Charles Allen had a gift. Too small to play football and too short to play basketball, he could sprint like the wind.
He would take that gift and sprint his way through Douglass School and then Hickman High, where he transferred in 1959.
He would sprint his way through the University of Missouri on a track scholarship and into a job with Shelter Insurance, where he would run a slower and longer race than the 60-yard, 100-yard and 220-yard sprints he used to move through school. Over 38 years, he would steadily move up the company’s ranks to director of compensation and personnel administration.
Take a look at Allen’s picture from his track years at Missouri. Look at his face, and his expression of determination. He has nothing to lose. He has everything to gain. He wears an intense focus on his face. He is an athlete driven more by purpose to get an education than passion for the sport.
“It was a means to an end,” he says.
“The running enabled me to get a scholarship and after that, once you get past the high school level it’s a job.” Allen, 60, graduated from MU in 1965 with a degree in business, but he says his professional success is rooted in his decision to transfer high schools. He even goes so far as to describe his decision to transfer as a business decision that allowed him access to a network of people.
“The fact that I went to Hickman gave me exposure to the coaching staff, but also to the majority of the population,” he says.
“As a result of that, I went on to MU, but how it really tied into my life even more so, three or four of my instructors at Hickman turned out to be spouses of executives at Shelter. Also, some of my classmates’ parents were in upper management in this company. So that was a network that was unheard of then.”
Fred Faurot, the brother of Don Faurot, the former football coach and athletic director at MU, was Allen’s track coach at Hickman.
“I had good times naturally, but the fact that my high school coach’s brother was the athletic director at MU helped,” he says.
Allen is a quiet man, and he describes himself with humility. He is on the Board of Directors for United Way and Columbia’s Minority Men’s Network, but he will not mention these positions on his accord. Asked about his track experience at Hickman, he says he was fortunate to be “good enough to make the team.”
His wife, Carolyn, describes him as “independent,” “calm” and “detailed oriented.”
“He has a sense of humor that you really don’t see unless you get to know him real well,” she says.
“With the kids (Chris and Chanel) he always made sure that they had breakfast before they went to school. He was very caring. He never separated out the wife’s role or the mom’s role.”
The attitude his wife describes might have something to do with his upbringing. Allen’s father, Winfred, died of hypertension when Allen was a child, and his mother, Felice, raised him single-handedly. Allen says his mother worked as a maid at Stephens College. He says he often visited her at work, and those visits exposed him to the importance of education.
“She was a maid, and she worked in one of the dormitories there cleaning,” he says.
“She was always in an environment where education was involved, and she knew that in order for me to get to where I needed to go, education was going to be the key. She was a driving force in making sure that whatever I needed to do was done. I remember when I was a kid I would go up there and be with her while she was doing her job, and I would get to meet some of the professors.”
The exposure left its mark. Allen says he chose to transfer schools because he wanted to take precollege courses, which Douglass School did not offer.
“I was going to college whether it was MU or wherever,” he says.
His transition to Hickman was smooth, and he says he never experienced any racial problems on the track team or in class. His senior year, he was captain of the track team.
“Getting along with the other people was no problem because athletes
always get along and they accept each other on their skill level,” he says.
“It was never a black-white issue. I was another track person who was able to help the team on an equal basis.”
He did experience an immense pressure to achieve.
“Just because we came from Douglass and were African American, we could not go over there and fit into a stereotype that we were inferior,” he says.
“That pressure was put on us before we even went to Hickman, and once we got to Hickman, we had pressure of proving that point not only to our fellow classmates and instructors at Hickman, but at that time, Douglass was still in existence for a year. So, we were living in both environments.”
The Rev. Raymond Hayes, who played football at Hickman in 1960 and was the first black athlete at the high school, says the pressure Allen describes was something all of the students who voluntarily transferred felt.
“We were constantly reminded that whatever we did reflected our race,” Hayes says.
“If I did something terrible, I believed at that time it reflected on others.”
Hayes and Allen have known each other since elementary school at Douglass and they have remained close. Hayes is the pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, and Allen’s family has attended St. Luke’s for three generations.
Allen’s children, Chris and Chanel, were baptized in St. Luke’s, and his sister, Venetia Blythe, and mother served as church treasurers. Both have died, and in their memories Allen commissioned a stained glass window in the church that features the United Methodist symbol, a cross and a flame.
“I think that St. Luke’s is full of families that have been there for generations, and he has a proud sense of community and connection being a member,” Carolyn Allen says.
Says Allen of the role St. Luke’s plays in his life, “It’s incredibly important because that is the stabilizing force in our family’s lives and a connecting point to the past, and it’s something that my kids cherish as part of their heritage.”
It is interesting to hear how Allen’s decision to transfer schools affected him. In the first interview for this story, Allen repeatedly characterized himself as “the only one,” shorthand he uses for his experiences of being the only black in predominantly white settings. It is a description that, like his professional success, he attributes to his decision to transfer schools.
“I guess when I first started the track team, I was probably the only one, but in most of my experience at Hickman, MU and even the business community I have been the only one,” he says.
That experience of being “the only one” has trickled into the lives of his family.
“As you go out, you don’t necessarily live in the same physical neighborhood (as you did) in the past and your family becomes the ‘the only ones’ in the neighborhood, and your kids become ‘the only ones’ (in school),” he says.
He says his family’s connection to St. Luke’s, which is a predominantly black church, has bridged the distance he has experienced between Columbia’s white and black communities.
Although the church connects Allen to Columbia’s black community, in some respects his gift for sprinting took him away from Columbia’s black community.
If one looks at the arc of Allen’s life, then his decision to transfer, much like his decision to run track, is no different from the business decisions he makes daily at Shelter. They were measured in terms of benefits and costs. The marginal benefits he has experienced moving upward in a predominantly white corporate culture have been met with the marginal cost of his distance from Columbia’s black community.
It’s no wonder St. Luke’s and its heritage is so important to him.
“I have to attribute that whole process (of transferring and running track) to where I am today,” he says.
“I knew that (desegregation) was coming, and my nature is that a lot of the times I accept challenges. And I decided to go rather than being told that I had to go the next year. … It was just the challenge of going on my own.”