NAACP experience has been ‘sweet’

Bill Sweet is an expert of African-American history in his hometown of Claysburg – except he’s not African-American.

A 1964 graduate of Greenfield-Kimmel High School (which predated Claysburg-Kimmel), Sweet grew up with the understanding that blacks and whites should be rooted in mutual understanding and respect, and he believes that was the case in Claysburg.

The community, dating back to the 1920 and 1930s, had a black population of around 200, most employed by the Standard Brick Company.

Sweet appreciated Claysburg, but he didn’t appreciate how blacks were treated in the South, and he’s devoted part of his life to trying to make a difference to people of all races.

Today, Sweet is the caretaker of the Fairview Cemetery; everyone buried there is black. He’s also the longtime vice president of the Altoona chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Don Witherspoon, president of the local NAACP, said of Sweet: “He’s been a tremendous supporter of our chapter. We’d be somewhat lost without him.”

With Black History Month upon us, Sweet is the subject of a Mirror Q&A:

Mirror: What does Black History Month mean to you?

Sweet: In Black History Month, I always reflect back to when I grew up in the 1960s, and it makes you think of the achievements and accomplishments of African-Americans, where we are today, the civil rights movement and having a black president. And how we’ve come a long way. It all comes to mind, especially this month.

Mirror: Can you trace back to the days when Claysburg had a significant black community?

Sweet: When I grew up, the brickyard was into decline, and the majority of African-Americans came here to work from North Carolina and South Carolina, and the population had peaked. At one time, we probably had about 200 African-Americans in the 1920s and ’30s. It was quite a significant change. The brickyard was the main employer, and a lot had been transferred to New Jersey factories, and some had relocated to Altoona. But there was still a lot of good interaction between blacks and whites in Claysburg. We had a significant amount in the early 1960s, but by the mid-1980s, it was probably the last African-American presence from the people who came here to work in the brickyard.

Mirror: How did the community co-exist?

Sweet: Claysburg, as far as I could tell, got along well. Everybody worked together, and we didn’t have serious issues. We had a lot of interaction in school and through sports. I don’t want to say everything was rosy, but from what my parents and people have told me, we didn’t have big problems.

Mirror: Do you still take care of the black cemetery in Claysburg?

Sweet: I started that in 1995, and I’m still taking care of it. I got some help from the Claysburg Rotary Club a couple years ago. They came in and did a lot of work as far as restoring graves that were sinking. They filled them up, leveled them off and planted grass. Basically, I just mow the grass and keep it trimmed up and make sure the headstones are in good shape. Don [Witherspoon] and I go around and make sure all the [black] cemeteries are kept up, but I mainly take care of the one in Claysburg.

Mirror: Are there many or any blacks living in the Claysburg area today?

Sweet: There are, but they came in later years. It’s hard to put a finger on how many are here. I don’t know how many families are here now – a small portion of the population.

Mirror: How did you get involved with the NAACP?

Sweet: It was through the work at the cemetery. I got along very good with the African-Americans that I was in school with, and it was hard for me to accept how they were being treated in the South. And my parents brought me up to treat everybody fairly and equally. I was under the impression that the NAACP was only for African-Americans, but I learned it was actually some African-Americans but mostly white people that helped start it. I knew Don from playing sports growing up in Claysburg, and he asked me to come to one of the meetings and give a report [on the cemetery], and that’s how it all got started for me.

Mirror: Is there a misconception that you have to be black to have a leadership role in the NAACP?

Sweet: Yes. It’s open to anyone to be part of the organization, and you can work your way up to being an officer.

Mirror: Is one of the NAACP’s goals to educate and get more young people committed to the cause?

Sweet: It’s always a challenge because the NAACP is not unlike a lot of volunteer organizations today. A lot of younger people either don’t have the time or take an interest in getting involved.

Mirror: How much satisfaction have you received from your involvement?

Sweet: A lot. Sometimes you get discouraged that you’re [not] making progress and something comes along that sets you back, but for the most part, I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction about promoting diversity and trying to help the NAACP promote civil and human rights. It’s been gratifying.

Mirror: Last question: Are you envious of Don Witherspoon’s wardrobe?

Sweet: Yes, I am. I’m truly outclassed.