His name was Ovette. During initial introductions at work he nervously added a syllable. Before meeting most of us he was already known as Overhead Jones. Add a bad eye and what my father called jive and we had a comical, non-threatening caricature that didn’t have a chance. Ovette Jones was stereotyped. In truth, his skin color provided all necessary ammunition for his designated place.
Being black in the South guarantees pigeonholing. Like most humans, we Southerners like things simple. Black people who are smart, industrious, and similar to us white folks are complicated. We need to be able to say, “You just can’t change ’em” or “They’re all alike.” Overhead Jones made that easy.
In reality, he was more like us than the “them” we stuck him with. Quick witted and smart, hard working and reliable, Ovette Jones fit in our world easy enough. He became like a lot of work friends but with a little extra distance built in. He joined our sports activities; basketball and softball especially. During one softball tournament he helped us make history.
The Alabama community of Fosters remains a dirt poor collection of small farms, scattered clapboard houses, and abandoned general stores. The locals hosted a softball tournament as a PTA fundraiser back in the late Seventies.
When our team arrived we were told Overhead Jones wouldn’t be allowed to participate. The former owner of the property conditionally donated it to the community. No black person could ever set foot on the playing field.
I am always puzzled by such things. How can a man hate someone he has never met to the extent he will take revenge on their children? Prohibiting little boys and girls from playing baseball seems to me to be about as hurtful a thing as a person can do. But I guess he had his reasons.
When we were informed of the rule, we weren’t interested in making any history or trying to do the right thing. Sadly, most weren’t even interested in supporting our teammate. We just didn’t have enough players without him.
One of the umpires was a close friend. He seemed madder than anyone about the situation. Ovette initially let it slide like he did most things back then. But Larry informed the folks running the show they couldn’t enforce such a rule and remain a sanctioned tournament. This would have immediately stopped all the games.
The tournament officials had a powwow and decided that having one “colored” guy on the field was better than canceling the whole event. We played seven nervous innings without problems and won the game. I never spoke with Ovette about the incident.
He had to work the rest of the weekend so we made no more political statements. I don’t know if we permanently broke the color barrier in Fosters or if they slunk back into the Dark Ages after the tournament was over.
I do know that Overhead Jones did everything in his power to obliterate the stereotyping of himself and other guys like him but it didn’t matter. Thirty years later things are less obvious but really haven’t changed that much. Different still comes hard in Dixie.