YSU’s first black professor shares story of racial inequality
By JUSTIN PASSARO and MICHAEL WITTMANN
For most of his 73 years on Earth, Alfred L. Bright has lived in a world influenced by color.
He is a retired professor of art at Youngstown State University, having taught for 47 years. He is also the college’s first African-American professor. In 1970, he became the director of the newly established Black Studies Program at YSU.
As he sits in his art studio on Market Street in Youngstown pondering the past, he is surrounded by vibrant paintings and the sounds of
classical jazz. The studio is where his past finds new life in bright colors applied to canvas. While art provided Bright with a fulfilling career, it also provided obstacles.
“Schools are sometimes very dangerous, because it takes the child away from the family and starts indoctrinating them into a system … your development starts being shaped by outside forces. Well, I didn’t let that happen to me. Drive and instinct led me to be able to draw anything I saw. I put most of my energy into drawing so I was in the third grade for three years. I wasn’t taking phonics seriously – I was drawing.” There were others obstacles imposed by society.
He was born in 1940, soon after his family moved into Westlake Terrace, a Works Progress Administration project. This was before the Civil Rights struggles were waged.
“We lived in somewhat of an integrated system, but there was de facto segregation happening in the North. It wasn’t written into law, but you knew that they existed.”
For instance, African Americans were not allowed to live north of Madison Avenue. Even at Westlake Terrace apartments, where blacks were allowed, there was still an element of segregation.
“There was a section where the fair-skinned African Americans lived, over near the Y. In the middle, there were the middle class – basically brown – but some semi-professional people. Then at the bottom of Westlake Terrace were the darker-skinned.”
There were other rules. Blacks couldn’t sit on the first floor of the downtown movie theaters. Restaurants and hotels wouldn’t serve African-Americans.
“That lasted all the way through my period in college,” said Bright. One avenue provided relief from this.
“Sports were neutral territory,” said Bright, “If you were talented in sports, it all seemed to neutralize itself.”
In 1950, when Bright was 10, Little League Baseball was created. Locally, the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs sponsored teams. Bright played for the Donnell Ford team in 1950 and 1951. His sports heroes were Roy Campanella, Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson.
“In ’51, we won the city championship and we were given a victory parade downtown, which culminated at the Southside pool,” said Bright. “I hit the homerun that won the game. So I was a star. It just was a beautiful day to celebrate that victory with my team.” However, the neutrality offered by athletics did not extend to celebrations.
“When we went to the Southside pool, I walked in with my team. The manager of the pool aggressively grabbed me by my uniform and pressed me against the barbed wire fence.
Bright recalls the manager as a kid, probably a college student, who said the rules were if a black person put his hands in the water, then the pool would have to be drained.
“Well, everybody went into the pool and he locked the gate,” said Bright. “They had me out there on a blanket, outside the gate. And Mrs. Mulligan, who was our team mother, went to the manager and said, ‘You’re going to let this kid come into the pool, you’re not going to disgrace us, our team, and try to enforce this on him. That’s when I was allowed in.
“(The pool manager) rang the siren and everyone cleared the pool. He got a rubber dinghy with a rope on it and tossed it into the pool. He ushered me into the pool, with his hand on my back, toward the water.
“I got into this dinghy. All of my teammates and their parents were standing around the pool, watching. The catcher or the pitcher was pulling me around, the manager was in the pool, waiting on the side of the dinghy to make certain I didn’t put my hands in the water.
“I looked everyone directly in the eye, which was taboo. That day, I looked everyone in the eye. They couldn’t make eye contact with me. They were in fear. They didn’t have the courage to break through. Mrs. Mulligan – she broke through.”
Bright remembers feeling pity for the others. “They were locked into the system. I felt free outside the gate knowing they were locked inside with this guy.” This experience was a turning point in Bright’s life.
“I came out of it a new person. I did not come out of that pool hating white people. I came out really feeling badly about a whole system that was so neurotic and driven by fear that they would fear a 10- or
Instead of hate, Bright focused on education. “I was on time. I had my homework done. I joined all of the clubs I could … if you were going to criticize me, you had to find something other than my character.”
At South High School, he joined Junior Achievement and in his senior year, 1959, he was voted president. That same year, he was selected to attend the group’s conference at Indiana University, where he won two national awards. He won the talent show by singing, “Stardust,” by Nat King Cole, and first place in the Reader’s Digest Speakers Contest for his impromptu speech on the American free enterprise system.
Several heads of corporations flew in for the awards banquet. Two major players were at Bright’s table: Ed Mosler Jr., CEO of American Standard, and Bayer Colgate, CEO of Colgate Palmolive.
During the banquet, the winners were asked to announce what awards they won and where they planned to attend college in the fall. “Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Oxford … then they came to my table and I stood up and said, ‘I’m Alfred Bright from Youngstown, OH, and I’m on the waiting list to go to Erma Lee’s Barber School in Cleveland, OH.’ It got very silent, and all of a sudden everyone broke out in laughter.”
After things quieted down, Colgate turned to Bright and said, “You have to be joking. You’ve won these major awards, you gave this incredible speech on the free enterprise system. You’ve got incredible talent. You mean to tell me, you’re not going to college?” No one had ever mentioned the possibility of Bright going to college.
“College costs a lot of money and my parents just don’t have a lot of money,” Bright recalls saying. “I don’t know what I could be.” Colgate and Moser came up with a proposal. As it was August, it was impossible to get Bright into schools they were affiliated with — Columbia and Colgate universities. “But they said, ‘If you go back to Youngstown and you find any university or school that will accept you at this late date, we want to help you go to college and we will help to support you,’” Bright said.
With the help of an aunt, Bright compiled his school records and headed to Youngstown University, where they met with John P. Gillespie, who was dean of men. “He saw my records, gave me a handshake and said, ‘You’re accepted into school,’” said Bright. “Not only that, but you qualify – from your grades – for the National Defense Scholarship.’
“So I ran to the phone after I got home and called Ed Mosler and told him I had been accepted to Youngstown University. They (Mosler and Colgate) were very happy and both of them sent me $100 a piece to help me with my books. That’s how I started.”
Bright worked in a steel mill during the day and went to school in the late afternoons and evenings. However, he didn’t study art.
“I didn’t go into art because I didn’t know how to translate that into a job. So, I chose my majors in philosophy and psychology. I thought you had to have an ‘-ology’ at the end of your name in order to be legitimate.” For two years, he pursued his ‘-ology’ degree until one fateful day.
“I was in a class called epistemology, the theory of knowledge,” said Bright. “The teacher, Dr. (Bruce T.) Riley, would write Latin phrases on the board and interpret the phrases and then we would have to discuss the topic.
“That day, he wrote a phrase: ‘The transcendental unity of a priority is the overshadowing unit of self awareness.’ And he says, ‘Can anyone discuss what this means to them?’
“I put up my hand and say, ‘You can aspire to be anything you want to be, but you’re inclined to be something that’s inbreeded in you from birth. Find that and hold onto that. Develop it, to it’s highest potential. When your aspirations blend with your inclinations, then you can find self realization and self identity.’ ”
Professor Riley, considered by students to be a “tough teacher,” jumped up and congratulated Bright for his insight.
“That day, I went right over to the art department and I looked for the chair. Jim Lepore was teaching painting in the art department and when I walked in the door, he says, ‘We’ve been waiting for you for two years.’”