There are 10 different reasons why this story is unique," says Wilbert C. Lancaster Jr. of Philadelphia, hyperbolically, over one of the four phones on which he takes an average of 110 calls a day. "For one thing," he notes, "I'm a young colored fella."
Lancaster resembles the late Martin Luther King but has a Jaycee tone of voice, is a Republican because of taxes and believes that Harry Edwards, the black activist, thinks he is an Uncle Tom. Edwards has given him that impression, without actually using the epithet, during the two or three telephone conversations they have had. (Lancaster helped out during Edwards' boycott of the New York Athletic Club meet at Madison Square Garden last year by finding beds for five nonparticipating athletes, but he spoke out against the proposed Olympic boycott.) Lancaster's own brother, who does race relations work for the Philadelphia school system, has suggested that Bert isn't all black. ("Do you know the word 'Oreo'?" Oliver Lancaster asks lightly. "That's somebody who's black on the outside and white on the inside.") But Oliver Lancaster never sold 72 Ford cars and trucks in a month, and Harry Edwards never put on a track meet.
Lancaster is promoting the 1969 National AAU Indoor Track and Field Championships, which will be held in the Spectrum this Saturday. He is, as a matter of fact, the first Negro ever to promote a national championship track meet (Ed Conwell, the former 60-yard-dash record holder, was appointed director of the 1958 national decathlon championships, but became ill) and probably the first to stage a major integrated sports event. And promoting a track meet in our society requires relations with white people (the AAU, for instance, has no Negro officers) as well as, to use one of Lancaster's favorite terms, "go power."
Lancaster, 40-year-old sales manager and former supersalesman for Koelle-Greenwood Ford in Germantown, Pa. (in whose showroom a sign, visible from the street, reads "Yes! Bert Is In" when he is), superintendent of the Providence Baptist Church Sunday school and former All-America in the 220-yard dash at Penn State, says, "I always seem to do a lot for people. Then I ask them to help me later."
March 3, 1969
Indeed, he spends a good deal of his time fixing things up for people he knows. He runs black and white neighborhood kids up and down the street and urges the swift to go out for track. He has seen that hundreds of underprivileged athletes around Philadelphia got to track meets and back home, and he is a demon at scratching up jobs for kids who need them. "He'll call people and say, 'You need seven helpers this summer?' " says a former secretary, "and they'll say no they don't, and they'll end up with seven helpers that summer." Lancaster does what he can to raise the general level of black employment, too. Often, upon entering a white acquaintance's place of business and noting a dearth of Negro workers, he has remarked, presumably in his best Jaycee accent, "You got a real shortage of soul people in here, haven't you?" The next time he pops in the shortage has been alleviated.
Lancaster is also president and angel (contributing some $5,000 a year) of the largely black Philadelphia Pioneers Track Club, which is coached by Soul Brother Alex Woodley, and he has run its modest outdoor meet for the past 11 years. He often raises or contributes the money a promising student needs to stay in college—even though several have disillusioned him upon graduation by buying Chevrolets. But he says, "I won't have anybody with me who doesn't have go power." Or who doesn't look neat and keep his hair cut (he says he doesn't disapprove of an Afro if it's not too long). Lancaster takes great pride in the Pioneers' being invited to the first Dogwood Relays in Knoxville, and he thinks the team was singled out because the runners look so clean cut.
Last year Lancaster told the Pioneers that if they wanted to boycott the Olympics after all the time and money he had devoted to giving them a chance to make the U.S. team, then the Pioneers could do without him. He thinks, in retrospect, that this stance may have had something to do with his being offered the general chairmanship of the Middle Atlantic AAU track and field committee. "There had never been any soul people on the job," he says. "There had been some qualified, but nobody ever asked them."
When he took over he found that none of the committee members had been filing the prescribed reports. "From no reports," he says, "we went to an inch and a half of reports every month." More significantly, he made up his mind that the National Indoors ought to be held in Philadelphia. It had been staged in New York until 1966, when it went to Albuquerque, and Oakland had it in '67 and '68.
"Nobody else had ever thought about it," Lancaster says, and that is understandable. Track has drawn badly in the Civic Center Convention Hall, which has a 12-lap track, and the Spectrum has no track at all. Moreover, the city's AAU-affiliated clubs, the Pioneers and the Penn AC, are not affluent enough to underwrite the meet. But, as Lancaster is fond of saying, "I don't want to hear about why something can't be done." Jim Tuppeny, Penn's track coach, told him the 11-lap board track in Baltimore's Civic Center could be imported, and Lancaster hadn't been selling thousands of automobiles for 13 years without building up a little capital of his own. Two months after he took his Middle Atlantic office, a Philadelphia delegation was in New Orleans at the national AAU convention bent on getting the Nationals. As it happened, he says, "Nobody else much wanted them. We bid $22,500 and our bid was high enough to bring the meet back East."
That is, the Philadelphians agreed to pay the AAU that sum for the right to put on the meet and to deliver a field of athletes (many of the most renowned, however, have had to be personally recruited by Lancaster and his co-workers). Out of the $22,500, the AAU pays the athletes' travel expenses and $25 per diem allowances. The other basic expense was $8,500 for the use of the Spectrum. Lancaster assumed liability for $29,000 of the $31,000, and the Penn AC took on the rest. Ordinarily, such funds are put up by track clubs, which then promote the meets (the NYAC played this role when the National Indoors was held in New York). Lancaster put up his own money, some of which is in real estate and some of which he has been saving to buy a Ford dealership. He also provided $8,000 in operating cash; the Penn AC shelled out $500. There will also be some $12,000 in expenses above the $31,000 base cost, and Lancaster figures it will take an attendance of 8,500 (with a $6.50 tops), which would be a record for an indoor meet in Philadelphia, to break even. Half of any profit will go to the AAU, the other half will go to Lancaster and the Penn AC at the ratio of 29 to 2.
Officially, Lancaster and Penn AC Track Coach Tom Sander, his successor as Middle Atlantic track and field committee chairman, are co-directors of the meet. Sander has offered to sponsor Lancaster for membership in the Penn AC—which, like the NYAC, has never accepted a Negro—but Bert does not appear to be too excited. He is gratified, however, by Sander's having recently written to the Ford Motor Company on Penn AC stationery, saying it better give Lancaster a dealership. "How about that!" he says. "The guy has flashes of brilliance." But their relations as meet co-directors are tenuous. The workers Lancaster has brought into the enterprise complain that Sander "pushed himself in" and that he keeps calling ill-timed and ill-attended press conferences. Sander himself refers unspecifically and blandly to "internal conflicts." Lancaster points out that whatever Sander's title may be, all the contracts and checks are signed "Bert Lancaster."
Furthermore, most of the operation's go power stems from Bert, and from what might be called his Black Mafia. These associates are a diverse and congenial group. Assistant Meet Director Charles Paul Hammock, 27, got his start in track in high school with the Pioneers and went on to Villanova as a high hurdler. He subsequently graduated from Howard University Law School and worked in the civil rights division of the Justice Department with John Doar and Robert Kennedy. He is now a lawyer and a budding political figure in Philadelphia, with ties to black politicians elsewhere, including Atlanta's Julian Bond. Ed Young, 47, the staff expert on printing programs and posters, is a construction engineer for the city. Young enjoys ribbing Lancaster. "No," says Bert, when asked whether he does any coaching, "but I may take some of the boys aside before a meet and psych them up a little." "And sell them a car," says Young. Emanuel (Tiny) Taylor is a railroad employee of some 350 pounds, who helped Lancaster get started in track and now makes himself available whenever somebody needs a ride to a meet. Skag Cotman, known as "the mayor of Norristown," is a 5'4" fund raiser ("the best collection man in the world," says Lancaster) who is selling program ads and will help supervise the installation of the track. Of course, Lancaster has white help, too, including his invaluable meet administrator, John Scott. "We've got some of the livest wires around," says Lancaster.
The meet's finance committee operates out of Hammock's law office. Which means that Marge Lorup, who used to be Bert's secretary at Koelle-Greenwood (and is white), has been given space there to type and to track down businessmen who might be persuaded to lend support. "When Marge gets on the phone," says Lancaster, "there's no not getting them." She recently got an American Air Lines executive out of a swimming pool in Costa Mesa, Calif. after chasing him across the country by telephone for two days. The contributions—tax-deductible checks made out to the AAU—will go toward paying as much of the. $22,500 as possible.
Lancaster has no delusions about making money on the Indoors. No one has ever got rich promoting track meets. Lancaster says he was asked to join one of the professional track ventures, but his ambition is to be a Ford dealer. Other companies have asked him to be the first Negro automobile dealer, and Ford has offered him dealerships in other cities, but he is holding out for one in Philadelphia, where he was brought up and where he lives in a fine, big old house in an integrated part of German-town with his wife and three daughters and, gradually, more and more Negro neighbors.
In 1961, by which time Lancaster was making $22,000 a year as one of the top Ford salesmen in the country, he was told that the automobile industry wasn't ready for a Negro sales manager, the second most important position in many agencies. So he quit the automobile industry. So Ford made him sales manager of a dealership in a posh, white Philadelphia suburb. In 1963, having proved he could manage, he went back to selling at Koelle-Greenwood. Last September, Henry Ford said on a television show that there were no Negro Ford dealers because no one was qualified. Lancaster called Henry Ford on the phone. He never got through to him, but he got his executive secretary out of a meeting and told him, "People all over the East are calling and asking me if I'm such a great salesman, why doesn't Henry Ford know about me." He added that "American Motors had me up to Detroit trying to get me to be a dealer, and Ford keeps putting me off." The executive secretary mollified him, assuring him that the company certainly had him in mind. Shortly thereafter Robert Koelle offered him the sales managership of Koelle-Greenwood.
The job meant taking a cut of about $12,000 in income, because he no longer gets commissions, and ending his subsidy to the Pioneers, but he took it. Morale was down among the sales staff (conceivably because Bert had already sold everybody in Philadelphia a Ford), but Lancaster seems to be one of those men who like to keep proving that they can take things on. He has been making his way through fairly rough going since he was 11, when he started helping out at the restaurant where his father was a cook. At Penn State, he recalls without any prodding, "I was in every honor society I was eligible for except one, and an officer in all but one of the ones I was in." He worked his way through school, waiting on tables in a fraternity house and even saved enough to put his brother through college. Meanwhile, he tied school records in the 100 (9.6) and the 220 (20.8) and anchored the mile relay. When he graduated in 1950 he found that the big medical schools he applied to had one-Negro-per-class quotas, and he wasn't the one. He was therefore drafted, and was the top trainee in every cycle he went through except Officer Candidate School. "I would have been No. 1 there, too, if I hadn't been a soul brother," he says, "and I don't claim prejudice unless I can prove it. I had only three demerits, and the average was 82." Lancaster volunteered for Korea, where he found that battalion commanders in the Combat Engineers could reject any officer they didn't want, and none of them wanted a soul brother. Undaunted, unrancorous ("I don't care what a man's opinions are," he says, "as long as he's convinced and he says the same thing all the time—some of these younger fellows don't like that"), he set about winning the confidence of a particular colonel. "I convinced him that soul people could work, and had things like integrity," Lancaster says. His second assignment from the colonel was to clear a path through a minefield under fire, for which he won the Bronze Star.
Lancaster liked the Army and feels that it helped form his character, but he wasn't ideally suited to certain aspects of it. He didn't like getting shot at for one thing, and for another he was the only man in the outfit who never took off for Rest and Recuperation. "They went to Tokyo," he says, "and it wasn't R and R, it was I and I—Intercourse and Inebriation." Lancaster was already married to his childhood sweetheart, whom he met and proposed to "several thousand times" while spending his summers with relatives in rural Virginia and who now, with Grace Kelly out of town, is probably as fine a natural beauty as there is in Philadelphia. And Bert doesn't drink.
After 2½ years he left the Army a first lieutenant and went back to Philadelphia to work as a civil engineer for the city. He has always been a car buff ("You give me any door handle and I can tell you what car it is"), and he was making only $5,200 as a civil servant, so when one of the younger Koelles of Koelle-Greenwood, a friend from Penn State, insisted that Bert had the go power it took to sell cars, he went into private enterprise. Lancaster found that he could sell cars like mad—that is, to everyone but women under 40. "I went out and got the women's periodicals," he says. "You ever read Cosmopolitan? A wonderful magazine." And he learned, by "just relaxing and mentioning the style of shoes they had on and things," how to tap that market, too. Now, 13 years and several thousand sales later, working 64 hours a week (not counting the calls he gets on his two phones at home), Lancaster dominates Koelle-Greenwood. When he sent up the copy for his new business card it identified him as "general manager." That was rejected. He tried "general sales manager." That was rejected. So, not being too small a man for whimsy, he tried "lollipop sales manager," and that is the way he is identified on his card. "People just won't buy anything unless they see me in here," says Lancaster.
Not long ago, when he started getting letters from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lancaster put off responding. "People are always asking me to do something for them," he explains. Then Hammock got wind of the letters, and now the newly formed corporation—Ber-Ham Enterprises, Inc.—is looking beyond the National Indoors to the International Freedoms Games, to be held—and televised nationally by CBS—May 18 at Franklin Field as a memorial to Martin Luther King and as a benefit for the organization he left behind. Ber-Ham will get a flat promoter's fee. It will also promote an indoor meet for SCLC next winter. Then, Lancaster says, he will get out of track and concentrate on getting his dealership. "I've done what had to be done here," he says. "I've broken down the barriers."
"Yeah, in people's minds. Nobody thought they could put on a big indoor meet here in Philadelphia."