Born 1965, Smyrna
My mom and dad got divorced really, really early. So I was never in a household with both parents; my grandparents kind of raised me.
I had a speech impediment. They had a program over at Clark Atlanta University, which was basically like Hooked on Phonics is today. And they did before-and-after recordings: Here’s Ryan reading this sentence before, and here he is six weeks later. At the end of the program, they did a broadcast on WCLK, and I remember sitting in my grandfather’s living room, listening on the headphones, as he had the radio on, and hearing myself on the radio. From that day forward, I always knew that’s what I wanted to be.
Photograph courtesy of Ryan Cameron
Once my mother came back into the picture on a permanent basis, we were living in housing projects over in the Adamsville area. She was working for BellSouth, which was Southern Bell at the time. She said, “I’m going to do something to make sure Ryan’s not going to grow up as a ‘project kid.’” That’s when she moved to Smyrna.
It forced me to realize the importance of diversity. In the projects, everything was the same color. We were all the majority. Cobb County now is totally different from Cobb County back in the eighties; we were the extreme minority back then. That was my real first interaction with people from another race, period. The only time I had seen white people was on television.
I started working at the age of twelve, at what is now the House of Chan on Cobb Parkway. I’m sure they knew I wasn’t old enough, but they needed a busboy. They would give me a check, and I would go to the bank there on the corner; I had a checking account at the age of twelve. I’m writing checks over at the Kroger, and I wrote a bad check. Then another. I mean, I’m twelve! One day, there was a knock on the door, and there was a sheriff. He said to my mom, “Do you have his birth certificate?” And I was within two months [of age] of being taken to juvenile—and I know that would have changed my whole life.
A guy at school, he had on a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. It said “Harley-Davidsons are the best,” and on the back, “Because God made Hondas for . . . ” and it was the n-word. Nobody said anything. But at Campbell [High School] in Smyrna, being the first African American senior class president in the history of the school taught me a lot about leadership, and how if people believe in what you’re saying, it didn’t matter about the color of your skin. There were only fourteen African Americans in my senior class of over 260. I could see Smyrna changing, right before my eyes.
—As told to Amanda Heckert
V103 afternoon personality and Atlanta Hawks announcer Ryan Cameron runs the nonprofit Ryan Cameron Foundation, whose programs help children make positive transitions to adulthood.