When Ali met Marciano in a battle of undefeated heavyweights The two champs met for a ‘Super Fight’ put together by a DJ and a computer

On the morning of his 1967 fight against Ernie Terrell in the Houston Astrodome, Muhammad Ali sat in his hotel room watching a film of Rocky Marciano challenging Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight title 15 years earlier. Ali leaned forward, his head cradled in his hands, watching intently until a bloodied and trailing Marciano knocked Walcott out in the 13th round with a short, emphatic right. Then Ali turned to his manager, Angelo Dundee.

“Angelo, the man’s tough,” said Ali, according to reporting by Sports Illustrated. “He’d be hell to fight. I’d wear him at the end of my glove for 10 rounds but he’d still be coming. Meanwhile, I’d be tired — maybe too tired to dance — and Rocky would be throwing punches … that wouldn’t be no fight — that would be a war.”

Marciano was already the heavyweight champ in 1954 when a 12-year-old Ali took up boxing after having his bicycle stolen. At night, the boy would listen to his transistor radio in Louisville, Kentucky, and hear Don Dunphy’s staticky voice from faraway Madison Square Garden, announcing Marciano as the heavyweight champ-eee-on of the world.

“The Super Fight” lobby card between Rocky Marciano (left) and Muhammad Ali (right) was shot in 1969 and released in 1970.

LMPC/Getty Images

In 1969, two years after Ali beat Terrell, the champ found himself in the ring with Marciano in one of the more bizarre fights in the annals of boxing. Ali was 27 years old and 29-0. Marciano was 45 years old and had retired 13 years earlier with a perfect 49-0 record, including 43 wins by knockout — history’s only unbeaten heavyweight champ.

The “Super Fight,” as it was billed, was fake, the concoction of a Miami promoter and disc jockey, Murray Woroner. If computers could help put a man on the moon, why couldn’t they predict the outcome of a match between two unbeaten champions from different eras? Woroner fed the fighters’ statistics into a computer, which spit out a script of different fight scenarios that Ali and Marciano were paid to reenact in a film studio in North Miami. The resulting film was edited and shown in movie theaters across the country and overseas, the outcome kept a closely guarded secret, even to the fighters.

Ali and Marciano seemed like polar opposites, the Great White Hope from the ’50s and the Angry Black Man from the ’60s.

Marciano had been a quiet conformist during his career, suppressing his anger toward a manager who stole from him and the Mafia that secretly controlled his career, along with most of professional boxing. He had served in the Army during World War II and became a symbol of American might during the Cold War, with a punch his manager compared to the atomic bomb.

Ali and Marciano seemed like polar opposites, the Great White Hope from the ’50s and the Angry Black Man from the ’60s.

At the time, Ali was one of the most hated men in America, not the folk hero he would later become. During his pummeling of Terrell in 1967, he had screamed at him, “What’s my name?” because Terrell had called him by his former “slave name” of Cassius Clay, as did most sportswriters. He hadn’t fought in more than two years and was locked in a battle with the federal government after refusing to fight in Vietnam, famously declaring, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.

If this fight film was made possible by the new age of technology, promoters played up racial and ethnic stereotypes that had always characterized boxing to hype the gate. Newspapers frequently carried stories that Marciano was considering coming out of retirement, including one report shortly after Ali took the title that a wealthy Texan had offered Marciano $4 million ($34 million today) to silence the loudmouthed young champ.

Shortly before Ali and Marciano met in Miami that summer, a federal judge had ordered Ali to serve five years in prison for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. He remained free on appeal, and in desperate need of funds. “I was in the deep freeze part of my exile, and there was no thaw in sight,” he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest.

Marciano, who had let himself go in retirement, had gone back into training, lost 50 pounds and donned a toupee to mask his receding hairline. At 5 feet, 10 inches, he was dwarfed by the 6-foot-3 Ali, who was 20 pounds heavier. But Ali, who hadn’t fought in two years, looked flabbier. (I was able to recreate those sessions by interviewing two people who were there: Peter Marciano, Rocky’s brother, and Ali’s then-wife Belinda, now Khalilah Ali. I also found, in the archives of Sports Illustrated, a lengthy memo from a Time reporter who had interviewed other eyewitnesses at the time of the film’s release.)

A ticket for “The Super Fight” between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.

Archive PL/Alamy Stock Photo

Over the course of filming, the two champs sparred more than 70 one-minute rounds. They acknowledged that it was just playacting. They never clinched and seldom went for the head. But sometimes things got real. Ali would flick his lightning-quick jabs in Marciano’s face, prompting him to walk back to his corner muttering, “My God, the kid is so fast.” Ali delighted in flicking Marciano’s toupee off. An angry Marciano trapped Ali in a corner and pounded on his arms, then smashed a right to his solar plexus. “Ooof,” Ali exhaled, sinking to his stool. The taping stopped. Ali refused to continue until the promoter sent a driver to the bank to bring him another $2,000. One night they went out to dinner and ran into comedian Henny Youngman, who came over to their table and joked around. Ali’s arms were so sore that he had trouble lifting the saltshaker.

Staging knockdowns was tricky. Marciano had been knocked down only twice in his career, Ali not at all up to that point. Both had to be coaxed to take a dive for the cameras. During one take, Ali shouted, “Drop the Wop” and hit Marciano, who fell to the canvas, took out his mouthpiece and roared with laughter. When it was Marciano’s turn, he teased a reluctant Ali by parodying him: “The onliest way I can be beat by any man is to knock me out.”

During a break one day, the conversation turned to the country’s racial divide and the riots that had swept the country. They sat on the floor next to the ring, sharing a bag of grapefruit. Ali would tear off a section and pass it to Marciano.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there was something we could do, me and you together, a white guy and a black guy?” said Marciano.

They talked about doing a bus tour of inner-city neighborhoods. Ali got excited.

“Imagine, Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano, going into the worst areas,” he said. “We could shake up the world, you and me. Would you do it? Would you do it?”

Marciano said he would. He encouraged Ali to hang tough in his fight with the Army. Marciano had a secret about his own struggle with the Army that he never shared with Ali but which I unearthed from old Army records. His patriotic image as a soldier who served in World War II concealed the fact that he and another GI had been court-martialed for robbing and assaulting two British civilians shortly before D-Day. He never deployed to Normandy but instead served two years as a military prisoner.

Marciano had never been comfortable with authority, nor with the mantle of Great White Hope. He forged close relationships with black fighters, including his boyhood idol, Joe Louis. (He cried after knocking out Louis in Madison Square Garden to end Louis’ career and advance his own.) Marciano told Ali about his Italian-American family’s struggles after settling in the shoe factory town of Brockton, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists and laborers, had been arrested on the Brockton trolley and executed in 1927, when Rocky was 3 years old, for a robbery and murder they didn’t commit. Politicians called Italians “a race of pickpockets” and “unfit foreigners.” Congress banned immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

“People fear change,” Marciano told Ali.

The Ali-Marciano bus tour never happened. A few weeks after they parted, on Aug. 31, Marciano climbed into a Cessna in Chicago, bound for Des Moines, Iowa, and a party at a steakhouse owned by the nephew of a mob pal. The plane crashed in a cornfield in Iowa, killing everyone on board. Ali cried when he heard the news.

The following winter, The Super Fight aired in more than 600 theaters across America. Woroner had filmed seven different endings. In the first screening, a bloodied Marciano, trailing on points, knocked out Ali in the 13th round. Later, when the film was shown in Europe, Ali won. The fight looks phony. There are no spectators, just an eerie darkness surrounding the ring, with the sound of piped-in crowd noise. It’s as if the two men have been abducted by aliens and are fighting on a spaceship in outer space.

“He was the onliest one that would’ve given me some trouble,” Ali said shortly after attending Marciano’s wake. Later, Ali said that he felt closer to Marciano during their sparring sessions than he ever did to any other white fighter.

“Our work was phony,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But our friendship became real.”

Former NFL running back now aims at the racial wealth gap Jason Wright, a McKinsey partner, co-authors new study detailing why black families are financially so far behind whites

Jason Wright always saw himself as more than a football player.

While playing at Northwestern University, the former running back led the local chapter of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. During his seven-year NFL career, he was a union leader who went on to launch a charter school network in Cleveland.

His football career ended in 2011, and Wright, 37, is now a partner with McKinsey & Co. And, no surprise, he sees himself as more than your ordinary management consultant.

Former NFL running back Jason Wright co-authored a report released Tuesday that lays out the broad scope and troubling implications of the racial gap.

McKinsey & Company

Wright, who has an MBA from the University of Chicago, is leveraging his company’s reach and expertise to tackle one of the nation’s most critical problems: the vast wealth gap separating African Americans and whites.

Wright co-authored a report released Tuesday that lays out the broad scope and troubling implications of the racial gap. The typical black family has a net worth of just $17,600, one-tenth of the wealth of the typical white family, which in 2016 had a median net worth of $171,000, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

The gap widened significantly in recent decades, and it is showing no signs of closing. The biggest reason is that the typical African American family faces an array of obstacles that often work together to thwart wealth creation.

 

“There is a galvanizing case for change. When we look specifically at helping black folks across the country, the result is it helps everyone because the entire economy benefits.” — Jason Wright

For one, the report says, two-thirds of black families are concentrated in 16 states where, taken together, the overall economy is weak and educational options lag behind those elsewhere in the country. Most of those states are in the South, where economic opportunity, health care and even access to fast internet service is not always a given.

Meanwhile, black families in relatively prosperous urban areas or states tend to live in low-income neighborhoods where home values typically grow slowly, crippling one of the main sources of wealth creation. In addition, black families are far less likely than whites to own homes. More than 10 years after the Great Recession, the home ownership rate for black families continues to decline; it is down to just over 40%, while more than 73% of white families own homes. As recently as 2004, more than 48% of African American families were homeowners.

Another factor contributing to the gap is that African Americans tend to come from families with scant wealth to begin with, leaving them with little to build on. Just 8% of black families receive an inheritance, for instance, compared with 26% of white families. And when black families do inherit money, they get less: The typical black inheritance is just 35% of the average white inheritance of $236,000, the report said.

The lack of wealth hits hard at black college students. Blacks are much more likely than whites to incur student debt, and when they do, the debt is higher. Too often, it proves to be unpayable. Overall, nearly half of black undergraduate borrowers default on their student loans, some 2.3 times the white default rate, the report said.

Many other African Americans are living outside the nation’s financial mainstream, a troubling fact that impacts their ability to get mortgages, consumer loans or even credit cards. More than 1 in 4 African Americans do not have a credit score, and 17% do not have traditional bank accounts.

On top of all that, black workers typically have unemployment rates that are double the rates of similarly educated whites. Among those that are employed, blacks tend to earn far less than whites, in part because of lower educational levels.

If economic trends continue as they are now, the outlook is bleak for African American workers, who tend to be overrepresented in professions like truck driving, for instance, that face increasing competition from automation, the report said. Meanwhile, fast-growing fields like software programming and artificial intelligence have relatively few African Americans.

It is a gruesome picture but one that Wright believes can be improved. He noted that there were periods in the past when the gap had closed somewhat. He said improving educational opportunities, making consumer credit more widely available, ramping up consumer education and devising economic strategies to uplift lagging regions can all make a substantial difference in closing the wealth gap.

“There is a galvanizing case for change,” Wright said. “When we look specifically at helping black folks across the country, the result is it helps everyone because the entire economy benefits.”

Later this week, a group of more than 200 black executives and leaders will meet in Martha’s Vineyard for McKinsey’s annual Black Economic Forum to discuss the report’s findings. Afterward, Wright plans to lead an effort to turn out a series of follow-up documents going into more detail about approaches for closing the wealth gap.

Wright called the work every bit as exciting as his days playing in the NFL.

“When I played football, one thing I saw was an opportunity to influence on scale,” he said. “What I found at McKinsey is something that I thought I lost when I retired from football, and that’s another platform” to make change on a large scale.

Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.

HBO film ‘True Justice’ recounts Bryan Stevenson’s crusade for the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned The nation’s most important civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall still believes in equal justice under law

Bryan Stevenson may well be the nation’s most consequential civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall stared down unrepentant racists in Southern courtrooms at a time when inequality was enforced by law, Stevenson’s work is being done decades after the most important legal battles over civil rights supposedly were won. If Marshall and his legal colleagues from the NAACP helped dismantle Jim Crow, the task Stevenson has carved out may be even more difficult: working to eliminate Jim Crow’s legacy.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson

He is the subject of a new documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT on HBO. Stevenson, 59, is the founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, and he has dedicated his career to helping some of the most scorned people among us: the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, and even the guilty.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson says.

Since EJI was launched in 1989, Stevenson and his staff have won release, reversals or relief for more than 125 death row prisoners. Stevenson has prevailed in several cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including a victory in a case outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 or younger.

In the documentary, Bryan Stevenson makes clear that the problem with the criminal justice system starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

Courtesy of HBO

He has spearheaded the creation in Montgomery of The Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors more than 4,000 lynching victims. He has earned dozens of honorary degrees and won numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. By any measure, he has done outstanding work.

Yet, Stevenson’s achievements make up a relatively small part of the film. Instead of shouting out his many successes, directors Peter Kunhardt, George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt home in on Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Stevenson illuminates the line connecting the racial disparities evident in so many parts of our society to a criminal justice system that nurtured and rationalized white supremacy, making it both legal and acceptable. In the documentary, he makes clear that the problem starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

While the high court eventually became an ally of civil rights, for many years it was just the opposite. The 1857 Dred Scott decision called black people an inferior race who had no constitutional rights. The 1875 Cruikshank case reversed the convictions of members of a white mob whom federal prosecutors had tried for their part in killing 150 black people protesting for political representation in Colfax, Louisiana. The high court said the convictions impinged on states’ rights, helping to form the legal underpinning for legal segregation and Jim Crow.

Even in the years following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the seminal ruling striking down state-sanctioned segregation in public schools, the court sometimes looked the other way in the face of evidence of obvious racial disparities, Stevenson argues.

In the film, he talks about his advocacy for Warren McCleskey, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia during a 1978 furniture store holdup. McCleskey was the only one of four defendants sentenced to death in the case, and by the time his case made its way to the Supreme Court, his defense team had produced a study showing that in Georgia, defendants who killed whites were more than four times as likely as those who killed blacks to be sentenced to death. The court shrugged off that study in its majority opinion, saying disparity does not prove deliberate bias. Moreover, the court ruled, such disparities are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” McCleskey was put to death in Georgia’s electric chair in 1991.

The HBO documentary focuses on Bryan Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Courtesy of HBO

The film makes clear that Stevenson loses in court regularly, and when he does the consequences are often fatal for his clients. Even when he represents clients who are innocent and he is able to win, the injustices wrought by the system cannot be fully rectified because of the trauma of being imprisoned. “For me, the innocence cases are the hardest cases,” Stevenson says in the film. “I think people think of that the other way. They think, ‘Oh, it must be great to work on a case where there is clear evidence of innocence.’ ”

Much of the documentary is narrated by Stevenson, who talks about the need to eradicate “the narrative of racial difference” that infects the country and runs through its history. That is why he has poured energy into creating memorials to help Americans confront this history of racial horrors that he says often manifests itself in the criminal justice system.

“You can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynching, and you can’t disconnect the legacy of lynching from the era of enslavement,” he says in the film. “I think that this line is a very real one.”

Yet, Stevenson has an unshakable belief in the power of the law to help make things right. “I’ve argued a bunch of cases before the United States Supreme Court, and each time I go, I stand there in front of the court, I read what it says about equal justice under law,” Stevenson says in the film. “I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do.”

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

Natasha Hastings runs down the obstacles of being a pregnant Olympic hopeful 400-meter relay medalist hopes to go to Tokyo after she has her first child

As soon as Natasha Hastings, 32, learned she was pregnant, she began to wonder.

She pondered all the fraught physiological and cultural questions that undergird the modern motherhood industrial complex: How would her body change? Would her fiancé share equally in the work of round-the-clock baby care? What happens when she returns to her career — and would she even have a career to return to?

But she also had some custom asks: Would she ever run a quarter-mile in 52 seconds or less, again, and if so, how soon? What support would it take for her to make it to the Olympics one last time? And, crucially, would sponsors stick by her as she tries to make the trip?

Early this month, Hastings, a gold medalist in the 4×400-meter relay at the 2008 and 2016 Olympics, revealed on Instagram that she was 5½ months pregnant. She also announced her intention to return to world-class competition, saying, “I’m going to go to Tokyo! Win a couple more medals!”

Instagram Photo

Questions about balancing pregnancy and world-class athletics aren’t new. At the 1960 Rome Games, sprinter Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals 16 months after having a baby, although few knew it. But Hastings is part of a new visibility and debate about the physical capabilities of female athletes after motherhood, and what systems and protection — health, economic, child care — they need around them. They are conversations we’ve rarely had, around questions we’ve hardly asked.

Hastings has been running professionally for 12 years. But now, as she pursues her dream of sport and family, she’s about to cover new ground.


When she found out that she and her fiancé, former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay, were expecting, Hastings remembers thinking, My God, what’s happening? She saw the excitement in his face, and he saw the dismay in hers. Yes, she wanted a baby, eventually. But she was just back from a knee injury, training for her outdoor season and hoping to compete in this year’s World Championships. They were planning to marry next year and, fingers crossed, she would qualify for the Olympics. For someone who’d been in communion with her body since she began running competitively at 10, the timing felt all wrong.

Natasha Hastings of the United States competes in the women’s 4×400-meter relay heats during Day 9 of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at the London Stadium.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

“Track is my life, you know,” Hastings said. “My job relies on my physical abilities.” Everything she’s planned for the next phase of her life — building her 400M Diva cosmetic and beauty line, and her Natasha Hastings Foundation to advocate for women and girls in sports — was predicated on exiting track on her own terms. “I’m not the first woman who has thought about family versus career,” Hastings said. “But I don’t know any man who has to make that choice, you know?”

Hastings was worried her family might be disappointed in the timing. And she was especially worried about her sponsors, particularly Under Armour, which she’s been with since 2012.

“I took a while to share with my sponsors for fear of, just, I don’t know what this looks like, I don’t know how they’re going to take this.” She didn’t know “if I’d have a job at all. Or I shouldn’t say a job, but financial support to continue to train and go after the Olympics.”

While Under Armour continued to sponsor Hastings, her fears were understandable.

Middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño, a six-time USA Outdoor champion, competed in the 800-meter race at the 2014 U.S. Track and Field Championships while eight months pregnant. In a Mother’s Day editorial in The New York Times, Montaño wrote that female athletes are often forced into physically dangerous choices because companies such as Nike, which sponsored her, can suspend their contracts and health insurance when they get pregnant.

“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms.” — Natasha Hastings

Athletes are always vulnerable to risk and injury that is often heightened during pregnancy. And they largely don’t get maternity leave. Some sports have responded to the challenges.

When Orlando Pride star Sydney Leroux posted pictures of her training while five months pregnant in March, her Twitter mentions included people worried about the health of her baby. But teammates and other female athletes rushed to offer their support.

Two members of the U.S. World Cup soccer team in 1999 had children. The 2015 U.S. World Cup team had three mothers, and a culture of inclusion has taken root in the sport, including paid maternity leave. Moms have been a part of the WNBA for more than 20 years and have a portion of their salaries and medical expenses covered through the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

A bobblehead of Phoenix Mercury All-Star DeWanna Bonner features her holding her twin baby girls.

But non-team sports often seem to think female athletes don’t, or at least shouldn’t, get pregnant at all.

The message from the culture has been that female athletes should retire to have children, said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history and gender studies at Penn State University.

“So we haven’t had a lot of cases that have been able to be visible role models, modeling what it looks like to be working moms within sports,” she said. Her own earliest memory of an athlete mother was fictional: Sanaa Lathan’s character in the 2000 movie Love & Basketball. But she calls this new era of visibility a chance to engage in granular conversations about child care, what breastfeeding looks like when you’re also pushing your body athletically and how to bring abdominal muscles and hips back to world-class form.

Davis cites Serena Williams, who almost died after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., via emergency cesarean section in 2017. Her story highlighted the WTA’s lack of maternity leave policies. And her well-documented struggles, both emotional and physical, to return to competition opened a new front in motherhood conversations worldwide.

From left to right: U.S. women’s 4×400-meter relay team members Courtney Okolo, Natasha Hastings, Phyllis Francis and Allyson Felix celebrate their gold medals on the podium during athletics competitions at the Summer Olympics inside Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20, 2016.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

In track, Hastings is familiar with the history of sprinter Marion Jones, who failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics after giving birth the year before. (She was also banned from the sport for two years and had her Olympic medals stripped after charges of doping.)

Sprinter Allyson Felix, whose six Olympic gold medals include the 2016 4×400-meter relay on a team that included Hastings, struggled with complications during her pregnancy last year and had to have an emergency C-section. Her daughter was hospitalized for a month, Felix testified at a recent congressional hearing on the crisis in maternal mortality. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that black and American Indian/Alaska Native women are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women.

Like Hastings, Felix is also hoping to compete in Tokyo.

Along with Under Armour, Hastings’ sponsors — which include the New York Athletic Club, as well as cosmetic and feminine care products companies — congratulated her on her pregnancy and continued their sponsorship.

Hastings feels “blessed. … If there’s anything that can speak for me, it’s that I have been a resilient person and athlete and my back has been against the wall several times.” That resilience helped her get past her failure to make the 2012 Olympic team. It helped her overcome a hamstring pull before the 2016 Olympic trials. She’s relying on it now, including for all the difficult conversations about pregnancy that she wasn’t prepared for.


In deciding on child care post-baby, Hastings says she and her fiancé have had some pointed exchanges. Hastings is thinking about how she will balance the needs of an infant with her own need for speed. She can’t run if she doesn’t sleep. And in discussing her options with other women, including hiring a nanny, she’s found these mommy conversations can get thorny quick.

“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms,” said Hastings. She’s finding her instinct to rely on their wisdom difficult to square with her own world-class ambitions. “I mean this with respect and honor, and I know that they’re coming from a good place and I know that I’m also, I am coming from a place of the unknown, right? But then there’s also this space of what I do that is unknown for them.” So there’s a disconnect “even in the conversation of a nanny, you know? It’s almost like, well, you’re less of a mom for having a nanny.”

She’s running toward her future, not just for the girls who come next but also for women right now who are watching her for clues about their own postpartum possibilities.

She’s always had to curate the people around her and the voices she allows in her space. “I’m in a small population of the world that thinks that what I go out and do every day is possible. I’ve lived up to a standard that to most is impossible without having a child in there, right?” Her career has always been hard. “I’m no fool to what I’m going up against,” she said. “I’m going up against probably the hardest challenge I’ve ever had to face in this sport.” But if she dwells on that, her race is already lost.

Hastings is trying to keep her second-most important athletic instrument — her spirit, her willpower, her determination to completely dust the women running next to her — honed and ready.

As to her body, she’s trusting her longtime coach to help with that. It’s been an adjustment for him as well.


Darryl Woodson of Training Ground Elite in Round Rock, Texas, has been working with Hastings for more than seven years. He’s never coached a pregnant athlete before, so this is new space for him as well.

When Hastings told him she wanted to get back to the Olympics, Woodson said, she was focused on whether things would change between them — if he would start to take her less seriously as an athlete.

He became disciplined about keeping their same routines early on.

Elite coaching is physical, he said, but it is also about keeping athletes in their right mind. “There’s a psychological situation for a person where they’re always feeling like, uh-oh, you’re giving up on me,” Woodson said. When athletes are injured, or have some other physical limitation, “if you make them more aware of it then it starts to bother them, and if you treat them normally then they get through it a lot better.”

Natasha Hastings celebrates winning the gold medal in the women’s 4×400-meter relay final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20, 2016.

AP Photo/Martin Meissner

As her pregnancy progressed, they made adjustments for her schedule and how Hastings was feeling. He takes cues from her, but he said her dedication to the work hasn’t wavered.

“I’m not a prenatal coach,” he said. She’s in consultation with her doctors, who say her body will let her know how much she can handle. “And that’s when we stop. Obviously, I have altered some of her workouts” to make sure they’re not overly demanding.

Typically, she’d be in the outdoor season now. She’d be doing flat-out runs over 400 meters to build strength and endurance and doing other anaerobic work. At six months pregnant, she’s not doing that, or weight training, running stairs or jumping hurdles.

She’s continuing to do 150-meter sprints. Normally, she would run it at about 16 or 17 seconds. She’s four or five seconds slower now, and she can get frustrated that she’s not hitting her pre-pregnancy marks.

“That’s where the pick-me-up comes from me, where it’s like, ‘Let’s look at the circumstances,’ ” Woodson said. “The numbers matter nothing at all if we’re not stopping training so that your body doesn’t need to get reintroduced to this next time.”

She’s actually working harder because she’s carrying more. Woodson is sensitive about using words such as weight. If she keeps her body trained, her times will rebound when she’s no longer pregnant.

“My job is to modify the program and get the same results or better and not put her under the same psychological stress,” Woodson said. His job is to listen and give her the best shot at what she says she wants. The baby is due in July, and he’s hoping she returns as soon as September but no later than October.

“We don’t know what we can and will be able to do. We just know psychologically, emotionally and spiritually what we want to do,” Woodson said. “We’ll keep pushing the same way as we always have been.”


On the track and off, Hastings wants to be a role model. Davis said it matters that she’s a black woman doing this work. This is not only because of the recent spotlight on black maternal health but also because “the tropes about black women’s femininity and sexuality within athletics have been so tied to ideas of their bodies.” Pregnancy pushes back at larger stereotypes about what is feminine, and what sport does to femininity.

“I didn’t get to this level by thinking it was impossible,” Hastings said. “I had to know and believe that it was possible, and that came with having a plan, putting the plan in place, being able to adjust here and there when you have to.” And that’s what she’s still doing.

She’s running toward her future, not just for the girls who come next but also for women right now who are watching her for clues about their own postpartum possibilities. She’s doing it for her athletic dreams of speed and glory. For her entrepreneurial dreams of reward and influence. For her dreams of black family and baby love. She focuses on that as she circles the track, chasing the person she’s always striving to be.

A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.