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Interview with: Rodney Griffin
Interviewed by: Nicolas Castellanos
Date: March 11, 2010
Archive Number: OH GS.0012
Inclusive Date Range: 1950-1980
Biographical Note: Rodney L. Griffin is a native Houstonian born in Hermann Memorial Hospital on 4 November 1946. He attended B.H. Grims elementary school, Worthing High School and graduated from Jack Yates high school, along with an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from the University of Texas in Austin.
Mr. Griffin parents are William L. Griffin and Margaret Griffin and they resided in the Sunnyside community during Rodney’s formative years. Rodney Griffin’s family experienced a meeting with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. during one or Reverend King’s visits to Houston in 1957. Reverend King delivered an “inspirational speech,” says Mr. Griffin, at the Saint John Baptist Church with a Reverend Malone.
Scope and Content Note: Mr. Griffin discusses experiences in the first desegregated Houston high school Chess tournament in the 1960’s. He discusses the different attitudes attitude about the desegregated tournament and the relationships he shared with other tournament participants.
Nicolas Castellanos (NC): Good afternoon. Today is March 11th, 2010. We are joined here by a Mr. Rodney Griffin, Good afternoon.
Rodney Griffin (RD): Good Afternoon Nicolas.
NC: And for, yeah, and for our project would you please state your name, your date of birth and the place you were born?
RG: Sure I am Rodney Griffin, Rodney Levrick Griffin. I…Date of birth is November 4th, 1946. Houston, Texas, Hermann Hospital matter of fact.
NC: Ok, we would like to start and ask every subject, what their first memory, their first Houston memory is.
RG: Actually my first Houston Memory was, or really close to it is the assembling my baby bed, crib.
NC: Oh, and, Wow!
RG: Yeah, and I am sure there all between that, or putting a shoe in the hot water heater, could be the other one.
RG: Yeah, I know, I know, which was quickly extinguished. How that came out, but the one I really remember, because I probably got a spanking from that one…my memory, but I do definitely remember disassembling the baby bed with this tool kit that my mother and father had gotten me for Christmas at that point. I must have been about four-years-old. And one evening I just decided to disassemble my crib cause no more for that.
NC: You were through with it.
RG: I was through with it, actually I hadn’t been sleeping in it, but it was still, I remember, it was still assembled, there in the room. And I decided to disassemble it, to make a statement, perhaps, send a message.
NC: You’re grown. Ok, and you know, you went to B.H. Grimes elementary school.
NC: Ok, while in elementary school what were some of the interests that you began to develop as a young man?
RG: Well actually, reading was for one thing, we use to have, because of the Jim Crow era or American Apartheid, depending on which meaning many who may not be aware what Jim Crow meant, it meant separate, but unequal was the law of the land. Blacks went to their own, had a, it was a separate society for Black people from White people. Rather than the two societies meet, unless, you, downtown Houston. So at any rate, I am saying this to say, there was an all Black school, elementary school, and the book mobile, we were not allowed to go to the Houston Public Library at that time, Black people weren’t, and so the Houston, book mobile would come to our school maybe once a month or so, and we could always get books from it.
RG: And so I had this interest in reading. My interest were science books particularly astronomy, and botany, and magic books, and, at that time. So I was on this path to read, at this time in elementary school, but I, like most children, I hope I am answering your question, play, just try to get a balance between playing and studying.
NC: Did you believe in Magic then?
RG: Yeah I did. I really did, there was something magical about…although we had the evils of segregation, but it was very magical about my existence. In my community with my loving parents, who sheltered us from a lot of, my sister and I, from a lot of the evil in larger society because they had to pay a poll tax just to vote, my parents did. That was in, you had to pay to vote at that time, and that was...but anyway…I thought life generally was magical, and I liked going outside looking at the stars, looking at the Little Dipper, the Big Dipper, that I learned late what those were. And I just found a world in reading, and a world particularly in magic, I did.
NC: And, as you, you became interested in Chess, some, early in your life, would you please explain some of that, beginning interests and some of the people who helped you formed some of those interests.
RG: Well I have to give a lot of credit to my parents; again, they did bring in ____ William and Margaret Griffin. They invested heavily in their children my sister and I. Brought in a set of encyclopedias, “Encyclopedia Americana” I remember specifically, and a set of books called “Peoples from Many Lands” or “Lands of People,” that just brought the world to our living room, so to speak. And I read that encyclopedia, in particular, from “A” all the way to “Z,” literally, and at that point got to the “C” section where, and I saw this board, this checker board, because at that point I know how to play checkers, but they had these strange pieces, symbols, pieces on them, and it just peaked my interest what they were, and there was the caption “Chess.” And I began to read about this game called Chess and it really, really capture my imagination like nothing else had, not even astronomy had.
RG: About the stars and heavens.
NC: And you had an interest in Chess and you developed that interest so mush so that you joined a Chess club.
RG: Right, exactly at that point I had gone to the 7th grade to Worthing junior - senior high school, a high school that had 7th – 12th grade. And my mother who taught at Worthing junior – senior high school told me about her colleague, Ms. Aranita Bell, who had a Chess club there. Once my mother realized I was interested in this game she told me once when I went to Worthing there would be a Chess club that I could join, and Miss Bell really, really, refined my accruement in the game so to speak; to straighten out some of those rules that I made not have had straight at the beginning, teaching me my very elementary, elementary forms of strategy, and tactics, through the club.
NC: And would you please name some of the members of the club?
RG: Elmo Jackson, ultimately these are persons whose, who were my teammates for the tournament that we were to join, to desegregate. Elmo Jackson, Ollie Polk, Eddie Jones, myself, Johnnie Johnson, he wasn’t on the team, but he was a member of that club, persons I can remember early on.
NC: And do you still keep in touch with any of them, or can you tell us where some of them have gone.
RG: Unfortunately I don’t know where any, I know one is deceased, early on his sophomore year he perished in a fire at, at a Dillard, in Louisiana, that was Eddie Jones. And the others, I only saw one since, since that time, well one I was in competition with in number sense, and, Elmo, with Elmo, and later I saw him shortly after I completed my education at the University of Texas in Austin, I saw him out and about, and he just returned from a tour of duty in Turkey, but we are talking, we are really talking 19…1970’s, early 70’s was the last I saw, I made many attempts to reach the other three, to no avail.
NC: And so, getting back to your Chess club, you were in a club, and your club entered into a tournament.
NC: Would you please explain that tournament.
RG: Yes, it was a Chess tournament as you said, the Houston high school Chess tournament, it was a perennial tournament, except no African Americans participated in that tournament and again it was just the same, just the times of segra…segregated times and the _____segregation was very much still, well de facto desegregation at that point, or segregation in practice was in to play. The Houston high school have not desegregated, yet, either a suit had just filed in ’59, “The Ross” case here in Houston, and what was decided they would desegregate a year at a time, a very slow process starting with the first grade. So at that point, we had entered the Chess tournament, here, locally, the schools were not desegregated, or integrated, but we entered, we dared our Chess teacher, coach, Miss Aranita Bell, a lot of credit has to go to her courage, she dared to enter us into the tournament, and there it was we enter the tournament December, the record shows December the 17th, 1961, a tournament that was to go all the way, to be played at Saint Thomas high school, that still exists on Memorial, on the second floor in its library every other week for the duration of that Spring semester through May 13th, 1962.
NC: And a, Wow! So your team, Chess team, was the first to desegregate this perennial Chess, high school Chess tournament?
RG: Absolutely, and what I would like to add, it was the first high school, high school Black – White competition, ever, in the city of Houston, at the high school level.
NC: “Ever,” when you say that going cross all…
RG: All activities.
NC: All activates, Football?
RG: You name it.
NC: Ski Club?
NC: Not too many ski clubs in Houston.
RG: But there are some, but your right, your point is well made, it was the first Black-White desegregated high school competition in the city of Houston, and it was a Chess tournament.
NC: Let me ask you; was it easy for you to be there?
RG: No. No. No it wasn’t, and let me qualify that “No.” No one was calling us the “N” word anything like that at the tournament, it was just a foreign experience for us because I think it had, in large part to do with the mores of the time, and the attitudes of the time, and the thinking, basic thinking that Black people were inferior, some how, inferior to White people. Black people were some how not as good looking as White people, Black people were not as morally equipped as White people, and all those stereo types no one was truly free of them. But to my community’s credit, the community of Sunnyside, and my parents credit, we were always taught that we were second to none in my house, so that reinforced me a great deal where doubt otherwise could have just, devastated me, but it didn’t; and a strong belief in God, would provide.
RG: But yes, there were those butterflies that probably just come natural from competition, but also there was that under gurting feeling of, do we belong here? Much like in Evictus, the new movie, when Nelson Mandela, President Mandela was elected a president, can he run a country? And that was a questioned we answered, and I say we answered it quit well; we won 7 out of 9 of the matches against all White, my teammates,
RG: I was a freshman, my other teammates, the other three were merely sophomores and we were defeating juniors and seniors. And so that question was answered, did we win the whole tournament out right? No. Were we disappointed? Being children, yes. But the larger victory was, we were able to really dispel the myth that African Americans were intellectually inferior, with a game that…this university thought to be a thinking man’s game. So we proved that Black people could think as well as anyone else.
NC: Good afternoon.
RG: And good afternoon again Nicolas, Oh, what I was saying, it’s important to note we placed third, we were part of the winner’s circle, in this thing. We won seven out of nine matches, in that particular tournament. I was remised, I would be remised not to mention Robert Bregger, who was the tournament director, and he was extremely instrumental in getting us into the tournament the first, in the first place. Matter of fact, during the organizing meeting, we didn’t attend, the organizing meeting, I think he went as our representative, to say the school called Worthing [Houston Independent School District] wants to enter, and I have their paperwork for them; because of fear that we would show our hands that we were African American school, and certainly we probably would have not been admitted, or they probably would not have the tournament. So, simply what we did on that January, I think it was January 7th, or January 14th for that first match, we just simply showed up, to Saint Thomas’ high school second floor library to play the first match against Lamar high school, who we did defeat.
NC: Let me ask just for the record, does this tournament have a name?
RG: The Houston high school Chess tournament.
NC: Ok, I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t the “Super Bowl” or you know, the Meineke Gold Man…
RG: The Houston high school Chess tournament, and it was well chronicled by the “Houston Chronicle” each time we had a match, George Smith was the Chess reporter at the time, and he wrote extensively about that tournament, it’s well documented.
NC: Ok, now, we want to talk about some of your teammates, club-mates, people that participated with you in the tournament, so just begin anywhere you like.
RG: Well Elmo and I, I had great respect for all of them, and they probably my greatest respect though, was for Elmo Jackson. I saw him as our de facto leader. When I say de facto leader, he didn’t say I am the leader, and we didn’t say that we would have a leader. Certainly, he in his own right, he was our best player, and its indicated on the trophy that we did receive when they listed our names, that he was right at the top and rightfully so. They listed us according to our tournament records, Elmo was first, I was second, and Ollie Polk was third, and Ed Jones was fourth on there, but it took a team, it took a team, and all our efforts to achieve what we did achieve in that tournament.
RG: Elmo was a pretty store type, very quit spoken person, but a fierce competitor as history has shown. Quickly, about Elmo, I was…years later meet him another type of competition, Mathematics competition through the UIL, University Interscholastic League, at that time, and he defeated me for first place, once he was out of the picture the subsequent years, I became the champion because I had been, because my knives had been sharpen with my experience with Elmo.
RG: And then there was Ollie, Ollie Polk small is stature, but a mental giant, I tell you he’s a mental giant. All three of these fellows, as I said, they were a year ahead of me, in school. Ollie was full of laughter, he seemed a bit happy all the time. And he was just as gracious as I guess as any middle school or high-schooler can be, you know, back at that time, because we all pretty self-absorbed ___, in that day. Then there was, who I believe was Eddie, yeah, what I used to liked about Eddie, in a tournament, you could kind of look over peripheral, you see Eddie holding up his opponents knight, or his opponents rook Chess pieces as he was gaining sometimes, he was, Eddie was pretty affable man, his lose was truly missed. He is the one that perished in a fire at Dillard, in Louisiana, University, it was in his sophomore year.
NC: Let me ask, so you attended this tournament in 1962…
NC: Was there…did you attend the following year?
RG: No. It is an interesting thing, I am glad you asked that question Nicolas, we didn’t know where the tournament was the following year, we don’t even know if it…if they played it anymore after that year. Never heard anything else, we couldn’t find.
NC: In subsequent years, have never heard about another Houston high school Chess tournament.
RG: No, high school Chess tournament, I have not, that is not to say that they have not played but…but I haven’t.
NC: Let me ask, so, ok, and after this you are a high school student, and you go through high school, and you are in Houston…where do you go from here?
RG: Ok, I am glad you asked, can I say this, quickly, around, about that tournament?
NC: Anything you want.
RG: After we entered, the first school we played, and defeated was Lamar high school, the ___frogs. Well, that in itself says, about River Oaks, a very wealthy, wealthy area. Parents, some parents began to complain, and apply pressure to the school district, the tournament got restructured, is what I am trying to say. What I mean by “got restructured,” in the sense, a couple of schools pulled out, Jeff Davis being one. Jeff Davis is who we would have played next, but that was never to be, they didn’t show up, they ended up forfeiting the match. And the irony about it about Jeff Davis, Jeff Davis had demonstrated that they had a very, very strong team. They had defeated Saint Thomas, the whole school, seven to one, out of a possible eight points, that very first match. They were to meet us the second match, and they did not show.
RG: Then there was Lamar high school, of River Oaks, who we did defeat, they pulled out of the tournament, too, so other schools didn’t get an opportunity to play them, to play them either. Out of the three, the first, second, and third place winners, we Worthing, we played more matches than Kincaid, and Jesse Jones, and that is not to take anything away from those two schools, but it is a matter, it should be said that that, that is relevant in that case.
RG: We were pressured, we were asked by our principal Mr. A. E. Norton of Worthing high school to, the district had asked him, or someone had asked him to ask us to withdrawal from the tournament, or if we wouldn’t withdrawal, which we didn’t, to change our names. Many schools who remained in the tournament, what I mean by restructuring, they changed their area names, for example, I think Waltrip became Northwest, Austin high school ___ became Northeast. But we remained Worthing, and we said we came to this tournament as Worthing we will remain Worthing, and like a tree standing by the water, certainly we had been influenced by the movement too, we shall not be moved, was our basic attitude.
RG: To our principal’s credit, Mr. Norton, he respected our position, and allowed us to continue to participate, under the name of Even E. Worthing high school, and remain in the tournament.
NC: And did you have, earlier you were talking about some of the language that went behind, with some of the parents, do you want to recall that, or talk about some of the parents felt competing against Worthing.
RG: Well, I mean, parents, and the communities, especially, it was quoted in the paper, and they were really never identified we could only just imagine they may have, they didn’t like the direction the tournament was going in, they didn’t like some of the players in the tournament. Therefore they were not allowing their children to participate. And as I said, two schools did pull out, Lamar, only after we had beaten them. You could only speculate…well we beat them, and they pulled out of the tournament. Jeff Davis did not show up to play us, for that second round, we were schedule for that second round to play each other.
NC: Let me ask, is Worthing high school still Worthing high school, did it change its name?
RG: No, Worthing high school to this day still exists as.
NC: In Houston?
RG: The green and gold, they still exist.
NC: All right.
RG: They are just in a different building than the building we started out in, and during the time of the tournament, but they still exist.
NC: Do you, can you recall the address…
RG: And what I mean change the name’s of schools, they changed there names to the area names for the tournament.
RG: Austin high school still exists, Waltrip still exists. I didn’t mean to mis-speak or… mis…mis-represent.
NC: The school’s representation on the card of the tournament…
RG: For the tournament, yes, they changed...after the tournament was in progress, and we feel that it had a lot to do with the fact that this African American school, in African, all African American team, had entered this tournament, and when I talked to Mr. Bregger, I saw him years later in another tournament, and I just asked him about those days and about those times. And he said, “Yes,” he had been asked by Houston Independent School District officials under what authority did you allow, since he was tournament director, these Blacks in this tournament, this Black school in this tournament, and he said his response was “Under the authority of the United States Chess Federation rules and regulations,” he told me that many years later. And hats off to Robert Bregger.