By Ulric Haynes Jr. ’52
Gil Roberts, custodian of the Lord Jeffery Amherst Club, would coax jazz melodies from his banjo.
When I was one of two black students in my class at Amherst, my close friend and adviser was not a schoolmate, nor a faculty member, nor a member of the administration. He was Amherst native Robert Gilbert “Gil” Roberts, custodian of The Lord Jeffery Amherst Club, an alternative social group open to all students not wishing to join a fraternity. Gil died in 2002 at 106 years of age, and it is to my deep regret that I never told him what a lasting role he played in my education.
When I came to Amherst, rigid racial segregation was the mostly unchallenged norm. Amherst accepted only two “Negro” students in each entering class (and we had to room together in our freshman year). Yet the presence on campus of recent veterans of World War II gave an unusual air of maturity to my class. This was also the time when Sen. Joseph McCarthy made it dangerous for any American to express “liberal” thoughts.
Our freshman year, my black friend and roommate, Kenneth A. Brown ’52, learned that his parents’ newly built home in a nice neighborhood of Warren, Ohio, had been bombed. Apparently, some whites in his town did not like the idea of a black physician and his family visibly improving their living condition. More than any other experience during my years at Amherst, this incident filled me with a helpless rage, of which most of my fellow students were completely unaware.
As a 16-year-old black freshman from Brooklyn, N.Y., I craved the guidance of someone with firsthand knowledge of Amherst, our nation and the world. Gil was that person. He had a remarkable ability to attend to his custodial duties with amazing speed and efficiency, leaving plenty of time in the late afternoon to lose himself playing the jazz banjo on the club’s back porch or in the furnace room. That’s where I would find him whenever I needed advice.
Many is the hour that I would sit transfixed, listening to Gil’s fingers coaxing one jazz melody after another from his banjo. Gil’s modesty never allowed him to indulge in bragging about traveling to some 20 countries around the world with Louis Armstrong’s band in the 1930s. Nor did he ever tell me that he had accompanied the legendary Josephine Baker at the Folies Bergère in Paris. Nor was there a hint of a boast that he had performed for Egyptian King Fu’ad I, who’d given Gil two ebony and ivory walking sticks. Indeed, Gil traveled so far and wide in the early 1930s that his daughter, Edythe, did not get to know her father until she was 7. Indeed, Gil was no ordinary Amherst custodian.
So great was Gil’s modesty that I never knew until recently that his Amherst town ancestors had fought and died in our Civil War as members of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and Connecticut’s 29th Colored Infantry. Nor did Gil ever tell me that he was an elder of the Montaukett Indian Nation of Long Island, N.Y.—one of several Native American tribes that had intermarried with freed and escaped black slaves.
When the Amherst track coach saw this long-legged black kid from Brooklyn, he immediately saw a future college track star. After seeing me run, he quickly abandoned that idea. I sought out Gil’s advice. He asked me in what sport I would like to compete. Bracing myself to be laughed at, I said, “Fencing.” Gil put his hand on my shoulder and replied, “Go for it. All they can say is ‘No.’” Fencing Coach Steve Rostas welcomed me, and soon I was an Amherst varsity fencer and letterman. “All they can say is ‘No’” became Gil’s mantra as I became an Amherst Masquer, a stalwart of the Glee Club and a member of the Chapel Choir.
Gil presided over the Jeff Club’s annual barbecue as both cook and primary source of entertainment. Competing with the various fraternity parties, our club party was the social event of the year. John A. Rounds ’53 would dig the barbecue pit and keep the coals burning while Gil supervised the turning of the side of beef on the spit. Ladies from Smith and Mount Holyoke vied for invitations to this event, which always concluded with a spectacular performance by Gil on the banjo.
From Gil, I learned the real meaning of the term “the dignity of labor” as I earned spare change cleaning stables at UMass and babysitting for faculty kids. From him, I developed the courage to be “different,” as Gil would gently remind me that the world would always see me as black. Most important, Gil taught me to be unafraid to be a pioneer: All they can say is “No.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Algeria, Haynes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Central Florida.
Photo courtesy of Edythe Harris