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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man

Pieces of a Man

Marcus Baram

St. Martin's Press




On April 1, 1949, a cold, drizzling day, at Chicago's Provident Hospital, one of the first black hospitals in the country, Gilbert Scott-Heron was born to Bobbie Scott and Gillie St. Elmo Heron. She was a librarian with a wicked wit and a creative yearning who grew up in the small town of Jackson, Tennessee. He was a professional soccer player with a charming smile and a competitive streak who was born in Jamaica.

Bobbie's story evokes the journey of many African Americans in the Deep South. She was born in Jackson, a sleepy river town in western Tennessee, to Lillie Hamilton Scott and Robert William Scott, the second of their four children.

Bobbie, tall and graceful, was quietly observant and studious, with a sharp wit. She went to Lane College—a black school created in Jackson in 1882 for former slaves—where she flexed her literary skills. Assistant editor in chief of the school yearbook, she took classes in anthropology, history, linguistics, and international studies and graduated with a 4.9 grade point average. At age twenty-one, like millions of southern blacks who moved up north to take well-paying jobs and to escape the racism of the South, Bobbie headed north. In Chicago she moved in with her aunt Annabelle McKissack, a seamstress, and Annabelle's husband, James, a chauffeur.

On a night in 1947, just a few months after she had moved to Chicago, Bobbie met Gillie St. Elmo Heron at the Windy City Bowling Lanes. Gillie cut a stylish figure, favoring the high-waisted pants popular at the time and dancing to big band hits like Louis Jordan's "Is You Is or Isn't You Ain't My Baby?" At six feet tall, with a copper complexion, brownish-red hair, and hazel eyes, he was quite a ladies' man in the clubs.

He was impressed with Bobbie's slim figure, her razor-sharp wit, and her nonchalance about what he did for a living. It's not clear if she recognized his name at that moment, but she soon learned about his fame as the first African American to play professional soccer in the United States.

Gillie's journey to Chicago was a different migration from Bobbie's. He was born in Jamaica to a well-known family that traced its roots back to Scotland. Heron's lineage had its share of drama and tragedy familiar to many Caribbean people of African descent. His great-great-grandfather Alexander Heron left Wigtownshire in Scotland in 1790 for Jamaica to get rich in the slave trade. Three years later, he had a little land and owned a few slaves. By 1797, he had bought six hundred more acres and many more slaves on numerous coffee plantations, including Shooter's Hill and Cane Valley. The Scots were notoriously brutal slave owners, and better at making money in the trade than the English. Even after slavery was outlawed on the island and across the British Empire in 1834, the Herons employed hundreds of former slaves in near-slavery conditions.

The Herons could live up to the worst stereotypes of decadent slave owners, capable both of importing opera singers from Europe for private performances and of brutalizing blacks in sadistic ways. Alexander Heron's son, Alexander Woodburn Heron, who was known as the Captain, had two sons who shot down thirsty black farmers in separate incidents during a severe drought in 1897. As biographer Leslie Gordon Goffe relates, Walter Vivian Heron shot a man in the face, and shot and "disabled for life" another for drinking from his cattle pond. At the Shooter's Hill plantation, Herbert Hugh Heron, Walter's brother, confronted some black farmers taking water in buckets from the pond, but he was chased away. He came back the next day with a shotgun and shot one of the men, says family historian Richard Mitchell. The shooting was so shocking and cruel that it reverberated around the small island. Even the plantation owner's newspaper, the Gleaner, expressed outrage at the incidents, opining that it was "a pity there are men living whose ears are deaf to the cries of their fellow men in distress."

The Captain's first-born son, Charles Gilbert Heron, was cast out because he was a bastard child of his father's dalliance with a fifteen-year-old seamstress. Charles found work as a shopkeeper and fathered seventeen children with six different women, including a black woman named Kate, who was Gillie's grandmother. She raised Gillie's father, Walter Gilbert Heron, on her own, since Charles had left for Panama, where he had many other children and eventually died of yellow fever.

Walter Gilbert Heron wasn't much of a father, either. He sired children by several different women though he was married and spending money on horse racing and drinking. "He was a failure," says Mitchell. "His father was probably one of the richest people on the island and he lived off of that legacy." Eventually, his wife Lucille took their kids, including twelve-year-old Gillie, and left Walter in 1939, heading for the States, where she had relatives living in Cleveland.

Even at an early age, Gillie stood out for his athleticism. While still in junior high school, he once out-sprinted Henry McKinley, who later won Jamaica's first gold medal at the 1948 Olympics, in the 400-meter dash. In addition to running track in high school in Cleveland, Gillie was a talented boxer, making it to the semifinals of the Golden Gloves middleweight competition. But it was soccer that brought him fame and trouble. When he was only nine, he scored twenty-two goals in a twelve-game season, and then in high school he scored twenty-seven to lead his team into the league championship. During the Second World War, he served with the Royal Canadian Air Force, but always found time for sports. While stationed in London, he wrote letters home eagerly describing how he taught athletics and managed to find time to play soccer and baseball.

When Gillie returned to the States, he went to Detroit and joined tens of thousands of other young men working in the automobile plants. He took a job with the Hudson Motor Company, making forty-five dollars a week as a stock selector in a factory. But every day, he watched the clock, eagerly anticipating the closing whistle, when he could rush out to the soccer field and play in an amateur league. In 1945, he scored forty-four goals for Venetia, a team in the Detroit District Soccer League, and started to attract attention. When John MacInness, the manager of the Detroit Wolverines, a professional team, spotted him playing, he was impressed, calling Gillie "smart, just like a cat." On June 7, 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson made history and broke the color barrier in baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gillie did it in professional soccer when he was signed by the Detroit Wolverines. And he soon delivered, scoring three goals in his first game, against the Chicago Vikings.

Armed with a giant smile, a great sense of humor, fast legs, and a stubborn determination, Gillie took the professional soccer world by storm. The sport, though overshadowed by baseball and football, was experiencing a renaissance in the 1940s and '50s, with teams sprouting across the country from Pittsburgh to Portland. And the North American Soccer League was eagerly snatching up talented players, despite the fact that the sport was not nearly as common in high school and college athletics as it later became. The intense competition led teams to take risks that would shake up the segregated world of professional sports.

On a team full of white players, Heron made his debut with the Wolverines at Chicago's Comiskey Park in the first soccer game played under electric lights, scoring twice and impressing the hometown fans. But though he performed well, he started encountering the deep racism that dogged him throughout his professional career. While the faces of white players graced billboards all over the city, the ads never featured Heron, who was the top scorer in the league, with sixteen goals. He was also paid less than every other white player on the team. By the end of the season, however, the team had declared bankruptcy, and Heron was sold to the Chicago Maroons in 1947.

In Chicago, the audience was bigger and the stage was more prominent, but he still wasn't in the top tier when it came to getting paid. He was paid only thirty dollars a game when he came to Chicago, just five dollars more than he'd made in Detroit. In contrast, the Maroons' star, Pete Matevich, one of the highest-paid players in the world, was earning one hundred dollars a game. But to Heron, it was a paycheck, and he was getting paid to do something he loved.

Just as Jackie Robinson was spiked by racist white players on opposing baseball teams, Gillie was often kicked and pushed and bullied by opposing players. Even in Chicago, the overwhelmingly white hometown crowd would sometimes jeer and taunt him, calling him "blackie" and "nigger." Unlike Jackie Robinson, Heron didn't silently endure the punishment. He fought back and resisted every slight. In a game against Hansa, a German-American team, Gillie struck a halfback who had kicked him up and down the field for much of the game. He was ejected for brawling and suspended. Once, when officials ignored some opposing players' foul play, Gillie kicked the ball over a fence into Lake Michigan, notes biographer Goffe.

His feats on the field, slighted by the white press, were celebrated in African American newspapers and magazines, such as the Amsterdam News and the Chicago Defender. In July 1947, Gil was featured in an Ebony magazine profile. Called the "Babe Ruth of Soccer," Gillie struck a heroic pose, clutching a soccer ball in his right hand and looking sharp in a Detroit Wolverines jersey. Described as a "muscular, handsome 24-year-old," he was rated the top offensive player in the North American League. The Ebony writer breathlessly compared his sixteen goals in the previous season to hitting two home runs per game in eight consecutive games. In the coming season, the journalist wrote, Heron "will be watched by the fans much as baseball rooters keep an eye on home-run king Hank Greenberg."

Watching Gillie from the stands was Bobbie, his steady girlfriend by then, who glowed with pride but endlessly worried that he would be targeted by racist soccer fans. After games, she would look him in the eye and tell him to watch his temper, reminding him that black athletes in her hometown of Jackson were not allowed to play against whites. Gillie would smile, hold up his clenched fists, and tell her that she had nothing to worry about.

Bobbie became pregnant in the summer of 1948, and the couple married on August 20. She was twenty-two, and he was twenty-six. Though the trip was too long and expensive for her to attend the ceremony, Bobbie's mother, Lillie, gave her blessing to the union. But Gillie's mother, Lucille, was never happy with the relationship, upset that her caramel-skinned son had chosen a darker-skinned wife rather than marrying "out of color" (to a lighter-skinned or white wife), as some Jamaicans preferred.

Though the couple looks happy in some photographs during that period, they started bickering soon after moving in together. Gillie liked to go out late and party with friends. When he came home long after midnight, Bobbie would be waiting for him with a mouthful of sharp words, seething with anger. But Gillie didn't change his behavior. In fact, he expected her to be at home, cooking their meals and taking care of the baby while he lived the life he wanted. Their arguments grew more intense, and Gillie became violent on a few occasions, Bobbie would later tell their son. That was the last straw for Bobbie, and she started thinking about a life on her own.

Gillie's performance on the field was also suffering: he played poorly for Chicago Sparta, a team he joined in 1948 after playing for the Maroons, and he was not invited to participate in the U.S. Olympic soccer team trials. Though he scored the game-winner in his last match for the team on November 6, he was dropped by Sparta.

Out of work, off the front pages, and in a miserable marriage, Gillie was frustrated and ready for a change. He and Bobbie split up, though the circumstances have been much debated among family members. Gil (known as "Scotty") was raised to believe that his father abandoned the family, heading back to Detroit and leaving Bobbie alone with their baby. But some of the Herons have insisted that it was the opposite—unable to overcome their differences, Bobbie took Gil with her and left her husband. In his memoir, Gil sided with his mother but he painted a more flattering picture, claiming that his father left a year later, after he was offered a lucrative contract to play for one of the world's greatest soccer teams, the Scottish powerhouse Celtic. He did play for Celtic, but not before he had first moved back to Detroit, to the crowded Heron family home on Kenilworth Street. For two years, he played for the local amateur team, the Corinthians, with three of his brothers, Poley, Cecil, and Gerald, supplementing his income by working at the Hudson Motor Company painting cars for sixty dollars a week. It seemed that his life as a professional athlete was over, until he was given a second chance. When Chelsea toured the United States in 1951, one of the team's scouts heard about Gillie's exploits on the field, went to a Corinthians game, and was impressed with his performance. That summer, Gillie was invited to take part in a public tryout at Celtic Park in Glasgow, Scotland.

In July 1951, Gillie took a train to Montreal and departed aboard the SS Columbia for England with the third-class ticket that Celtic had sent him. Upon his arrival, he quickly realized how much bigger a stage he had stepped on, watching Celtic play Aberdeen before a crowd of one hundred thousand at Hampden Park. In his debut performance against Morton, Gillie won the game "almost singlehandedly," 2–0. He was quickly dubbed "Black Flash" and "Black Arrow" by fans and British sports reporters. Newspapers around the world, from the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times to papers in Canada and Australia, noted his debut. Black newspapers in the United States were bursting with pride, sometimes to the point of hyperbole—the Amsterdam News crowed that a million people had shown up to watch Gillie's debut when it was more like forty thousand. Gillie reveled in the attention, buying snazzy suits at the finest stores in Glasgow and posing for pictures in various trendy nightclubs.

Far from home, living the high life and playing on one of the top soccer teams in the world, Gillie wasn't ready to return to Detroit or to go back to his family. He didn't see his son again for almost twenty-five years.

Copyright © 2014 by Marcus Baram