Claremonter manages voting precinct, shares recollections

After more than 40 years as a California poll-worker, Martin Calvin Yarbrough, Sr. knows a thing or two about voting. And having grown up in the segregated South, at a time when black voter disenfranchisement was endemic, he never loses sight of its value.

On Monday, Mr. Yarbrough, 82, stopped by Oakmont Elementary School—where he has served as precinct inspector since the mid-80s and as a poll-worker since 1979—to prep the site for Election Day. On Tuesday, he pulled a long stretch from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., making sure the process went smoothly as voters cast their ballots.

Yes, Mr. Yarbrough stays pretty busy come election season. But if you can get a few minutes with the longtime Claremont resident, he has some stories to tell.

Born in 1932, he was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. Jim Crow was in full effect during his boyhood. Black residents could only visit Chilhowee Park on Thursdays and the city’s Tennessee Theatre catered only to whites. African-Americans could get into the movies at the Bijou Theatre, so long as they took their seats in the balcony.

Education, from the elementary schools to the then all-white University of Tennessee, was a segregated affair. Young Martin sensed there unfairness in the set-up because the kids at black schools never got new textbooks, only hand-me-downs from the white schools.

When he got older, the situation worsened. There was no junior high school in the Lonsdale neighborhood where he lived. From seventh though tenth grade, he and his fellow Sam E. Hill Elementary School graduates had to walk through the white community of Beaumont to get to the black community of Mechanicville where Beardsley Junior High School was located. During their commute, which was 11 miles round trip, bullies used to attack the Lonsdale kids, throwing bottles and wielding baseball bats. Martin and his friends had to resort to extraordinary measures, just to get to school.

To avoid being harassed, they walked along the railroad tracks, which were bordered by ditches on both sides. When a train passed by, they would jump into a ditch. On rainy days, when the ravines filled up with muddy water, the kids would get soaked. On reaching school, they would change into dry clothes and place their shoes and socks on the gym radiator to dry, going barefoot to class.

Despite such adversity, Mr. Yarbrough managed to garner a perfect attendance record and high grades. He earned a 3.85 GPA when he got to Austin High School, balancing a job as a waiter and eventually a maître d’ at the Andrew Johnson Hotel with his schoolwork.

When Mr. Yarbrough was a senior, he had his first contact with the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity when members of the Knoxville College chapter spoke at his high school, urging the students to register to vote. He heeded their advice.

“I was only 19, so I was fearless,” he said.

Other residents of Knoxville were not so lucky. Many African-Americans at the time avoided casting their ballot because they were afraid they would lose their jobs or be thrown off their land. In a time of rampant illiteracy, others were unable to vote because they couldn’t write their name and were not allowed to use an “X” as their signature. The Knoxville students involved in Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s oldest black fraternity, worked hard to up the number of black voters, heeding their motto: “A voteless people are a helpless people.” 

When Mr. Yarbrough enrolled at Knoxville College in 1951, where he majored in science and pre-med, he got a letter from Alpha members, inviting him to come to what was called “a smoker.” He arrived to a gymnasium so dark he couldn’t see anyone. He could hear various voices, though, asking him questions. After a successful “interview,” he was invited to pledge the fraternity. He was initiated into Alpha Phi Alpha the spring of his sophomore year and became a full-fledged member as a junior.

The members of the college chapter would occasionally meet with the graduate brothers, and it was then that Mr. Yarbrough made a surprising discovery. All of his strongest educational mentors were Alphas, including a number of his former teachers and his junior high and high school principals. He was most delighted to encounter Dr. Monroe D. Senter, the impeccably-dressed head of Beardsley Junior High School, who had always urged him to live up to his potential and strive for excellence.

In 1955, Mr. Yarbrough was drafted. After training at the Army Medical Service School, he spent two years in active duty in San Antonio at the Brooke Army Medical Center. He was assigned to the anatomical and surgical histopathology section, with his main duty being the performance of autopsies.

Upon his return to Knoxville, Mr. Yarbrough enrolled in the newly-desegregated University of Tennessee, but soon dropped out to take a job at the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies (now known as Oak Ridge Associated University), working as a research scientist in nuclear medicine and radiation therapy.

He became involved in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Knoxville had become a hotbed of what at the time was simply called the Movement, with Knoxville College students holding sit-ins at lunch counters and campaigning to desegregate businesses. In 1963, in one of the most notable demonstrations of the time, a group of students converged on the Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville, attempting to buy tickets to a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird.

In 1960, Mr. Yarbrough attended a workshop, held at Highlander Folk School in Sewanee, Tennessee and attended by civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry and Stokely Carmichael. He joined them in vetting would-be demonstrators to make sure they could stand up to the inevitable harassment. The young participants walked through a line of people who would utter insults and strike them with rolled-up newspapers.

“You couldn’t strike back, couldn’t talk back—you couldn’t even talk,” Mr. Yarbrough said. “Dr. King was very strong on that. His attitude and his disposition towards nonviolence were very, very strong. He said you could not show any sign of retaliation, or any anger.”

Those who were unable to endure the simulation were given desk jobs as opposed to being put on the front lines of protests.

That same year, Mr. Yarbrough fell in love with a Knoxville beauty named Mattie Jean Madden and the two were married. Before long, they started a family.

In 1969, Mr. Yarbrough moved to California and in 1973, he and his wife and four children settled in Claremont. Mattie, who taught at Oakmont, Condit and Vista del Valle, died in 1999.

Mr. Yarbrough is now an insurance agent. In his free time, he continues to mingle with the good brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha. They, in turn, continue to champion voter rights. He gives a special shout out to his fraternity brothers Dr. Norman Towels, Jerome Cannon, Louis Harris and Thomas G. Lee, all of whom are involved in efforts to help lift up underprivileged youth. And he is proud of his post as precinct inspector.

Mr. Yarbrough considers the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a step backwards, “back to the dark ages.”

Nonetheless, he continues to have enormous faith in the election process. “You are casting your vote. We can’t stop a voter from voting. We can’t do it for you, but we can’t stop it.”

—Sarah Torribio




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