by Idalin Bobe

Roy Clay Sr. moved from his home of Ferguson, Missouri to Silicon Valley over 30 years ago to make his way among the booming industry and endless sunshine of Northern California.

He couldn’t have imagined that over the next three decades he would become known as the “Black Godfather of Silicon Valley” due to his groundbreaking business deals in the technology industry developing in the Peninsula area.  Now, years later, the movement that has come out of Ferguson has offered him a new opportunity to connect his past with the present. “For so many years I would try to tell people where I was from and the experiences I went through, and they would always look at me and shrug their shoulders as if Ferguson, Missouri was in another world,” Clay said. “But now they know where I am from.”

Late January 2014, tech activist Idalin “Abby” Bobé, flew in from Ferguson to visit Roy Clay Sr. in his home in the Montclair district in Oakland to learn more about this Missouri native’s journey to Silicon Valley. Bobe’s meeting with Clay was symbolic: she is on the rise as a groundbreaking technology activist and educator in her own right, and her meeting with Clay gave the Ferguson native a chance to share an untold story that could inspire a new generation of young Missouri innovators.

Bobé is working with Hands Up United, a youth-led movement responding to the racial profiling, harassment and murder of teenager Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. Bobé supports the nonprofit’s technology and social justice umbrella group, Tech Impact, an initiative focused on providing local youth age 16-30 with workshops focused on learning computer programming concepts combined with political and social justice education. On Saturday, February 7, Hands Up United plans to launch their first workshop, Roy Clay Sr. Web Development and Entrepreneurship,” named after the “Black Godfather of Silicon Valley.”

“My life started in Ferguson, Missouri, during a time period where the black population in the town was merely 50 people compared to today where there are over 17,000 African Americans residing in the township,” Clay said as he recalled his journey experiencing oppression and racism to launching his technology career and founding a computer division in Hewlett-Packard.

“Back then, Ferguson was a white township and Blacks were not permitted to walk through neighborhoods after a certain time. I lived in the all-Black town of Kinloch, a neighborhood next to Ferguson, attended an all-Black grade school in the community taught by Black teachers. As a teenager, I worked as a gardener; I would make two or three dollars a day mowing lawns or pulling weeds. I can close my eyes and remember every detail of that day the Ferguson police harassed me because of my race. That one incident stuck with me for the rest of my life. It was a hot summer day in August, I stopped to purchase a soft drink, Coca-Cola, from a local Ferguson grocery store. I was not permitted to consume the drink inside the store, so I sat on the curb outside after working outside for some hours. A Ferguson police car pulled up to where I was sitting and two officers stepped out of the vehicle to ask me what was I doing in Ferguson.  I told them I stopped to get a cold beverage on my way from work.”

“I was handcuffed that day,” 85-year-old Clay Sr. said. “I was handcuffed, placed in the back seat, and was driven near a body of water. Many thoughts were going through my mind as I was in their custody; I envisioned the worst and tried to focus on how I would escape from the police if they tried to take me to the water. After driving for approximately a mile from the local grocery store, I was taken out of the car, handcuffs removed, and was told: ‘Nigger, don’t let me catch you in Ferguson again.’

“That was in 1942. The experience left me angry, fearful of my life. I told my mother about the experience and she told me, ‘Son, you will experience racism for the rest of your life, but don’t ever let that be a reason why you don’t succeed.’” Clay Sr. never worked as a gardener again in Ferguson. He did however work extremely hard in his high school and received a scholarship to attend St. Louis University. Clay Sr. was amongst the first African Americans to attend the university where he majored in Mathematics. After graduation, Clay Sr. experienced a lot of difficulties during his job search and recalled a potential employer explaining to him, “Mr. Clay, we are very sorry but we have no jobs for professional Negros.”

Relentlessly Roy Clay Sr. continued to pioneer his way through his career becoming a teacher and soon after learning about computers and technology. He started his professional career at McDonnell Aircraft and journeyed to California where he managed a research and development unit for Hewlett-Packard that founded Intel, Compaq and Tandem.  Throughout his journey in Silicon Valley he encountered a lot of racism. “Many of my coworkers were white and they did not understand what it meant to be Black. They did not understand my journey,“ Clay Sr. said as he recalled trying to share his experience with his team members. Nonetheless Roy Clay Sr. conditioned himself to cope with racism in America and held on to his mother’s words.

After learning about Ferguson police harassing and murdering Mike Brown in Ferguson on August 9, 2014, Clay Sr. recalled being a teenager and how he could have been Mike Brown.  He wanted to share his story to the world and have his message be, “Not to look at young Black men as a threat in our community but look at them as innovators. Mike Brown could have been me.”

Bobé and others at Hands Up United asked Clay Sr. for permission to name the first tech program under the Tech Impact umbrella after him. Without hesitation Roy Clay Sr. was honored to have his name part of the Ferguson movement and asked if he could leave future participants of the program with some words:

“Everything in the world is related to everything else in the world, and that has been my guide throughout my career.  And I want to tell everyone in the world that the worse of all fates is to not know what you don’t know.  Education is about learning things you did not know before. Always be willing to learn and to help others learn something in the world, because everyone needs help and everyone can give help. And that has been my teachings since my early childhood. I did not get here on my own: My mother and my community helped made me.  They cared about my success, and at the age of 85, I care about your success. I want to see you grow and help you along the way in any way I can. Racism has always been part of America, but as my mother told me, I will too tell you, ‘Never let that be a reason you don’t succeed.’ Technology is a great tool and you can build a great career out of it, but don’t enter a career to just make money: enter it because you want to make an impact in the field. Enter a career because you want to impact the world and bring something useful to the people in the community.”

Hands Up United launched the six-week workshop, The Roy Clay Sr. Web Development and Entrepreneurship workshop, on February 7. Participants selected in the program will learn about HTML, CSS, Javascript, entrepreneurship, user design and, more importantly, the social implications of technology on the community. After the program, students will be given a $500 stipend and a laptop to go back into the community and build a web presence for local small businesses, nonprofits and social movements. During this initial pilot, Hands Up United has selected 10 participants to join the program.

To learn more about the program visit, www.handsupunited.org/tech-impact.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.

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