Since the killing of George
Floyd at the hands of police last May, countless companies and organizations have
announced their condemnation of racism and their commitment to its abolishment. Time will tell how effective these
commitments are. Rather than pen a bland
general statement, I would rather tell a story.
It’s a true story.
There was once a young
engineering student named Julius Randall at a small college in South Carolina. The college was so small that it had no bookstore,
and so the engineering students had to go to the nearby Woolworth’s to buy
their supplies. Julius was black, and
although the Woolworth’s would sell him graph paper and pencils, it wouldn’t
let him sit at the lunch counter.
This was the 1960s, and one
day Martin Luther King Jr. showed up in the area and found out about the
Woolworth’s policy of no Blacks at the lunch counter. Rev. King caused a picket line to be
organized, and for the next few weeks no student of any color bought any
supplies at that Woolworth’s. The worst
violence that resulted was that somebody threw an egg at the store. Soon the owners capitulated, and now Julius
and his friends could sit at the lunch counter in Woolworth’s after buying
Julius went on to graduate
and got an engineering job in the New Jersey area. He then moved into higher education, and at Stevens
Institute of Technology, for seven or eight years he ran the co-op program that
allowed students to work and get an education at the same time. Then he was hired by the University of
Massachusetts Amherst in their new Minority Engineering Program (MEP), which is
where I met him.
Around that time, Julius
contracted a kidney disease that prevented him from driving, and so one day he
asked us where we went to church, and could he have a ride there? It was the beginning of a personal as well as
a professional relationship that gave me a close-up view of one of the most
saintly persons, of any color, that I have ever known.
Julius knew that an
engineering education could be the path from poverty to success as it had been
for him, which was why he left industry to devote his life to bringing the
blessings of engineering education to minority students. But his work was not without obstacles. One obstacle at the time was our dean of
engineering, who barely tolerated the MEP and repeatedly refused Julius
opportunities for promotion when they arose.
Another obstacle was his chronic illness, which would attack him with
nausea and vomiting, whereupon he would simply excuse himself from a meeting
and deal with it without complaining. He
eventually had to begin a type of home-based dialysis that involved hooking
himself up to a complicated machine every night.
But he didn’t let that slow
him down from his professional work, or from volunteering to organize and run
worthy events at church. During a
service he would get up and smile a thousand-watt smile and say, “Good
morning, saints!” and then encourage us to join the painting crew or the
tee-shirt sale or whatever worthy cause was on the menu that day.
He had been married before,
but was divorced before we met him.
Around 1997, he fell in love with a woman and they decided to get
married. Julius did me the honor of
asking me to be one of his groomsmen, and we went down to New Jersey in July of
1998 and saw him and Lynn tie the knot.
They honeymooned in Hawaii, and after another year or so at UMass, he
found a job closer to his new bride’s family in New Jersey, and we saw him off from
UMass at a going-away party.
In 1999, I left UMass myself
for Texas, but we kept in touch with people who knew Julius, and soon we heard
a sad story. It seemed that his wife
took on the notion that Julius no longer needed his dialysis machine, so
somehow she persuaded him to quit using it to see what would happen. Ever the loving husband, he tried it, and the
result was that he landed in a hospital in a coma.
I learned this shortly
before I was due to make a trip from Texas to the New York City area on
business, so I found out where the hospital was and made a special side trip to
see him. He was in an ICU surrounded by beeping
machinery, and while he seemed unresponsive, I knew that sometimes the last
sense to go is hearing. So I told him I
was here, and that my wife and I were praying for him. I’m not sure, but I think I saw his lips move
a little in response. A few weeks later
we heard that he had died.
God only knows how many
lives Julius Randall touched for the better during his relatively brief time on
this planet. He was always finding
people who needed help and figuring out how to help them with jobs, money, a
place to stay, a way of doing things, a plan, a word of encouragement, or just
a listening ear.
But he did all this in a way
that let you know he was human, and “holier than thou” never applied
to him. Once in a blue moon, I even
heard him complain. One day I was
driving him back to his apartment and we had to drive through the UMass
campus. He was in the front seat beside
me, and I was obeying the speed limit.
Suddenly I saw the lights of a campus police car behind me, so I pulled
over. I forget what reason the officer
gave for wanting to pull me over, but it didn’t make a lot of sense at the
time. The officer finally let us go, and
as I was driving away Julius said, “Man, I get tired of that
sometimes.” It wasn’t the first
time he’d been pulled over for DWB: Driving
While Black. But it was the first time I
experienced just a tiny sliver of what it was like to live in supposedly
enlightened Massachusetts as a Black man, whose life certainly mattered.