Most schoolchildren know that the nation's capital is Washington and that its leader lives in the White House - the "people's house." What most of them don't know is that for one wonderful summer nearly 60 years ago, the people's house moved to a different city and a new leader was selected without a single vote being cast. At least it seemed that way to nearly all of us who were black and to many who were white, as well.
I shall never forget the day the move occurred: April 15, 1947 - less than a month before my 10th birthday.
That was the day Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in modern times to don the uniform of a Major League Baseball team and trot onto the infield of a major league park. That was the day Brooklyn, N.Y., became the nation's capital, and Ebbets Field the primary residence of the nation's leader.
That was the day that black boys dared to dream - for the very first time - the dream that so long had been the exclusive property of white boys. Even a black boy who was often selected last when teams were chosen dared hope that some day his picture might grace the pages of The Sporting News; that some day fans would roar approval when he caught a line drive and turned it into an unassisted triple play. Or when, like Jackie, he stole home in a dazzling act of daring and a blinding cloud of dust.
Still, during that summer and the ones that followed I had to sit in the blacks-only balcony of the movie theater on Saturday afternoons. Still, I drank from a water fountain marked "colored." Still, I attended a separate, and woefully unequal, school. Still, I seethed with rage when white men called my grandfather "boy."
But that goose-pimply glorious, never-to-be-forgotten summer when Jackie Robinson was Rookie of the Year (and the most defiantly courageous man on earth), I dared to believe things might some day be better.
Though not yet 10, I knew that by signing Robinson, a white man named Branch Rickey (the Brooklyn Dodgers' president) had opened a door that no one would be able to close again. And that a black man named Jackie Robinson had burst through that door, bearing the fate of an entire nation on his shoulders.
In these contentious times, when many seem persuaded that only legislative intervention can resolve the issues that divide us, it is comforting to remember that what was required to accomplish such remarkable changes was not an amendment to America's Constitution, but an appeal to its conscience, a willingness to look at its tomorrows through eyes not blinded by the shortcomings of its yesterdays. That, and a man named Jackie.
When I learned that Major League Baseball had decided to celebrate April 15 as "Jackie Robinson Day," my eyes filled with tears and my heart danced. Nearly 60 years from the moment Jackie trotted onto the field, the memory is every bit as radiant. And the hope born in that moment, a hope severely tested by the experiences of a lifetime, has been restored again.
I still have the dog-eared copy of the contract my grandfather signed in 1924 to pitch for the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League as well as the baseball glove he gave me when I graduated from the eighth grade. These - and the hope Jackie awakened in me - are among my most prized possessions.
While one is never altogether certain which incidents most profoundly shape one's life, it is well within possibility that the events of that most amazing summer had a critical influence on the kind of man I became - and the kind of nation America has become.
• Harry Johnson is retired manager of community relations for Polaroid Corp.