IT'S COLD. Like a fool, I've left my coat inside Cornelius Proctor's house in Cheverly. The house is located on a hill in a section of junk yards and the wind whips through the area. We are in Proctor's back yard looking at his pigeons. He has something like 100 of them and I was thinking as I left his house that one look at the birds would be more than enough. But there it is 10 minutes later and Proctor is still carrying on about his birds, and I'm still taking notes and I'm beginning to understand why Proctor is a hurt man and why he has gone to the State of Maryland with his problem.
Proctor is a big man - 250 pounds if he's a pound. He plays a game with you. He tells you he works for the D.C. Department of Environmental Services, which tells you nothing, and then he tells you that he's an environmental technician, which doesn't tell you a whole lot more. He shows you his ID card. It has a picture - a black man with a beard, and his title. Then he laughts, "I'm a trash man," he says. "I'm the one who throws the cans."
So we are out in the back yard and I ask him which one is his best bird. "My best bird at this time would be number 142," he says. "She's about a year old. I paid $400 for her mother and father." The bird turns about to be a Sion, meaning that it was bred by a man named Paul Sion, who is French. What it can do is fly anywhere from 100 to 500 miles in a day. If you take a bird out to a place like Bristol, Tenn., where some of the races are held, and let it go, it will be back in Vheverly before nightfall.
This bird, Proctor says, cannot fly with some of the best birds in the Washington area. This bird, he says, belongs to a black man and this black man, who is Cornelius R. Proctor, age 40, has been denied membership in four suburban Maryland pigeon clubs on account of race. That's what Proctor says. That's what he has told the Maryland Human Relations Commission and that is why he is file number 56-56 - the case of one angry pigeon man vs. the Maryland pigeon establishment. Leaders of the four pigeon clubs have been quoted as saying they do not discriminate.
I have to tell you when Proctor told me his problem on the phone. I almost had to laugh. I mean, after all the antidiscrimination cases I have ever heard of - after cases that have to do with housing and employment and public accommodations - we have finally come down to pigeons and one man's attempt to get the State of Maryland to open up some pigeon clubs. So I went to see Proctor with my pretty much made up. I was going to write about how I felt sorry for him and how I don't approve of discrimination of any kind, but I thought you had to draw the line somewhere. Pigeon clubs would be as good a place as any.
I told Proctor the way I felt and he sort of nodded his head. He said he could understand, but then he detailed how he had tried to join the white clubs. He and his friends, he said, had gone to their club house and had beers with the white members just to show them that they were human beings. They had entered birds in their shows and had even bought birds from the white clubs.
"They allowed us in there," he said. "They take our money. They sold us beer. They sold us sandwiches. They allow us to show our birds. They allow us to buy birds. They take our money but they won't race with us."
Proctor and 24 other pigeon fancies have their own club. At the moment, it happens to be all black, but it once had a white member and whites are welcome. The club, Proctor and others say, has been barred form joining the association of pigeon clubs that sponsors most of the important local races. Again they say the reason is race. So Proctor and his friends have to complete much of the time against one another. They say they are denied the chance to prove what their birds are worth - denied a chance to enter a race where 2,000 or so birds may be competing.
"If one of your birds is better than 2,000 or 3,000 birds, you know the value of your bird," he said.
When I left Proctor, I called the State Human Relations Commission to see if a complaint had been filed. The investigator there said he could has any merit at all. In a Prince George's County newspaper, the investigator was quoted as saying that the case is under investigation, and Proctor himself says he has been told that since the white clubs maintain a club house that serves beer, it might be considered a public accommodation and come under the law. I don't know about that.
But I do know that something during the interview the urge to laugh about Proctor's problem left me. It happened when Proctor mentioned his 11-year-old boy andhow the kid helps him take care of the pigeons. Proctor himself learned about pigeons when he was boy, picking it up from a man named Herbert Lofty. He says his name with reverence: "Herbert Lofty was the founder of our club."
Proctor does not mention the boy after that, but his picture rests on a nearby and he is always with us. Instead, he talks about kids and how if pigeon racing is going to survive as a sport it must attract what he calls "young blood."
"They go to an integrated school and to an integrated Boys Club," he said of the kids. "They don't want to get into something that's segregated. The segregated thing is something they don't want to get into."
He talked this way a good deal of the time I was with him, always mentioning new blood and how important that was for the sport. Later, we went out to look at the birds, but I knew by then that this column was not really about birds at all.
It's mostly about kids.