HENDERSON UNITED METHODIST CHURCH


Walter “Slim” Porter became the first African-American to manage an all-white Glenwood League team during the 1960s race riots.
By John Dudley

In the spring of 1968, amid some of the worst racially charged rioting in U.S. history, Walter “Slim” Porter had an idea he knew might backfire.

He knew it could lead to resistance from both the African-American and white communities.

He knew his simple message about unity could be swallowed up and lost in an angry environment that had seen police and National Guardsmen in other cities respond to the worst of the disturbances with weapons fire.

He had watched Erie, just weeks earlier, become rocked by open clashes and protests that spilled into the streets after a white teacher struck a black student with a classroom pointer at Academy High School.

Porter knew all that, saw all that, and he pushed ahead anyway.

During a time when tensions in this country were so volatile that economic historian Robert A. Mango said in a 2004 New York Times article, “a riot could happen almost anywhere, anytime,” Porter, who is black, went to local high schools and recruited white ballplayers to form a team in the Glenwood League.


Walter “Slim” Porter, 84, former Glenwood League baseball manager. |
[CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]



Pete Freed, at left, and Walter “Slim” Porter, at right, are shown Monday at Ainsworth Field in Erie. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Porter, now 84, managed a Glenwood League baseball team on which Freed, now 66, played. Many of their games were played at Ainsworth Field. [CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]



Walter “Slim” Porter, at left, and Pete Freed, at right, are shown Monday at Ainsworth Field in Erie.
[CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]


It was unprecedented, certainly unexpected, but it worked.

For seven summers, Porter’s all-white teams suited up and played for a black manager, even when, to some people, that didn’t seem like such a smart move.

Pete Freed played on five of Porter’s teams. Now the district court administrator for Erie County and then an emerging high school baseball standout, Freed said whether the players understood it at the time or not, they were together for a higher purpose, using baseball to encourage peaceful coexistence among races.


“I can never remember a problem or anything negative on any of those teams,” said Freed, 66. “The thing ‘Slim’ always said was, he didn’t care if we were black, white or orange. We were there to play baseball and have fun.”

And yet, there were problems. Porter did receive his share of negative feedback.

And if the players didn’t seem affected by that, it’s because Porter reminded them over and over that criticism couldn’t hold up against mutual respect.

“I didn’t have to say anything to them boys about that except, ‘We are people; blood runs through our veins,’ ” said Porter, now 84. “I die and you die. If we can just do this here together, in the name of baseball, that’s all that matters.”

Man from Mississippi

Walter Porter was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, during the Great Depression, one of 17 children.

His father worked in the fields, and, at age 7, Porter began steering a plow behind a mule for 18-hour shifts. He earned 50 cents a day.

He moved to Erie in 1959, in his mid-20s, looking for a better job. He had $10 in his pocket, but soon found work for the owner of a scrapyard on the east side. He later drove a tractor-trailer for a long-haul company, and then drove a bus for the School District of the City of Erie for 30 years until retiring in 2006.

Porter has 17 children of his own, all of them grown, many now scattered about the country.

He was an athlete who played baseball growing up in Mississippi and later in Erie. This summer will be his 54th season umpiring baseball and softball games. He keeps doing it because he relishes the feeling he gets from being at ball fields, the energy and excitement, the renewal of youth.

Many of those same things drew him to the local sports scene in the late 1960s, when he began ingratiating himself within baseball circles, in particular the city’s highly competitive Glenwood League, which attracted the best high school and college players along with many ex-professionals.

At the time, Erie was experiencing fallout from efforts to integrate schools in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling more than a decade earlier.

By the summer of 1967, violence had erupted across the country. A report issued that fall by the Senate Permanent Investigations Committee found already that year police had responded to 75 riots resulting in 83 deaths, 1,397 injuries, more than 16,000 arrests and an estimated $664 million in property damage and other costs.

Federal troops were dispatched to quell a riot in Detroit. In Erie, disturbances were reported on three separate days in July, the committee said.


In her 1996 book, “Journey From Jerusalem: An Illustrated Introduction to Erie’s African American History, 1795-1995,” Strong Vincent High School teacher Sarah Thompson noted that riots and protests broke out in the spring of 1968 at all four Erie public high schools, the worst of them at Academy following the incident between the teacher and the student.

A ‘crazy’ proposition

Amid the violence and chaos, Porter saw an opportunity for sports, for baseball, to provide comfort. The Glenwood League had black players dotting its rosters and it had a black manager and an all-black team. What it didn’t have was an all-white team playing for a black manager.

So Porter went to Mel Witherspoon, whom he had met while driving a bus for the Head Start program when Witherspoon was working at Erie’s Booker T. Washington Center.

Decades later, Witherspoon is able to recall the conversation in great detail.

“The first thing I did was look at him like he was crazy,” Witherspoon said last week. “I said, ‘Why would you want to do something like that with all that’s going on?’ ”

Porter persisted.

“These are good guys that just want to play baseball,” he responded. “It ain’t about black or white or all that mess out there.”

Porter asked for Witherspoon’s blessing. He received that, along with a promise from Witherspoon to do what he could financially to get it off the ground. Witherspoon was then working at the ACT Center, which became the team’s sponsor.

“I said, ‘Whatever you need, we’ll find the money,’ ” Witherspoon said. “I knew Walt enough to know he could do it. I give him 110 percent of the credit. He ran with it.”

‘They trusted me’

Freed recalls hearing about Porter’s idea while a senior at Academy, where he starred in baseball and earned a scholarship to play at Syracuse University.

He knew Porter was looking for players for a team in the Glenwood League. But he didn’t realize he was looking specifically for white players. And he didn’t fully appreciate that Porter was trying to make a point about sports’ capacity for healing wounds, even wounds as deep as those dividing the city and the country at that time.

“That might have been what Slim was thinking,” Freed said, “but I don’t really recall that coming up. Having gone to Academy, I wasn’t worried about the interracial part of it, because we had interracial (interactions) in school every day. We just wanted to have the chance to play.”

Porter’s first team, in 1968, included players from Academy, Strong Vincent, Cathedral Prep, East, Tech Memorial and a few county schools.

The season went by smoothly enough, at least on the field.

Away from it, in the background, Porter heard from members of both the black and white communities who were unhappy with what he was doing.

His response was to let the words roll off his back.

“Some on my side didn’t like it,” said Porter, who remembers being called “Uncle Tom” and was accused of selling out to the white community. “Some on the other side were saying things about them boys. That was their opinion; wasn’t mine.”

Even the most negative feedback wasn’t enough to deter Porter, who returned in 1969 with many of the same players and a few new ones.

The nucleus of the ACT Center teams remained together until 1974, when the majority of the original players had moved on to jobs, joined the military or simply stopped playing.


Porter still sees some of them occasionally. He stopped to visit Freed at the Erie County Courthouse recently, and the conversation caused him to recall his reasons for putting that first team together 49 years ago this spring.

He feels indebted to the players who bought into his idea, and to the parents who entrusted him with their sons for the summer.

“These kids, they were great, and their folks were, too,” Porter said. “I’d have been scared with all this rioting going on. They trusted me.”

‘It ain’t about no color’

Freed, who played in the Glenwood League until 1985, later managed in the league and is now a commissioner, believes Porter’s experiment worked because the motives behind it were pure.

“I’ve been dealing with people in my job for a long time, so I can tell when someone is a good person,” Freed said. “Slim most certainly has a lot of credibility. He’s a genuine, down-to-earth extremely honest person.”

Witherspoon credits what Porter did with influencing the way he runs the inner-city recreational basketball league he founded more than 25 years ago.

During its first two years, the league had only black players. Witherspoon made it a point to change that, reaching out to pull in white players from outside the city, first from Corry and later from other areas.

“I took a page right out of Walt’s book,” Witherspoon said. “I said, ‘It ain’t a black basketball league. It’s a basketball league.’ You look at it now, and you see how sports can bring people together.”

Porter believed that all those years ago. He continues to believe it today at a time when racial tensions have evolved, but have never disappeared.

“We all got problems,” Porter said. “We all get sick; we suffer. It ain’t about no color. Don’t blame other folks and point at other people. Just do your part. That’s what I try to do, best I can, every day. If I treat you with respect, that’s my part. If you don’t do the same, I can’t do nothing about that. It ain’t no different now than it was then.”

John Dudley can be reached at 870-1677
Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNdudley
 

 

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