Life was transformed for young Floyd Jeter by a 1928 graduate of San Luis Obispo High.
"I'm the third generation born out of slavery. The first generation couldn't read or write. I had a half-black great-grandfather, and his own father owned him. Great-grandfather looked like an old white sharecropper!"
Jeter, 79, owner of Jeter's Messenger/Attorney Service in SLO since 1982, recalls his youth in Shreveport.
"In Louisiana when I was a child, blacks learned not to make eye contact with white people on the street and kept their heads down. It wasn't until 1994 in Mississippi that a white person, Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted for killing a black person, the civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963. Beckwith had bragged about it every day for years!
Jeter moved to Los Angeles in 1942, after his grandfather found work thanks to the war build-up. There was a big migration of backs from the Deep South, because even if you had little education, there was a need for painters, janitors, members of a crew. The Jeter family settled in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. It was a harmonious, multicultural salad bowl.
Jeter remembers, "Boyle Heights had such a variety of people, 30 nationalities represented at Roosevelt High in 1952 with Jews, Japanese, Italians, Armenians, Latinos, and blacks. Brooklyn Avenue was thriving. People from the west side might look down on these 'poor' kids, but since graduating from Roosevelt High, there was no place I could go where I wasn't comfortable, thanks to all the different backgrounds of my classmates.”
History turns a full circle with an early San Luis Obispo connection in Floyd's life. His track and field coach at Roosevelt High, Peter Clentzos, was born in 1909 to Greek parents in Oakland. A star pole vaulter at San Luis High, Clentzos received a scholarship to USC where he played football, varsity track and the pole vault. He tried out for the U.S. Olympic team in pole vaulting, but a fourth place finish in the trials kept him off the squad.
Invited to join the Greek team, he placed seventh in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Clentzos became a legendary coach at Roosevelt High. He was also one of the leading judges for track and field events in Southern California. Clentzos would scout for the best junior high players.
He especially noted Floyd's abilities. But Floyd was diagnosed with spinal scoliosis and was directed to the "4F gym group" at Roosevelt. When track season started, Clentzos inquired, "Where's Jeter?"
"I hadn't met Coach Clentzos on campus. When I did, I explained that I've got scoliosis and shouldn't be jumping. The coach said that was nonsense and I was on the team."
Jeter says, "I used to smoke, but quit so that I could jump."
Floyd Jeter recalls Clentzos saying to his players, "Just remember when you shoot for the moon and come up short, you are still among the stars!"
Floyd Jeter would become the second highest jumper in the world while at East Los Angeles Junior College. Coach Clentzos wanted Jeter to receive a track and field scholarship at USC, but Coach Jess Mortensen didn't want a black athlete at his school.
To be continued...
Notes to readers:
The ADL Cambria Community Forum on Diversity and Inclusivity will be held Feb. 5 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Cambria Center for the Arts, 1350 Main St., Cambria. It will be moderated by former SLO Police Chief Deborah Linden with author Catherine Ryan Hyde, Sheriff's Commander Jim Voge and Cal Poly professors Elizabeth Meyer and Dan Krieger.
Today is Super Bowl Sunday. Please support the Martin Luther King Scholarship BBQ and treat yourself to a fine chicken dinner. You can "take out" or "dine in" from noon to 3 p.m. at the Elks Lodge, 222 Elks Lane, SLO. The ticket price: $10 per meal.
Dan Krieger's column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association. Liz Krieger is a retired SLO City/County children's librarian.