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The Because Project: Hal Colston

"I learned to see past racial differences because a white neighbor taught me to play chess."


I was 10 years old during the hot, steamy summer of 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would lead the March on Washington in August, and the racism in my post-Jim Crow town of York, Pennsylvania, was palpable.

My father was an entrepreneur acquiring apartment buildings in our neighborhood. He worked with Hugh Graham, director of the York Redevelopment Authority, which was located just across the street from our home.

Mr. Graham was a stout white man with a shock of white hair and a wide smile. One afternoon I walked across the street to his office. I wanted to see my father, and I was wondering if he and Mr. Graham had finished their meeting. Mr. Graham said that my father had gone to another meeting. I saw a checkered board on a side table in his office with strange pieces on it.

"What's that?" I asked him.

"That's a chess set," he said.

"I've never heard of chess," I told him.

Mr. Graham asked me if I wanted to learn to play. I said I did. Over the next few weeks, he taught me the game.

In chess, white and black pieces battle to the end, but beyond the board, exactly the opposite was happening — a white man was teaching a black person to play.

I was captivated by the game. Later that summer I brought home the Colston family's first chess set.

I paid forward Mr. Graham's gift and taught friends in my neighborhood. I began to play in chess tournaments at the local YMCA. Chess taught me about strategy, perseverance and thinking outside the box. It showed me that by out-maneuvering my opponent, I proved I was every bit as smart. And it demonstrated that it didn't matter whether you chose black or white chess pieces — you could be a winner either way.

I didn't realize it at the time, but Mr. Graham was a pioneer. What an uncommon connection we shared. I am forever grateful to him for taking the time to reach out to me.

Hal Colston is a social entrepreneur who created the Good News Garage in 1996 and NeighborKeepers in 2006. He was appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin as the executive director of SerVermont in 2011, which administers AmeriCorps state programs and has a mission to promote, support and recognize volunteerism and community service. Colston lives in Winooski and is also an instructor at Champlain College.

Submit your stories for the Because Project! Email them to Submissions should be 300 to 600 words long and respond to the prompt "I am/decided to/learned to _______ because of ______." Kids VT will feature one of these stories in each issue.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.