A Christmas gift creates reluctant celebrity

February 20, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

HAGERSTOWN — A caption Sunday implied that Hagerstown resident Jimmy Yates decided to apply for membership in the local Moose only after he was asked to leave the lodge while visiting one night. In fact, he had expressed to a Moose friend an interest in joining before the visit.

The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

HAGERSTOWN -- It was supposed to be his Christmas present.

It turned out to be the evening that transformed Jimmy Yates into a reluctant celebrity, the subject of news reports in Baltimore and Washington as well as the object of concern by groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Even lawmakers in Washington uttered his name, and officials of the Moose's international organization of 1.8 million members came to his defense.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

It all started on Christmas Eve: Mr. Yates' best friend, Donnie Edwards, told him to put on a nice shirt and pair of pants. They were going out, and this was Mr. Edwards' treat.

"Where are we going?" Mr. Yates asked.

"Never mind where," Mr. Edwards said.

So they drove out past the edge of town, until Mr. Yates looked up and said: "We're going in there? . . . Oh, boy, here we go."

Little did he or his friend know.

Mr. Yates had reason for concern. They were parked outside the local Moose Lodge, which both knew had no black members. Mr. Edwards, who is white, belonged. Mr. Yates did not belong. And Mr. Yates is black.

Shortly after they entered, a lodge official tapped Mr. Yates on the shoulder and said: "You've got to go." He and Mr. Edwards both believe there was only one reason: Mr. Yates' race.

An article appeared in the Hagerstown newspaper a few days later about his eviction. Mr. Yates says he was not particularly surprised by the local report, but does not know how the paper was alerted to the incident.

Coverage followed by the Associated Press and newspapers in Baltimore and Washington. And there were stories by television stations -- and a vote on his membership application last Wednesday night.

In that vote, closed by local lodge officials to the media, less than percent of the Hagerstown lodge's claimed membership of 7,500 voted on his application, rejecting it 52-19.

Officials of the Moose national organization had told members that race should not be grounds for rejection and were disturbed by the vote. A spokesman said the local lodge's status would be reviewed in light of its action.

And so continues the controversy about the Moose Lodge and Mr. Yates, a 43-year-old Hagerstown native who tells of growing up in a segregated neighborhood and dodging rocks and bottles thrown by white boys when he ventured into their neighborhood to buy bread for his mother.

His friend and would-be sponsor, Mr. Edwards, has even received a death threat, Mr. Yates said, in the form of a vile message left on his answering machine.

"I thought that old stuff was over," Mr. Yates said yesterday after finishing work at the car dealership where he checks and cleans cars for buyers.

But he said he has received nothing but support and encouragement from friends and co-workers, including some Moose members.

"It proves to me that people have come a long way," he said of the response since his story became public. "It's just that they're tired of [prejudice]."

Another supporter is Marvin Niswander, a lieutenant in the Hagerstown Fire Police, which assists the fire and police departments at crime scenes and emergencies.

Mr. Yates, who in the past has belonged to two volunteer fire companies, volunteers for the group and recently won an election -- to sergeant.

"We all feel bad about what happened [at the Moose Lodge]," Lieutenant Niswander said yesterday. "It's just a damn shame people still have to be prejudiced. We're just hoping everything turns out right by him.

"He's a real swell guy," the lieutenant said. "He's kind of quiet, but he'll do anything for you.

Mr. Yates seems unassuming, even a bit shy. He's pretty much a loner who works 68 hours a week, he said. He does not seem to be one to break new ground.

Mr. Yates and Mr. Edwards are neighbors in a primarily white neighborhood in town. Mr. Yates, who has three grown children and is separated from his wife, lives alone. He said he doesn't have problems with his neighbors or, for that matter, anybody else.

"I pretty much know everybody there," he said of the area.

Mr. Yates said yesterday that looking back on the past month or so, he recalls how it all started. He mentioned to Mr. Edwards a couple of days before Christmas that he might be interested in joining the Moose. Mr. Yates said he likes to shoot pool, and he knew from Mr. Edwards, a 15-year member, that the Moose lodge had a nice pool room and frequent social events.

But the Christmas Eve visit was Mr. Edwards' idea, Mr. Yates said.

Mr. Edwards, 35, a mechanic for the same company that employs Mr. Yates, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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