“Lest We Forget” Hank Aaron: Blueprint for Grace

[By: Ernie Shelby, f’59]

This month, HBW will focus on literary and cultural history and continue to move toward the idea of Black Liberation Month (BLM). For our first blog we are featuring a piece on baseball star, Hank Aaron, written by artist, musician, athlete, and KU alum, Ernie Shelby.  This is part one of the “Lest We Forget” series, where we consider impactful figures. Aaron, who was born on February 5, 1934, would have turned 87 today.

In my personal opinion, Hank (Henry Louis) Aaron was not merely an extraordinary example of someone attaining success despite overwhelming obstacles, he was the quintessential blueprint for grace under often horrific social conditions!

Hank Aaron and wife Billye congratulate Toni Morrison at the New York Premiere of Margaret Garner, September 2007. Ford Morrison and Richard Danielpour, composer, join them. Credit: C.B. Claiborne

Aaron started out by only being allowed to play in the Negro Leagues.  But, after advancing to the major leagues, he not only moved forward to reach the top of the entire sport of baseball as a Black man during a time of enormous racial obstruction, he also established himself as an outstanding model for humility and dignity!  Unlike most self-absorbed, egotistical celebrities & sports-stars, he displayed humanity and compassion for others!

Almost everyone is familiar with Hank Aaron’s athletic    achievements (i.e., setting multiple records for home runs, extra base hits, runs batted in, etc.).  However, one of his most valuable assets was his morality and honorable behavior.  Case-in-point: He refused to express indignation towards all of the supremacists who—because of the color of his skin—exhibited such a lifelong hatred of him.  He more than proved that his lofty stature was authentic by repeatedly demonstrating these traits throughout 21 seasons in both the National and the American Leagues, as well as in his life after baseball.

To me, Hank Aaron should be celebrated for much more than his athletic prowess and sports achievements.  He was a distinguished gentleman… One who demonstrated resolute patience and decorum.  He shall be deeply missed!

Racial injustice has been a part of human story since the dark ages.  However, the founding fathers of the American Colonies sought to be the first country to seek to overcome inequality… At least in the words used in the U.S Constitution.

Of course, in those beginning days, there were a large number of bigoted individuals who firmly believed in some form of racial supremacy.  This remains true to the present day!  However, as equality gradually improves—mostly due to younger people like you, who have more forgiving and compassionate mindsets—we are slowly making our way toward a more balanced society.

But we should never allow ourselves to forget the shoulders we stand upon… To simply take for granted the freedoms we currently experience without due respect and thankfulness to icons like Hank Aaron… Those who were born in slave-like conditions in the South and were obliged to undergo unspeakable hardship & hatred…  Those who were forced to battle throughout their lives to produce the more habitable conditions under which we now exist!

You should seek to study their names, become familiar with their difficulties… OUR HISTORY… So that you NEVER become complacent, or feel disrespectfully privileged!



Ernie Shelby (right) and Homer Floyd (left) at KU’s MLK celebration 2015.
Photo credit: Steve Puppe

Ernie Shelby is an artist, musician, and former KU athlete.  In 1957, he transferred to KU, where he became a crucial part of the success enjoyed by the track and field team.  They won conference championships two straight seasons (1958-59) and their first national championship in 1959.  For his efforts, he was honored as an All-American and, by the team, as the first African American captain.  Emboldened by these achievements, Shelby—along with Wilt Chamberlain (KU basketball), Homer Floyd (KU football) and Charlie Tidwell (KU track and field)—protested the racial segregation widely practiced in Lawrence.  Their threat to leave KU if no changes were made resulted in improved social relations. After graduating from KU, Shelby became an award-winning graphic designer, a celebrated gold-record music composer, an accomplished advertising copywriter, and a published author. Sixty years after he first came to campus, Shelby remains one of the most influential KU alumni, whose impact is felt by the community even today.