Orde Musgrave Coombs

Orde Musgrave Coombs

Died August 27, 1984

Orde prepared for Yale at St. Vincent Grammar School, St. Vincent, West Indies, majored in Intensive English, held the Samuel M. and Anna M. Richardson Scholarship and lived in Saybrook. Orde was a member of the Aurelian Honor Society, Dwight Hall and the Yale Dramat.

When he became the first African-American inducted into Skull and Bones, Orde spent the better part of a week hiding out from reporters. When one finally caught up with him, Orde said, “I think all this stir is silly.” His roommate, Ted O’Leary, who had been answering reporters’ phone calls non-stop, knew exactly what Orde meant – why should it be such a big deal to include someone different.

After Yale Orde moved to New York City where he became a writer and contributing editor for New York Magazine as well as a host of Black Conversations, a talk show on WPIX-TV. Among the articles he wrote for New York were “Vernon Jordan: The Great Black Hope,” “Angela Davis Keeps the Faith,” “Mulatto Pride, The New Battle for Harlem,” “Racial Politics in Brooklyn” and “True Tales of the New York Workplace,” He also worked as an editor at McCall’s and Doubleday and brought out anthologies of young black poets and writers with the stated aim of introducing new talent and proclaiming “the validity of a people’s lives.”

In 1972 he published a book of his own essays entitled Do You Feel My Love Growing, which one reviewer described as a dispassionate look back on what had really been gained in the Civil Rights Revolution of the 60s.

In one of those essays Orde recounted the time he spent working in public relations for Western Electric. “I looked around me and I quit. This experience taught me that Blacks coming into corporations at the middle level should never attempt to play the game like whites. For that road leads to a slow erosion of Black sanity.”

In 1973 a columnist for the United Press Syndicate called Orde the next James Baldwin. Orde accepted racism as a given – “white hostility toward blacks is endemic and it’s worldwide, too” – and advocated “black-enforced discipline,” a term the columnist interpreted to mean black vigilantism. What Orde said was, “The people in black ghettos are beginning to say, ‘My God, our children are being destroyed and we seem helpless. The government won’t protect us and the police can’t. We must consider how to protect ourselves.’ You can understand that any way you want. I’m just reporting.”

We can only wonder what Orde would have thought about race relations today. He died on August 27, 1984 at the age of 45.

Carleton Jones remembers: Orde lived upstairs from me in Saybrook College, and he stood out among the rest of us for his dignified bearing, perfect manners and unfailing courtesy. I suspect that he was sorely tried by the adolescent behavior of some of his classmates. Those on whom he bestowed his friendship felt privileged indeed. He turned out to be a fine writer, and I wish he had lived longer to become a famous one. May he rest in peace.

Gary Roberts remembers: A good friend from Saybrook (the first African American I knew well), witty and charming (with exquisite manners that much impressed my mother). His early death was indeed a great loss; his career in poetry and the media would have been distinguished.

John Shattuck remembers: Poet, visionary, witness for justice, dear friend.

Stephen Clark remembers: He was quiet but enjoyed laughing. To me, he epitomized dignity. I wish he had lived longer so we could have shared our life experiences in more depth.

Lionel Goldfrank remembers: Orde combined gentility and maturity, certainly in greater measure than expected in an incoming undergraduate. Coming from a place lacking educational advantages many of us took for granted, he was a valuable member of any conversation, thoughtful and articulate. His life was cut short very early, but his time in the Class of 1965 was of great value.

Theodore O’Leary remembers: Orde was my suite mate for three years. He was a few years older than the rest of us and got lots of attention. We were friendly, but never close. He always insisted on have a bedroom to himself, which I could live with. When he was tapped for Skull and Bones, he went into hiding for the better part of a week while I fended off phone calls from reporters wanting to talk to him. He had a way of being charming, but not close. After graduation, he lived about 10 blocks south of me in Manhattan and we would get together for dinner maybe once a year.

Barrington Parker remembers: I recall with great fondness and great sadness my dear, dear friend Orde Coombs

John Pinney remembers: Amid the post-adolescence of undergraduate life, Orde was always refreshingly calm, wise and interested in others. It’s easy to imagine what he might have contributed had his life not ended so early.