"Damn! Every time a person farts too loud, out goes the lights."

Week of August 24, 2006

Rev. Al Sharpton

Hey Joe: Were you affected by the recent St. Louis area power outage? Do you think Ameren responded more slowly to black customers than to white customers?

Rev. Al Sharpton, New York

Coincidentally, on the day I received your question, a power outage occurred during another threatening thunderstorm. Afterwards, the day's projected temperature of 101 degrees dropped considerably. However, any outage that extends beyond three hours (as was the case on this day) affected me as well as every other homeowner or renter. Therefore, the longevity of the two most recent major outages, attributed to thunderstorms, affected all involved.

During both of these calamities, I wound up at a motel for several days. Thankfully, my insurance policy covered most of the damage — quite unlike others without coverage. In both instances, however, I was so distraught I never considered whether Ameren responded slower to blacks than whites. However, many years before Ameren arrived on the scene, there was suspicion in black communities about utility companies jacking up rates. As a former utility employee, I agree with such feelings.

Ameren is another story. During the past three or four years of its control, there have been more power outages than during most of my lifespan. I'm sure many former Union Electric customers feel likewise. This leads me to believe that Ameren cares less about whether a customer is black or white. So devastating have these outages been that once thunder is heard, the fear of God wells up within people living under such circumstances. It prompted a next-door neighbor to remark, "Damn! Every time a person farts too loud, out goes the lights."

Unfortunately, there are others who might disagree with my philosophy. This was indicated approximately three weeks ago by some panel members on KETC-TV (Channel 9)'s Donnybrook, who seemed to sympathize with this greedy terrorist giant, which has monopolized the industry while leaving its customers helpless and virtually subdued with no recourse. The rationale was that the company did a yeoman job in restoring services to the seemingly endless list of victims after they had undergone a destructive storm, which they classified as an act of God. Granted, the problems encountered were an act of God.

Perhaps these panelists voiced their opinion based upon the damage left by the recent thunderstorms and not a person such as myself who has contended with this power company for the past three or four years. During this period of time there has been outage after outage. The cases are so numerous that I, along with hundreds of thousands of others, dread summer or winter's arrival for fear of power outages.

I learned long ago that complaining to the company about high rates is an exercise in futility, and it is impossible for these bills to be viewed as an act of God. Three consecutive times, my bill was over $400 per month. When inquiring about this, I was told an assortment of things such as, "We have no control over it," "Speak with your state senator," and "We only get a small percentage of the money." Since then, as customer of Ameren, I have become very fearful of their actions. When fear overcomes a person because of frightful reasons, the entity that caused that fear has become a terrorist.

Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn't know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman's Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white.

Perhaps Henry's most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they'd arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts.

Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards.

After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'.

Direct questions on any and all topics to [email protected]. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

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