Whether it’s two days from now or it was 60-some years ago, Saturdays in eastern Kentucky have always been special for Jack Jackson.
Back in the early 1950s — when Jackson was just a young boy — his dad worked for Blue Diamond Mines. The family lived in Camp No. 3, outside the little town of Lynch, in the coal fields of Harlan County.
“Everybody was poor in the coal camp,” he said. “We had mixed races, but everybody worked in the mine and there was a real comradeship.
“We lived in a two-family dwelling. Momma had a small garden. We had a chicken coop and we killed hogs in the winter time and made tallow. There was a coal box at the foot of the steps and an old outhouse with the half-moon — no indoor plumbing at all — on the hill.
“Once a week, though, on Saturday mornings, my brother Willie and I got to go with Daddy to the miners’ bath house. That was our treat for the week. The place wasn’t elaborate — nothing but a big cinder block building with a row of shower heads — but my brother and I thought it was just amazing. We’d get home and it’d be, ‘Momma, water comes right down on your head!’ “
This Saturday, the 70-year-old Jackson, who now lives in Trotwood with Shirley, his wife of 46 years, will return to Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond and once again will be showered. This time with appreciation and praise.
Jackson is being inducted into EKU’s Athletic Hall of Fame along with three other Roosevelt High School grads — Ben Price, who lives in Berea, Ky., and Irvin Lewis and Robert Scott, both of whom are deceased.
The quartet ran track for what was then Eastern Kentucky State College and their mile relay team not only set records across the South, but the excitement and admiration they stirred helped pave the way for other blacks at the school.
The Roosevelt four — along with Dunbar football player George Lee — were the first black students at the school and among a small handful of black athletes competing in the entire eight-team Ohio Valley Conference.
This was just seven months after four black North Carolina A & T students sat down at a Greensboro lunch counter and refused to leave, and a year before United States marshals had to escort James Meredith through the doors of the University of Mississippi.
Granted, Eastern Kentucky was not fettered by Deep South segregation, but there still were barriers for blacks — a couple of which Jackson helped break.
There is a “Breaking Down Barriers” plaque near the Keen Johnson Building on campus honoring him and a few other early black EKU grads, yet for the most part he admits his tenure there went without major incident or fanfare, in part, because he possessed the right mix of naivete and work ethic to make his focus one of success, not suffocation.
‘Tough it out’
After eight years in the coal camp, Jackson and his family moved back to Dayton where his dad, Willie Sr., worked at GM, rode a garbage truck in Oakwood, did construction work and served as a waiter at rich folks’ parties.
His mom, Piccola, raised the six kids and worked as an Oakwood maid, where Jack said the “going rate back then was $5 a day and bus fare.”
As a sophomore, he joined the Roosevelt track team coached by the legendary Floyd “Dude” Norman. He ran the 220 yards, 440 and mile relay and in 1961, his senior season, the Teddies won the state title.
Scott and Price, who were a year older, had gone to Eastern Kentucky a semester earlier and came back to Dayton trying to entice a few more black athletes to follow them. The sales pitch worked and Jackson left for Richmond on a bus in 1961.
“I remember the bus station down there on First Street,” he said. “I had an old suitcase, a lightweight windbreaker, my running shoes from Roosevelt and $17 in my pocket.
“My dad only went to the eighth grade — he wouldn’t have known a college credit if it said ‘hello’ to him — but he and my mom knew education was the key and that I was getting a real opportunity.
“He told me straight out: ‘Don’t be coming back home. Tough it out. No excuses.”
Jackson’s voice caught a bit as he remembered something else about his folks from back then: “Every two weeks I was in college, they would send me a money order for $15. That was a lot of money for them, but they scrimped to send it to me. I was their golden boy.”
At Eastern, he said his transition was helped along by school president Dr. Robert R. Martin and track coach Don Daly.
Although it was a time of segregation in the South (he couldn’t eat at certain lunch counters in town, and if he went to the movie theater he had to go in the “Colored” side entrance and sit in the balcony), he said:
“I can’t sit here and tell horror stories. It was all small stuff. Part of that was because of the way things were at Eastern and part of it was that I was an athlete and you become something of a hot house tomato. You live in a different world.”
There were times when the team traveled in the South that he and the other blacks couldn’t stay at a certain hotel with white teammates, so it was arranged for them to stay with a preacher or another prominent black citizen.
Back then Eastern Kentucky’s teams were not the Colonels, they were the Maroons, a term that means runaway slave to many.
“What do you know when you’re 19 or 20?” he said. “We weren’t political, we were like most college kids. We wanted to run track, look at girls and get along.”
In the years that followed, Jackson said the other three guys from the relay team left school, Price beginning a military career and doing three tours of Vietnam, Lewis and Scott coming back to Dayton and working at GM.
Jackson stayed and became a two-time OVC sprint champ. In 1963 he became the first black to compete on the track at Vanderbilt University.
Late in 1964, with his dad dying from black lung, he dropped out of school to work and ended up being drafted into the Army. Later, he returned to Eastern, got his degree and then got a master’s from Austin Peay in Clarksville, Tenn.
He has been named a distinguished alumnus at both schools, became the first African-American president of EKU’s National Alumni Association and gave the winter commencement address at Austin Peay in 2002.
A love for EKU
Jackson is a motivational speaker and often seems to draw on his Daddy’s “no excuses” sendoff at the bus station back in 1961.
“I’m convinced you pretty much call the shots in your life,” said Jackson, who worked in the public and private sector in Dayton for over three decades. “Too many people have overcome adversity and succeeded, so stay the course. Too often today people are shackled by all kinds of excuses.”
He has said we aren’t tough enough on our youngsters: “We have to insist they’re more competitive in this changing world, but we give them too much wiggle room and alibi for them. When they go out in the real world, they’re going to face a competitive market that doesn’t care that they came from the projects or a dysfunctional family.
“The only questions are, ‘What have you done lately? What can you do next? Can you do the job?’ ”
He said thanks to EKU he was able to provide those answers:
“I know it might sound corny, but I really do love this school. It gave me a chance in life. It taught me I could make it anywhere in the world.
“This school has allowed me to be a part of something important for more than 50 years now. And that’s why the Hall of Fame deal is special to me. I’m really looking forward to Saturday.”
Then again, didn’t he always?