My fourth grade, at Oklahoma City’s Millwood High School, like all the other grades, had three sections, ranked according to academic performance. By the fall of 1965, our second and third sections included quite a few African American children. The first section to which I belonged had one. Charles Tollett Jr., was one of the handsomest boys in our class, one of if not the most articulate, and the best dressed.
I got along fine with Charles, and from what I could see, so did everyone else, in class, at lunch, during recess. Until Bobby Dokes—fortunately I do not remember the boy’s real name—began to verbally berate Charles on the playground during afternoon recess. I was startled and confused, and the other boys appeared to be, too. There wasn’t any apparent background or provocation to what was happening, though even at the time I thought to myself, “I wonder if Bobby’s daddy doesn’t like Negroes and he told Bobby to act like this?”
Anyhow, the tongue lashing descended to the N-word. Bobby started chanting it at Charles, over and over, then looking around, clearly wanting the rest of us to join in. One by one, those gentle, sweet boys, blonde and brown and redheaded, began to join in the chorus, and grow as passionate as Bobby. I was stunned. Finally, Bobby and the others looked at me. I looked at Charles. He was crestfallen and I remember him turning to me as though I was his last hope.
That is when I regained my composure. Together, Charles and I proceeded to whip the stuffing out of all four of the other boys. What a blessing it has been through the years to humbly regale young people with that story of young Christian manhood and Christlike compassion and sacrifice.
If only. Actually, the next thing I knew, I was chanting, the N-word, over and over, with everyone else. It is the first time I ever remember saying that word. Charles stared at me, heartbroken. He could say nothing with his lips, but I knew what his broken heart was saying: “Even you, John?” That is when the spirit went out of him. His shoulders slumped and his head dropped and he turned and trudged slowly away and out into the field that is now Millwood’s championship football stadium.
Our chorus escorted him away. He looked so alone. *
Millwood School lay on the northeastern fringe of Oklahoma City, between city and country. It was an independent school district. I was a student there from my first day in the basement kindergarten of the old World War I-era red rock building in 1961. I remember a few tiffs with other boys, but never so much as one fist fight.
Until, that is, the spring of 1966, during the first school year the Negro boys came to school in significant numbers. The large soccer games we had on the playing field, which might include 30 to 40 boys at a time, grew bitter. Fights began to occur between black and white boys. A couple of the black boys in particular, members of other fourth grade classes, were mean and bullying. More than once they got into fights with my white classmates. I remember one time that a male teacher came onto the field and broke up the fight. It is the first time I recall truly disliking other boys.
During one afternoon recess period, I went to the boys bathroom. No one else was in there until two black boys I didn’t know came in and cornered me. They wanted a dime. When I told them I didn’t have one and never had any money at school, they warned me to bring them a dime the next day or they would find me and beat me up.
When mom asked my little brother Paul and me at home late that afternoon how our day went, I mentioned the incident. She seemed a lot more upset about it than I was. Very soon afterwards, it may have been the next day, but no more than a couple of days later, Paul and I walked into the house after school. My mom was beaming and puffing on the cigarette she liked to place in a cigarette holder, of the sort Franklin Roosevelt used, but probably not nearly as fancy.
“We’re moving to Duncan in two weeks!” she announced. Her sister and her family lived there and we had periodically visited the small southwest Oklahoma town. “What? Why?” I asked, stunned. She explained that she had already been thinking about it, and the “dime” incident was the last straw.
“But why can’t we move to Putnam City (a growing, still-all-white independent school district across town from us), where all our friends are moving?” I pleaded.
She pulled the cigarette holder out of her mouth, looked me in the eye, and clenched her jaw. “Because if they can get here, they can get to Putnam City. I don’t think they can get to Duncan.”
And that is why I grew up in Duncan rather than Oklahoma City, graduated from Duncan High in 1974, and have ever since considered it my home town. When we beat Millwood in the Shortgrass Basketball Tournament in Altus my senior year, I remember wondering whether any of their players were those two boys who wanted that dime.
For three decades, meanwhile, the memory of Charles Tollett Jr. and how we—how I—treated him haunted me. I actually saw him—played against him—in a pre-season basketball scrimmage tournament my senior year in high school in McAlester. He played for OKC McGuinness and I played for Duncan. I recognized his name on the program roster. I wondered whether he recognized mine. He didn’t indicate so, but then, neither did I. I didn’t know what to say and said nothing.
Several years later, while canvassing the OKC sales territory for my first job out of college, I came across the doctor’s office of Charles Tollett SENIOR. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t even go in, like I did all the others in my new territory. I did, just now, however, Google him and learn that he lived to the age of 91. Here is a portion of his Oklahoman newspaper obituary:
“Dr. Charles A. Tollett Sr., was born in Muskogee, OK, attended public school there, graduating from the Manuel Training High School. He received a Bachelor of Science degree (cum laude) from Howard University in Washington, DC, his medical degree and Doctor of Science degree (surgery) at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He achieved the rank of master sergeant while serving in the U.S. Army. His tour of service was overseas in the CBI Theatre and the South Pacific. Dr. Tollett was the first African-American to complete a 4-year residency in surgery at Temple University after receiving his medical degree. He was the first African-American in the state of Oklahoma to be certified by the American Board of Surgery and the first African-American in the state of Oklahoma to become a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. He was Chairman of the Department of Surgery at St. Anthony Hospital for several years. He is a long-term member of Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Katherine Summers Tollett; and four children, Lynn, Charles Jr., Frank, and Jeffrey. Funeral Services will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, at Allen Chapel AME, 1400 N.E. 13th St., OKC. Interment 1 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, at Fort Gibson National Cemetery, Fort Gibson, OK.”
Finally, in 1995, I called Dr. Tollett’s office and asked whether they had contact information for “my old grade school classmate” Charles Jr. They would not give out that information, but they took mine. Soon thereafter, Charles Jr. called me. I had planned out everything I was going to say, and the first part, identifying myself, went smoothly, especially because Charles seemed just as friendly as at Millwood. He was now a neurosurgeon in Indianapolis.
When it got to the purpose of my call as a Christian man—asking forgiveness from a person I had wronged—my plan sort of disintegrated. For a moment, emotion tided over me and my throat closed up like a steel trap. After a few seconds, and a silent plea for God’s help, I recalled the long-ago incident to Charles. Then I apologized and asked for his forgiveness.
He responded like the man whose father was the bright, kindly boy I had known. He chuckled and told me he had no recollection of the incident I had described, though he did remember me as a nice guy and he remembered “some similar types of things from that time.”
Then he said, “I would never hold something like that against a young man.”
Thank you, Lord, for reminding me once again.
Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.
Well done, Dr. Tollett Sr. Well done, Dr. Tollett Jr. First section, indeed.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
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