I have danced around this story for almost 24 hours. I’m just not sure how to share it or tell it — or anything. I went to a great party last night, had Starbucks and read the New York Times this morning, and prayed for God’s forgiveness for missing church. Still, I can’t get this story, or its images, out of my head. When emailing it to some of my dearest friends, my note was short, “I had to get up and walk away from this story several times. Once again I find myself unnerved and nearly undone by the cruelty of humans toward one another, toward our race.”
I refer to the story of five little African American boys attending Lyles Consolidated School in 1928. Located in Lyles Station, Ind., — a town founded by freed slaves — the school was a place where the offspring of a proud first generation of freedmen excelled. Vertus Welborn Hardiman was one such child. Born March 9, 1922, Hardiman was one of those five boys. Each was used in an experiment to gauge the use of radiation on the human cranium. Young Vertus’ head was so severely damaged, that he would spend the remainder of his life wearing wigs and hats, bearing the taunts of children and adults alike. He would bear a hole in his head forevermore. Hence the name of the award-winning documentary “Hole In The Head: A Life Revealed” narrated by Dennis Haysbert.
A self-sufficient man, Hardiman moved to California in 1946. The following year began his 40-year career at County of Los Angeles General Hospital where he retired with distinction with a perfect attendance record. A sharing and kind soul, Hardiman was unabashed in his views that education was the great equalizer; he felt he would be remiss if, knowing our history, he didn’t urge all who crossed his path to aspire for knowledge. Adamant that he was “blessed.” he said the Lord told him early on that “… I had to provide for myself.” So, this quiet man with a huge secret amassed a fortune in real estate and bequeathed it all to the United Negro College Fund and First AME Church of Pasadena. He passed away June 1, 2007.
Hardiman felt no ill will toward those who harmed him and his friends without regard for their life or existence. He was often known to say, “If I were angry, my prayers would not be answered and your heart’s not right if you’re angry.”
Until he agreed to share his story with the documentarians, only four people — other than medical personnel — ever knew of his secret. By the way, “vertus” is French for “virtues.”