Editor’s note: The Posse, largely, is made up of jaundiced, old newspaper types who don’t get worked up about much. But Joel Smith’s Facebook tribute to Cleo Baltimore, who recently passed away, moved even us. Many thanks to reader Tim Hinson who alerted us to the post. And to Joel for allowing us to reprint his thoughts.
By Joel Smith
This man’s name is Cleo Baltimore, and he passed away yesterday.
I don’t write this out of sadness, but out of thankfulness. He’s the first black man that I ever consciously met, and he taught me at a young age that one simple, kind gesture can influence the way that people perceive race and day-to-day life. I didn’t know him well, but I knew how he made me feel.
Cleo worked in my hometown of Port Neches, Tx. Port Neches is the Mecca of white flight for my grand parents’ generation in SE Texas. I, as a result, graduated with over 400 students, and I do not recall a single black colleague in my class — not one bit of African American diversity.
And truth be told, I’d hear more racist jokes and comments in my hometown than was probably healthy — although few would admit to it.
Cleo, moreover, chose to work as a Grill Master at Billy Joe’s Bar B-Q, a restaurant in Port Neches, from 1973 to 09/12/17. Although the food was good, it was something that he did every single weekday that exhibited his “goodness.”
Cleo would stand on the front of the restaurant by the street corner on the busiest street in the whitest town and wave good morning to every person that passed by.
He would be there from 6 a.m. to about 8 a.m. under all weather conditions and say “hello” and “good morning” by a simple wave.
As a child, one of my earliest memories would be my school bus passing by him, honking the horn, and he would stand on his chair to wave at all of us young, innocent kindergartners.
I would later pass by him on my way to college and wave and honk my horn as I passed the restaurant. No matter what racist thoughts that someone would share with me, bigoted campaign ads, or violence and race issues that I would see on the news — I always thought of this kind man that would take time from his life every day to say “hello.”
I didn’t know that he was ill. I live in Houston now, and I happened to be in the Port Neches area for work last Thursday. I took a friend of mine to the BBQ restaurant, and I noticed that Cleo seemed tired and in pain. I asked him if he was okay, and he said he just got out of the hospital with bronchitis and was going through chemotherapy.
Somehow I knew that this was our last conversation. I gave him a hug, told him that I hope he finds relief, and I told him that he has meant more to a community than he will ever realize.
We all know the great Civil Rights leaders such as MLK, Harvey Milk, and Caesar Chavez. These men are the face of a Movement.
There will never be a museum for Cleo Baltimore. There will likely never be a statue in his honor. Cleo taught me a lesson as a child that I didn’t understand until I was an adult — that behind every Movement is a champion of the Human Spirit. This man affected my perception of reality and my desire to respect — rather than tolerate — all men, personally, more than most men in any textbook.
Cleo didn’t need a camera or a crowd to make a movement. He only needed a chair, a cup of coffee, and a smile.
I wish that I would have known him better. I wish that I would have taken the time to sit down and ask him questions about his life and perceptions of life. But I didn’t, and I don’t know why I didn’t.
I know that I could have been a better man by having a simple conversation with this man, because Cleo Baltimore was a truly “good” man.
If anything he has taught me that if I want to see the world change for the better — I have the power to make it so. I only need a chair, a cup of coffee, and a smile.
Funeral services for Cleo Baltimore will be held Saturday, September 23rd, at 11am at the Eastern Star Baptist Church in Port Arthur.