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SEEN UP NORTH: The ‘race’ to success

BEA DOTTIN, [email protected]

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What do Eric Holder, Joel Ward and Fergusson Jenkins have in common?
As it turns out, quite a lot.
To begin with, they qualify as members of the Bajan Diaspora in North America. Next, they have made national and international names for themselves in their chosen professions. Thirdly, on Mother’s Day today, they will join the rest of the world in hailing women.
There is something else they share: the impact of Jackie Robinson on their careers and their lives. In different ways, they have felt the sting of the racist slings and arrows shot in their direction by Whites who resent their presence at the top of the ladder but have persevered and succeeded.
That’s why they want people everywhere to see the movie 42, the film which tells the story of Robinson’s historic role as the first black man to play in America’s Major League Baseball and to do so with aplomb.
Holder, the son of Bajan parents, is the first black Attorney General of the United States and he has the distinction of having a court complex in Barbados named after him. Since President Barack Obama made him head of the Justice Department, many of the criticisms levelled at him seem racially motivated.
In Jenkins’ case, the 70-year-old remains the only Canadian to be voted into the American Baseball Hall of Fame. The son of a Bajan father and an African-American mother whose ancestors used the “Underground Railroad” to escape the brutality of slavery in the United States and find refuge in Canada, Jenkins played 19 seasons as one of baseball’s great pitchers.
For his part, Ward is among a handful of Blacks, perhaps 25, who have played in the National Hockey League (NHL) in Canada and the United States. Just last year he was called racist names after he helped the Washington Capitals oust the Boston Bruins from the NHL playoffs.
Born in Ontario of a Bajan mother and father, one a nurse and the other a mechanic, Ward’s father never lived to see his son play in the NHL, the highest professional level in hockey. Interestingly, many of the Blacks who played in the NHL, including Kevin Weeks, Anson Carter and Peter Worrell, have Bajan parents.
When Holder addressed the National Action Network’s annual convention in Manhattan recently, he urged hundreds of delegates to view the epic movie, saying it was important for people of colour everywhere to see what it took to break the colour barrier and how Robinson handled the tremendous pressure with aplomb.
Robinson made his first appearance in the major league playing at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Apart from his exceptional talent on the field for ten seasons, he showed unquestionably strong character and professionalism that enabled him to weather the racist taunts and slurs. He ended up contributing significantly to the civil rights movement.
In recognition of his achievements, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He died in 1972 from diabetes when he was 53 years old.
Jenkins broke into professional baseball in 1963, playing first in Little Rock, Arkansas, where five years earlier the government had ordered all schools closed rather than allow Blacks to attend the same classes as white students. Back then Arkansas had separate schools and Blacks couldn’t drink from the same water fountains as Whites. They couldn’t stay in the same hotels or eat in certain restaurants.
When Jenkins arrived in Little Rock to play his first minor league game, he was greeted at the airport by a small band of Whites, waving racist posters and shouting disparaging statements at him.
“It really didn’t shock me,” Jenkins said recently. “I saw the banners, but I just walked past them, got on the team bus and went to the ballpark.”
Looking back at his experiences in the 1960s and 1970s, Jenkins said in the end it all worked out well for him.
“I thought it was a good thing because I got a chance to play under pressure,” he told a reporter recently. “Playing period is a fair amount of pressure, but to have the fans not like you in your home ball park, that was some pressure in itself.”
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Jenkins thanked Robinson for what he had done for black players.
“The world has changed,” Jenkins said. “And change is good.”
Ward, the only black player on the current Washington Capitals NHL roster, wears 42 on his jersey as a tribute to Robinson.
“I wanted to pay tribute to a man that kind of paved the way for guys like me,” said the Bajan. “And no better number than 42.”
When he was asked to speak at an advanced screening of the film in Washington, Ward spoke about the importance of leadership, a quality Robinson displayed on and off the field.
In addition, the message brought back memories of his late Bajan father who used to call him “chief” instead of Noel.
“I just interpreted for myself that he maybe wanted me to be a leader and a difference maker,” explained Ward. “And that’s how I look at Jackie Robinson being a leader and an icon.”

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