Charleston recreation department employee Oscar Newton Fordham will turn 96 on Jan. 5, 2023. He has no plans to retire. | Photos by Herb Frazier

Five years after the Cannon Street All-Stars Baseball Team was ruled ineligible to compete in the 1955 Little League World Series because white teams refused to play them, Oscar Fordham stepped onto Harmon Field to coach a new generation of mostly Black athletes.

Fordham went to work as a youth sports coach in 1960 at Harmon Field, a 13-acre athletic complex on the peninsula’s west side. He coached baseball, basketball and football and mentored his young players as if they were his children.

The year Fordham joined the city’s recreation department, William Morrison was ending his term as Charleston’s mayor. Sixty-two years later, the 95-year-old Fordham is still on the job, making him the city’s oldest employee.

He’s no longer at Harmon. He works daily at the much smaller McMahon Playground in Hampton Park. From his nearby St. Margaret Street home, Fordham pedals to work on his teal-colored bike. The handlebar’s wire basket holds his bright red city recreation department hoodie.

Before he unlocks the brick recreation building, young mothers with strollers and toddlers have arrived for morning social time and play on a giant swing and jungle gym set. By the afternoon, Fordham commands the checkerboard.

Fordham tried to retire twice, the first time in 2000. But he was back to work within months each time. “I love to work,” he said with a laugh. “I got to work to stay active. I don’t have to work if I don’t want to, but I just like to keep moving to keep myself in shape.”

The Oscar Fordham Athletic Complex at Harmon Park includes baseball, softball and soccer, multipurpose fields

Laurie Yarbrough, the city’s director of recreation, said, “Mr. Fordham is one of a kind and an absolute treasure to everyone who knows him.” When Fordham was at Harmon Field he coached children in every sport, including track and field events. “It is almost impossible to fathom how many [young] lives he has touched,” she added. The city offers youth sports programs at parks citywide. 

Remembering the children

Modie Risher, Burke High School’s legendary football coach and athletic director, offered Fordham a coaching job with the city’s youth league. At that time, Risher also worked for the city’s recreation department after teaching and coaching at Burke, located across Fishburne Street from Harmon Field. Over time, the five-foot-five Fordham developed an easy coaching and mentoring style to influence his players who at times were taller than him. “It is how you talk to the kids that makes a difference,” he said. “I didn’t raise my voice but when they got into a fight, I made them shake hands and talk. I told them if they wanted to play with me, they had to get good grades and stay in school.” 

Fordham also coached white children early in his career when Charleston’s schools were segregated and neighborhoods were more racially divided. “I had a few white boys play for me,” he said. “I told them come on. As far as I am concerned you are just like one of us.”

Fordham’s former players remember him as “Frizz,” a nickname he got when he was a halfback on the Avery Institute football team. “I now have kids in the NBA and the NFL,” Fordham said with pride. Oronde Benjamin Gadsden, a Burke graduate, is one of them. He was a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins.

When Gadsden was between 10 and 12 years old he played football at Hester Street Park. “But I was with Frizz [for] basketball and the all-star football game,” at Harmon Field, said Gadsden, who lives in Miami. “Frizz was the guy who didn’t care [which park or neighborhood] you came from. He was always a father figure to any kid. And if he saw something special in you he would take more [time] with you, and I think that is what happened to me.”

Fordham waved at Reginald Coaxum, a former power forward for the Burke basketball team, as he drove by McMahon Playground. After they exchanged greetings, Coaxum told the City Paper that Fordham was his “father, mentor, best friend” when he came to Harmon as a 12-year-old basketball player from the city’s Eastside neighborhood. Coaxum said Fordham still inspires him “to this day, and I am a grown man with a family. He changed my life. He taught me the responsibility of being a man.”

Times have changed

Fordham spent five decades coaching at Harmon across the street from the Gadsden Green neighborhood where he once lived among many of his players. When the city demolished Harmon’s playground building at Line and President streets, Fordham was transferred to the McMahon Playground. Former truck driver and Eastside resident Darryl Brown said the city should transfer Fordham back to Harmon so he can nurture another generation of children. Fordham wants to go back, too. He said, “I can’t build a team with these babies” at McMahon Playground. He believes he can still make a difference in children’s lives. 

Yarbrough said it’s not feasible to assign Fordham to Harmon. It no longer has a playground building. The Arthur W. Christopher Community Center at Harmon Park opened a year after the playground building was demolished in 2012. Fordham said he does not want to work at the Arthur Christopher center, which also serves as a recreation center. It has a basketball court, computer labs and meeting rooms.

Fordham’s daughter Loretta Gregg of Charleston said, “I feel it would be appropriate for them to rebuild the building that was there before they tore it down.” Not having a building there, she said, deprives children of a place to go after school and on the weekends. The Arthur Christopher center, she explained, does not offer football and baseball, sports her father coached.

Brown insisted that Fordham deserves a statue at Harmon that is similar to the tribute for blacksmith Philip Simmons on Mall Park at Columbus and America streets. Last year, Fordham was inducted into the Charleston Baseball Hall of Fame. Brown said, “That’s cool, but we need something at Hamon to [recognize him] as a super star, as a hall of famer and the best Charleston has to offer.”

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