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An era ends: Former Mayor Robert Reid says he won’t run for re-election, ending a 50-year political career

Posted 2/20/19

Editor’s note: The Press & Journal will tell the story of Robert G. Reid this week and next, detailing his days growing up in Middletown through his college and military life as well as his …

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An era ends: Former Mayor Robert Reid says he won’t run for re-election, ending a 50-year political career

Posted

Editor’s note: The Press & Journal will tell the story of Robert G. Reid this week and next, detailing his days growing up in Middletown through his college and military life as well as his educational career and his time as an elected official.

He hasn’t been mayor for five years, but everyone still calls Robert G. Reid that, including his successor, James H. Curry III.

He is 86 now, but his eyes are as bright brown and piercing as ever.

He is a creature of habit. You can find him at Kuppy’s Diner five days a week, anywhere from 8 to 8:30 a.m. He almost always orders two eggs and three pieces of bacon, although he mixes it up once in awhile.

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Click here to read Part 2

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Once a week in spring and summer you can find Reid sitting on a green John Deere tractor mowing the lawn of his church, Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church on Market Street. Despite the heat and the nature of the task, Reid is usually attired nattily, such as in a white pullover sweater, blue slacks and brown dress shoes, with a straw hat to shield his head from the sun.

Sitting down to talk to the Press & Journal about the last 8 1/2 decades, relaxing in the living room of his home on Grant Street, Reid is surrounded by walls full of memorabilia from family, and from an extraordinary life of public service.

There are photos of Reid with famous figures, such as former President Gerald Ford and ex-Gov. Dick Thornburgh. There’s the wooden paddle that Reid’s students made for him, the one he used to discipline them during his 33 years as a teacher in the Middletown Area School District.

These are just the highlights that Reid can fit on the walls. Packed in boxes and in metal filing cabinets are binders full of photos, letters, plaques, awards, certificates, testimonies and citations. There is correspondence involving the event 40 years ago that briefly made Reid a national figure: the accident at Three Mile Island.

Reid sports his trademark hat, the black baseball cap with the logo of the Army infantry brigade Reid served in while in Germany when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was president.

The ever-present mustache is now salt and pepper — mostly salt — and no longer the solid black of 1968, when a smiling Reid posed for his first portrait as a Middletown elected official. He is the one African-American man surrounded by white men.

Reid’s proud grin underscores the historical significance of the occasion.

For as blacks and whites were fighting in the streets and cities burned in race riots across the United States, Robert G. Reid was being elected the first African-American councilor in Middletown history.

The year 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of Reid’s public service as an elected official. This year will mark his last.

Making history

In 1978, Middletown voters made Robert Reid the first African-American ever elected mayor of any town or city in the history of Pennsylvania.

It’s not exactly the way Reid wants to be remembered.

“I’ve said this many times — don’t look at me as the black mayor. Look at me as the mayor who the people thought was qualified to do the job as mayor of the borough of Middletown. Not as a black mayor, but as a mayor,” he told the Press & Journal.

“People would say, how in the world did you become the mayor of a town — at that time we had over 10,000 people and I think maybe 60 black registered voters,” he said. “I always tell the people when you look at a town and you look at what Dr. [Martin Luther] King wanted, and the way the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is set up — Middletown represented those two documents and what Dr. King wanted 100 percent.

“When you talk about Dr. King looking at someone’s character — the Middletown people didn’t look at me as a black person, they looked at me as a person who they wanted to be in charge of their town, and they felt that I was qualified. They didn’t look at the color. If they had looked at the color I never would have been elected mayor — not with 60 black voters.”

Now, Reid isn’t planning to run in 2019 after being elected to a four-year term on Middletown Borough Council in 2015. It would end a political career that stretches back more than 50 years.

“No, that’s a fact,” Reid told the Press & Journal on not running again.

Reid in recent months has been having issues related to his sinuses and “middle” ear, possibly related to an injury from his boxing days when he was in college in North Carolina. Reid has missed a few council meetings during this period, although most of the time he has been able to participate by phone.

“I had fun doing it, that was the big thing,” Reid said of his political career. “It did take a lot of my time but I had fun. The main thing was I thought I was helping people, especially in my early time as mayor and councilor I did a lot of work for senior citizens. That made me feel really, really great.”

As evidence of Reid’s enduring popularity, he waited until July to enter the 2015 race and then won as a write-in candidate.

He received 160 write-in votes in the November election for the First Ward seat — almost double the combined votes cast for his two opponents who were on the ballot.

As any Reid watcher knows, Reid didn’t serve continuously in public office from 1968 to 2018. His first break was from 1994 to 2000, when he was court administrator for the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas. After that first six-year hiatus, Reid again ran for Middletown mayor and was elected in 2000. He held the position until choosing not to run again in 2013, stepping down until deciding to run for council in 2015.

But there is no doubt that Reid is best known for the 29 years he spent as Middletown mayor, including during the event that put the Middletown area on the map — the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.

Reid has only ever lost one election — in the late 1990s when he tried to unseat Frank “Chick” Tulli Jr. as state House representative of the 106th District. Reid came in second.

“I didn’t have any money,” he said.

Military service

Public service was nothing new to Reid, long before 1968.

He was drafted into the Army in 1957. After basic training he served in Germany with the 3rd Infantry Brigade until 1959, when Reid received an honorable discharge.

Today, Reid often can be seen around town wearing his baseball cap and black jacket, both sporting the 3rd Infantry Brigade logo. He also displays the brigade logo on the license plate of his SUV.

Military service runs deep in Reid’s family. He and his five brothers all served their country in the armed forces.

Reid was drafted shortly after getting his bachelor’s degree in education from Shippensburg University — then Shippensburg State Teachers College.

Upon returning home to Middletown from Germany and the Army, Reid got a job in January 1960 as a teacher with Middletown Area School District.

The district had just one other African-American teacher at the time, Julius Reeves Jr., a minister’s son who taught at the Wood Street school.

When Reeves was transferred to Feaser Junior High to teach physical education there, Reid was assigned to replace Reeves teaching sixth-graders at the Wood Street building.

Reid was a teacher with the Middletown district for 33 years until he retired in 1993. Including his time as a substitute teacher, Reid devoted 40 years of his life to the school district.

When the district opened a new elementary school in 1994 off Oberlin Road in Lower Swatara Township, the school board named it the Robert G. Reid Elementary School.

Reid has lived in Middletown all his life, except for his time away in college and in the Army.

The modest but well-kept house he shares on Grant Street with his wife of 61 years, the former Priscilla Pettis of Oberlin, is within 300 yards of the house Reid grew up in.

“I never left my neighborhood,” Reid told the Press & Journal. “I was born and raised right down the street here.”

Ancestor was a slave

Reid was born on July 7, 1932, to Rachel Colston, who was married to Roosevelt Colston.

Rachel, whose maiden name was Bowman, first married John W. Reid, a World War I veteran who died in 1925 at age 32 and who is buried in the East Middletown Cemetery along Iron Mine Run Road in Londonderry Township.

The cemetery became a graveyard for African-Americans after the “black cemetery” on Market Street in Middletown filled up.

Rachel and John Reid had three children, all of whom are Robert Reid’s half-siblings: Otis, Clyde and Doris.

After John Reid died, Rachel married Roosevelt Colston. The couple had five children — Donald, Robert, Tom, Dale and Patricia. However, Rachel and Roosevelt never formally adopted Colston as the last name of their children.

The father’s side of Robert Reid’s family — Colston — came to Middletown from North Carolina. Reid said he didn’t know much about his father’s side growing up, but he learned much about them when Reid first went away to college, to the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

Reid’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side had been a slave named Sammy Brown. Reid believes that Brown had been a slave in Virginia, when he was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln.

Brown came north, following the Union Army during the Civil War. 

Reid isn’t sure how Brown ended up in Middletown, although he assumes it was for the employment opportunities available here.

Middletown was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, according to a history of African-Americans in Middletown that was done by Virginia M. Schaeffer “in and around 1976” for the Middletown Area Historical Society. 

The stop was known as Five Points, for a row of five gable-pointed houses that were at the southwest corner of Main and Catherine streets.

Freed slaves came to this area seeking jobs with local iron mills and tanneries. They also worked as “hired help,” as stable men and household employees at the farms and homes that were owned by the wealthier people, according to Schaeffer’s history.

After the Civil War, Col. James Young traveled as far south as Georgia to find and bring back “Negro” help for his many farms in the greater Middletown area, according to Schaeffer.

Part of Young’s farmland eventually became Olmsted Air Force Base, which would provide employment for thousands of people, including Robert Reid’s father and Reid himself.

Reid can still picture Sammy Brown, the former slave.

“I remember him. I was young but he lived in the house where we lived at 234 Market St.,” Reid said. “He looked like an Indian. He had slicked black hair, straight black hair.”

But Reid said he never talked with Brown about having been a slave. “I was too young to even ask anything like that.”

Race relations in Middletown

Reid has fond memories growing up in Middletown, even though African-Americans were in the minority then, as they are today.

He got his first job at Kuppy’s at age 14. Reid’s mother also worked at the diner as a cook.

Reid assumes there was prejudice in Middletown, but in a theme he kept coming back to while being interviewed Reid said, “I never saw any prejudice” while growing up in the borough.

“We didn’t have a swimming pool. We all swam in the creek. We all went to the same high school, the proms. We always went together, black and white to the proms as far as I can remember. My class president was black,” Reid said, referring to Charles Anderson, the class president when Reid graduated from Middletown High School in 1950.

“It was just a great town to grow up in. We hunted — just about every house in town had a gun, because this was a town that a lot of people hunted rabbits, deer, pheasants. The schools were always integrated. We played football together.”

Reid was a fullback on the 1949-50 Blue Raiders team that went 10-1 in the regular season, losing only to Steelton. Anderson was on that team, too.

Reid said he didn’t get much playing time in high school, but was good enough for a football scholarship to North Carolina A&T, a historically black college in Greensboro.

Looking up to his brother

While at A&T State, Reid was talked into going out for the boxing team. He ended up getting a boxing scholarship as well.

Reid wasn’t into academics, at least not while in high school.

But he looked up to his older brother, Donald, who most certainly was academically inclined.

Donald would sit with his head buried in a textbook, beating himself up over not being able to solve a trigonometry question.

Mom and dad couldn’t help, because they never had that level of formal education.

“He’d sit there and cry and cry until he got the answer to his problem,” Reid said. “I’d look at him and say, ‘You gotta be crazy.’ You’d think I’d sit there and worry about not being able to get an answer to a trig question? Not me. I was the happy-go-lucky guy, man, out of the house. You wanna study? Yeah, later on. But not him.”

Donald’s hard work paid off. After graduating from Middletown in 1948 — second in his class — he went to Lincoln University and later graduated from Elizabethtown College with a bachelor of science degree.

Donald set his sights on medical school, but Reid’s family didn’t have the money.

The people of Middletown did.

“There was a group of people in town, members of the Kiwanis Club and Rotary Club, that took a liking to Don,” Reid said.

Collection jars were set up in businesses all over Middletown, to raise the money so Donald Reid could go to medical school. The white people of the town “led the way,” Robert Reid said.

Donald earned his doctor of medicine degree from Temple University. He became the first African-American to intern at Harrisburg Hospital. 

In the family tradition of military service, Donald Reid entered the U.S. Navy Medical Corps. where he spent a 22-year career and trained in internal medicine.

After retiring from the Navy as a captain, Reid was appointed by Gov. Dick Thornburgh as executive deputy secretary of Health for the state.

Donald Reid died on June 19, 2018, four days before his 88th birthday.

Wakeup call for ‘hellion’

Donald Reid was one of two African-Americans in Middletown whom Reid sought to emulate, because they had gone to college.

The other was Julius Reeves Jr., the minister’s son, whom Reid would later join as a teacher in the Middletown school district.

“I said if he can do it, I can do it,” Reid said. “There was a number of us, the same age that went to college, because of those two (Reeves and Donald Reid). We wanted to be like them.”

But Reid almost headed down a different path, one that would have led to a very different outcome in his life.

He was a self-described “hellion” in high school. Asked what was the worst thing he ever did, Reid tells of an incident where he defended himself against racism — despite living in a town where he had seemed immune from such prejudice being directed at him.

Two white airmen from South Carolina called Reid a racial slur. The boxer-to-be and the two men started duking it out, right there on Union Street.

“I was about 18. It was a bad fight. I didn’t start it, they started it, but I ended it,” Reid said. The incident was a wakeup call, a fork-in-the-road moment.

“It was something that told me, ‘You better get your act together and point yourself in the right direction, because if you continue to go the way you are going you are going to end up in jail, or worse.”

After graduating from Middletown in 1950, Reid worked briefly as a laborer on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and then at a slaughterhouse, before following in his father’s footsteps at Olmsted Air Force Base.

For about six months, Reid picked up supplies at one huge warehouse where everything came in, and hauled the supplies to the other warehouses all over the base.

He left Olmsted in 1952, when the football scholarship was his ticket to North Carolina A&T, where Reid studied business.

College years

Reid didn’t know anything of the world of historically black colleges, until North Carolina A&T.

Before then, what he knew of African-American history was what he had learned from his high school textbooks about figures such as Booker T. Washington and Marion Anderson, the black opera singer credited with helping launch the civil rights movement in the United States.

“I never knew anything about the other blacks who invented a lot of things in America, until I went to North Carolina,” Reid said. “Then I found out, there’s a whole big culture here that you don’t even know anything about. That’s why I say I’m glad I went to North Carolina A&T, because it showed me the world as it really is.”

Talked into going out for boxing at A&T, Reid fought his way to a conference championship at 156 pounds as a senior welterweight.

One of the referees at the conference championships was Ezzard Charles, who won the pro heavyweight title in 1949 by beating Jersey Joe Walcott.

Charles lost the title to Walcott in 1951, but nearly regained it before losing to Rocky Marciano in 1954.

Reid said he was among a number of boxers on that North Carolina A&T squad whom Charles said were good enough to turn pro. Reid declined, seeing boxing as too “tough” a sport to make a living in.

The North Carolina A&T boxing squad Reid was on was good enough to be invited to box in the NCAA tournament at Penn State University in 1953.

Despite the team’s prowess, North Carolina A&T ended its boxing program while Reid was there — ending his boxing scholarship. 

Priscilla enters the picture

Returning to Middletown, Reid worked for the borough for a period — long enough to know it wasn’t for him.

“I remember one February. It was really, really cold and we were digging a hole in the street on Water Street. I was with the pick, and the stones bounced up and hit me in the leg,” Reid said. “I said ‘I can’t stand this.’ I threw the pick away and said that’s it.”

Inspired by the college experience of mentors like his brother Donald, Reid reached out to Shippensburg to see if he could get into the teaching program. The school said yes, and two years later Reid graduated with his degree.

Then came the draft notice from Uncle Sam. But before that came Priscilla Pettis. 

Reid actually first met her while he was in high school. 

“I was coming down through Steelton and I saw this young lady get on the bus and I said, ‘Man, she’s nice looking,’” Reid said. She seemed to be looking at him, so Reid followed the bus until Priscilla got off in Oberlin, where she lived.

They met and talked, but the relationship didn’t blossom until Reid came back from North Carolina A&T. Priscilla’s cousin had been going there at the same time. Priscilla wrote her cousin to ask if Bob Reid was there, and her cousin said yes.

“That’s how it started,” Reid said of their courtship. They married in 1957, but didn’t have a honeymoon — or even live together — because Reid had been drafted and would be off to boot camp in a month.

Army life meant sleeping in the snow in a foxhole as an infantry private. It was tough but “I loved it,” Reid said. Almost enough to re-up.

“I had a first sergeant that took a liking to me” and tried to persuade Reid to re-enlist, even as Reid was getting on the bus in Bremerhaven, Germany, to go home.

“He wanted me to go to helicopter school. He said, ‘We can ship you back to Fort Gordon, go to helicopter training, become a pilot, become a warrant officer and eventually a lieutenant — up the ranks,’” Reid said. Handing Reid the re-enlistment papers on the bus, the first sergeant said, “All you gotta do is sign.”

But with his teaching degree from Shippensburg in hand, Reid was committed to a civilian career in the classroom.

‘Elect me’

Reid said he didn’t run into any prejudice as a black man looking to teach in a mostly white school district in 1960, four years before passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Being a teacher Reid got to know students and their families, especially in the southwest area of Middletown that was the First Ward, where Reid lived.

Until 2016, borough councilors in Middletown were elected not at large — by residents of the whole town — but by wards representing different geographic areas. Councilors were elected from one of three wards in the borough — the First, Second and Third.

In 1967, it seemed to Reid that First Ward residents were getting the short end of the stick.

“We were classified as ‘River Rats’” because they lived near the Susquehanna River, Reid said. “It seemed as though this area wasn’t being taken care of as far as paying taxes and having work done. It seemed as though the only work that was done in (the First Ward) was right around election time, when our representatives were running. It seemed like they would come in, do some streets…I felt we’re paying taxes but we’re not represented properly, and I decided to run for council. The Second and Third wards were getting everything. I decided to run. I said, ‘Elect me.’”

They did, making Reid the first elected African-American borough councilor in Dauphin County’s oldest town.

On April 4, 1968, a few months into Reid’s first term on council, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Harrisburg at first did not see the race rioting that took place in many major American cities after King was killed. But a race riot did occur in Harrisburg after tensions flared in 1969.

Reid said that after King was slain people from Harrisburg came to Middletown, looking to stir up trouble between blacks and whites.

Reid recalls a town meeting somewhere in Middletown, where Reid said he stood up and told the people from Harrisburg, “We don’t need your kind of people coming here and causing us problems. If you want to burn you burn Harrisburg. You don’t come down here and burn Middletown. We live here, we get along together. Take your nastiness somewhere else.”

In 1972, the flooding from Tropical Storm Agnes helped solidify Reid’s reputation as a hands-on public servant.

“I went door to door in the flood area and asked people, ‘Do you need me to help?’ I drove a truck and I helped people get flooded debris out of their home,” Reid said. “They liked that. They would look at me and say, ‘We never had anyone on council come wading in the water and getting your hands dirty.’ From that point on I was OK as far as these people were concerned.”

War on council over raise

He also set himself apart on council, a stance that presumably endeared him to at least some of the voters in town.

Sometime in the early 1970s — perhaps in 1973 during Reid’s second term on council, he can’t recall for certain — Reid and another member of the nine-member council, Jack Stotz, declared war on the rest of the body.

All but Reid and Stotz had voted themselves a pay raise while they were still in office, which Reid and Stotz said was unconstitutional.

Reid and Stotz tried to take the case to Dauphin County Court, but the court wouldn’t hear it, Reid said.

At the time, so many elected bodies were giving themselves pay raises that it would have been all but impossible to get them to pay it back if the court struck down the actions as unconstitutional, Reid recalls.

The 7-2 council vote for the pay raise stood. Reid said he never accepted the money from the raise, saying today “I don’t know” where it went.

A run for mayor

With 10 years on council, Reid — a Republican then as now — in 1978 took on the incumbent mayor, Democrat Harry Judy.

Then as now, the mayor’s main job in Middletown was running the police department. 

Reid liked and respected Judy — “You couldn’t find a better gentleman” — but Reid was seeing things that troubled him.

“The kids were over-running the Second Ward, just being very, very rowdy, and the people were complaining. They were afraid of the kids,” Reid said. “Some of the kids would urinate on their lawns and the police weren’t doing anything. I said ‘I’ll help you. Elect me mayor.’”

Reid was confident he could solve the issue if elected, since he knew all the kids making the trouble from having taught them at school.

Harry Judy died in 1996, but his son — District Judge David Judy — recalls Reid’s first run for mayor against his father.

Judy doesn’t remember there being any particular issues in the race — like the one Reid brought up involving hooliganism in the Second Ward — but he does recall the race between the two men as being respectful.

“They were good friends. There was never a harsh word said between them,” Judy said.

Reid was well known, not just from being a school teacher but from being active in the community.

“He was always out in the public talking to people,” Judy said.

A crew member in the Army Air Force in World War II, Harry Judy had been on council in the early 1960s. He lost his bid for a second term but was elected mayor in 1969 and re-elected in 1973.

But by 1977, Judy no longer seemed to have the fire in the belly. Reid clearly did.

He was out knocking on doors every night. Dave Judy knew this, because the people who came to the news stand that Judy ran in the first block of North Union Street would tell him.

“I kept saying to him, ‘Dad, you better go out and start meeting people because Bob Reid’s out,’” Judy said. “People were coming in talking to me saying ‘Bob Reid knocked on my door last night,’ ‘Bob Reid was out in our neighborhood.’”

But Harry Judy wasn’t putting in the effort that he had in previous elections. Dave Judy isn’t sure why — whether his father had gotten “weary” of local politics, or whether he sensed he wasn’t going to beat Reid. The bottom line was he didn’t work as hard to win as before.

That Reid is black never entered into the race at all, as far as Judy knows.

“I’m sure there were comments made at times by the average citizen, but I never heard anything,” Judy said. “Certainly it was never put forth publicly by anybody that I ever heard.”

What counted more with Middletown voters was that Reid had been so active, through being on council, being a school teacher, and being involved in civic organizations, Judy said.

It was “a fairly close race,” with Reid winning by about 100 votes, Judy recalls.

Reid also made history that November 1977 night, becoming the first African-American ever elected mayor anywhere in Pennsylvania.

To Reid, that it happened here was further testimony to Middletown being “different” than other towns, when it came to blacks and whites getting along.

“Middletown was the All-American town — the way the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution said the way America should be. That’s how Middletown was,” Reid told the Press & Journal.

“There was no prejudice. I’m quite sure there was some, but I never saw any prejudice. I went where I wanted to go. There was always a mixture of blacks and whites. We played together. We cried together.”

COMING NEXT WEEK: More on Robert Reid’s life as an educator, and what it was like to be mayor during the Three Mile Island emergency.