Hurdling Over the Obstacles
If you flip through the Tufts yearbook for 1953, you’ll probably notice Robert C. “Bob” Jones. He’s the only Black student in the graduating class.
But he’s not just in the senior class portraits—you’ll see his photo sprinkled throughout the yearbook. He was a track and field star for four years, too—and involved in student government and other activities, all in addition to holding down jobs to pay his way through college.
His is the story of growing up Black in Boston in the 1930s and 1940s, making it to college despite the odds, overcoming obstacles to become a teacher in Brockton, and ultimately becoming superintendent of schools there, desegregating the school system in the mid-1990s.
Now Jones is retired and living in South Easton, Massachusetts. He spoke recently with Tufts Now about growing up in the Boston area, his journey to Tufts College in 1949, his life as an educator and administrator—and as a Black man living in a rapidly changing world.
As a youngster, Jones’ family would travel in the summer to his mother’s birthplace, Robersonville, North Carolina, while his father worked as a cook at a Cape Cod resort, Stoneleigh Gables, near the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port.
We would ride the train from South Station to Washington, D.C., getting off to connect with one going south. The white conductor always shouted a racial slur at us all while ordering us to go to the cocktail car. There were no regular seats there, so the women and children sat on bar stools or on the floor. Men and boys stood up.
I asked my mom, when I was 5 years old, “Why do we have to sit in here? They have seats in other parts of the train.” She would say, “This is how colored folks are treated in the South.” That’s what it was like traveling “going home.”
These trips opened up my eyes to how Blacks were regarded in the South. Once when I wanted an ice cream cone, my older brother and I went to the local drugstore where I said to the clerk, “I want a vanilla ice cream with jimmies on it.” The guy looked down at me and said, “What?” I said, “I’d like an ice cream with jimmies on it.”
He said, “Don’t you know you’ve got to go around to the back?” I said, “Why? The ice cream is right there in front of you.” “Get around to the back,” he said. My brother grabbed me by the collar and he said, “Come on. Don’t you know? Down here, Blacks don’t eat with whites.” Coming from up North, that was another eye opener for young me.
Jones and his family—two brothers and a baby sister—moved to Brockton in 1941, after a decade in Boston.
We moved on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th, in an open truck carrying our furniture and us three boys. At 10 years old, I cried the whole way, because I was leaving my friends in Boston.
At that time, Brockton had about 60,000 people, of which 2,000 or so were Black. Most of them lived on the East Side of the city; many of the adults worked in the shoe or garment factories.
At Brockton High School, there were three tracks for all students: commercial, mechanical, and college bound, where I was the only Black student in the 1949 class.
I recall one Spanish teacher, in her class of 12 students, mostly sons and daughters of Brockton professionals, asking us to stand and tell where as seniors we applied to attend college.
Kids were going to Harvard, Brown, BU, etc. I said I’d applied to UPenn. She said, “You’ll never make it. Sit down.” I went to another teacher—we didn’t have guidance counselors then—and told her about my plans for UPenn. “Don’t bother,” she said. “You’ll make a good mechanic.”
Jones was ultimately accepted at Tufts College, as it was then known, after being recruited by Clarence “Ding” Dussault, the Tufts track and field coach who saw him competing at a New England high school competition at Brown University, representing Brockton High School.
While working in a restaurant in Hyannis, my mother called me and said, “Bobby, there’s a letter here from Tufts College. Shall I open it?” “No,” I replied, “I want to open it myself.”
I didn’t have enough money to take a bus from the Cape, so I thumbed home. When I opened the Tufts envelope, I recall it said, “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted.” Now I had to hustle for tuition—I didn’t have a dime to my name.
I got a job in a local factory, then called Franklin Sports, making kids’ footballs for 50 cents an hour, from July through early September. I was able to save enough for my first semester’s tuition of $500.
The railroad station was only a half a mile away from my home. Every morning I’d catch the 6 o’clock coal-burning train for an hour-long trip to South Station, transfer to North Station, go to Lechmere in Somerville, and then catch a bus to Medford—two hours each way, every day. On Saturday and Sunday nights I worked with my father in a local diner to pay for transportation.
My freshman year, Ding got me a room for the weekdays with Mrs. Edward Dugger, the matriarch of a well-known family in West Medford. Her son, Eddie Dugger, had been a great hurdler for Tufts before my time. His sisters and brother Courtland also attended Tufts.
Thinking he might become a dentist or doctor, Jones took science-heavy coursework for three years. He thrived in Romance languages, but eventually switched his biochemistry major to obtain a degree in sociology.
I had a good sophomore year, after being put on probation for failing math and physics in my freshman year. I started working at Metcalf Hall, the dorm for Jackson girls, peeling carrots and potatoes every morning from 5 to 7 a.m., then off to an 8 a.m. class.
It was grueling—early work, classes, lab, and track practice. I tried to hold my own—there was no guidance taking pre-med courses. However, I also took the classics and Romance languages, Spanish and French, focusing on history and culture. I learned enough French, for example, to dream in that language. Several of my professors were recent Ph.D. graduates of the Ivies, and survivors of World War II.
A standout member of the Jumbo track team, Jones and teammates Jack Goldberg and Clayton Williamson were selected to represent New England track and field in the 1952 U.S. Olympic tryouts in Los Angeles, California.
My teammates Andy Howitt, Jack Goldberg, our pole vaulter Clayton Williamson, and I dominated track and field for our four years at Tufts. Until Jack passed away recently, we had been in contact with each other.
To reach Los Angeles, Jack’s uncle had given him a 1937 convertible. It might have been a Chevy. Five days later, we arrived in Long Beach, California to stay with a Harvard hurdler’s mother. You could imagine three young New Englanders living for a month steps away from the warm Pacific Ocean. We spent time at the beach, not practicing much for our events.
The tryouts were at USC, I recall. Jack ran the hurdles. Clay did the pole vault, and I participated in the high jump and the hop, skip, and jump—now called the triple jump. We were competing against guys from all over the country.
This was the first time in the Olympics for the hop, skip, and jump event. I was second in New England to Sal Mazzoca, a Northeastern student in that event, and came in ninth at the tryouts. I recall being 14th in the high jump.
After the events were over, the three of us took turns driving from L.A., through the Mojave Desert. The car broke down in Gila Bend, Arizona. Clay ended up hitchhiking home from there, making a paper sign that said "To Boston." With a replacement part that took overnight to obtain and be installed, Jack and I continued on until St. Louis, Missouri. We were struggling up a hill when the convertible quit running. We coasted to a garage, but the motor was gone.
Jack sold it for junk. Jack's father wired him money to fly home from St. Louis. I had seven bucks, so I thumbed home, also holding a sign that said "To Boston," taking five days, riding in cars and big trucks. Finally arriving in Philadelphia where my brother lived, I borrowed enough to catch a train home.
Jones paid his way through Tufts with a modest state scholarship of $300, a donation of $100 for his first semester from a Brockton merchant and working in the diner for $10 per weekend.
I didn’t ask my parents for a dime for school. When I was a junior, a classmate from Alabama had gotten a part-time job washing windows the Batterymarch Building in the financial district in downtown Boston.
When he decided to quit, he asked me if I wanted to take his place. I said sure. He worked weekends and Friday evenings. In cold weather, he added alcohol to the washing solution. I washed large windows—they extended outward, horizontally reachable with a sponge and squeegee. That’s how I supported myself my junior and senior years.
He went looking for jobs after graduation—but ran into the same response every time he showed up in person for an interview.
I tried to get a job in Boston like a lot of my Tufts classmates, who were going to workplaces like Edison and New England Telephone.
I’d get an offer for a job interview, and bring my suit in a garment bag to work, and during lunch break after changing out of my maintenance uniform, I would hustle to an interview.
Often the executive interviewing me would say, “You’ve got a nice resume, Mr. Jones. You’re a Tufts man, just the kind person we’re looking for. Give me a few days and we’ll call you back.”
I’m still waiting for those call backs!
In the meantime, I married, had a son, and continued washing windows, and enrolled at BU to work on a master’s degree in Romance languages.
One day while in Brockton, I saw Ding, who mistook me for Reggie Alleyne, another Black track teammate. After asking me what I was doing for work, he suggested teaching as a profession. I give him credit for leading me in that direction.
I applied for a teaching position in the Brockton public school system. I was quite well known there for track.
The superintendent said to me in the interview, “I’m sorry, Bob, but you have to have a master’s degree.” However, I knew several of my high school classmates who were teaching and only had bachelor’s degrees from local colleges, like Stonehill College. I thought to myself, “OK, here we go again.”
For the next few years, he washed windows, left the BU program, divorced, moved back to Brockton, worked the midnight to 8 a.m. shift as a psychiatric nursing assistant in the newly built VA hospital in Brockton. He enrolled at Bridgewater State to earn an M.Ed. in psychology and guidance. After graduating, he landed a job teaching in one of the four junior high schools in town.
I started at North Junior High School in 1960. I introduced myself to the assistant principal, who said to me, “I hope you have a thick skin.” Hmmm, I said to myself—what does he mean by that comment?
I was assigned the slowest kids, teaching five different subjects—history, mathematics, health, English, and science. The assistant principal made the teacher’s schedule.
By the fourth year, the principal, Paul Ford, a Navy lieutenant commander in World War II, recognized my teaching abilities, and selected me to be his assistant.
Four years later, I competed and was selected to assist the deputy superintendent in the building of a new high school complex to replace the old high school, built in 1915. His first task was to equip the building complex with new furniture and equipment, following Massachusetts bid process requirements. I also became the liaison among the contractor, architect, and educators.
Meanwhile, a few years later, Jones was asked to join a committee at the high school tasked with improving language instruction in the schools.
I walked in a committee meeting, and who was there but the two teachers who had told me as a high school senior “not to bother” with applying to colleges. Their mouths fell open when they saw me. And here’s their hypocrisy—they said, “Bob, good to see you, how’ve you been? You did so well here”—even though they tried to put me down.
While the new Brockton High School was being built, he was asked to recruit high school teachers. He visited Black colleges in Delaware and Washington, D.C. All told, he helped bring about 140 new teachers into the school system. After a long career in administration—managing the annual budget, negotiating non-certified personnel contracts, supervising school police, custodians, and cafeteria workers for 34 years, he decided in his early 60s to retire. But it wasn’t to be.
The mayor at the time called me and asked, “Bob, have you thought about becoming a superintendent?” I said, “Hell, no. I’ve had enough of the school committee and City Council beating me up at times as a lead administrator. I don’t need more of that.” He said, “Well, think about it.”
I always liked a challenge, so after a weekend of thought, I called him and said, “Why the hell not? I’ll give it my best shot.”
The reason he wanted me was because the state Board of Education was ready to take over the Brockton Public Schools. This was around 1993, when the school committee had debated for eight years how to implement a plan to desegregate the five elementary schools. Different buildings badly needed replacing, too—some were built in the late 1800s.
After a so-called nationwide recruitment for a superintendent, the search consultant recommended me, and the school committee reluctantly hired me on a contested 4-3 vote.
As an interim superintendent I had inherited a talented group of administrators who helped me put together a desegregation plan for the state Board of Education.
I had to present plan alone before John Silber, president at the time of BU, and several other prominent board members, one of whom told the school committee that we did not need to desegregate. Dr. Silber was tough—he and other board members asked me pointed questions. Eventually Dr. Silber said that my presentation was one of the best he’d heard. I walked out of the meeting floating on air.
We implemented the plan, which resulted in three new elementary schools, costing $28 million each for two identical schools and one costing a little more. The state reimbursed the city of Brockton 90% of the total cost. Two more schools were in the plan. They were constructed and occupied after I retired in 1997.
I got a lot done in my 37 years in the school system. It was a labor of love. I always had obstacles in my life, but I always figured out how to get over whatever was thrown in my way, whether it was discrimination or some school committee members who believed I was improperly selected and the search should have been continued.
After three years of hard work to bring the system up to date with computers, improved implementation of new digital systems to control the HVAC, school security, and teacher training, I decided to retire again, even without a contract. The mayor extolled my service and said I had left “quite a legacy.”
Subtle discrimination has long been an undercurrent in Jones’ life.
Boston, in my view, was the most segregated city in the country when I was growing up in Roxbury, and later in upper Roxbury. Its reputation has continued, especially amongst Black professionals, but it is changing now for the better for the minority populations.
As a teacher and administrator, I would go to the best restaurants, dressed to the nines, and get “the look” some places. Usually the maître d’ would take us to an area near the restrooms or by the swinging doors for the waitstaff.
It still happens today on occasion. Friends from Florida accompanied me to a local restaurant recently. The young hostess walked to the rear of a near empty room to a booth near the restrooms. I said to myself, “Goddammit, it’s happening again.” Sure enough, that’s where she was leading us. I told her here’s the booth we want, and we sat down. She did not know what to say.
I was in my 80s then, and my African American friends said to me, “Jesus, will this kind of treatment ever go away?” I said no, as long as my skin is brown, it’ll never go away. That’s my attitude to this day. I’m different from white people. I believe that their superior attitude is ingrained, passed from one generation to the next.
But things are changing. In my day, if you saw an African American on TV, they might’ve been shining someone’s shoes, a hotel chambermaid, a railroad porter, or a waiter. I have a positive attitude because when I see ads on TV now, there is a healthy mix of interracial families with beautiful kids. For me, that’s a thing of beauty to see. And that’s why I believe the country and the world are rapidly changing for the better.
Taylor McNeil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.