It’s 4:00 a.m., a crisp October morning on New York’s Upper West Side. Silence hangs thick in the air, punctuated only by the occasional wail of sirens rising up from the streets below. In his 16th-floor apartment, Russell Goings Jr. has been writing for an hour. Clad in a gray ball cap, gray T-shirt and black shorts, he sits in a small pool of light at his writing table, his 6-foot-plus, 255-pound frame ensconced in a plain oak kitchen chair, his pen moving silently over a sheet of paper. He was up late last night watching “Martin Scorcese Presents: The Blues,” and his allergies are giving him a little trouble. He sniffles as he roughs out verses inspired by the series, part of a larger piece with the working title “I Have Known.”
I have known the inward and the outwardness of the blues …
I have known the different colors of the blues.
I have known the shape of the blues.
I have known the arch of a man’s foot that pats the blues.
I have known the blues that filled the cathedral of a man’s mouth. …
From the shadowy walls outside the sphere of light, works by renowned black artists Romare Beardon and Jacob Lawrence stand watch, providing a ready flow of inspiration. On the table, a pile of reference books—The Elements of Style, World Poetry, The Poetry of Black America and The Poetry of the Blues—share space with a darkened computer screen. Just beyond, a large window looks out over rhythmic rows of streetlights, pulsing into the distance with an energy that finds its way into the words.
The 1959 graduate has always been an early riser, and today, as usual, he started working a little after 3:00 a.m. Behind him on the couch, four stacks of handwritten manuscripts sit in mute testimony to his passion and dedication, the same passion and dedication that have marked most of his life’s pursuits. Among the titles he can claim are professional football player, pioneering black stockbroker on Wall Street, founder of one of the first black-owned companies to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, key player in the founding of Essence magazine, first black chairman of the Studio Museum in Harlem, dealer and collector of African-American art, crusader for black empowerment, rallying force for alumni of the Jesuit honor society, Alpha Sigma Nu, and inner-city school volunteer.
And now there’s the writing. In 2001, he completed “The Children of Children Keep Coming,” an epic 309-page poem that draws on the traditions of West African griots to sing the history of blacks in the United States. It’s a fairly new passion, but one that has grasped his soul. At 71, an age when most are beginning to look backward, Goings is still focusing on the future, still searching for new ways to improve his life and the lives of those around him intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
“I try to enrich the moment,” he says. “That’s what I got from the Jesuits at Xavier. If you enrich the moment, you get the other stuff.”
n hindsight, perhaps the amazing aspect of Goings’ life isn’t all that he’s accomplished, or that he’s lived this philosophy, but that he was determined enough to discover and embrace it in the first place. He started life impoverished and wanting, living the kind of life that makes young men hard and angry.
From time to time, young Russell and his family took his little red wagon to the rail yards of his native Stamford, Conn., to gather the scraps of coal that littered the ground. The scraps fell from the steam locomotives with each earth-shaking arrival and departure, creating a cold-weather treasure trove for the shivering poor and allowing the family the chance to light the stove they otherwise couldn’t afford to feed. To his lasting embarrassment, the wagon also saw duty collecting supplies in the welfare line.
Goings’ parents, Russell Sr. and Rose, came north from South Carolina in search of opportunity. But in spite of his high school vocational training, Russell Sr. was denied entry to the unions and wouldn’t find steady work until World War II.
Against this backdrop, Goings entered first grade and immediately ran into trouble. Offended early by “Little Black Sambo,” the youngster turned away from reading and began reacting physically to the taunts of white classmates. “I was in the slow-to-retarded class until sixth grade,” he says. “I got into a lot of trouble.”
But at the end of the sixth grade, with reform school looming, a school psychologist discovered something about Goings: He’s dyslexic. The psychologist began teaching him to read using comic books and, playing on the youngster’s love of sports, exposed him to successful black scholar-athletes. Goings grabbed the ball and ran.
At critical turns in his life, Goings has always found mentors-enrichers, he now calls them-who have taught him what he needs to know to go forward. Fittingly, Rose Goings was her son’s first enricher, and, finally, the high standards she set for the oldest of her six children in the bleakest of times began to pay off. His new enthusiasm for education connected with a lesson learned in a local stockbroker’s office.
“I was shining a man’s shoes and he took a telephone call,” Goings says. “By the time I was done, he had made $200. Then he gave me a quarter. The same amount of time was spent. The difference was I was on my knees, and he was sitting in the chair.”
Goings resolved to sit in the chair. A teacher told him blacks couldn’t be stockbrokers, but he wasn’t buying. “I never understood what my blackness had to do with it,” he says.
In 1951, America was a hard place. It would be four years before Rosa Parks ignited the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, and 13 years before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. But Goings had grown used to the hardness, even if he hadn’t accepted it, and was looking forward to graduating from Stamford High.
He had reason to be optimistic. He was, after all, an outstanding football player with a pair of state championships under his belt, and he’d developed into a solid student as well. So when the invitation came to visit an Ivy League university, he didn’t see any signs of impending disaster. “I was the only black person in this group,” he says. “They served hors d’oeuvres. They gave me Gouda cheese, and I ate the paraffin. They kept giving it to me. Nobody told me. Finally they bring something I recognize-a bowl with a piece of lemon in it. I ask for some ice. I make myself some lemonade. They called for more. I didn’t know it was a finger bowl. I drank the stuff. I told the story, and my high school counselor cried.”
Embarrassed, Goings abandoned his college plans and joined the U.S. Air Force, where, he says, “I spent four years learning how to sit down at a table.” Well, not exactly. Goings was selected to study martial arts at the Kodokan in Tokyo, and he became an escape, evasion and survival instructor. By the time he left the service in 1955, Goings had a wife and a full scholarship to play football at the University-the latter courtesy of Xavier head coach Harry Connolly, who was from the Stamford area.
“It was the best decision I made in my life besides my family,” Goings says of his University experience. “The Jesuits took me by the hand and got me to knock the chip off my shoulder about being black. They showed me I could learn anything.”
At the University, he found enrichers in the persons of University President Paul O’Connor, S.J., English professor Paul Sullivan, S.J., and business professor Thomas Hailstones. After a rough academic start, Goings rose in his class and became a member of Alpha Sigma Nu. Ultimately, he completed his undergraduate work early and earned a graduate scholarship to study marketing.
His football career blossomed as well. A linebacker and guard, he was named the team’s outstanding lineman in his final season, and upon graduation, headed to Canada to play for the Saskatchewan Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League. In 1960, he was offered a shot playing for the Buffalo Bills of the fledgling American Football League. “Toward the end of the pre-season, I hyperextended my leg,” Goings says. “The coach wanted to shoot me full of painkillers so I could play on it. I packed my clothes and went to Wall Street.”
Goings was ready for Wall Street, but to say Wall Street in 1960 was less than ready for Goings is beyond an understatement. Blacks were virtually invisible on the Street. One major firm told him they just hired their “first Jewish broker east of the Mississippi,” so he’d have to get in line. Undaunted, he landed a job with a small firm, J.W. Kaufmann & Co. His first month’s salary was $37.50. But he found another mentor in Kaufmann, and soon developed into a rainmaker-the designation given to brokers who impact the course of business.
Drawing on what he knew best, Goings courted black athletes and entertainers, then largely ignored by the financial establishment. He recalls staking out the Grand Concourse Hotel, where visiting football teams stayed, and playing cards with names like Jim Brown, Ernie Green and Bobby Mitchell.
“I networked,” he says. “New York was the jazz music capital of the world, and a lot of the best musicians hung out at a place called Jim and Andy’s. I would hang out at the bar, then go to recording sessions with them, and they would become my clients. Later, I had a contract as a financial advisor with the National Basketball Association Player’s Association.”
These were heady times. By 1968, Goings was a branch manager for Shearson Hammill, a New York Stock Exchange firm. And he began turning his attention to helping young black entrepreneurs, convincing his superiors at Shearson Hammill to offer advice and invest in some of the ventures. One venture involved a young banker, Edward Lewis, who envisioned a magazine aimed at black women. In a single meeting, Goings helped him assemble the elements to start Essence magazine. He later served two years on its board.
“I call him ‘The Godfather of Essence,’ ” says Lewis, who’s now chairman and C.E.O. of Essence Communications Partners and publisher of Essence. “He’s a visionary. He’s tough, charismatic, articulate, to the point, and can be off-putting. He’s well-read and has an incredible wealth of history in terms of what has happened to us as African Americans in this country. He’s also very clear about what’s right and what’s wrong. He’s a role model.”
In October 1971, Goings bought the Shearson branch and renamed it First Harlem Securities Corp. Another company, Daniels & Bell, narrowly edged First Harlem to become the first black-owned company of any kind to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. But Goings says First Harlem was the first fully operational, self- contained black-owned company to have a seat.
But the ride was about to end. Goings sold shares in First Harlem, and when he wanted to restructure the firm, some stockholders disagreed. The fight turned ugly, and Goings was charged with misappropriating funds. Although the charges ultimately came to nothing-indeed, the stock exchange has no record of the case-the fight cost Goings virtually all his assets, and in 1976 he decided to leave Wall Street and find a new passion.
On Saturdays and holidays, crowds of visitors flock to New York’s art museums. And beginning in the late 1970s, Goings reserved those days for his own visits. But he never went alone. He had long been developing an interest in art, and he convinced Bearden, one of the country’s best African-American artists, to show him the way.
Goings had spent the first half of his career helping establish a beachhead for blacks on Wall Street and in the halls of financial power. But that was behind him now, and he turned his attention to yet another cultural issue-he became a dealer in African-American art. Once again capitalizing on a largely untapped field, he also realized his influence could stretch beyond simply buying and selling to helping determine which artists lived on as masters.
Goings met Bearden around 1970, and the two became close friends, a relationship that lasted until the artist’s death in 1988.
In challenging Goings to learn about art, Bearden enigmatically challenged him to begin writing. “He told me that when he died, he was going to sit at the big table,” Goings says. “He asked me where I was going to sit. I wanted to sit at the big table, too.”
Writing became an increasingly serious goal in 1994 when an unrelated personal mission-to rally Alpha Sigma Nu alumni and get the Jesuit message out to African-American schoolchildren-took Goings to Fairfield University. There, he met Thomas Regan, S.J., a professor of philosophy and the newly appointed president of the society, and Kim Bridgeford, an English professor and award-winning poet. Both would soon join the ranks of the enrichers. Goings showed Bridgeford some of his writings and began taking classes.
“The Children’ just leapt off the page,” Bridgeford says. “It’s one of the most impressive pieces that I’ve ever read. It’s just so clearly great art.”
Meanwhile, Goings and Regan became a formidable team, reaching out to corporate sponsors and taking the society to new levels.
“You don’t say ‘No’ to Russell,” says Regan, who is now provincial for the Jesuits’ Northeast Province.
Regan and Goings identified several New York schools as focal points of their mission to reach out to minority children, including St. Aloysius Middle School for Girls, which Goings took under his wing. He started a philosophy club, loaned more than 50 pieces of art by Bearden and Jacob Lawrence to the school, brought in numerous speakers in publishing, writing, editing, poetry and film making, staged workshops on writing and poetry, and entertained student art-discussion groups at his home. In typical fashion, Goings took his interest in education one step further by starting a production company-Praise Song on a Shoestring Inc.-to make classroom-ready videos about African-American artists and thus give black children greater insight into, and appreciation for, their cultural heritage.
As the first hint of daylight colors the autumn sky, Goings puts down his pen. Each day at 6:00 a.m., he joins a friend for coffee, sliced tomatoes and a toasted English muffin at a café down the block. Later, he’ll write some more, then maybe indulge in another passion-tennis. His goal remains what it’s always been: to keep growing, to keep contributing to the future.
“I want to make the earth that I’m around a little better than it was before,” he says. “I came in with nothing, and I’m going to leave the same way. Worldly things are fine, but it’s the moment that’s important. You must try to enrich the moment, and hopefully it touches somebody as it goes past.”