracuse to the NCAA Division I-A national football championship, earning his team invitations to both the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl. The team chose the latter in Dallas against the Texas Longhorns. Syracuse won and Ernie was named Most Valuable Player.

However, as the movie made clear, the Syracuse team … which had several other black players besides Davis … was confronted by many of the cruelest faces of racism that were common then in the segregated South. The behavior of the Texas crowd at the Cotton Bowl as remembered in the movie was painful to watch, not to mention the biased officials favoring the Longhorns, and the near riot conditions that started to boil up as it became clear that Syracuse would win.

Ernie was named that game’s MVP by the national sports reporters, most of whom were already free of racial discrimination and who, by recognizing and boosting able young black athletes, were doing their share to strengthen the Civil Rights Movement.

Ernie went on to be named the first black recipient of the Heisman Trophy, the highest national award for college footballers. He was signed to the Cleveland Browns, fulfilling a lifetime dream of playing with his idol, Jim Brown, who later was named by Sporting News as the greatest professional football player ever. But then came the leukemia.

So, where is the “aha” moment in all this …. ?

It was when, after turning off the TV, I realized that this minor movie about a major football legend was being shown between Martin Luther King’s Birthday and the Super Bowl. I hope it was really that intentional, because I think it is a story that bears telling and re-telling, especially against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement.

I was going to school in Boston during the worst years of the Civil Rights Movement, in a sort of academic bubble that gave the news from the South the quality of summer lightning far over the horizon. As a result, when I was given Alex Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” as compulsory summer reading before entering my freshman college year, I didn’t really “get it”.

Attending college in Maine gave me the option of continuing the “bubble” thing, even if I didn’t pick that path intentionally. I was a summer intern reporter for Portland Press Herald, and though I am certain that there were veteran newsmen beside me who were acutely aware of the bloody path that the Civil Rights supporters were forced to tread through the South, I was more interested in telling the Maine story.

Watching Ernie’s movie (“The Express”) forced me to look back with a wiser eye to the environment in that gritty little industrial city in the Appalachian foothills that was able to cheer a black student of very modest means on to a pinnacle of one of our most hallowed national sports.

Was Elmira some oasis of peacefulness, free of racism and ethnic prejudice?

Hardly.

It was a little industrial melting pot that enjoyed enough prosperity that, when I was in grade school, most every potential wage earner had a job, even if he or she had been sent straight up the tracks from Ellis Island only a few years earlier.

I never heard the word “nigger” during my truncated freshman year at Elmira’s public high school, even though at least 20% of the students were black. However, the Irish Catholics and Roman Catholics were brutal to each other. I had Irish Catholic friends that took me to games between the two parochial schools, and I would cringe at the cursing and fighting. And the black-robed coaches and teachers were often worse than the students!

All the while, the priests and the heavily habited nuns sat on their opposite sidelines with folded hands.

Yes, the Poles and the Italians and the Blacks and the Irish had their separate parts of the city … not ghettos by any means, but pockets of ethnic concentration and comfort for the mill workers.

I realize now that my parents’ decision to build their odd little saltbox in West Elmira was a snobby choice.  There wasn’t a black or overtly ethnic kid in Hendy Avenue School, where I spent my elementary years. The only minority at Hendy were the pale, quiet kids that were bussed in from a tiny village called “Golden Glow Heights”, tucked up in one of the foothill drainages that fed the Chemung River Valley.

There was nothing “golden” out that way … it was the ragged edge of Appalachia where poverty and poor health were always on the menu. For many years it was the only school bus that served Hendy. All the rest of us clean, bright White Anglo Saxon children walked or biked to school.

Wednesday afternoons school closed two hours early for “Religious Instruction.” All the Catholics walked together down to Our Lady of Lourdes church, which served most Catholics in up-scale West Elmira, and the Jewish children trooped off in a parallel direction to “Hebrew School.”

The (majority) Protestant kids went home to play and to watch the Mickey Mouse show, their parents apparently content to have religious instruction dished out before “church” on Sunday at the several large mainstream denominations whose churches shouldered their piece of the sky downtown.

And thus, the New York State Board of Education avoided friction … even back then … that arose over religious teaching in the public schools.

Somewhere in this mix of relationships and experiences are the foundations of my ethnic and racial feelings. I thought for many years that I was free of the worst kinds of prejudice and racism, but now I am finding that it just isn’t that easy.

When I had to care for my parents … especially “The Professor” … in their final years, I found that their sophisticated bigotry, camouflaged in academic fluff, was real and had stained my attitudes despite its subtlety, served innocuously at the dinner table along with my meals.

The success of the Civil Rights Movement, such as it is and was, is now being challenged by thoughtful citizens across the country who believe that the “second chapter” for civil rights will be the hard work of defining and modifying these less obvious aspects of racism that still linger.

There are more than a few “saints” among us who have already cleaned their closets of these leftovers of prejudice, but most of us … I believe … have more work to do. I will never be “perfect”, as I am periodically reminded by friends who are willing to point out when I am being offensive without realizing it.

Perhaps this whole thesis is too abstract for those of us who believe we have already “done our work” on racism and prejudice. I am only asking you to be alert should you have an “Ernie Davis” moment of your own and what it might remind you about the origins of your own social attitudes.

Meanwhile, I am planning to return to Elmira for a long overdue visit. They built a big new Elmira Free Academy out on the West edge of the City (but not in West Elmira), and recycled the concrete monolith of the old EFA into a fresh new middle school … right there in the melting-pot center of the city.

And they named it after Ernie Davis.

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