Currie Ballard - Breaking the Cycle

Currie Ballard has overcome many obstacles in his life, but none of them have slowed him down. Now, he uses his past to make decisions about the present.

By Vallery Brown, Staff Writer

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One by one, Currie Ballard watched his family members snatched away by crime, while the streets where he played erupted in violence, looting and lawlessness.

Ballard, then 7, witnessed the 1965 Watts Riots near where he lived with his family in South Central Los Angeles.

He recalls Molotov cocktails. Tanks on the streets. Helicopters.

More than 30 people died and more than a thousand were injured during six days of rioting. Some 4,000 people were arrested during the worst riots of the Civil Rights era.

This is the backdrop of Ballard's upbringing, one marked by social unrest and crime that landed many of his closest family members behind bars. But it never sank Ballard.

Now, Ballard, 53, raises butterflies and gardens at his Langston home, which is full of historic black cultural artifacts and books he's collected over the years.

He is a renowned and self-taught historian who has twice been appointed to the state Pardon and Parole Board.

He's worked in the state Legislature.

In 2010 Ballard was inducted into the Oklahoma Historian Hall of Fame.

"There were people who gave me one ups instead of downs in my life," Ballard said. "By the grace of God, I'm where I am today."

But the fight to get where he is now was uphill.

It's not anger that tinges Ballard's face when he speaks of his absentee father and childhood struggles.

It's acceptance. Perhaps some sadness. Definitely wisdom.

"Currie was one that many would probably think would most likely not succeed," said Langston University President Emeritus Ernest L. Holloway. "But he did."

Currie Ballard, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board member, at the Hillside Community Corrections Center. While many of Ballard's family were at one time behind prison walls, Ballard never followed that path.
Currie Ballard, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board member, at the Hillside Community Corrections Center. While many of Ballard's family were at one time behind prison walls, Ballard never followed that path.Photo by David McDaniel, The Oklahoman

Early life

A young Currie Ballard washes dishes at Vanalog Junior High School in Compton, CA. in 1972. Ballard worked hard at school and extracurricular activities to keep out of trouble in the violence-prone south central LA neighborhoods.
A young Currie Ballard washes dishes at Vanalog Junior High School in Compton, CA. in 1972. Ballard worked hard at school and extracurricular activities to keep out of trouble in the violence-prone south central LA neighborhoods.Photo provided

Crime struck its first blow in Ballard's life before he was old enough to remember living without it. His mother, Mary Ballard, started out writing hot checks and committing petty crimes. She was incarcerated for drug crimes shortly after Ballard was born.

Anthony Ballard, Currie Ballard's younger brother, was born in prison in 1959.

Ballard's father was but a voice over the telephone line and a face he saw only three times.

Mary Ballard was released on parole, but imprisoned again in 1963. It was her last time behind bars.

"My mother learned her lesson and became a model citizen," Ballard said. She was later pardoned by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and was able to work, vote and live a normal life.

Seeing his mother able to turn her life around encouraged Ballard, and was a lesson he'd use later on when called to determine whether Oklahoma inmates should be paroled.

For years Ballard lived with his grandmother and grandfather. His two older brothers lived with them along with one of Ballard's cousins whose mother was murdered about 1967.

Ballard's grandparents struggled to imbue their grandchildren with values that would keep them on the straight-and-narrow. Ballard's aunt also ran the household and was often verbally and physically abusive to the children.

"The gravity of the streets during the Black Panther and militant movement was overwhelming," said Ballard. "But my grandfather, he made an impression on me. There were the do's and don'ts of society."

Ballard said those values stuck with him, even when railing against the melee seemed impossible. He always found a mentor or a goal that kept him on track. He read with fascination encyclopedias in their home, and developed a love of history.

His two older brothers, cousin, and uncle all were sent to prison while Ballard was a youth. His oldest brother had a drug addiction and often police would call Ballard to pick him up.

"He'd be stoned out and we'd pick him up. You do that repeatedly, and you don't need a textbook to learn you don't want to go down that path," Ballard said.

Nearly every day of the week, Ballard avoided the streets and went to Boys' Club of America meetings.

In high school, the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps kept him disciplined.

Not even school offered respite from the upheaval.

"It was bad, students assaulting teachers, no regard for anyone ... it was a war zone," Ballard said.

He remembers vividly an incident at his Compton school where a California Highway Patrolman speaking to a criminal justice class was assaulted by a handful of students.

They attacked him with books and anything else available in the classroom. Law enforcement descended on the school.

The patrolman was rescued by fellow lawmen in a helicopter.

"God bless the instructors who stayed despite the violence and made a difference," Ballard said.

Graduation and Oklahoma

Ballard, left, seen above at Langston University. Ballard would only spend one year at the University yet is impact on the world of academics, especially Black History is as impressive as any traditionally schooled historian.
Ballard, left, seen above at Langston University. Ballard would only spend one year at the University yet is impact on the world of academics, especially Black History is as impressive as any traditionally schooled historian.Photo provided

Ballard graduated high school in 1976 and later moved with his mother, stepfather and half brother and sister to Oklahoma. He enrolled in a community college and decided to attend Langston University in 1978.

In 1979, Ballard left the university and took a job at the newly built General Motors plant in Oklahoma City.

While watching a documentary about Oklahoma history in the early 1990s, Ballard was appalled by the lack of black people's influence noted in the film.

"The only black person in the documentary was J.C. Watts throwing a football," Ballard said. "So I wrote OETA a letter and complained."

Currie Ballard poses with 29 cans of film he recently purchased from a collector, at The Oklahoman studio in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006. The films show blacks in the 1920s including a graduation at Langston University, a funeral procession at Hugo, and a cattle ranch at Bristow.
Currie Ballard poses with 29 cans of film he recently purchased from a collector, at The Oklahoman studio in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006. The films show blacks in the 1920s including a graduation at Langston University, a funeral procession at Hugo, and a cattle ranch at Bristow.Photo by John Clanton, The Oklahoman

The letter landed Ballard an unpaid job producing, editing and hosting a series about black history and culture called the "Ebony Chronicles" in 1991.

Ballard also was appointed to the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission. He took a buyout from General Motors in 1993.

Ballard won a regional Emmy award for the "Ebony Chronicles" in 1997.

Longtime friend Steve Collins, 50, met Ballard in the 1980s when he worked at the General Motors plant. Collins often helped Ballard dictate papers about historic events.

"It's amazing to me how he remembers things," Collins said. "He would dictate things to me and it would just roll off the top of his head. He knows more about history than anyone I know."

Collins said his life challenges made Ballard feel called to share his knowledge.

"He feels he owes that to the community," Collins said.

Holloway, who first met Ballard as a student, called on him to be a historian-in-residence at Langston University in 1993. Ballard continued his pursuits in uncovering the history of blacks, in particular, the history of the university and black towns in Oklahoma.

"He's a dedicated person and committed to his causes," said Holloway. "He reached out to others in the community and really was an advocate for the university."

Pardon and Parole Board

Currie Ballard speaks to the state Senate while he serves as assistant secretary to the state Senate.
Currie Ballard speaks to the state Senate while he serves as assistant secretary to the state Senate.Photo provided

In 1999, Ballard was appointed by Gov. Frank Keating to serve on the state Pardon and Parole Board. Ballard was excited about the appointment, but found out quickly he still had much to learn from his childhood.

A conversation with then-Sen. Gene Stipe made Ballard take a look at those old wounds.

"He asked me why so many people were being denied parole," Ballard said. "He asked me if it was because we were still mad at them."

Ballard prayed. He pondered, and he came to the conclusion that too many decisions were being made out of anger instead of justice.

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, who handled Keating's gubernatorial campaigns in 1994 and 1998, was the governor's senior adviser at the time. He'd befriended Ballard and as a fellow historian, appreciated his background.

"He's a person who genuinely wanted to give back. He has a tremendous set of personal values, and I thought he'd be an excellent addition to the Pardon and Parole Board. He comes from circumstances that would bring an incredibly valuable perspective. It's a tough and consequential position," Cole said.

Cole said, above all, Ballard is, "a force for good as a human being."

Ballard said he also became friends with Keating, whom he admires greatly.

His first stint with the Pardon and Parole Board ended in 2003 when Gov. Brad Henry was elected. In 2005, Holloway left Langston. His successor, JoAnn Haysbert, eliminated Ballard's position at the university.

"It was one of the darkest moments of my life," Ballard said. "Langston is the love of my life, and that was such a hard time."

But Ballard wasn't out of the game long. He finished his bachelor's degree that same year, and went on to work as assistant secretary to the state Senate, where he served until again being appointed to the Pardon and Parole Board earlier this year.

"We're the sum of our own experiences," he said. "It took me a long time to tell people about my story ... but as you mature, there's not the shame there once was, the shame of your people being locked up."

In this 2004 file photo Currie Ballard, who was Historian in Residence at Langston University at the time, looks over a wood mask from Baule, West Africa, which is part of the school's collection.
In this 2004 file photo Currie Ballard, who was Historian in Residence at Langston University at the time, looks over a wood mask from Baule, West Africa, which is part of the school's collection.Photo by David McDaniel, The Oklahoma

Now, more than ever because of the budget crisis in the state, Ballard thinks it's time to be smarter on crime, to talk about the effects of incarceration, and to ask ourselves the same question Stipe raised in his mind years ago.

Serving on the board is a needed service, Ballard said. "One of the greatest joys in life is seeing people who are ready to leave prison and being a part of that process."

He knows it's his calling to review inmates' cases, to see if they've learned and changed and have a support system outside of prison to help them succeed. His background guides him, but so does his faith.

"My mother changed," said Ballard. "She's the greatest example of what a parole should be. My cousin, my brothers, they all got it. Sometimes it takes a while, but people do get it."

Belief in God guides Ballard's heart to forgive. But he's not naive, either.

"Some crimes are so horrible, prison is the better route," he said. "But we need to hold our heads down and reflect on why we're number one at incarcerating women."

It is women, Ballard said, that are a foundation of the family unit, even more so among minority families.

Ballard is optimistic that lawmakers, leaders and citizens are ready to take on the issue. He's ready to offer his insight if it's needed.

Both Cole and Holloway say Ballard has only just started making his contributions as a public servant.

"He's done a lot of good and he still has a lot of good to do," Holloway said.

Ever modest, Ballard gives his friends, mentors, Keating, Holloway, Cole and others, the credit.

I can't write a check and make a gift, he said: "But I can use my life to serve."

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