By Seth Daniel
Growing up as a young black man in the 1930s and 1940s was a very difficult in America – and in some parts of the country very dangerous.
These days, that reality of the past is universally accepted as the status quo everywhere, but there was one place that some – including the Grand Marshal of this weekend’s 125th Anniversary Parade – say was different and integrated, not closed and exclusive.
That place is and was Everett.
Walter Carrington, now of Newton, has presided over major cases – including the racial integration of the Boston Red Sox – and he’s stood up for American values on foreign soil – often at his own peril – as an ambassador for the United States, but this weekend, he will come back to his hometown of Everett to ride at the head of the City’s 125th Anniversary Parade as the Grand Marshal.
It’s an honor that the decorated and highly accomplished Harvard University graduate said took him by surprise and left him speechless.
“I was really overwhelmed when I learned I would be Grand Marshal because I still have a soft spot for Everett, because without Everett, I might not have become the person I became had I grown up in another place that wasn’t so accommodating,” he said. “To be remembered and honored like this is more than I can put to words. It’s a great honor to me.”
Carrington, 86, grew up in Everett during the 1930s and 1940s, recounted attending the Hancock School, the Hale School, Parlin Junior High School and Everett High.
In his neighborhood, he said he and his sister, Marilyn, were the only black kids on the block, but they never felt excluded by their Italian and Irish friends.
In fact, Carrington said he existed in a ‘racial cocoon’ growing up in Everett.
“Everett then was a very unique city,” he said. “We had a population of 50,000 and only about 50 black families and those black families were scattered throughout the city. There was no black area. It was very integrated. Later, I learned the National Urban League had done a study and found that Everett was the most integrated city of its kind in the country. I grew up in a very integrated community, which was unique for those times.
“In fact, I grew up in an area with mostly Irish and Italian kids,” he continued. “I was the only black and I would tell people I could swear in Italian with a Sicilian accent before I had ever learned to swear in English. It was a great place to grow up in the 1930s and 1940s. That gave me the ability to thrive and go on and do things I wanted to do.”
That cocoon, though, was not made of steel, and he recalled that his first lesson in discrimination came when Everett running back Chappy Walker – who was a star back at Boston College – was not allowed to travel with the Boston College team to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl in 1941. Having his hometown idol and hero turned away from the big game just for being black was a new idea to him at the time, he said.
However, back in Everett, he found he was provided a place to thrive academically.
He was very good on the Debate team and the Public Speaking team, where he teamed up with a young George Keverian to beat up on privileged teams like Boston Latin.
With mentors like Lt. Gov. Sumner Whittier and other important Everett folks in his corner, Carrington was able to participate in the Student Government day at the State House – where he made the Boston Post for proposing a “bill” that would lower the voting age.
He also was able to get onto a television show that featured young Boston students giving their opinions on current events.
Even his guidance counselors were extremely helpful to him, as opposed to many guidance counselors of that day who would steer talented black students away from college and into the trades or low-skill jobs.
In fact, Carrington said he wanted to go to Rutgers at the time, but his guidance counselor really wanted him to go to Harvard. One day a Harvard recruiter was at the old Everett High, and the counselor set up a special interview for him.
The recruiter was impressed, but Carrington needed to take an entrance exam – and quickly.
“It was coming up very shortly, so I actually had to skip my senior prom to prepare for that exam,” he said.
In the end, it all worked out well skipping the Prom, as Carrington embarked on a career at Harvard that was distinguished. He also continued debating and public speaking at the university, which at first was a challenge.
“In my freshman year, my greatest fear was competing against the other kids that had gone to private school,” he said. “I ended up finding out they weren’t much of a challenge and I could compete with them as well. That didn’t become a great problem for me…There’s no question about it; I think my preparation in Everett made all the difference in the world to me.”
After Harvard, and while still living in Everett, Carrington became the youngest commissioner ever on the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). At 27, he served on the MCAD and was charged with the case that eventually would force the Boston Red Sox to racially integrate.
The team was the only one in the major leagues that did not have a black player. Furthermore, Carrington said, the team wouldn’t even hire black people to work the lower level jobs at the Stadium.
A complaint had come into the MCAD from a black minor league player whom the Red Sox refused to bring into the majors.
That complaint landed on the young Carrington’s desk.
“As part of that case, I had to go down and interview Jackie Robinson,” said Carrington. “He had been given a try out in 1945 before he went to the Dodgers and the try out came under pressure from (a Boston City Councilor) and it was a sham tryout…I ended up finding probable cause and that sent it to the full Commission. Jackie Robinson had told me if they said they gave him a fair try out, they were a bunch of ‘(expletive) liars.’”
The case ended in a charge against the Red Sox, and forced them to begin hiring black workers at Fenway, and also to bring up the black player, “Pumpsie” Green, from the minor leagues.
Carrington also spent six years as an initial member of the Peace Corps in Africa, and he also was a U.S. Ambassador in Africa on two occasions.
However, a stint of four years in Nigeria as Ambassador was truly a life-changing, and life-threatening, stretch of service.
Facing a harsh military dictatorship, Carrington decided he would stand up for his values and for American values – things he learned to be dear to him while growing up in Everett. Speaking up was a dangerous thing, but he said he had been resolved to continue calling for democracy in Nigeria.
“That entire experience was something important for me and gave me a chance to speak up in defense of the values I believed in,” he said.
Later, after democracy came to the country of Nigeria, the government surprised Carrington by naming the diplomatic area of the capital after him.
Still today, the Water Carrington Crescent exists as the area where more than 12 diplomatic missions call their home in Lagos, Nigeria.
Carrington will lead Saturday’s parade, which starts at 4:30 p.m. and ends at the Stadium.