Ted Vincent 1936-2009

By Paul Gackle, Special to the Planet
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 09:53:00 AM
Ted Vincent.
Ted Vincent.

Family and friends of the late Ted Vincent will remember him as a loving family-man, a selfless teacher, a natural entertainer and a devoted egalitarian, but for Berkeley and the rest of the world his legacy will rest in his five published books and the untold history he uncovered.  

Vincent, a regular contributor to the Daily Planet and a fixture in the community as a writer and an activist for over 40 years, passed away Sunday, June 14, from complications following a heart attack. But Vincent, who was 73, wasn’t just another zany Berkeley liberal; he was an independent scholar whose trailblazing research helped revolutionize academia’s approach to African-American history in the 1970s. 

Vincent was intensely passionate about everything he did, whether it was playing boogie-woogie on the piano or running ultra-marathons in the Sierra Mountains. He was uncompromising in his values, yet tolerant of everyone.  

“He had a strong sense of moral justice and a real compassion for racial minorities, the downtrodden and the poor,” said his son, Rickey Vincent, who received in Ph.D from UC Berkeley in ethnic studies. “He was an investigator who would tell these forgotten, unknown stories of people who were fighting for equality at these crucial moments in history.”  

Theodore G. Vincent was born in Washington D.C, on Feb. 24, 1936. He inherited his political convictions from his father, Tad Vincent, an idealistic union organizer for the CIO. Vincent’s upbringing was kind of like a leftist-union version of being an army brat; he attended 11 different grade schools while his father crisscrossed the country fighting for labor rights.  

Vincent was the oldest of Tad and Billie Vincent’s five children; he is survived by four younger sisters, Jenny, Joanie, Susan and Lucy. The Vincent kids grew up in a house where the union songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were being played constantly. But it was the years the family spent living in the south that left an indelible imprint on Vincent.  

When was Vincent 10, the family lived in Selma, Alabama for a year, where his father spent his days organizing food and tobacco workers and his evenings running a literacy program for African-Americans. Vincent’s family believes his lifelong compassion for racial equality was spawned by the experience of watching his father face threats from southern racists. 

“He was proud of my father for that kind of bravery,” said Jenny Warwick, the oldest of the Vincent’s sisters.  

Vincent was born to write. He was the sports editor at Manuel Arts High School in East Los Angeles—a completely integrated high school in the 1950s—and he later wrote for the college newspaper at Los Angeles Community College.  

“You couldn’t keep the pen out of his fingers. Until the day he died, he was always writing,” said Warwick. 

Vincent moved to the East Bay in 1961 and received a Master’s degree in History from UC Berkeley. Berkeley in the ’60s was the perfect breeding ground for Vincent’s revolutionary ideals, but he was only tangentially involved in the anti-war movement. His true passions were civil rights and the Black Power movement. In 1964, he taught an African-American history course at Merritt College in Oakland that was attended by Huey P. Newton, the eventual founder of the Black Panther Party. And he married Toni Vincent, who went on to become a Black Panther and with whom he had his first two children, Rickey and Teo Barry Vincent.  

At Cal, Vincent wrote his first book, Black Power and the Garvey Movement, which would help reshape the direction of African-American studies. By exploring Garveyism and the competing political and cultural movements of its time, Vincent was the first historian to really examine some of the more radical elements in the black drive for equality. He followed it up two years later with another book, Voices of a Black Nation: Political Journalism in the Harlem Renaissance, which was a stark portrait of the Harlem Renaissance; a collection of the movement’s lesser told stories of racism, lynching and murder.  

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford, said Vincent’s work was revolutionary because it amplified voices that had been typically shoved into the margins of African-American history.  

“He was really breaking new ground in that time,” said Carson. “It showed some of the things that were possible when we were developing an approach to African-American history.” 

Vincent moved back to Los Angeles in 1972 to enter a doctoral program in History at UCLA. But he dropped out before he received his Ph.D. After getting entangled in an ethical conflict with a professor, Vincent decided academia required too much conformity for his tastes and he never looked back.  

Instead of joining a faculty at a prestigious university, Vincent taught history from the frontlines in the community colleges where the people resided. And he continued to write books, without a Ph.D, on his own terms.  

In 1981, he published Mudville’s Revenge: The Rise and Fall of American Sport, which chronicles how popular sports have been taken away from the people and “Romanized” for corporate profit. He debunked the presumption that black jazz arose out of the infrastructure of white clubs in his fourth book, Keep Cool: The Black Activists who Built the Jazz Age, published in 1995.  

Vincent’s final book, The Legacy of Vicente Guererro: Mexico’s First Black Indian President, which chronicles the history of Africans in Mexico, has had an enormous impact amongst both Mexican and American scholars. The book, published in 2001, is the first scholarly work in America to uncover the history of Yanga, who organized the first slave rebellion in the Americas against the Spanish Empire in the late 1500s.  

“It was a very outstanding history he wrote,” said Dr. Carlos Muñoz, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. “My God, nobody in this country knew about Yanga or Vicente Guererro, so it was groundbreaking research.”  

Vincent was a consultant to the Oakland Museum’s current exhibit, “The African Presence in Mexico,” which runs through Aug. 23.  

Some say it was a tragedy that Vincent never completed his Ph.D. With a faculty position, he could have been one of the most influential historians in African-American studies. But Professor Muñoz believes Vincent was simply fulfilling his destiny.  

“We all pursue our particular paths. He didn’t want to feel obligated to an institution that demands a certain amount of conformity for survival,” he said. “Ted said, ‘The hell with that. I’m going to be me and do what I want to do and follow my passions to where it leads me.’ ” 

And history was just one of Vincent’s many passions. He was also a music lover, a sports nut and an ardent runner.  

Whenever Vincent stumbled upon a guitar or a piano, he had to play. At parties and family gatherings, he’d hammer on the piano and lead sing-a-longs of his favorite political anthems and rock ‘n roll tunes. And when his third wife, Bernice Brucker was ill, he’d often play the piano in the lobby of the Kaiser Hospital and hope that nobody would ask him to stop.  

Vincent was an intellectual, but he fancied himself a working-class intellectual. He was a baseball junkie, who collected decades of statistics and was known to meticulously keep score in the bleacher seats of the Oakland Coliseum. But as much as Vincent enjoyed professional sports, he almost preferred watching girls’ basketball games at Berkeley High School. And up to the final year of his life, he watched Cal football games from Tightwad Hill. 

“He didn’t want to be an ivory tower at all,” said Selma Spector Vincent, Vincent’s second wife and the mother of his only daughter, Mimi.  

In the late ’70s, Vincent found what might have been his true love— running. He ran marathons, he ran ultra-marathons; he ran over 70 miles around Lake Tahoe and every year he ran the Bay to Breakers, the race he considered the people’s race.  

Last year, Vincent missed his first Bay to the Breakers race in over 30 years after he received indications that he had a heart flutter. But this year, he was cleared to walk the race. He donned the shirt he wore every year, a red and white 1980 Bay to Breakers T-shirt—torn to shreds and speckled with rust stains from the pins of previous races. Spector Vincent, whom Vincent reconnected with in the later years of his life, walked half of the race with him. She said he was very happy and already looking forward to next year’s race.  

Spector Vincent remembers her lover’s last joyful moment. He was lying in a hospital bed and he couldn’t talk. 

“Our daughter, Mimi, was leaving for the day and he wrote us a little note that said, ‘I love you 2.’ He held our hands,” she said.  

Vincent’s niece, Julia Menard Warwick, summed up her uncle’s impassioned spirit in her eulogy at the funeral on June 25: “Whatever Ted did, he did it to the fullest…When I first heard he was dead, one of the first things I thought was, “But he was so alive!”  

Later that day, he was buried in that good old 1980 Bay to the Breakers T-shirt. Like Vincent, the shirt held on—strong willed and determined—right to the end.