BRENHAM, Texas (KPIX) — Everybody at KPIX knows Operations Manager Don Sharp. In fact, a lot of people who work in Bay Area television know, too. He’s widely respected in the industry, and has won awards for technical innovations.
But on this Juneteenth, we are focused on Don’s personal story of growing up in Texas during the time of Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation.
Don went back to his hometown of Brenham, a place where early on, whites and blacks were taught the rules of segregation.
“Segregation was definitely defined,” says Don. “it was the law.”
“If you didn’t fit into the system, you would have problems,” says his childhood friend, now a retired judge, Eddie Harrison.
Another classmate, Horace Washington adds, “Things were separate – but not equal.”
Don Ray Sharp was born in 1946 in the segregated south, in this tiny Texas town.
He recalls the courthouse.
“On one side it was white-only for the water fountain. On the other, for colored.”
It was a life lived inside the color lines — a world of stark and often cruel contrasts between black and white.
At the farm where he lived as a boy, Don recalled, “We had Polish and German farmers right next to ours, and we’d be friends. But when you came into town, they’d actually walk right past you because that was the law. It was segregation.”
Or rather, Jim Crow as it was commonly known.
Don grew up dividing his time between his grandparents’ farm and his parents’ home in town.
He says he and his classmates were shielded from some of the inherent indignity and much of the sting of segregation by family, faith and friends.
“Yes, it was humiliation,” he recalls. “But you learned to cope with that. If you couldn’t cope that was an issue, but our families were so strong that they taught us how to cope with that.”
Judge Harrison explains, “You would say, ‘Hey, I’ll get my drink of water before I go to the courthouse. I’ll use the bathroom before I go to the courthouse. I will not need that bathroom.'”
“Don and I spent much of our free time talking about college – where were we going to go,” recalls classmate Travis Benford. “We had elaborate plans about what we were going to do about our future.”
But when it came time to go to college, Don knew it likely meant leaving home. Local Blinn College was on the other side of the color line, but it might as well have been on the moon.
“We could not go to Blinn College right here in Brenham, Texas because we were African-American,” says Washington.
So Don headed west with help from his community.
“You try to help each other,” says childhood friend Katherine Newsome. “I knew he was trying to get to California for his education, so, you help each other.”
In California at San Diego State, Don would find love, and family, and freedoms never experienced or even imagined back home.
“I could go to that college without being frowned upon or stared at,” says Don. “I could walk down the street without fear of a police officer pulling me over.”
But although Don left Brenham, he never forgot it, often returning for the town’s annual Juneteenth celebration.
Juneteenth commemorates the news of the end of the Civil War in Texas and the subsequent freeing of the slaves there. It’s a celebration of freedoms long promised, much delayed. Its symbolism is as fitting today as it was decades ago.
I always thought he was off doing something big and important and different because he was good to share,” says Don’s sister Elaine Sharp-Smith. “When he came home, he would share what he had been doing and where he had been.”
He was. Don has spent the past 50 years, more than two-thirds of his life, working in broadcast television in San Diego and the Bay Area, leading TV’s own transformation from black and white, to rich, warm living color.
It’s a testament to a man who didn’t let a small town rooted in segregation stand in the way of his outsized ambitions.
“It was embedded in me to get an education because they can’t take it away from you,” he says. “That’s the best thing that ever happened to me was when I went out of state and went to a different college.”