(Doing What’s Right is not BLACK or WHITE)
The following true story is about a fellow educator and friend, Ben Watford, who had a “Good Samaritan Encounter” with a Long Island (New York) Policeman. We need more positive interracial news. Please share yours in the comments.
I came back to Long Island recently to attend the 50th anniversary reunion of the Smithtown High School Class of 1964.
I had retired to North Carolina in 1986 after teaching chemistry at the school for nearly 24 years. Most of the students were surprised to see me and treated me as a returning hero. I think they thought I was already dead, because when I taught them, I was in my 30’s which to teenagers is old.
Unfortunately, even more than 50 years after I first arrived, Smithtown remains among the whitest townships in the state of New York and the United States. For most of my time in Smithtown, I was the only black teacher in the high school. I had only four or five African-American students, including two of my daughters.
In some of my years on Long Island, I headed the NAACP of Smithtown and raised my voice often for civil rights, including integration of housing and fire departments. But other than some difficulties I had buying a house in Smithtown, people in the community treated me and my family well and I felt none of the prejudice I grew up with in segregated North Carolina.
So that night, after the reunion dinner in mid-August, I was driving from Smithtown Landing Country Club back to the Islandia Marriott. At the intersection of Veterans Highway and Motor Parkway, I stopped to try to find the switch to turn off an interior light. I was operating a Mustang (the only car the agency had) and the light made it difficult for me to operate various controls.
I had stopped too long, when I looked up at my mirror, I saw a police car’s lights flashing behind me. Suddenly, all my apprehensions of police returned.
I’d grown up in the South with a fear of all white police officers. Black people knew the police were not there to help us, but to keep us in our place.
One day in 1951, I was walking down a street in Blacksburg, Virginia when a passing police officer or sheriff’s car brushed me.
“He almost killed me,”” I said to a friend.
The car came back and the officer grabbed me by the belt, put a gun to head and told another officer, “I’m going to kill me a shine.”
Only after I explained that I was a soldier in the U.S. Army did he let me go.
At that intersection in Smithtown, the officer, a white man, approached my car. To my surprise, he was smiling. He asked me if everything was OK.
I explained that the car was an unfamiliar rental and I was trying to find my hotel. The officer checked my driver’s license and again did something I did not expect. He read my date of birth – 4/19/1932 – and, still smiling, said “God bless you.”
This told me I was dealing with a fellow human being who was there to help me, not abuse me. I think he took note of my age and treated me with the same respect and dignity he would have accorded his own grandfather. I never expected such treatment from a white officer.
Knowing I was lost, he said, “I will drive you to your destination.
I moved over and he drove me to the Marriott. Before another officer picked him up, I thanked him and took down his name = Officer Dan Hartman of the Suffolk County police.
Since then, I have thought about that day often – especially with the news of racial controversy over police shootings.
I have wondered what Officer Hartman would have thought if he really knew me and my background. That I came from a family of 15 children in the dirt-poor South. That I managed to work my way through college and earn my share of the American dream. That young officer’s conduct tells me that there are good men in law enforcement. I will never forget that he treated me with respect and dignity.
New Bern, NorthCarolina
Newsday: December 7, 2014
Personal Note: My husband Al, and I were delighted to be in the company of Ben Watford at the Smithtown Central 50th High School Reunion.
He was an amazing chemistry teacher, in fact, he was our daughter, Anne Marie’s Favorite Teacher. Ben earned his BS at Howard (1957) and his Masters at Tuskegee (1960). Now an active retiree, Ben is also an author and an artist.
Here is a TV interview of Ben Watford who has become a well-known artist in North Carolina. His unique “scary” pottery can be found throughout art galleries in NC. The video also talks about other aspects of his life.