I was walking through the campus with one of my roommates, Byrd B----. Just about everyone we passed said hello or hi or something to him. “A lot of people know you,” I said.
“Yeah, you know why?” He pointed to his bare arm. Byrd was what was known way back them as a Negro or a colored guy or maybe something else. Today he’d be African-American.
I’m not sure why I’d thought of Byrd after all these years but I’ve noticed that the older I get the more people from my past keep popping up in my mind and the above seemed to be the most vivid memory of him that I had.
We were then in our second year of the Ivy League college we attended. I was from the Bronx and was there on a scholarship that paid my tuition and I was given a job (assisting a professor) that paid my room and board. I liked to tell people, if they asked, that I was there on a handball scholarship because I’d been captain of my high school handball team and the coach was a graduate of the Ivy League college and had pushed me to go there. (Before that, the only thing I knew about that college was that it has mediocre football teams).
Byrd wasn’t there on a scholarship; he was from a rich section of Pittsburgh. I hadn’t chosen to be his roommate. In my first year I lived, not in a dorm, or residential college as they were called, but in one of the barracks on the edge of campus that had been built to house an overflow of freshmen due to the influx of returning veterans on the GI bill. We were two to a room. My roommate was Lee, from California, like Byrd from a well-off family. Lee had become friendly with Byrd and his roommate David and when we moved to a residential college for our sophomore year he proposed that we share a two-bedroom suite, I guess you’d call it, with them. It was okay with me. Later I overheard some guys say that they put the two colored guys in with the two Jews.
I was Jewish but not an observant one. When I was thirteen I’d been bar-mitzvad but that was only to please my father’s mother, my grandmother, who was very religious. That was the last time I’d been in a synagogue. I had no particular feeling about Negroes, or African-Americans, at that time but wasn’t, as is the liberal mantra today, intrinsically racist because I was white. I was from New York so had had some experience with Negroes (it’s shorter to type than African-Americans). One of my handball partners, you could say one of my handball mentors, was a black guy named Slim and my first boss in my first summer job when I was thirteen was a Negro named Andy, who was in charge of the stockroom of the wholesale button place where I worked. So, when Byrd pointed to his bare arm to indicate he was a black guy it wasn’t as if I wasn’t aware of this but it hadn’t occurred to me that meant he was anything else but another guy I knew..
I have a few other memories of Byrd. He was about my height, average, slim and graceful. I knew from the softball games we had when we were freshmen that he was a good athlete. Yale didn’t have a handball team but there was intramural handball among the residential colleges. Of course I found myself leading our team and had a fairly adequate partner. One time when my partner for some reason wasn’t available I asked Byrd to be my partner. I don’t know if he’d ever played handball before, but, as I said, he was a good athlete. We won our game. I didn’t find out until much later that he’d been quarterback on his high school football team.
Byrd was also a music buff. He may have been into jazz or blues, I don’t remember this, but he was definitely into classical music. We had, back in those prehistoric days, a phonograph and he liked to play records of Beethoven of Stravinsky. I especially recall Beethoven’s piano concerto and Petrushka and The Firebird Suite. This last, because of his name, I think he considered his signature work. It’s fair to say that my interest in and any knowledge of cl;assical music I developed at this time was because of Byrd.
After our sophomore year, I saw less of my three roommates because I moved into a room of my own. It wasn’t that I disliked living with those guys but I’d never had a place of my own and this was my chance to have one. I continued to drop in frequently on them and at our graduation I introduced my parents to Byrd, Robert David and Lee as my old roommates. They were probably a little surprised that two of my old roommates had been Negroes but also probably put it down to the mysterious ways of college, which they never fully understood.
After graduation, I gradually lost contact with my three old roommates. I knew from the college’s alumni magazine, which followed me no matter where I went, that Byrd and Lee had gone to law school and that Robert David had become a dentist. Then, as we got older and older, I read that first Robert David had passed away, at an early age, then Lee and then Byrd. I also then learned that Byrd had become a civil rights lawyer and had once run for mayor of Pittsburgh.
Did I learn anything by my one year experience of living with Byrd and Robert David? Well, I did learn something about music but I don’t think it affected my attitude, if I had one, about Negroes. I think affirmative action has achieved its goal and that after 50 or so years the field has pretty well been leveled. I felt most strongly about this when my sons were applying to colleges and I felt that affirmative action might hurt their chances. I think college admissions should be based on merit, not race or gender. (I know this is a radical idea today). I feel our country has made great strides regarding racism since the 1950’s (which were my college days). I don’t think reparations to African-Americans are a good idea; I never had anything to do with slavery. I don’t judge people I know by race but by who they are as individuals.
But I’m getting away from my remembrances of Byrd. Do I regret not keeping in contact with him? Yes, and with my other roommates and others from college. But especially Byrd. He was a special person in my life and I didn’t know it at that time. I would have liked to have let him know this. Writing this piece is the best I can do.