THE EXTRAORDINARY EIGHT
Eight young men, eight opportunities seized, eight extraordinary lives. This is the story of eight men, all of whom spent their formative years in Laurens County in the early decades of the 20th Century . Theirs is a story of overcoming the adversity of their youths through ceaseless dedication of succeeding in the fields of their endeavors, aided by their own divine destinies.
In summary, three of the eight were Tuskegee Airmen, one a six-time world boxing champion, one a Negro League All Star and the first African American catcher in the American League, one a leading N.A.S.A. physicist, a prominent educator and author, and a prolific inventor for Ford Motor Company.
The most famous of the this distinguished octette is Walker Smith, Jr., better known to the world as “Sugar Ray” Robinson. Robinson, who was actually born in Ailey, Georgia in 1921, grew up in Dublin living with his grandmother Anna Hurst and Lula Smith in their home on South Jefferson Street. His aunt Maude Hurst, often said that “he ran around the streets of Dublin seeking out someone to beat up.”
Robinson began his quarter of a century boxing career in 1940. Considered by most boxing historians as “the Greatest Pound for Pound Boxer of all time.” A six-time world champion, Robinson’s greatest rank was affirmed by the incomparable Muhammed Ali.
Another outstanding Dublin athlete was Quincy Trouppe. Born in Dublin on Christmas Day, 1912, Troupe early in his career wanted to be a professional boxer after his family moved to St. Louis to avoid the bigotry and hatred they faced here in the 1920s.
An amateur boxing champion, Trouppe turn to baseball, where he was a Negro League All Star for more than half of this 20 seasons. A twice Negro League World Champion manager for the Cleveland Buckeyes, Trouppe played for the Cleveland Indians in 1952, making him the first black catcher in the American League. Quincy made history again that year when Sam Jones came into the game to pitch for the Indians, making Jones and Trouppe, the first African American battery in American League history. After his career, Trouppe worked as a scout for his hometown Cardinals. He signed hall of famers Roberto Clemente and Ernie Banks to contracts, which were rejected by the team as being excessive. His collection of memorabilia formed the nucleus of the Negro League Hall of Fame.
The coming of World War II, brought many new opportunities for African American men. Three Laurens Countians enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and began their aerial training at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Major Herndon Cummings, a 1919 native of the Millville community on the Old Macon Road. A bomber pilot in training for the expected invasion of Japan, Cummings was among the one hundred or so Tuskegee pilots, who staged a demonstration at Freeman Field in Indiana against the segregation of the officer’s club. Arrested and thrown in jail, the men were released by President Truman within a week of his taking office, the Freeman Field prisoners were eventually pardoned by President Clinton and presented the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 by President Bush. Major Cummings and other surviving and able Tuskegee Airmen sat on a special platform during the inauguration of President Obama in 2009.
They called him “Mr. Death.” John Whitehead was born in Virginia in 1924. He spent some of his youth in Laurens County during the Great Depression. Whitehead piloted a plane in Europe during the last year of World War II with his group known as “The Red Tails.” A highly educated pilot, Whitehead was the first African American flight instructor and test pilot in the fully integrated Air Force in 1948. In his nearly three-decade career with the Air Force during three wars, His heroic and dedicated service resulted in him being awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross with five oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with 7 oak leaf clusters, and the Army and Air Force Commendation Medals.
The late Marion Rodgers, a 1921 Detroit native, lived in Dublin until his 8th year. Rodgers served as Tuskegee pilot in the latter years of World War II, before being promoted to command the 99th Fighter Squadron "The Red Tails" at Lockbourne Air Base. In 1948, the Air Force was integrated under orders from President Harry S. Truman. Col. Rodgers, a twenty-two-year veteran of the Air Force and a 17-year Civil Service worker, spent one year working for NASA as a program manager on the mission of Apollo 13 followed by a long career with NORAD.
It shall be noted that although he does not fit into the criteria of his illustrious group of eight, the Rev. Hollis Hooks, who spent the autumn of his life in Dublin, was the first chaplain of the Tuskegee Airmen.
But phenomenal lives were not just those of athletics and military service. The final three men were highly regarded for their achievements in education and science.
Dr. Brailsford Brazeal, a 1903 native of Montrose, served as Dean of Men at Morehouse College and Chairman of the Department of Economics and Business. A nationally recognized writer on business issues, Brazeal used to his influence to convince the officials of Crozer Theological Seminary to waive their high grade point standards nd allow a young student to be accepted. That student was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Another Brazeal pupil was Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta.
Dr. Robert Shurney was born in Dublin in 1921, He left Dublin when his mother died at an early age. A high school dropout and WWII veteran, Shurney accepted the challenge of chief doctor of the hospital where he worked. After obtaining a degree in physics from Tennessee State, Shurney took advantage of his connections with Corretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the brilliant Shurney was hired by NASA, first to work on the Saturn V rockets and then to train astronauts in a simulated weightless environment. Shurney’s major accomplishments included the design of the tires for the lunar rover, better methods of eating in space and the first permanent toilet in space.
Claude Harvard was a boy with a mission. Born in 1911, Claude attended Telfair School under the tutelage of Susie Dashe, who recalled that he was a mathematical wizard and was always at the top of his class. Claude’s interest in science and technology was aroused around 1921when he read a magazine article about owning your own wireless radio set. He saved his pennies and sold salve to raise the money. Harvard was admitted to the Henry Ford Trade School for Orphans in 1926, although he was the only black kid in the school and was not an orphan,
In 1934 at the age of twenty-three, Claude was personally selected by Henry Ford to display his ground breaking invention of a piston pin inspection machine at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. In his long career with Ford Motor Company, Harvard invented nearly 40 parts and systems for Ford, including on the company’s first electric cars.
These stories are positive proof that any young person can achieve great things with the right motivation, determination and education. All of these young men had the world against them, just as many young people do today. Whether you are a teacher, a parent, or just friend, whenever you see a child who has that special spark in their eyes, give them as much inspiration as you can, while you can, and as often as you can.