In recognition of Black History Month we present this reflection from Billy Bradford H’03. It first appeared in the fall issue of our Leader newsmagazine.
Billy Bradford is an honorary alumnus from 2003. He is a Tony Award-nominated, renowned high school theater professional whose actors have starred on Broadway, in motion pictures and on television. He was the artistic director of our Department of Theatre Arts for 45 years and is in our school’s Hall of Fame.
Amen to that sweet powers!
I cannot speak enough of this content.
–Othello, II, 1
There was kindergarten with Ms. Brown, the daughter of missionaries. She had been born in China. She carefully taught and showed us many colorful things. That was a glorious experience, and I still have friends from that short and only time in public school. It was very self-affirming.
First grade at St Augustine’s was somewhat trying. Sister Theresa Leo SCN had 102 of us in that classroom. The reading groups, Red Birds and Blue Birds, were unmanageable flocks, but she did it despite the resulting multitudes caused by segregation. Certainly, some of us ruined our bladders because we were taught to hold our urine until Sister could get the whole class to the out-of-doors toilet for a potty break. In the city of Louisville there were only two Catholic elementary schools for children of color. There were parishes dotted across this city from the river into the West End and Portland, south in Shively to the Highlands and St. Matthews – only a couple for the “colored Catholic kids.” Our books were less than second hand in condition and content. We were cheated and harmed, but our parents faithfully accepted.
High school came with an acceptance letter, supplies, books and new clothing, as they did with each new occasion. Self-awareness came fully. That other child is now me. The Broadway bus ride, the place, the Xaverian Brothers, the other students, all were exciting and new, but for one upperclassman. Some mornings and too many afternoons he would walk just far enough behind and tauntingly speak the N-word. I moved on thinking it was my cross to bear. He graduated and those dark mornings and afternoons became sunny. I had friends who talked with me, exchanged ideas, phoned, and invited me to their homes. The Brothers (Faber, Columba, Leonard Francis, and especially the principal, Brother Thomas More CFX) offered clear invitations for me to join in any activity I chose with a comforting statement that if I was “not acceptable out there, none of the students would do that activity.”
I had been admitted to John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, but due to parental calamities I could not attend. I thought if I could leave the South things would be better. So, I made the best of the situation laid before me. Attending Bellarmine University brought wonderful intellectual inspiration. It was initially formidable but eased with acquaintances, opportunities and professors who gave solace. There were classes, parties, concerts and never enough stage time. Applause was like grace. My parents had taken me to great films, introduced good novels, Leontyne Price, great Walnut Street jazz, Leonard Bernstein, fine Scotch and Motown. Later came Bill and Anne Habich and the Brown Theatre. All of these were distractions from the mean world.
My teachers at Bellarmine, Ursuline, University of Louisville, Notre Dame University and ultimately a lecturer at Oxford University, afforded me momentary cloaks of removal from the name calling, the couched reminders of “my place,” the heartbreaking stings of not being seen, purses moved to the other side of bodies or down in the church pew, and being stared at with disdain. These reminders that choke away “too much knowledge” and form, because without the pomp and circumstance robes to them I am just another… There was always comfort in the arts of the book, theatre, and church ritual.
My college and university instructors saw me and perceived my soul. Dr. Robert M. Fischer, Ms. Mary Frances Duane, Fr. Vincent Guigreich C.P. and Dr. Thomas Sheehan, all taught me of the worlds of theatre, music, philosophy, and literature. It all crashed the day the phone rang at my college job. That cold autumn day, the world stood still at Shelby and Broadway. A friend tearfully told me J.F.K. had been shot, and her father would give us a car to go to Canada. It was the end of days, and we would be put into concentration camps. I tried to reassure her that was not true, but my verbal bravery had such doubt as the words came from my mouth. Not knowing what lay ahead, I once again sought security in the humanities.
My comfort was in performances with the Kentucky Opera, Ursuline, University of Louisville, and the Stephen Foster Story. For two seasons I seemed to have played all the slaves. Now, there was a dilemma. The pay and all else was good until I stood on the slave block and on another occasion went to the country club. All the cast members received summer memberships, but those of color “should not use them.” My inner rebel had emerged. It was the 1960’s!
Within that decade, there were changes in public accommodations, open housing and busing; but the pressures and wrongs seemed to never abate. I redirected my life and made a solemn promise to teach. I graduated, auditioned at Actors Theatre of Louisville, contracted for three shows, and began teaching in a Catholic school. Once again saved by the arts, academics and the faith.
My first teaching job, at Bishop David High School, came about because the associate pastor (Fr. Bob Volpert) at our parish took my resume to the principal, Brother Richard Reume CSC, and he hired me over the phone. When I showed up to sign the contract, he suppressed his surprise at the biologically obvious. I knew but neither of us spoke of his blushes for two years. My instruction and directorial skills were well received by most. There was one coach who told the principal he did not want me there because of who and what I was and “that theatre work.” He set about to malign the students who worked with me. He never saw the work. It has never been my belief that young people should suffer for learning an art form because others, adults or students, do not understand that art. One day in 1968 on the way to Bishop David, I was stopped by a policeman and questioned as to what I was doing there. When the difficulties became too great, I shuttered the highly successful theatre program, resigned after another year and left for Trinity High School. At Trinity I found comfort, support and protection in the persons of Frs. Ted Sans, Albert Moore and Mr. Greg Sysol. I remained there for 45 years.
After five decades of performing and teaching, I reflect on the pitiful state of things in our country. Many days it feels as though very little has been accomplished. There is so little understanding of the history of the destruction of the Black family. The eternal belittling of too many Black people. The pressure of the constant reminders of “our place.” That we are to do only “certain things.” What could be wrong post Obama? The psychological pressures are extreme, greater for those of us who have fortunately achieved, because we do know. There is such a disconnect in the realities of white privilege, the historical realities that Black lives are less precious and institutional racism. The results are high blood pressure, diabetes, and anxiety. The subtleties of racism seemed to have outweighed lynchings. Have they? Early on it was just being a runaway Black. Then it was a false accusation in an elevator or a whistling. Now it is a hoodie and a walk or a run or driving while black. Amid this nation’s grand potential, there is always the ugly and slimy underbelly that rolls over and reveals itself. Why does the negative glow greater than the accomplished good?
Silence that dreadful bell. It frights the isle.
From her propriety. What is the matter, masters?
—Othello, II, 8
When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state.
William P. Bradford II