I was born here in St. Louis on December 25, 1940. Due to my humble beginnings, no one would have believed that I would become a successful movie actor and singer. There are so many youngsters today whose life mirrors my childhood, young people who don’t believe tomorrow holds any hope for them. Most of the successful black entertainers I’ve known had humble beginnings.
My father died before I had any memory of him. From what I heard about him, he spent most of his life drinking and gambling. He died when I was about two years of age. As for my mother, she was a beautiful woman. She was a very warm and friendly person. Unfortunately, like my father, she suffered from the disease of alcoholism.
As a child, I suffered greatly due to my mother’s alcoholism. I was teased by other children and was hungry most times. Sometimes I would not see my poor mother for days. Due to hunger, I would follow the neighbor kids when their mother would call them home for dinner. Sometimes I got lucky and got a meal, but too often, I was sent home hungry.
This loneliness led me to create friendships with the wrong individuals.
I attended Dunbar Elementary School and lived on the corner of Garrison and Cass avenues. At present, Vashon High School is located in that same spot. I was not a great student. I was always too hungry to concentrate on learning.
Fortunately, our school cafeteria was operated by a lady named Ms. Whitney. She actually prepared all of her meals fresh and by herself. Some students assisted by serving the food, washing dishes and cleaning up after the lunch was over. I begged and begged until Ms. Whitney permitted me to work in the kitchen. Thank God. At least now I am going to have one meal five times a week.
Something happened while I was in attendance at Dunbar. A teacher named Ms. Crawford came to my classroom one day and asked if I could assist her. My teacher consented. I was taken to our gym, which also served as lunchroom and auditorium. There were a few other students present. She handed me a printed script and asked me to be in a play she was putting together. It changed my whole life.
Who would have thought I’d do 38 motion pictures, 18 national commercials, perform at the Muny for 20 years and become a successful singer?
While still in the sixth grade, I met a young kid named Robert. I think he was a year or two older than me. He and I use pal around every day. Robert had a serious character flaw. He would steal any and everything he could get his hands on. I got so I would do the same thing – petty theft, but stealing non-the less.
One day while prowling around, we passed in front of an old antique store. In the window was displayed an old 22 caliber rifle. Out of the clear blue, Robert told me he was going to steal that gun. I thought he was kidding. Wrong.
Late one extremely cold night, with no cars or pedestrians anywhere, Robert and I were out roaming around looking for something to get into. We ended up in front of the store that had the rifle. Robert darted into the doorway and told me to be the lookout. I didn’t have clue as to what he was talking about until he took out a big hammer and started fearlessly striking the padlock on the door. In addition to being half frozen, now I was scared out of my wits. I had no idea that he was going to do this. But I could not punk out and run away. Instead I stood in the doorway shaking.
He finally broke the lock and ran inside and grabbed the gun. We took off running down the street. I knew at any minute the police would catch us and throw us in jail. Thank God, that didn’t happen. We took the gun over to a shed in back of where he lived. Thank God, the gun had no bullets. But we sat in this freezing shed playing with it.
Still shaking from fear and the cold, I decided to go home. I left Robert in the shed gleefully playing with the gun.
That was the last time I saw Robert.
A few years later, my cousin Margaret, who lived in the same building as Robert and his mother, was telling my mother about a killing. Cousin Margaret said to my mother, “Did you hear about Robert being killed a couple of weeks ago? You know, the boy that Bobby (my nickname) use to run around with. He got killed trying to rob a liquor store.”
I almost fell through the floor. If not for the grace of God, there go I.
I desperately needed a change in my life. One evening, I saw two of my neighbor boys, in uniform, at Courtland and Maurice, on their way to attend a Boy Scout’s meeting, and I asked to go along. The meetings were held every Friday at the LeonardBaptistChurch located on Page Avenue and Grand Boulevard. My salvation came in the form of my Scoutmaster Dan O’Kelly. Mr. O’Kelly became everything I wanted to grow to be. He had no children of his own, but he treated us as if we were his own kids. For once, I was a part of something wonderful.
To be continued in next week’s Black History Month section.