Earlier this year, the groundbreaking 1987 documentary “Eyes on the Prize” returned to PBS. It covered the history of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1965 and was nominated for an Oscar, winning a number of Emmy and Peabody awards.
What many don’t know is that Hampton was Catholic, having converted as a child with his family in the 1940s as a result of Archbishop Joseph Ritter’s staunch anti-racism efforts in Hampton’s hometown of St. Louis.
Below is a poem from John S. Taylor recounting his chance encounter with Hampton and another young Black man in their Catholic school days and beyond.
He came to my home
Hey Snowball! so my friends
taunted the nine-year-old boy
just a kid, not at all a menace
ending his day at Little Flower
heading for his home in the same hour
I had spoken to the kid before
we lived in the same direction
across the bridge spanning highway forty
he on his way to the colored neighborhood
I on my way to play with my dog
Kerry was his name, not Snowball
Kerry was very black, hence the taunt
but he was just a kid, doing what kids do
playing in the schoolyard, bouncing his ball
Not a menace to anyone at all
Hey Snowball! they called again.
Eighth graders thinking the world was ours
Graduating soon, heading for high schools of choice
Confident of the future because the present was secure
Little did we know how quickly we’d be forced to mature
Leave him alone, words stumbled from my mouth
He’s just a kid, leave him alone.
Kerry and I walked together, not saying much
we did not have a lot in common,
age and color set us apart
At the corner in front of my home, we split
Kerry to his home on Laclede Station Rd
me to my front door and my dog, King
I didn’t dwell much on the taunts of my friends
Nor did our walking together, I thought, mean much in the end
A few hours later there was a knock on my front door
My dad answered and then called loudly, “John
someone wants to speak to you.”
Standing on my front porch was a young black man
He looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure what to expect right then
The young man said to me, you just walked with Kerry, right?
Yes, I responded, a bit nervous that maybe I did something wrong.
Hi, my name is Henry Hampton. I live on the same block with Kerry.
Kerry told me what you did, what you said, I just wanted to say
thank you for speaking up for him today.
It was eleven years later that I met Kerry the man.
I had just gotten out of the army, shooting hoops at Little Flower again
In those years, the black community had spread beyond Laclede
and Little Flower was now the place
of many games regardless of race
On one late afternoon, I, with a shorter fuse than I had
Before I last played basketball on the church court
got into a scuffle with two black youth, a few years younger than my twenty five.
They drew out their knives, and I knew what was next
Having seen this same anger played out in the barracks
Before damage could be done, a third young black man
said, “hey, put it away, he’s with me”
“yeah I’m with him” though I wasn’t sure what that meant
But in the army ‘any port in a storm’ was the motto
The knives disappeared, and they said, “sure, no problem bro”
I looked at the six foot three black man standing before me
though he looked familiar I just couldn’t place him
He said “You don’t remember me do you?”, before I could respond
he said “I’m Kerry, I never forgot what you did back then,
The brothers won’t bother you, I am your friend.”
John S. Taylor is a grandfather who was raised at Little Flower parish in St. Louis. Residing in Chicago since 1973, he served for 9 years with Catholic Relief Services and is currently employed in the TRIO program at Malcolm X College as an Academic Support Specialist. He is the father of two teachers and a husband to another, Meg Collins, to whom he has been married since 1975.