Friendship bridges deep racial divide

Roger Moyer and Joseph Simms' story of loyalty will be captured on film

April 04, 2006|By NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON | NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON,SUN REPORTER

They are fuzzy now on where they met - a baseball field or a basketball court - but they are certain that they were not supposed to play together. Not in the late 1940s. But Roger "Pip" Moyer, who is white, and Joseph "Zastrow" Simms, who is black, played together anyway. And when they talk about it now it's clear that it couldn't have been any other way.

It was fate that made them friends, they say, and loyalty and respect forged in difficult times that kept them together. So it was that 38 years ago this week, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tenn., and Annapolis threatened to burn, Moyer, then the mayor of Annapolis, and Simms stood together again. They calmed black Annapolis in the days after April 4, 1968, by walking the streets of the old Ward 4.

Now their story is being turned into a documentary, Pip & Zastrow: An American Friendship, by award-winning filmmakers Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes. It is being shot in Annapolis and is set to be released by Urcunina Films next year.

Bruce, who lives in Annapolis, heard about Moyer and Simms' friendship six years ago. She couldn't get it out of her head.

"These guys had real segregation to deal with but became friends anyway. Because they went forward with their friendship, things changed," Bruce said. "It's such an important Maryland story."

Moyer and Simms, both 71, speak about their five-decade friendship as if it always was. They knew of each other before they met.

"I'd heard about this guy who could shoot the eyes out of a basketball and I went to go see him play," recalled Simms over lunch at Chick and Ruth's in downtown Annapolis. "It was meant to be and it has lasted all these years. ... My father would say it didn't [get] any better than Pip Moyer."

Moyer remembered seeing Simms, who was nicknamed for a star Navy quarterback, at bat on a baseball field.

"I asked someone who the guy was and he says `Zastrow,'" Moyer said. A three-sport athlete, Simms was a standout in everything he did. He had a shot at professional baseball but he just couldn't stop looking for trouble.

"He wore a bald head, a Fu Manchu mustache and always had a special lady," Moyer said. "He was all muscle back then."

"I'm all flab now," Simms responded.

Back then, Moyer, whose speech and movement have been impaired by Parkinson's disease, played forward and center at all-white Annapolis High. Simms starred at all-black Wiley H. Bates High. Outside of their segregated schools, they played on neighborhood courts. And Moyer was usually the only white guy around. His friends often tried to run black kids off the court. Moyer chose to join them.

"With Pip Moyer, it begins in his bloodlines. ... His mother was a good person," Simms said. "Blacks were in her house like it was the United Nations."

In 1959, Moyer integrated the all-black Annapolis Falcons, a semipro team that played against teams in Baltimore and Washington, he recalled. Playing "mixed basketball," Moyer said, was a scandal as Annapolis was still segregated. They recalled being spat upon when they'd take the floor.

From those early days, their paths diverged. Moyer spent some time in the Army, graduated from the University of Baltimore then came back home and ran for alderman. He was elected Annapolis mayor in 1965. Simms said he became a small-time burglar and was in and out of trouble.

"He went on to be the mayor and I went on to be a jailbird," Simms said, summing up those early years. "But the end justifies the meaning."

For Simms, the meaning is that Moyer remained a loyal friend no matter the consequences. Moyer was called a "nigger lover," Simms said, and he was labeled an "Uncle Tom." The yacht and Elks clubs refused to admit Moyer. When Simms' mother died, Moyer helped get him a 14-hour furlough to attend her funeral.

Moyer said he was looking forward to hanging out with his old friend after the funeral, but Simms had other plans. Right after the services, Simms bailed on Moyer to spend time with a lady friend, Moyer recalled, ribbing his old friend after all these years.

Months later, when King was fatally shot, Moyer needed his imprisoned friend again, and this time he was there.

King's assassination was "like a wildfire running through the community," said civil rights activist Carl O. Snowden, who was 13 when King was killed.

On televisions displayed in a store window on Main Street, Snowden watched news reports of violence breaking out in Memphis, Washington and New York.

"There was a strong sentiment of revenge; people wanted to strike back," Snowden recalled.

And many people did. In Baltimore, the fires began April 6 and raged for four nights. Six people died, 700 were injured and damage estimates reached $10 million, The Sun reported. City firefighters battled 900 fires in three days. An estimated 1,000 businesses were burned or looted and 5,800 people were arrested.

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