The Lucky One – Part 1

Carlton was one of seven children of the Wilson family. He grew up in Chattanooga when it wasn’t a nice place to be a young black kid. But, it could have been worse, much worse – like it was for his older brothers and sisters. They had most of, and for some, all of their entire childhood colored by the spectrum of segregation. But Carlton was the youngest. He escaped the worst of it due to his age alone. He was the lucky one.

After WWII, Chattanooga was a bustling economy of highly productive factories and a skilled workforce. But the blight of it all was the city’s total racial segregation that creating substandard schools and deteriorating neighborhoods for its black citizens. Blacks were unable to go to the Martin Theater in downtown. They were relegated to a theater in the black business district called Ninth Street. There were night clubs and other establishments there that were not on the wholesome side of life.

When Carlton Wilson attended his first baseball game at his neighborhood's minor league baseball stadium, he entered through a separate entrance, as did all Chattanooga's black citizens of the time. Photo by Andy Broom.

Blacks were relegated to attending ‘colored’ parks: Lincoln Park, just east of downtown, and Booker T. Washington Park, all the way up the river on the northeast side of town. They were also forced to go to separate schools. If you were black and lived on the south side of town, you attended Howard Elementary, Junior High, and High School. If you were a black northsider, you likely went to Orchard Park Elementary, Junior High, and Riverside High School, with the latter located just east of Lincoln Park and ironically adjacent to the city’s Confederate cemetery. Eastsiders ultimately attended Booker T. Washington High School.

Carlton was born into all this. It wasn’t his fault. But, it played an important part in defining who he is today. And so did his family.

*****

His father was a machinist, which meant that he could make enough money to afford a roof over his head and that of his family. He had learned his craft in Detroit during the war but came back to Chattanooga to raise his growing family. His mother was just that – a loving mom who fretted over every movement of her sons and daughters. His brothers and sisters ranged in age from being five to eighteen years older than Carlton.

His eldest brother, Leon, was a terrific athlete, and highly intelligent. He was able to get an athletic scholarship to Tennessee State where he played three sports. He was best at baseball, and eventually played pro ball for several years, ending up on the West Coast. But, he got into drugs during his playing days, and his use of them escalated afterward. He was frequently homeless during his later years. Just five years ago, at the end of his life, Leon had adopted a small electrical shed as a makeshift home behind a video store in LA. He died there. Carlton read Leon’s obituary in the paper. It said that his brother died of natural causes, ‘at home’.

All of Carlton’s other brothers and sisters were pretty good athletes, too. For all of them, segregation, at least legally speaking, ended in March 1962 when Carlton  was in the first grade. The federal courts ordered the desegregation of the city’s public schools. In 1963, Mayor Ralph Kelly opened all city-owned facilities to blacks. Local businesses followed, but only because of increasing pressure from the mayor and other civic leaders. Not everybody was happy with this change. Things didn’t get much better for a very long time.

*****

When Carlton was just about to enter fourth grade, the Wilson family moved into the Boone-Hysinger housing project – Boone Heights is what the residents called it – at a time when the previous all-white working- and middle-class housing units were quickly becoming all black. In the summer of 1965, a KKK rally took place right outside Boone Heights. The headquarters of the Chattanooga KKK were located only a few blocks away, where Dodson and Glass Streets meet, in the former Alabama Furniture Store. The blacks from their houses were jeering the Klansmen and started to throw rocks. Then, some of the KKK group loaded tear-gas pens into .22-caliber firearms to allow the stinging smoke to rain down on the residents. In the following September, there were multiple bomb threats on Hardy Junior High School, located nearby, where two of Carlton’s siblings had just started their school years.

By 1985, long after Carlton had left home for college, medical school, and a career as a physician, Boone Heights had the highest crime rate in the entire city of Chattanooga. His daddy was shot by a stray bullet on a Friday night when shootings were as common as drinking. He died a week later from the wound. His mother, with other women of the neighborhood, decided to take the neighborhood back by starting a resident neighborhood association council. A Chattanooga venture supported the group, sending them all across the country to be trained by other community developers.

Although racial divisions still exist, Chattanooga now has an expanding black middle class and a growing appreciation of its black social history. The city has come a long way from the days when Bessie Smith was a little girl in the late 1800’s, when Leon was a three-sport star at Riverside High School, and even when Reggie White was a star football player at Howard High School in the late 1970’s.

And that brings us to how Carlton became a fan of Tennessee Vols football.

*****

For the continuation of this story, go to: Part 2 of The Lucky One.

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  1. The Lucky One – Part 2 « Vols in the Fall - 17 December 2010
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