Sharecroppers’ Son to Portland’s Assistant Superintendent of Schools: Ernest Hartzog, PhD
Still going strong at 95, Ernie Hartzog was born on January 8, 1928 in York, Pennsylvania, shortly after his sharecropper parents escaped South Carolina.
In those days in the South, Black sharecroppers harvested crops and brought them to the landowner where they were required to buy their food, clothing and other necessary living items. Typically, this left them in debt to the landowner and subjected them to Jim Crow laws that prevented them from leaving. Essentially, they were no longer slaves in name yet slaves in reality. The practice referred to as “peonage” was widely utilized and enforced in the South. In the landmark book by Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Blackmon describes in detail how this system contributed to the wealth of white landowners and, ultimately, their descendants.
After a Black couple who lived near Ernie’s parents was murdered and the only law enforcement response was to tell his parents to keep their mouths shut, they decided to flee South Carolina. Ernie’s parents, like so many other former slaves and sharecroppers, were destined to become participants in the Great Migration of more than six million Black people who fled the tyranny of the South in search of safety, freedom, employment, education and housing.
His mother was able to travel north by train with Ernie’s older brother and sister. His father, however, was legally forced to remain behind. He waited for several months until post-harvest and during the holidays when surveillance was lax. Then he escaped as a hobo on a freight train and by foot, traveling mainly by night, hoping to avoid being discovered, apprehended and returned to the plantation owner.
With help from the Underground Railroad, which by necessity continued to exist after the Civil War, Ernie’s dad was able to make his way first to Philadelphia and ultimately to York, Pennsylvania, where a brother lived and where his wife and children now resided.
Ernie was their third child and grew up in York. His path to a PhD was an unusual one. His mom dropped out of school after fifth grade, and his father, who could neither read nor write, never spent a day in a classroom.
Ernie’s older brother and older sister dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Ernie attempted to follow suit. However, after his older brother learned that Ernie had dropped out of school, “he tracked me down, beat the hell out of me, and said further beatings awaited if I didn’t return to school. So I returned.”
After high school graduation in 1946, Ernie enlisted in the Army. Over his three years in the service, (in segregated units relegated largely to non-combatants), he traveled throughout the world. After this period, he re-enlisted in the reserves. Ernie reasoned that after such a war as WWII, the US would probably be at peace for a long time to come. He could then quietly serve and eventually qualify for the 20-year pension available at that time.
Unfortunately, Ernie’s calculations went awry. A year later, Ernie was sent to the war theater in Korea. He survived and after two years, had the opportunity for a second honorable discharge. Ernie decided it was time to end his military career and took the discharge.
Thanks to the GI Bill, Ernie began attending college in Pennsylvania. He was a good student and athlete, especially in basketball, and eventually earned a scholarship to San Diego State University. He fondly recalls being recruited by the legendary Bob Cousy whose brother-in-law coached the team.
Ernie left the San Diego State basketball team after an infamous road trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a game against the University of Tulsa. Ernie, the only Black player on the team, was not able to stay in the same hotel as the other players. The coach gave him $20 and directed him to housing on the Black side of town. Ernie took the money and bought a bus ticket back to San Diego. When the team returned, he reported to the coach’s office, turned in his uniform, explained his reasons for leaving the team, and thus ended his college basketball career.
During college, when he needed an additional credit class, he signed up for tennis, a sport he’d never played. “I had no idea what it was about.” This began a lifelong sports love affair. Ernie continued to play regularly until age 90 when, after stretching for a wide one at the Sunset Athletic Club, “Father Time said to me, ‘Time’s up!’”
Ernie also took up golf in college, a sport he still plays. At age 90, he had the amazing experience of hitting a hole-in-one, the second one of his golf career.
While in college, Ernie decided he wanted to be a secondary education teacher. His white counselor advised him against this, saying he didn’t think in the 1950s a Black man would ever get hired. His counselor encouraged him to pursue primary education instead. Ernie rejected this advice. “Instead,” he says, “I found a new counselor.”
After graduation and being rebuffed for high school teaching positions in San Diego, Ernie was able to land a job in a school camping program for sixth to eighth graders. He did this for two and a half years, and then was hired to teach in a junior high school. Subsequently, he was promoted to a school counseling position.
During the 1960s Civil Rights movement, attention began to be paid to the paucity of Blacks in educational leadership positions. Ernie was hired as a high school vice principal and subsequently became the first African American high school principal in San Diego history.
In the early 1970s, he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to participate in a program designed to increase minority superintendents in urban school districts. At that time, of the 15,000 school districts in the country, only two had Black superintendents.
After completing this program, the Portland School District hired him as Assistant Superintendent in 1972, a position he held until his retirement in 1992. During this period, Ernie became a charter member of the National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE). In 1979, he was elected to the presidency of that organization. He later founded the Oregon Alliance of Black School Educators, which remains active as an affiliate of NABSE.
In Portland, Ernie continued to pursue his passion for golf and tennis. He joined the Black-owned Portland Athletic Club, and was taught tennis by Jack Neer who teaches there to this day. “I credit Jack,” he says, “with converting my backhand from mere defense to an offensive weapon.” Ernie was also a long-term member of the Sunset Athletic Club in Northwest Portland.
As an African American recreational tennis player, civil rights activist and tennis fan, Ernie observed how few the opportunities were for poor minorities to learn the sport. He became determined to make a difference. As a member of the USTA National Committee on Minority Participation, he helped found the Portland Afterschool Tennis Program, which subsequently became Portland Tennis & Education, a nonprofit organization providing K-12 kids from low-income families year-round group tennis instruction, one-on-one tutoring, life skills instruction, and parent advocacy and training. Now housed at St. Johns Racquet Center, the program operates through a long-term leasing arrangement with the City of Portland.
An energetic 95, Ernie maintains emeritus director positions on three organizations he founded: Portland Tennis and Education, Oregon Alliance of Black School Educators and Building Blocks 2 Success (A STEM program for children). He remains passionate about creating opportunities for people of color and others in challenging economic circumstances to develop a love of both tennis and education.