I grew up in Oakland, but my family is originally from the South. My dad, Emerson Hollis, was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, but was raised in Saint Joseph, Missouri. My mom, Ruth, was born and raised in Youngsville, Louisiana. My grandparents, Rene and Nolia Richards, felt that moving to California would offer more stability for the family. This was largely due to the mass migration of black families from the South to the post-war opportunities in the west.
French Creole was my grandparent’s first language, but they always encouraged my siblings and I to only speak English. My mother met my father during World War II, and they married shortly after the war ended. They chose to settle in Oakland as well. My dad took a job at the Naval Supply Distribution Warehouse as a supervisor while my mom worked as a seamstress.
Times were very difficult for African Americans as they made their way from the South. Jobs were scarce, but my family made it by. The blue-collar jobs that existed were predominately centered at the shipyards, naval supply centers, and the canneries. Many African American’s settled in the government housing projects throughout West Oakland, and sports was the natural outlet for many of them. West Oakland was renowned for the athletes it produced. Names such as Frank Robinson, Bill Russell, Vada Pinson, Wendell Hayes, and Paul Silas were commonplace back then.
I was born to play sports and found myself immersed in the realm of athletics growing up. I can still remember my grandfather emphasizing baseball as a sport of choice, as he had barnstormed playing the game throughout Louisiana as a young man. He was a pitcher, and a great one, and would tell me stories of the games he played in. One such story was the time he hit a home run over the center-field fence in southern Louisiana. Behind the fence was a billboard with a large hole in the center with a sign that indicated that whoever hit a ball through the opening would win five dollars and a straw hat. His team won the game, and the fact that his homer clinched the win, made him extremely proud. Then there was also my cousin, Wilbert Beals, also known as “Horse Collar” who was ranked number five in the world in the lightweight division as a fighter in the ’50s. He later became George Foreman’s first trainer. He and his family lived in the next block, and he would bring us to the gym to watch him train back then.
Down the street from where we lived was an elderly, black man named Mr. Ed. He was stooped over, hunched back in a way that made him look deformed. I always wondered if it were painful for him to walk. One day I had a conversation with Mr. Ed, and he told me he broken his back playing pro football as a teammate of the great Fritz Pollard. He would show me and my friends the photographs of him and Fritz as teammates.
While I was surrounded by so many sports figures, it was my dad’s story that inspired me to participate in sports. Growing up, I remember listening to my Dad speak of Jackie Robinson. You see, my dad had a brief stint with the Kansas City Monarchs prior to the Second World War, and they had played together in the armed services. He always stated that Jackie was a stand-up kind of guy and fun to be with. Like Jackie, my dad had starred and lettered in multiple sports at Lincoln University, but baseball was his true love. After he married my mother, that brought an end to his playing days as he had a family to raise. Even though my father was not able to further his dream of playing professional baseball, he told me that Jackie was living out his dream and that of many other African Americans who would never have the opportunity even though they were good enough. He told me that I should look up to Jackie not only as an athlete but as an iconic trailblazer in the Civil Rights Movement.
Reflecting on the sacrifices made by my family and remembering my ancestry gives me a deep appreciation of what I have been able to accomplish in my life. The lessons of working hard, and to take nothing for granted, resonates in all I do. I believe you have to have integrity and stand for something regardless of the consequences. As my dad would always say, “All you have is your good name, make it count for something.”