The Reconciliation

At around 2 p.m. on Good Friday afternoon a crowd gathered in and around a big white party tent set up on the grounds of the Camden Archives and Museum. As two quartets – one brass, one string – quietly warmed up, friends greeted each other, gazed expectantly at two tarpaulin-draped shapes, and read the inscriptions on the three large plaques mounted near the shapes. The city’s police was out in force, directing and diverting traffic and generally showing support of and pride in what was about to happen. The eyes of the state would be turned to the tiny inland town for something other than the Carolina Cup.

The man of the hour, though he would be loathe to admit it, was John Stringer Rainey. A native of Anderson, SC, Mr. Rainey moved to Camden in the 1970s. Best described as an unconventional Southern gentlemen, Mr. Rainey found it totally unacceptable that Camden had never chosen to honor two of  her hometown heroes, and decided he was just the man to rectify the situation. He commissioned sculptor Mariah Kirby-Smith to fashion statues of two of Camden’s finest: Bernard Baruch and Larry Doby. And they named the work “Reconciliation.”

I grew up in Camden, and had never heard of Bernard Baruch. I had only heard of Larry Doby because my paternal grandmother and his father were siblings, but all I knew was that he had played baseball for the Cleveland Indians. Not being a sports fan, that was neither here nor there to me. It wasn’t until Joseph Moore’s  biography of Larry,  “Pride Against Prejudice” was published in 1988 that I started to grasp his significance. Ten years later I watched as he was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame. During the induction ceremony they talked about his stats, which are pretty impressive. There was little emphasis placed on the fact that he was the first African American player in the American League. After all, he was Number Two: Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball 11 weeks earlier when he joined the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers.

Bernard Baruch was no slouch, either. Also a Camden native, his family moved to New York when he was 11 years old. After graduating from the City College of New York, Baruch purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and went on to advise  six U.S. presidents from Woodrow Wilson to John Kennedy.  In 1913 Baruch bestowed a monetary gift upon the city of Camden to build the Camden Hospital with the stipulation that a certain number of beds be reserved specifically for black patients.

I had the pleasure of visiting with Mr. Rainey the evening before the unveiling ceremony.  A soft-spoken Southern gentleman, it was obvious this has been a labor of love, celebrating the ground-breaking accomplishments of these two men. Of  Baruch he said, “He advised six presidents: both Democrat and Republican. Can you imagine that happening today?” And of Doby: “People think baseball is just a game. But what Doby and Robinson did was important. Baseball used to be America’s Game, and to see a black man interacting with white men on an equal footing – to normalize that – well, that laid the ground work that enabled Truman to integrate the Army, and the Civil Rights Movement, and everything that followed.”

I’m no student of history, and – as I’ve stated previously – no sports fan. But, since my visit with Mr. Rainey, I’ve thought a lot about what he said. I’ve viewed myself and my children as beneficiaries of Larry’s bravery, but never in the expansive fashion Mr. Rainey expressed. Two very ordinary men, doing something they loved and something in which they believed. In 1913, Baruch’s gift could well have been turned down because of the stipulation. I’m sure he knew that, but decided that was the right thing to do. Larry could have stayed in the Negro League, which provided him a living wage, but he decided to take the plunge.

These two men are good examples of how each of us, through our choices, impacts others. How a seemingly small decision today can have far-reaching implications in the future. When we reach across lines of race, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation/identity, religion,  or political affiliation we can choose to do so with an open hand or a fist. We know all too well the effect of fists. But the power of the open hand is immense.  In the weeks, months, and years to come, when people sit in front of  “Reconciliation” I hope they will be struck not by how different the two men are, but how much alike. Each, in his own way, has contributed so much to who and what we are today.  And how they complete the picture. Sit down and visit a while. Become a part of the Great Reconciliation.

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