ASPIRATIONS IN HIGH SCHOOL
Bob Sherrell entered Hyde Park High School in 1953. Eisenhower was president and most Americans were feeling good about who they were. For African Americans it was kind of like “I might be just a buck private in this army, but I’m a private in the army that won.” They had saved civilization during World War II and were going to do the same in Korea. Looking at the world through the lenses his parents, neighborhood and the media had given him, Bob saw his future as having endless possibilities.
Doodling F-100 Super Sabers when bored in class, Bob had fantasies of being a jet pilot. He was one of only a few black students placed in honors science and Latin. He became the first chair bass player in the school orchestra in his junior year. If you look in the Hyde Park School Yearbook for 1957, you will see pictures of well groomed black and white students side by side on the page.
And maybe best of all, as far as Bob was concerned, he gained a measure of acceptance with the sons and some of the daughters of what he called the black blue bloods, African Americans who, within the confines of the black South Side, were the upper class professionals who lived in mansions between 47th and 51st Streets and from Drexel to Woodlawn. Names like William Patterson Quinn III and Roger Robert Spencer III, whose fathers were doctors at Provident Hospital. Light skinned, high yellow as they were called, kids whose parents had degrees from Howard, Fisk, Spellman or Maharry medical school and went to black tie cotillions and balls.
Bob’s “in” with this crowd was his musical talent. First chair bass in the orchestra, he also played in the Hyde Park High School dance band, and in an ad hoc jazz band which included Dr. Quinn’s son Billy and future jazz great, Herbie Hancock. The group would practice at Billy Quinn’s house, giving Dr. Quinn the chance to get to know this son of a mechanic and be impressed enough by the young man to encourage him to go to medical school.
These blue bloods had “thirds” and sometimes even “fourths” after their names and Bob was only a junior, the son of a man with a sixth grade education, yet he was being included to some extent in the upper echelons of black society.
This circle of adolescent boys called themselves the Lochenbars. They strived for the Ivy League look: button down shirts, blazers with crests on the left hand pocket, khaki pants with a strap in the back and white curved pipes. They never smoked the pipes, but carried them around, because that was part of the image to which they were aspiring. “It cost me a pretty penny to hang around with these guys,” Bob recalled. “I went to work at the IGA grocery store so I could buy all that shit, so I could have the money to keep up with these Joneses.”
What mattered was that he was, he thought, keeping up. With no pedigree, with parents whose only dream of college was for their son, he seemed to be moving on up, climbing the social ladder, earning the status and acknowledgement for which he so desperately longed.
He thought he was keeping up with “these Joneses.” The American dream–that everyone was equal, that every child born in the United States could whatever they wanted to be—seemed plausible.
As it turned out, however, in order to dream that American dream, the young Robert Sherrell Jr had to close his eyes to what was happening all around him, even in his fairly progressive Hyde Park neighborhood.
For example, when Bob told one of his teachers, a guy named Mr. Duncan, that he wanted to be a fighter pilot, Mr. Duncan informed him that “Negroes would never be allowed to fly airplanes.” Duncan laid out the options for a Negro: teaching, the post office, janitor or maintenance man. “No one told us about the Tuskegee Airmen,” Bob said. He deflected the racist statement by rationalizing that if he couldn’t fly airplanes, then he would design them.
Perhaps the biggest clue that the world was not the way Bob imagined it to be, should have come from his attempts at dating. “The first girl I had a crush on was Sylvia Juarez, a light skinned Mexican girl,” Bob recalled. “I pined for her, but she wouldn’t give me the fricking time of day. It didn’t occur to me that the reason was that I was black.”‘
Bob’s next flame was a Filipino girl named Narcissa Pelunkin. He never got to first base with Narcissa, because her older brother, Manuel, always stood in the way. Again, Bob never connected the dots and realized that Manuel’s dislike for him might have been based on racial prejudice.
Bob’s third crush was Barbara Lawless, white, petite, first chair violin in the orchestra and smart as a whip. Bob used to walk her home, carrying her violin. When they arrived at her home, sometimes a “peripheral buddy” of Bob’s, Jon Zeman a white boy, would be sitting on her porch. Jon was sometimes invited into her house, but Bob never was.
It was probably a junior in high school before it began to sink in why I couldn’t get to first base with these girls,” Bob said. But, because hope springs eternal in the son of Robert Sherrel Sr., Bob went after a black blue blood. Rosalyn Spencer’s father was an obstetrician at Provident Hospital. Her parents noticed the dark skin of this latest boy trying to win their daughter’s favor, so they checked him out with the Quinns who lived around the corner. Knowing Bob from his practicing with her son Billy, Mrs. Quinn gave him her stamp of approval.
Invited into the house while Bob was waiting for Rosalyn to get ready for a date, Dr. Spencer asked Bob what his father did for a living. “When I told him that my father was a mechanic,” Bob said, “Dr. Spencer turned on his heels and walked out of the room. The same sort of thing happened with Mary Ann Morgan, another light skinned girl whose father was a big real estate developer.”
Bob was getting mixed messages. Bob entered Hyde Park High School right around the time that Brown v. Topeka overturned the 1896 Supreme Court decision which set the precedent of separate but “equal,” which was applied to everything from drinking fountains to high schools. Believing that “all men are created equal” would now be the norm was plausible, and to some extent it was being implemented Bob’s small world.
In the Latin class in which he was placed at the beginning of his freshman year, Miss Hadley would call on him saying, “Mr. Sherrell, how did you fare in your conjugations for today? Would you mind telling the class how to do them?” After a few times of being caught without knowing what he was doing, Bob learned to come to class prepared. He also knew that he was Miss Hadley’s pet, that his intelligence was respected.
On the one hand, Bob and some of his black classmates were told that they would be judged on the content of their character and not on the color of their skin. On the other hand, Brown v. Topeka might be the norm of the country dejure, but in most places it was still not the way things worked defacto. “In a sense we were suckered,” Bob reflected. “We were made to feel really significant, but we didn’t know what the ceiling was. They [the teachers] knew, but we didn’t.”
And there was still one more burden black kids had to carry, so subtle that perhaps very few, white or black, were aware of it. The burden was a sense of racial inferiority—the Lochenbars after all were Ivy League wannabes–and guilt. It was a kind of knee jerk response that if something is wrong, somehow it must be our fault. For example, there existed this pervasive feeling among African American students that the Civil War was their fault.
“Slavery was not a source of pride in those days. It wasn’t a sign of our resolve as a race to survive,” Bob remembered. “We all shared a collective guilt that somehow color caused this great war. We never wanted to talk about it in American History class. So, when we forced to sing songs in music class like “Old Black Joe,” we’d look each other and just swallow it.”
As Bob Sherrell graduated from Hyde Park High School in January of 1957 he was starting to become aware of the reality of race prejudiced in America. As he got ready to begin classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago—at that time located at Navy Pier—he had no idea how profound that prejudice could be.