There are 10 different reasons why this story is unique," says Wilbert C. Lancaster Jr. of Philadelphia, hyperbolically, over one of the four phones on which he takes an average of 110 calls a day. "For one thing," he notes, "I'm a young colored fella."
Lancaster resembles the late Martin Luther King but has a Jaycee tone of voice, is a Republican because of taxes and believes that Harry Edwards, the black activist, thinks he is an Uncle Tom. Edwards has given him that impression, without actually using the epithet, during the two or three telephone conversations they have had. (Lancaster helped out during Edwards' boycott of the New York Athletic Club meet at Madison Square Garden last year by finding beds for five nonparticipating athletes, but he spoke out against the proposed Olympic boycott.) Lancaster's own brother, who does race relations work for the Philadelphia school system, has suggested that Bert isn't all black. ("Do you know the word ' Oreo'?" Oliver Lancaster asks lightly. "That's somebody who's black on the outside and white on the inside.") But Oliver Lancaster never sold 72 Ford cars and trucks in a month, and Harry Edwards never put on a track meet.
Lancaster is promoting the 1969 National AAU Indoor Track and Field Championships, which will be held in the Spectrum this Saturday. He is, as a matter of fact, the first Negro ever to promote a national championship track meet (Ed Conwell, the former 60-yard-dash record holder, was appointed director of the 1958 national decathlon championships, but became ill) and probably the first to stage a major integrated sports event. And promoting a track meet in our society requires relations with white people (the AAU, for instance, has no Negro officers) as well as, to use one of Lancaster's favorite terms, "go power."
Lancaster, 40-year-old sales manager and former supersalesman for Koelle-Greenwood Ford in Germantown, Pa. (in whose showroom a sign, visible from the street, reads "Yes! Bert Is In" when he is), superintendent of the Providence Baptist Church Sunday school and former All-America in the 220-yard dash at Penn State, says, "I always seem to do a lot for people. Then I ask them to help me later."
Indeed, he spends a good deal of his time fixing things up for people he knows. He runs black and white neighborhood kids up and down the street and urges the swift to go out for track. He has seen that hundreds of underprivileged athletes around Philadelphia got to track meets and back home, and he is a demon at scratching up jobs for kids who need them. "He'll call people and say, 'You need seven helpers this summer?' " says a former secretary, "and they'll say no they don't, and they'll end up with seven helpers that summer." Lancaster does what he can to raise the general level of black employment, too. Often, upon entering a white acquaintance's place of business and noting a dearth of Negro workers, he has remarked, presumably in his best Jaycee accent, "You got a real shortage of soul people in here, haven't you?" The next time he pops in the shortage has been alleviated.
Lancaster is also president and angel (contributing some $5,000 a year) of the largely black Philadelphia Pioneers Track Club, which is coached by Soul Brother Alex Woodley, and he has run its modest outdoor meet for the past 11 years. He often raises or contributes the money a promising student needs to stay in college—even though several have disillusioned him upon graduation by buying Chevrolets. But he says, "I won't have anybody with me who doesn't have go power." Or who doesn't look neat and keep his hair cut (he says he doesn't disapprove of an Afro if it's not too long). Lancaster takes great pride in the Pioneers' being invited to the first Dogwood Relays in Knoxville, and he thinks the team was singled out because the runners look so clean cut.
Last year Lancaster told the Pioneers that if they wanted to boycott the Olympics after all the time and money he had devoted to giving them a chance to make the U.S. team, then the Pioneers could do without him. He thinks, in retrospect, that this stance may have had something to do with his being offered the general chairmanship of the Middle Atlantic AAU track and field committee. "There had never been any soul people on the job," he says. "There had been some qualified, but nobody ever asked them."
When he took over he found that none of the committee members had been filing the prescribed reports. "From no reports," he says, "we went to an inch and a half of reports every month." More significantly, he made up his mind that the National Indoors ought to be held in Philadelphia. It had been staged in New York until 1966, when it went to Albuquerque, and Oakland had it in '67 and '68.
"Nobody else had ever thought about it," Lancaster says, and that is understandable. Track has drawn badly in the Civic Center Convention Hall, which has a 12-lap track, and the Spectrum has no track at all. Moreover, the city's AAU-affiliated clubs, the Pioneers and the Penn AC, are not affluent enough to underwrite the meet. But, as Lancaster is fond of saying, "I don't want to hear about why something can't be done." Jim Tuppeny, Penn's track coach, told him the 11-lap board track in Baltimore's Civic Center could be imported, and Lancaster hadn't been selling thousands of automobiles for 13 years without building up a little capital of his own. Two months after he took his Middle Atlantic office, a Philadelphia delegation was in New Orleans at the national AAU convention bent on getting the Nationals. As it happened, he says, "Nobody else much wanted them. We bid $22,500 and our bid was high enough to bring the meet back East."
That is, the Philadelphians agreed to pay the AAU that sum for the right to put on the meet and to deliver a field of athletes (many of the most renowned, however, have had to be personally recruited by Lancaster and his co-workers). Out of the $22,500, the AAU pays the athletes' travel expenses and $25 per diem allowances. The other basic expense was $8,500 for the use of the Spectrum. Lancaster assumed liability for $29,000 of the $31,000, and the Penn AC took on the rest. Ordinarily, such funds are put up by track clubs, which then promote the meets (the NYAC played this role when the National Indoors was held in New York). Lancaster put up his own money, some of which is in real estate and some of which he has been saving to buy a Ford dealership. He also provided $8,000 in operating cash; the Penn AC shelled out $500. There will also be some $12,000 in expenses above the $31,000 base cost, and Lancaster figures it will take an attendance of 8,500 (with a $6.50 tops), which would be a record for an indoor meet in Philadelphia, to break even. Half of any profit will go to the AAU, the other half will go to Lancaster and the Penn AC at the ratio of 29 to 2.