Oral History Interview with Jeremiah Gaines, Jr. Part 1 University Archives header Black History Oral Histories
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Oral History Interview with Jeremiah (Jerry) Gaines, Jr., class of 1971 Picture of Jeremiah Gaines, Jr. from 1971 Bugle

Date of Interview: March 28, 2003
Location of Interview: Media Building Sound Booth, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va
Interviewer: Tamara Kennelly
Transcriber: Philip Bartocci

Part One

[Tape 1, side 1]

Kennelly: Would you just begin by saying your name and what year you were a student here?

Gaines: Jerry Gaines, and I was here from 1967 to '71 and a little bit of '72.

Jeremiah Gaines, Jr.
Jerry Gaines when he was a student at Virginia Tech circa 1968

Kennelly: You're listed in the Bugle as being from Chesapeake Virginia. Is that where you were born?

Gaines: No, in the neighboring city--in Tidewater, Portsmouth, and it's just adjacent to Chesapeake, yes.

Kennelly: Would you tell me about your family?

Gaines: Well, I have two sisters and two brothers--two older sisters, an older brother and a younger brother, and the guys, at least, were the athletes of the family, and both of my brothers were professional athletes. One played professional baseball, and one played professional football.

Kennelly: What are their names?

Gaines: Jack and Gerald. Gerald did rather well at Western Carolina. He was an all American in three different sports, which was pretty good. And two sisters, Janice and Jackie. Janice is retired, and Jackie as well as my older brother Jack are now ministers.

Kennelly: What about your parents?

Gaines: Both deceased. As a matter of fact, we just had a funeral for my father yesterday.

Kennelly: I'm sorry.

Gaines: Not a problem.

Kennelly: What did your father do?

Gaines: He was retired, but he was a shipyard worker. In his day he was one of the old athletes as well, and he played baseball, and he also ran track up until he was almost ninety.

Kennelly: Wow, and where did he play baseball?

Gaines: He played--it was the equivalent, I guess, of the old Negro leagues, and so they played games in and around the area. He never played pro. That was a couple of years ago.

Kennelly: What team did he play for?

Gaines: There were no organized, formal, famous teams that were there at the time, so a lot of the names would be unrecognizable to anybody other than the players I guess.

Kennelly: Was your mother an athlete as well?

Gaines: Mom was not an athlete at least not during my lifetime. She was busy raising us, and that was full time, but prior to that no.

Kennelly: So did your mom work?

Gaines: No, mom just raised us. She was just a housewife, and she did a real good job of that.

Kennelly: That's a big job.

Gaines: Yes, it is indeed.

Kennelly: Did either of your parents go to college?

Gaines: My father did, because rules were different, and my mother went to Norfolk State. My father left tenth grade, and then went to Saint Paul's college where he played football for four years there out of tenth grade. Don't ask me how he pulled that off. I don't know, but he was able to do that back in the thirties.

Kennelly: As you say rules, rules were different. Did either of them get degrees?

Gaines: No. Neither did.

Kennelly: Did you grow up in an integrated community?

Gaines: I would say yes, it was integrated and segregated at the same time in that in the community there were different cultures white, black, oriental, but there were still limits as far as where you could and could not go. What you could do. There were still stores that you could shop at, and some that you couldn't.

Kennelly: Was that just sort of something that you grew up knowing, which ones you could go to?

Gaines: Yes, you learn after a while, and then a little bit later on, late in my high school years, that's when integration started in earnest, and all of those rules, of course, were dropped.

Kennelly: How did that happen? Was anyone you know involved in that, in changing that and going to perhaps a store that you wouldn't have gone to before?

Gaines: Actually, the first institutions were the schools, so that was where it was most evident initially. There was one black high school per city in the tidewater area where all the black students went--Crestwood in Chesapeake, and Norcom in Portsmouth, and Booker T. in Norfolk, and, with the changes, that black population spread all throughout the schools. I, for instance, went to the school in Chesapeake that was called Crestwood High through my junior year, and shortly after that, I spent my senior year at Churchland High School from where I graduated.

Kennelly: So in your senior year, you were integrating a white school, and what was the proportion of black to white students?

Gaines: Perhaps five percent black at that time. There were still a lot of black students in the neighborhood that were uncomfortable or skeptical about going to a predominately white school.

Kennelly: They chose to stay in the other school?

Gaines: They chose to stay. Yes.

Kennelly: How was that experience for you? It would be sort of hard in your senior year when usually you are kind of the kings in the school.

Gaines: What made it all tolerable was the ability to participate in sports, and even though you saw some of the [vices] that you normally saw out in the community in that arena, you could actually perform well. At least a few people would overlook the fact that you were a minority, but generally after you walked off the field, and you were in the halls or downtown, it was back to the same old rules again even after formal integration started.

Kennelly: Were there any particular incidents when you were in high school?

Gaines: There were always incidents, and you sort of lived with them. You didn't like them, but you felt almost helpless because it was a tough wall to break. You did what you had to do.

Kennelly: Were they violent or was it more subtle?

Gaines: Some were more overt than others. If you were walking down the street, it wasn't unusual to have things thrown at you. Things like that.

Kennelly: But on the other hand, when you were participating in sports for your school, the people would be cheering you, I suppose?

Gaines: Yes.

Kennelly: As a high school athlete, did you do quite well in high school too?

Gaines: I drew enough attention to be approached by the then coach of Virginia Tech, Marty Pushkin. He contacted me and asked me if I was interested in coming up, and as you may know, Tech at the time had no black athletes, so I guess I was supposed to be the experiment, a little bit of Jackie Robinson I guess.

Kennelly: Did he come and visit your family?

Gaines: He did not. He gave me an invitation to come and visit the school.

Kennelly: When you came, were you prepared for what your experience might be?

Gaines: This environment was so alien to me. Geographically, I had never seen the mountains. I had been all up and down the east coast, but I had never been west far enough to see mountains, so it was, for me, absolutely impossible to properly prepare myself for what I was going to experience here. The cultures here were different; the geography was different. I mean, college itself was going to be a different venue for me. I had never been to a college to spend any amount of time, so I was not--I was hardly prepared for what I saw.

Kennelly: Were you considering other schools as well at that time?

Gaines: There were a couple of other schools interested. I looked at Wake Forest for baseball and also football for the University of Maryland.

Kennelly: So you had a choice really?

Gaines: Yes.

Kennelly: Why did you choose Virginia Tech?

Gaines: I listened, and I read what the football recruits had to say about why they chose here when they had all the other options too, and again, I think a lot of the reason why I came here is Tech showed a lot of interest in me. So it made me a little more motivated to go out and say, "Okay, fine, if you show this kind of interest in me, I will see what I can do for you, and I will work this hard, and hopefully things will work out. It'll be a big deal for both of us."

Kennelly: You said the culture here was different. Could you say, talk about that, explain a bit more about what you mean by the culture being different than what you had grown up used to?

Gaines: Well, because Tidewater is pretty much a military area, there are a whole lot of people who are in and out, in and out getting stationed here and there. A high percentage of transient population, so here, when I got here, for the first time in my life, I met people who had never seen, in person, black people. People who had grown up and not in person, so to some, even my teammates, I was a curiosity. I thought that was rather strange because, technically speaking, I thought it was at least semi-modern times, and I thought everybody had had that kind of exposure, but I was wrong. There were those that lived in isolated communities for so long they just didn't know.

Kennelly: Would they express that to you?

Gaines: Yes, and not in a negative way. For the most part, it was not a bad thing at all. It was just a matter of fact. Especially amongst fellow team members who were quite open and honest about that sort of thing, but that's no reason to hold grudges against anybody. We were just ignorant of each other's cultures, I guess.

Kennelly: Did you have white friends before you came to Virginia Tech when you were in high school or in your neighborhood?

Gaines: From the time I was a little kid, it was one of the tributes we paid to my father. My father started the first little league baseball team in our area. There was none, and it was a little bit of a twist of fate because he packed us up and got us started and took us to the site of our first ball game, and the team we were playing was an all black team, and they refused to play us because we had two white players. These were guys that we had grown up playing with--a kid named Frankie, and one named Herbie, and my father said, "Well if they don't play, we don't play," and so he packed us all up. We went back home, and he divided the team subsequently into two parts, and he put one of the white kids on one team, and one on the other, and we played each other every Saturday. But that changed rather quickly, and after a while everybody started playing us.

Kennelly: Do you think it was the adults or the kids who made the decision? I bet in that situation it was the adults who made the decision.

Gaines: It was. The kids wouldn't have minded I don't think, as kids don't tend to mind in sports. I mean it was just little league, so the adults were calling the shots, and it's a kind of story you don't generally hear. It's a little bit of a reverse story.

Kennelly: So those couple kids were kids that you probably played ball with a lot and hung out with?

Gaines: Yeah, and they were two kids from just down the street.

Kennelly: So would you go to their house, and they go to your house and stuff like that?

Gaines: Yes, that wasn't a problem, and at the time we were so poor. These guys had a little bit of money (their families did), so they had camping equipment--tents and all that, so they made great friends 'cause we didn't have anything like that. A tent to us was a blanket over the clothesline.

Kennelly: Were you living in the city?

Gaines: At the time, Chesapeake was not even a city. It was more Norfolk County. It was very rural, and you didn't, for instance, get roller skates for Christmas because there was no place smooth enough to roller skate on. Nobody had a driveway, and the roads were paved with rough gravel, so you couldn't roller skate on them either.

Kennelly: Did you have like a house? You lived in your own single-family house?

Gaines: Yes. There were single-family dwellings. The home I was raised in was actually--at the front was a store, and the back of it was the house that we lived in, which had three rooms.

Kennelly: Did you have a garden back there?

Gaines: Everybody had gardens then. Everybody did.

Kennelly: So you could get some of your food that way?

Gaines: Yes.

Kennelly: Were you or your parents politically active before you came to Tech in any civil rights organizations?

Gaines: None. My parents were just more concerned about things being done right. They were two very righteous people, and that's what they taught us. So that's what we grew up with, and that's what we got to be. I don't think it is real sophisticated. Everybody wants to make "Chinese Calculus" out of doing the right thing. It's not really all that hard. People are people, and you treat them as such. That's not always the viewpoint of everyone, but you don't go around with a grudge against people who may be ignorant about the humanity of others.

Kennelly: Was church important to your family?

Gaines: Church was always important. Yes. It was part of the "do the right thing" attitude. It was what we knew. We grew up with it. To this day, it is still true. My parents had five of us, and each of us, in one capacity or another, has been involved in a lay type of ministry. I'm an educator, and that's my ministry, and I have a sister and a brother in ministry, and another one in jail ministry. That's what they do. Another sister was a social worker for thirty years. She worked with kids.

Kennelly: So what would they tell you to do if someone was throwing something at you when you were a kid? Did they ever counsel you on how to handle things?

Gaines: They didn't really ever formally sit us down and tell us how to do that. It was just something I guess we knew. We had enough grit to not take a whole lot of nonsense. I mean don't be abused. Be tolerant, be patient, but don't take a lot of abuse. Fortunately at the time there was a lot of innocence and ignorance, and we didn't really experience a lot of that. What may have been there, a lot of what may have been there, we may have been blissfully ignorant about. You just went on and did your thing. All we knew was climbing trees and jumping ditches.

Kennelly: Were there any articles, or books, or films, or speeches, theater that influenced your thinking about race relations that come to mind?

Gaines: I would say no. Like I said, my parents were my role models. So we watched them closely as far as how they treated people, and that's how we treated people. We, of course, had the traditional people that you studied in history books. The Ralph Bunches and Jackie Robinsons of the world. Of course, we knew those, but they were distant names to us--nobody that we could really identify with. If we wanted people that we could closely identify with, it was generally our parents or uncle so and so up the street who did this, that, or the other and got famous or infamous. I guess all of us knew someone like that, but as far as formal political activism, no.

Kennelly: So there wasn't--you didn't have a hero as far as Civil Rights goes?

Gaines: No. Jackie Robinson and maybe other few sports people. Joe Lewis maybe.

Part One - Part Two - Part Three

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Last Updated on: Tuesday, 01-May-2001 10:41:24 EDT