"Failure is not an option": Lessons Learned Young

“For centuries after the arrival of Africans in America, mobility served as a key form of protest against oppressive social systems that denied them freedom and equality. Enslaved Africans and African Americans asserted their right to liberty by running away from slaveholders. In the postbellum era black sharecroppers frequently abandoned cheating landlords and moved to other plantations in search of employers who would treat them fairly. During the two world wars millions of African Americans took advantage of new avenues for escape and left the South to seek better working and living conditions elsewhere. Scholars of these migrations have demonstrated that they were more than just a response to changing economic conditions. Politically conscious migrants "voted with their feet" to reject their subordinate place in the southern social order, moving to other regions in hopes of being able to exercise their citizenship."
- Greta de Jong, "Staying in Place: Black Migration, the Civil Rights Movement, and the War on Poverty in the Rural South"

Rocky's formative years unfolded during a pivotal period in American history, characterized by the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Migration. Both of his parents -- Catherine and Moses Whitaker -- hailed from Virginia, attended Norfolk State University for about a year, and had family in the South. However, when Rocky was three years old, his parents made the decision to relocate Rocky and his brother to New Jersey in search of better job opportunities and to escape the racial prejudices prevalent in the South. His father started working in a sheet metal factory, and his mother engaged in domestic work.

Upon moving to New Jersey, the Whitakers stayed with Rocky's uncle, Luther Spruell, before moving into their first basement apartment on Hamilton Avenue. Although the specific layout remains hazy, Rocky recalls the compact living space, the pullout bed he shared with his brother, and the sound of passing trains that shook their apartment at night. They soon upgraded to the third floor of a three-story walk-up apartment building on 47 Carroll Street, in a neighborhood characterized by the energy of young families that the nearby elementary school, School 10, attracted. Rocky rarely saw his father during this time, as Moses took on two jobs to put Catherine through school. After earning her degree, she secured a job as a science teacher at Eastside High School, drastically changing the Whitakers' lives. The family moved to the Fifth Avenue Projects, "the white people's projects," to a home with a patch of grass in the front and a comfortable amount of room to live. They were able to replace their Buick, whose rusted floor allowed them to see through the bottom, with a Pontiac Tempest.

Apart from the influence of his parents, Rocky acquired much of his work ethic during his summer visits to Virginia, where he and his brothers stayed with their maternal grandparents. These visits are marked as a time that Rocky got to escape the city and be a kid, hang out with his cousins, play baseball, and raise chickens. Outside of play, the brothers worked at their grandparents' gas station in Suffolk. It is here they gained practical experience in running a business and learned how to create opportunities for themselves.

"I got to see that Black folks could do other things besides work in the factory. They can have their own businesses. They can direct their own, point their own direction and make things happen for themselves. If I hadn't gone down those summers, I would have never seen that."

- Morris Whitaker

It is from these early experiences and influential family figures that Rocky grasped the significance of resilience and gained the resolve to transcend the boundaries and stereotypical professions often ascribed to individuals of his racial background. Not only did he witness acts of racial and economic resistance through the migration of his family, but also through his grandparents who stayed in the South during an infamous period of racial hardships to defend their position and place as working Black citizens.