University of Idaho College of Law alumnus and Black History Month keynote speaker Reginald Reeves started with a story.
It was a story about the time he spent as a student at A&T State University in North Carolina, back in 1947 before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus. Reeves said he spent a day in Charlotte watching a ball game. On the way back to Greensboro, he said he took a seat in the front row of the bus he boarded.
Previous to this point, Reeves said he had decided he would not sit at the back of the bus again unless he chose to himself.
The bus driver noticed him, but chose not to say anything. Charlotte was an enlightened area for 1947 North Carolina, Reeves said. When they arrived in a smaller town, the driver finally decided to say something.
“The bus driver stopped the bus, hitched his belt up over his belly and said, ‘Get up,’” Reeves said.
Reeves refused to move, and instead asked why he should leave his seat if he bought the same ticket everyone else did. The driver, getting redder and redder, continued to argue with him until he ultimately called the town sheriff. The sheriff had the same argument with Reeves until he gave up and arrested him, he said.
In jail, Reeves used his phone call to contact a professor at A&T, Dr. Withers. Reeves said Withers immediately wired the money to bail him out of jail.
Years after his time in North Carolina, Reeves became the first African-American man to enroll in UI’s College of Law. He said while he was a student at UI, he found there were several places in Moscow and in other areas of Idaho which refused to serve him.
The belief that the bigotry and racism in Idaho stemmed from the Aryan Nations is false, Reeves said.
When thousands of Japanese were being forced to leave their homes and move to internment camps, a UI professor arranged for groups of Japanese students from the University of Washington to move inland and enroll at UI to avoid the camps, Reeves said. The same professor received a letter from the governor of Idaho at the time, telling him that “those people” should not come to UI, and in fact they shouldn’t be pursuing an education at all. They were meant to work in the fields.
Years passed, and Reeves said he finished his education at UI, but throughout this time he remained in search of Withers, the professor who bailed him out who Reeves had yet to thank. Finally, Reeves said one of his friends found Withers in Silver Spring, Maryland. Reeves hopped on a plane and flew to Maryland to thank him.
While visiting the former professor, Reeves said he found out a lot more about Withers’ life. He was a lieutenant managing a unit in Germany, and there he helped many people, including a soldier who wanted to be a medic but couldn’t because he was a person of color. Reeves said Withers helped the soldier escape the situation he was in, and later he found out that the soldier became a lieutenant general.
Reeves followed in Withers’ footsteps and started looking for ways to help people in need. He said he shipped dozens of computers to Guatemala to help the people there build schools. He received $1.2 million in medical equipment from a surgeon from Tulsa, Oklahoma, which Reeves said he sent to Vietnam. He negotiated with bakeries to get them to donate their day-old goods for him to give to the hungry.
With the help of his wife, Reeves said he established a foundation so he could collect more items like food, clothing and medical supplies to give to those who need them.
“If you can find time in your busy schedule, Donna and I can find a volunteer job for you,” Reeves said.
Erin Bamer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ErinBamer