Times Past

Moving past racism with an open heart

Carol and Gordon Wilcher of San Luis Obispo are active in the social justice group at Mission San Luis Obispo.
Carol and Gordon Wilcher of San Luis Obispo are active in the social justice group at Mission San Luis Obispo.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” — Ezekiel 36:26.

 

Orlando.

Baton Rouge.

St. Paul.

Dallas.

Never have the words of the Prophet Ezekiel had more relevance to our land and its diverse peoples.

President Barack Obama referred to an “open heart” in his address in Dallas following the tragic murder of five police officers.

Across America, many have experienced a change of heart about racism that we could only imagine when Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

Georgetown University, a Jesuit school in Washington, D.C., was “saved” from bankruptcy in 1838 by selling 272 slaves “down the river,” separating families. Now, 178 years later, Georgetown is finally acknowledging this and wondering how it can make amends.

Gordon Wilcher is an example of a changed heart.

Wilcher grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where the Civil War began when cadets from The Citadel military college participated in the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. He didn’t know any black people as peers when he was growing up.

Raised Catholic, Wilcher grew up there in a “normal” white home.

“All my relatives depreciated blacks,” he said. “After our pastor announced that a black woman would be coming to church, most people, including my mother, moved over in the pews as far as possible to avoid her.”

Some Sunday afternoons, Wilcher drove while two of his friends searched for black girls to hit from behind with their BB guns.

Then, after high school, Wilcher discovered that, even as a laborer, he was making more than twice as much as black men with families who had been on the job for years. He realized something was wrong.

In 1952, Wilcher joined the Navy. He recalls that “after boot camp ... I went to a helicopter squadron in North Carolina. There was one black in HS-3. I was surprised that he would generally defeat me in a game of chess, which was a shock to my programmed ‘whites are smarter prejudiced thought.’ 

After his Navy hitch, he enrolled at The Citadel, which had a veterans program.

“Many of my boyhood friends were also students there, but there weren’t any females or black students,” he said.

Later, Wilcher took a course at the University of South Carolina.

“There were no black students, but the dorm janitors were all black,” he said. “I was very surprised when a janitor, hearing me playing a Beethoven symphony while cleaning my room, started talking about music with a good measure of knowledge.

“After college graduation, I went to work in D.C. for the Naval Oceanographic Office in a room half staffed by southern black college grads. Our first ship cruise went into Norfolk, Virginia, and of course the bar we went into would not serve a black fellow worker.”

During his annual two-week active duty in the Naval Air Reserve, “we would get up a pinochle game almost every night. I would be the partner of the black engine mechanic because none of the others wanted him as a partner, but he and I generally defeated the southern Maryland guys. He and I wound up as fairly good friends. Together, we dealt with the unpleasant job of ‘cosmolining,’ packing a large, cumbersome engine with heavy, smelly grease one evening because no one else would help him.”

These experiences transformed Wilcher’s attitude from youthful indifference and acceptance of Jim Crow into a compelling sense that interracial justice is essential morally and for our survival as a nation.

Before moving here, Carol and Gordon Wilcher lived in Ridgecrest. Their neighbor on the north side was James Thompson, a retired jet mechanic for the Navy. Later, their south side neighbor was Bill Glen, a civilian employee at China Lake Naval Air Station. Both men were black and friends of the Wilchers.

Wilcher’s blind father, Olin, was living with them. While smoking a pipe, his polyester shirt caught fire. Bill jumped over the fence and smothered the flames. Both men were badly burned and required hospitalization. Olin had to be airlifted to the burn center in Los Angeles, but Bill Glen’s heroism saved his life.

Today Gordon and Carol are active in the social justice group at Mission San Luis Obispo. They enrich our community.

Times Past is special to The Tribune. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library.

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