An Urban Life 

Jerome Page sifts through decades of memories with the Urban League

Jerome Page's life has been defined by three unavoidable realities: He's male, he's black and he's tall.

That puts him in a decidedly visible position. But there are other truths about the recently retired director of the Urban League of the Pikes Peak Region: He's passionately driven to break the cycle of poverty and he has devoted a lifetime busting up the devastating toll of discrimination in America.

"Jerry is one of the great public entrepreneurs; by that I mean he is a person with a heart as big as mountain ranges, as deep as the Grand Canyon," said Hugh Price, director of the National Urban League. "His commitment to children, his understanding of the development needs of children, is really quite striking.Echoed Vernon Jordan, the former National Urban League director and one of Page's mentors: "Jerry was and is an extraordinary leader with a full appreciation of the constituents that the Urban League serves."

He's also led one hell of a colorful life.

The best view

Growing up in Denver, Page, now 66, was protected by his parents. Discrimination in Colorado's capital was neither well defined nor well understood.

Going to the movies downtown, the family would sit in the balcony. Page's father said the view from the rafters was best. It wasn't until much later when Page realized that they sat in the balcony because they had no choice -- they weren't allowed to sit with the white people downstairs.

At East High School, Page joined the track team, but couldn't have joined the pre-law or pre-med clubs because it just wasn't done. He and his black friends knew which parts of the city to avoid after dark because, if spotted, the police would stop and detain them.

Page's contemporaries included Wellington Webb, Norm Rice and Patsy Hilliard -- all African Americans and friends from rival Manual High School -- who went on to become mayors of Denver, Seattle and East Point, Georgia.

They also included the very white Marilyn Van Derbur, the East High School graduate and 1958 Miss America who later publicly revealed that her father -- a pillar in Denver business and society circles -- had sexually molested her as a child.

"As far as we were concerned, all those white folks were perfect and all was perfect in their lives," Page said.

Racism existed within the African-American community as well. Page's parents wouldn't allow his brother's best friend in their house. Why? Because he was jet black. "The colored thing in the black community is just like in the white community; if you're white, you're all right, if you're brown, stay around; if you're black, stay back. Our society was built on things like that, which is terrible."

Eight years ago, at his 40th high school reunion, Page planned to go up on stage and curse out his schoolmates for their racism.

But as he was getting ready to rant and rave, the speaker before him, a white man who had been a popular school leader, praised Page's work as a Peace Corps volunteer and with the Urban League.

"He completely took the wind out of my sail," Page said. The lecture on racism never got delivered.

Page got to Colorado State University on a track scholarship. He and the other black athletes lived in the basement of the Jewish fraternity on campus, not in the dorm. Page never thought to ask why he and his black friends were segregated.

After he graduated -- one of two African Americans in CSU's class of '57 -- Page joined the Army.

During basic training at Fort Meade, Maryland, Page and some army buddies went into the city of Silver Springs to see a movie. His white friends, ahead of him, paid for their tickets and went inside. Page was turned away.

"They wouldn't let me in the movie -- I could not believe it. That was the first time blatant racism hit me in the face," he said. "They wouldn't let me go in and tell my buddies, and they wouldn't tell my buddies that I couldn't get in."

Page cried as he walked alone several miles back to the base in the dark. He made a vow to leave the country and never come back. Later, as he observed the phenomenon of the ugly American running wild and roughshod in Turkey and then Germany, Page made another promise: He would show the world that not all Americans are ugly.

While he had intended to be a teacher, Page's prospects were restricted by a system that believed black people could not teach white kids. So he turned to the Peace Corps, and later, the Urban League.

The melting pot

When Page joined the Peace Corps, his Spanish wasn't too strong and some staff members recommended he not be sent to South America.

But, it was the early 1960s and John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps required the inclusion of more African Americans and other people of color. Page was assigned to a profoundly poor barrio in Caracas -- a veritable melting pot of Venezuelans of every color -- where even translators couldn't understand the nuances of the Spanish dialect spoken there.

Over the next two years, the conservative-looking, bespectacled black man from Denver focused on bringing YMCA programs for youth into the neighborhood. Securing support from the rich establishment, he carved a baseball field out of a garbage dump. They played soccer, American football -- got the Ford Motor Company to donate wood for a soapbox derby. At first, only the boys participated. Then the girls started getting permission to join in.

They all called him the mayor of the barrio -- Alcalde de Catia -- and in part because of the accessibility to his jurisdiction, Page became the most promoted Peace Corps volunteer in Venezuela.

Politicians, including U.S. Senators Paul Douglas and Mo Udall, visited and returned home, reporting their observations to President Kennedy. In the States, publicity shots of Page with his kids were making the rounds.

"The dignitaries could fly into Caracas, stay at the counterpart to the Broadmoor, get up in the morning, have a fabulous breakfast and come out [to the Catia barrio] and rub shoulders with all the poverty of the world," Page said. "Then they could get back for cocktails at lunch."

The late Sen. Hubert Humphrey loved the Peace Corps and the kids in Page's barrio. He visited three times, playing baseball and monitoring their progress.

One year, back in the States, Humphrey threw out the ball at the World Series and declared on national radio that the ball was for his baseball team in Caracas, and their coach, Jerry Page.

Another year, Humphrey and his wife decided they would, from then on, instead of giving Christmas presents to family members, just give one big gift to a cause. That year, Page's kids received a huge box of sports equipment.

"It was the best two years of my life, outside my family and my wife, the time I spent in the Peace Corps," Page said. "I went back [to Catia] 10 years later and it was a fantastic return. The big kids were grown and the little kids were hanging on the same street corners where the big kids were ten years before.

"Everything changes, but everything stays the same."

Explaining the inexplicable

While he was in Venezuela, all hell was breaking loose back home in the States. The civil rights movement was raging. And then, the president was shot. Page's hero, John F. Kennedy, was dead.

"I was trying to explain democracy -- then-Venezuelan President [Rmulo] Betencourt had had something like 25 attempts on his life. I'd say, 'We don't do things like that in the United States. We vote, we do elections, we don't kill our enemies,' and in the middle of that, Kennedy got killed and race relations just exploded and we were seeing pictures of dogs attacking blacks in the South.

"It was a devastating experience to try to explain how a great democracy was in the middle of all of this. There was a revolution going on and I didn't even understand what that was about."

Page's success in the Peace Corps had grabbed the interest of the director of the Urban League in Denver, who sent Page a message to look him up and check out the work of the League when he returned home.

Organized in 1910 on the post-slavery heels of the migration from the rural South to the urban North, the Urban League has about 100 chapters in 34 states. Its mission is to secure economic self-reliance, parity and power and civil rights.

For Page, joining the movement was a logical next step.

While serving an Urban League internship in Denver, Page was offered a scholarship for a masters degree in social work. "With that scholarship came a two-year commitment to the Urban League," he said. "Thirty-seven years later, I'm retiring."

After he graduated, Page was offered a job in Seattle and, after two years, became the deputy director of the chapter in November, 1967.

The Seattle radical

Two months after Page was promoted to deputy director in Seattle, someone threw a snowball at the front door of Seattle Urban League director Ed Pratt's home. When he opened the door, his head was blown off. The crime, which occurred during the first month of Richard Nixon's presidency, was never solved.

Page was named interim director, and eventually the post became his permanently.

"I was insanely afraid, I was insanely ignorant," Page said. "The whole world thought that Ed Pratt's death would be followed by any number of black leaders in the community, but nothing happened."

His parents responded by recruiting Buzzy Benson to be his protector -- the same man who, in his youth, they had disapproved of because of his dark black skin.

Times were crazy when Page was in Seattle, and much of the focus was the radicalism of the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society -- radical black kids and radical white kids. The governor of Washington was a Republican, Dan Evans.

"In those days we had decent Republicans in office, and Dan Evans was an engineer -- he knew nothing about black anything," Page said. "But he was a smart guy and an honest guy and a decent guy and he had a 15-minute appointment with the Black Panthers."

The 15-minute meeting turned into an all-night affair.

"He was so taken with what they were talking about and why they were angry and what they were all about," Page said. "After he met with the Black Panthers and heard about racism and these things, he went back and started appointing blacks to every board he could."

The result was, for the first time in the state's history, three black men serving as the presidents of the board of Evergreen College, the University of Washington and Eastern Washington State University in Spokane.

Every month, Page would fly to Spokane to preside.

"It was phenomenal -- what did I know about being the chairman of a board? But how do you get people in positions of making decisions to be aware of issues for people of color? They cannot be aware unless people of color who understand those issues are part of that decision making."

Page's colleagues were in for a surprise. During his first trip, other board members chattered excitedly about President Nixon's upcoming visit to their city. "I said, 'Wait a minute, I want the record to be clear: I hate Nixon,' and I just went off on him. They thought I was crazy."

Under Page's guidance, the Urban League pushed forward desegregation efforts and equalizing opportunities for African-American students.

Seattle's all-white construction industry was booming, but blacks were shut out. Whites only were building a swimming pool at an all-black high school. The Urban League organized and activists closed down that, and other, work sites. Sea-Tac Airport was being built with federal funds, and no blacks need apply. So they shut it down.

"We met at the airport, women and men, and just tied up the [ticket] lines," Page said. "Sister Jones would be at the counter saying, 'I want to go to Bangkok and then to Ireland and then to Zimbabwe' and go through all of this planning, and then say, 'Oh, I don't want to go after all' and leave."

Page got in line, bought a ticket to Portland and cancelled it the next day.

The airport was at a standstill. People got arrested. Then, the activists marched out onto the tarmac and that stopped all flights entirely. A federal judge finally ordered a committee be formed to integrate the construction unions.

A film crew followed Page around for two months, and the result was a documentary that was used as an Urban League training guide on community organizing.

Norm Rice moved to Seattle and became Page's program director. When he arrived in the late '60s, the mayor made it clear that Rice and Page were not welcome and could not consider meeting with the mayor of Seattle. Two decades later, Rice owned that office.

"Life has dramatically changed," Page said.

Culture shocks

In 1979, Page accepted the job running the Washington, D.C. Urban League. It was a frustrating and challenging job.

"Washington is a dramatically different place. You've got this tremendously elite group -- a lot of people who are doing good and wonderful things, but a dramatic cleavage between the haves- and have-nots," Page said. "The most powerful people in the world are just blocks away from people living in abject poverty."

He worked closely with then-mayor Marion Barry, long before Barry's fall and subsequent reascension after he was videotaped smoking crack in a hotel room. Page observed, fascinated, as the magnetic Jesse Jackson maneuvered front and center in photo ops. He was horrified when his good friend, National Urban League president Vernon Jordan, was shot by a white supremacist in Indiana. Jordan recovered and later became one of President Bill Clinton's closest advisers.

"When came from Seattle to the nation's capital, it was daring, in my judgment," Jordan said. "It was huge exposure and a big change for him from a seat where he was a big man coming to the town where many big men and women are."

"But he feared not."

During Page's time in the capital city, in the 1980s, Wellington Webb and his wife Wilma attended a brunch for a group of Denver folks at the Page's Washington home. One by one, around the room, people started announcing their dreams -- which government office they would end up holding.

When they got to Wilma, she bragged that Wellington would be mayor of Denver.

"They all had this bemused snicker on their faces -- as well as I did at the time -- as if to say 'Sure, she must be dreaming,'" Webb said in a recent interview. "But the first time anyone ever said I would be mayor was in [Jerome Page's] house."

After three and a half years, Page and his family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, his first time living in the Deep South.

"That was a culture shock," he said. "The Urban League in Chattanooga was based on a very conservative model of the Urban League -- we negotiate, we sit in the board rooms, we don't picket and we don't march. We don't do these things."

Shortly after Page's arrival in Tennessee, apartheid in South Africa came to a head. Page, along with dozens of other Urban League activists, descended on Washington to make a stink about laying down the line on economic sanctions against South Africa for its government-mandated racial segregation policies.

Page had left a message for his board chairman, a conservative bank president in Chattanooga, asking him to call if he disapproved of Page's involvement in the protest. The bank president apparently never got the message.

The protesters marched from the Washington Hilton through the mall to the South African embassy. On its steps, Page was arrested. The tall black man's picture went out over the national news wires and appeared in the Chattanooga newspaper.

"I went back to two extreme welcomes, one saying, 'Bravo, the Urban League finally did something visible and stood up,' and the other extreme was, 'How could you do this?' Our board was furious, the corporate community was furious," Page said. "I literally thought my career was over."

Back to his roots

It wasn't. After eight years in Chattanooga, Page wanted to come home, back to his roots.

The Denver Urban League executive position wasn't available, but Colorado Springs, reeling in controversy over the former director's financial mismanagement of the organization, was looking for a boss to pull things together.

When he was a teenager, Page and his brother used to come to Colorado Springs to meet girls. In college, he and three buddies drove to the Springs one summer to help build the Air Force Academy.

"Everyone in Colorado knew this was the greatest job in the state -- building the Air Force Academy," Page said. "We got down here and they wouldn't hire us; they wouldn't hire blacks. So we continued down to Pueblo and worked at the CF&I steel mill and had a great experience in Pueblo.

"For me, this city was a mysterious challenge."

Soon after he arrived, the Ku Klux Klan announced they planned to rally in downtown Colorado Springs. Page helped organize a counter demonstration -- a rally in Memorial Park that drew thousands of people to celebrate diversity -- ignoring the Klan members gathered a mile away.

A year after Page arrived, Amendment 2 exploded. The amendment, designed to prohibit gays and lesbians from seeking protected status, was born in the Springs, approved by Colorado voters and eventually shot down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Early on, a split board of the Urban League formally declared its opposition to the amendment, marking the first and only time in Page's 37 years with the Urban League that a board member resigned on the spot in protest.

Page was among the first to march alongside gays and lesbians and their supporters, drawing harsh criticism from the rigid right.

"I didn't know anything about gay and lesbian issues; it was another world to me," he said. "But what does the Urban League stand for? We're against discrimination. It has nothing to do with lifestyle or gays or lesbians. It's an issue of, if you discriminate against a white female or a gay person or a fat person or a redhead, history says you discriminate against black folks because we are the first and the original in this country to be discriminated against and we're still discriminated against.

"The Urban League has to maintain a solid posture against discrimination, and Amendment 2 was discriminatory."

There have been some disappointments heading the Urban League of the Pikes Peak Region. Page's wife JoKatherine, a well-educated, strong black woman, couldn't get a job in Colorado Springs commensurate with her experience and expertise in psychiatric social work. She was luckier in Denver, and the couple has had to commute in a long-distance marriage.

Turmoil in the local chapter of the NAACP has also been a frustration.

Historically, the relationship between the NAACP and the Urban League has been a close one: Page likens the roles as this: "The NAACP is the War Department, the Urban League is the State Department. We started as equal partners; our issues are the same issues -- education, social welfare, health issues. There's a gap between blacks and whites in every aspect; you name an issue and I'll show you a gap."

But for Page, working with past presidents of the local NAACP has been trying.

Former director Jim Tucker was ousted after a much-publicized falling out with other local and national NAACP leaders. His successor, Willie Breazell, also was ousted and has since become the local black community's most vocal supporter of school vouchers, a move that left Page scratching his head and wondering whether "the brother has gone crazy."

An ardent opponent, Page believes that school vouchers would, in essence, take a handful of the most promising young African-American and Hispanic and poor white children out of urban public schools and put them into private schools. The result, he says, would be two or three generations of minority children lost to an experiment that would mainly benefit upper-class white students.

Page is also outspoken in his criticism of white law enforcement leaders who insist that racial profiling by the police does not exist here; he himself has been the target of such profiling.

Driving down Nevada Avenue, he was pulled over by a cop who sat in his car and unnecessarily called for backup. It was only when the second car arrived, lights flashing, that the officer approached Page, and in gruff tones, treated him with obvious and unnecessary suspicion. The policeman had no reason to believe he was a criminal. Page -- with a lifetime's worth of firsthand knowledge of discerning racism -- knew the score.

"I will go to my grave feeling that it's happening all over the country," he said.

Shoes to fill

Despite the challenges, under Page's direction the Urban League of the Pikes Peak Region has refinanced, refocused and grown from two or three employees to 14 full-time staff. The organization now offers programs that range from child development to adult and youth employment to after-school programs and parenting classes.

In the community, Page was a key organizer of Community Conversations on Race, a series of discussions designed to bring people from varied backgrounds together to foster respect and understanding of race issues.

A program he hatched with Colorado Springs Fire Chief Manuel Navarro to recruit and train minority firefighters is now being duplicated across the country.

His successes have not gone unnoticed. National Urban League director Hugh Price praised Page for his "unswerving, unadulterated commitment and integrity." Price has no doubt that the Urban League will turn to Page for guidance as the organization copes in coming years with a generation of "lifers" who are reaching retirement age, including leaders from Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Atlanta.

"I pray that in the years to come there will be whole new generations of Jerome Pages with his kind of compassion and commitment and staying power and level-headedness," Price said. "He's one of the most respected and revered leaders in the movement."

In October, Page will be honored as recipient of the prestigious Carle E. Whitehead Award, named for the founder of the ACLU of Colorado, for his achievements and commitment. And though he is still deciding what's next, Page has not entirely abandoned a dream to rejoin the Peace Corps and bring life full circle.

"We've made great progress," Page said, "but we still have a long way to go."


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