Donald Bailey spent the beginning of his life doing what he had to do. Now, he does what he loves.
Donald “Doc” Bailey was born in Beaumont in 1949 to Doris and Robert Bailey, and led what he called a pretty typical life for that time.
“I was right on the edge of integration,” Bailey says. “It was a different time back then.”
Bailey graduated from Beaumont’s African-American high school, Charlton Pollard, and then war brought him far from Texas, where he had spent his entire life.
“I didn’t have a scholarship, so college was out for me,” Bailey recalls. The next best option for the 18-year-old, he felt, was enlisting in the United States Army.
“It was the best thing I ever did in my life,” he said. “I volunteered for duty – I just knew I’d end up in Vietnam. My mama cried – oh, how she cried. But I did what I thought I had to do to be a good American.”
It wouldn’t be until many years later that Bailey truly understood his mother’s pain. His own son was called to duty in the Iraq wars.
“It wasn’t until then that I really – really – knew how my mom felt. It was a horrible feeling,” he said. “I never was scared for myself, but I was very scared for my son.”
Still, Vietnam wasn’t in the cards for Bailey. Instead, the young soldier was sent to work as a medic in Korea, where he would pick up the moniker he still uses to this very day.
“No one knew my first name, so they just called me ‘Doc,’” Bailey said. “It stuck. The whole time I was there, I was Doc Bailey. Today, most people still only know me as Doc.”
Coming back to the states as the newly dubbed Doc Bailey, the young man enrolled in college courses. Never making in across the stage, Bailey instead started working in the local refineries and earned his slow climb up the corporate ladder.
“I retired from ExxonMobil after more than four decades there,” he said. “During that time, I was a consultant and engineer, and oversaw contractors for awhile.
“I was also the first – and last – black supervisor of the carpenter shop,” he added. “They did away with the shop now, so I’m sure I’ll be the only black supervisor to ever hold that position.”
Since retirement, however, Bailey has found a new way to spend his days.
“There was a couple things that drove me to what I’m doing now,” Bailey explains. The first was finding a cache of historical materials left by his stepfather, Newell Williams, when the elder man passed a few years back. The second was a few words taken from the lips of former pro football coach Al Davis: “What I think is, we have to make the young people realize who came before them, who paved the way, who paid their debt to society before they came through. I realize that we’ve got a lot of problems in our society. We’ve got a group of young people growing up without values, without tradition. ... Somehow or other, someone has got to raise his hand and say, ‘I’m going to see that it (teaching history) is done.’”
“I raised my hand up,” Bailey said. “That’s what I had to do.”
Davis’ comment touched the core of what Bailey knew his calling to be, he said. It was only a matter of taking the reigns and moving forward with a plan of action.
Today, Bailey spends his time teaching African-American history to schools, colleges, churches and civic groups – many of whom have never heard the stories of many an influential historic figure.
“Do you know who Walter White is?” Bailey starts. “What about Irene Morgan, or did you know Beaumont had an all-black college at one time?”
A quick lesson on the history of the few aforementioned names brings an astounding story attributed to each.
Walter White (1893-1955) was a civil rights leader in America between 1920 and 1955, joining the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1918. His blue eyes and blonde hair allowed White to pass for a white man, to the activist’s benefit most of the time, and he became the NAACP’s chief investigator of lynching. White was instrumental in public school integration, and was a pioneer for equal rights long before any such right was ever granted.
Irene Morgan, according to records, was most noted for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Virginia – 11 years before Rosa Parks did the same thing. Morgan was arrested and convicted of the offense in 1944, but appealed to the state Supreme Court where her conviction was upheld.
According to information compiled by PBS, “With help from NAACP lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1946. Though narrowly interpreted, the Court’s decision struck down state laws requiring segregated seating for interstate bus travel. In 1947, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sent 16 volunteers on the Journey of Reconciliation to test compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Fourteen years later, however, the unconstitutional practice of racially segregated seating on interstate buses continued throughout the Deep South, prompting CORE to organize the Freedom Rides in 1961 in an effort to focus national attention on the issue.”
As for Beaumont’s African-American college, it was called the Lincoln Business College, and was where minorities were herded to when Lamar was for whites-only, Bailey said.
“But what is just amazing as anything is that, at times, it was white people who made huge differences in the advancement of the African-American people,” Bailey added. “I have a pamphlet from (Mary) Ovington where she, a white woman, started the NAACP in January 1909 – with three white people there. It wasn’t until after then that blacks were brought into the group.”
Sharing just a few of the historic notes and images at his disposal, Bailey paints a picture of people – regular people – who made great contributions to the building of a nation that united as one, rather than fracture by race.
“I have so much stuff to share that is important for the next generation to know,” he said. “If we don’t keep our history alive, it will be lost and there’s no getting it back.”
Bailey said he is delighted to see those who attend his presentations leave with a little more knowledge than what they came in the door with.
“Almost every time, after it’s over, I have people come up and ask questions,” he said. “That’s the best part, to get another generation interested in this history.
“Young people don’t spend time with older people and just listen. You wouldn’t believe the stuff these older people know.”
Jennifer Johnson can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 231, or by e-mail at jennifer [at] theexaminer [dot] com.