Audience: Adult, current events, history
by Mike Harpold
October 18, 2003
We never saw a black cowboy in any of the matinees that cost us twelve cents at the Eskine Theater on Saturday afternoons. Only later, as adults, did we find out that the troopers of the Tenth United States Cavalry, which chased Geronimo all over Texas and New Mexico, were black, and that black cowboys were common in the Old West. We thought of blacks as poor people living in cabins in mossy swamps down south, or laboring in menial jobs, shivering in the cold in northern cities.
When I was a teen, a black girl who had gotten off the Greyhound bus during a lunch stop at the Park Hotel walked-up to me and asked where she could find the post office. She was a little older than me and nicely dressed. I was so startled I couldn't speak, my jaw hung open as I turned and pointed behind me back up Central Avenue.
When my brother and I were small a man named Hugo lived in our town. Nobody told us he was a Negro or different, but I remember being fascinated by his dark brown skin and thick lips. He bought groceries for his family in our store, and he talked to my Dad a lot. He worked at the Texaco service station just down the street from us.
One winter morning my brother and I were playing with Carl MacAlister on the piles of snow heaped up along the driveway of the Texaco station. Carl was the son of the Free Methodist minister and lived in the corner house on our block. We were Catholics and never felt comfortable around Reverend MacAlister, an intense, cold man who studied us through rimless glasses and never spoke directly to us. Carl was older than us and acted superior, like his father, except when he wanted to play with us. He never seemed to play with kids his own age. I don't know why we played with him, except as neighbors it was convenient, and Carl's mother was nice to us.
That morning we were sliding down a snow bank, making a smooth slick runway that propelled us out into the driveway of the gas station. Hugo was watching near one of the gas pumps. When Carl saw him he jumped up, pointed at him and taunted, "Hugo got his freedom! Hugo got his freedom!"
I had no idea what Carl meant, or why we should join in, but we did. My brother Pat and I were at that bewildered age, not yet old enough to read, when we learned nursery rhymes and prayers by rote, urged by adults to mouth groups of words that often made no sense to us: "Our Father who Art in Heaven, Howard be thy name." Who were Art and Howard, we wondered but never asked. Or; "Hell Mary full of grace, blessed be the fruit of byroom Jesus." It is an age when adults never seem to fully explain things, and kids just get drug along, like kids at preschool walking on a rope. So my brother and I joined in, pointing and chanting, "Hugo got his freedom! Hugo got his freedom!"
Hugo's eyes grew wide, his body stiffened. Surprised and hurt, he stepped inside the door of the little filling station. Pat and I stopped, but Carl moved towards the door, keeping up the chant, "Hugo got his freedom! Hugo got his freedom!." Mr. Dregne, the owner, came out from where he had been working on the grease rack. Carl ran, leaving Pat and I to face the music. Mr. Dregne sternly told us to go home.
That night at the supper table Dad and Mom spoke quietly to each other in a conversation we didn't understand, but we knew it was about us and what happened that day. Mr. Dregne had obviously told them. They were somber, and as a parent now, I know how hurt they must have been. They didn't try to explain anything about race to us, we were too young to understand, but they forbade us to ever play with Carl MacAlister again.
Years later, during our Junior class year in high school, a new family moved to our town from Los Angeles. Their daughter, who was quite attractive and soon very popular, joined the class. She had dark brown eyes, long, curly-black hair and light brown skin. She was instantly popular, but one day as she entered History class in the midst of a boisterous throng of classmates, my best buddy, John Ebert, teasingly dubbed her "Pocahontas." In the instant before she looked away and made a laughing recovery, her eyes, wide, fearful, hurt, caught mine. It was the look I had seen in Hugo's eyes many years before.
Few of our homes had television sets in 1955. It would be two more years before President Eisenhower sent troops to put black kids into Central High School in Little Rock. We knew in a general way that blacks were segregated in the South. When we discussed current events in our high school civics classes we talked about segregation, and we deplored it. We believed that blacks ought to be treated the same as the rest of us, but we had no real image of blacks and no experience ourselves in dealing with other races.
That summer, the summer of 1955, I was seventeen years old and a member of our local Army Reserve unit. Two of my classmates, Morrie Collins and Darrell Nelson, had also joined the Reserves. Seeking adventure, we volunteered to go to Fort Lee, Virginia for two months of training at the U.S. Army's Quartermaster School. We traveled by train overnight from Milwaukee to Cincinnati, Ohio, where we changed to the Norfolk and Western's plush Powhatan Arrow for the journey through Appalachia to tidewater Virginia. It was our fist time out of the state of Wisconsin.
As the train crawled through the mountainous regions of Kentucky and West Virginia, past unpainted shanties and weedy patches of corn close by the track, we were fascinated by the view through the coach windows. The people we saw were mostly white and looked unhealthy. As they boarded the train we were unprepared for their outlandish accents, accents we laughed over and mimicked in the privacy of the vestibules as we passed between cars of the train.
We had made youthful judgments about the South, disliking it because of segregation, lynchings, the Klu Klux Klan, and the Civil War. We judged it to be a place of prejudice, poverty, and class snobbery, and we grew more certain of our judgment as the Powhatan Arrow slowly made its way up and down the mountains of Appalachia. Despite our uniforms, we were still high school kids; I had yet to be kissed by a girl or drink a beer. This was our first view of the world outside of Richland County.
Although it was located in the heartland of the Jim Crow South, blacks were not segregated on Fort Lee. President Truman had signed an Executive Order in 1947 ending segregation in the Armed Services. Our company commander, Captain White, was black; the executive officer, Lieutenant Robinson, and the first sergeant, Sgt. Sellers, were white. Though both Lt. Robinson and Sgt. Sellers spoke with southern accents, they did not display so much as a blink of disloyalty to Captain White. Equally astonishing to us, Captain White, the first black man I was able to observe for more than fleeting moments, seemed not to be preoccupied by his black skin at all, but devoted his efforts entirely to making us professional soldiers.
The men in our barracks seemed to be an even mix of black and white. We bunked, twenty men on each of the wooden building's two stories, in a large open room. Most of the men, but more whites than blacks, had been drafted. Typically, the draftees were 22 years of age, married and college graduates. Those who had enlisted, both black and white, seemed to be younger and less well educated.
I tried to make sense of it all one evening by making tallies in my notebook, resorting to loosely labeling each of my barracks mates as a "soldier," or "dud," based upon my evaluation of their military competence. But I couldn't find any correlation between race and ability. I was fascinated by the different shades of skin color I saw, from light brown to a smooth dark almost deep-purple color like eggplant. I was especially intrigued by the different accents and expressions.
I became good friends with Louis Johnson, a black school teacher from St. Louis. He was a quiet, thoughtful man with a wife and a child back home. I was a seventeen-year-old kid from rural Wisconsin and eager to learn. Often, after taps, we talked into the late hours of the night in the lighted stairwell in our barracks.
One weekend Louis and I decided to visit Williamsburg. My mother had wanted me to see this famous recreated colonial city while I was in Virginia. On a warm, sunny Saturday morning we set out. Dressed in crisp khaki uniforms, brass and shoes shined brightly, we each carried a small duffel bag as we planned on staying overnight in Williamsburg. We took the Fort Lee shuttle bus into Petersburg and there boarded another bus bound for Richmond. Although we hadn't done so on the Ft. Lee bus, when we boarded the bus to Richmond, Louis carefully picked out two seats mid-way back. I noticed that other blacks were riding in the back while all of the white passengers, including those who boarded along the way, sat in front of us.
We arrived in Richmond at noon-time. We had a one hour layover before we boarded another bus to Williamsburg. As we walked into the terminal I noticed the "White" waiting room and the "Colored" waiting room, each protected by a small sign. Restrooms and drinking fountains were also guarded by the ubiquitous signs: "Whites Only"; "Colored Only." I looked to Louis for direction. He was silent and meandered outside to the sidewalk. I followed.
Not having seen many cities, I wanted to walk around a bit, but Louis hesitated. It was lunchtime, and he was hungry he said. Pointing to the cafeteria in the bus station, which I could see through the window was occupied only by whites, Louis told me that I should go in and eat. As I hurriedly ate a hamburger, I could see him patiently waiting on the sidewalk. When I finished I followed him around to the side of the building. Between two covered bus lanes, surrounded by smelly diesel exhaust fumes and the noise of idling buses, we found the colored restaurant. Louis told me quietly that I would have to wait outside, so I loitered at the end of the platform until he returned.
We had talked a little about Jim Crow laws in our after hours talks on the barrack's steps, but we had not discussed how they would affect us on our planned trip. Louis knew what the rules were and obeyed them. I think he was confident enough of me to know that for his sake, and in order to complete our journey, I would abide by them also. Standing on that smelly bus platform in Richmond, Virginia, not being able to go where he went, he not being able to go where I went, troubled me. I felt strangely out of place. Louis and I wore the uniform of our country, were united in serving our country, but the law said that we could not eat in the same restaurant. I wanted to be defiant, but I didn't know how. I just felt lost.
After lunch we boarded the bus to Williamsburg, again finding two seats together mid-way back in the bus. We arrived about 3:00 pm and walked the short distance to the historic district. Once there, we mingled with various tours and visited exhibits: the blacksmith shop with a working forge, the jail with the stocks out in front, the print shop.
We visited the inn. In the dining room the guests were served by waiters and waitresses in colonial costumes. I thought we might return there, but later when I suggested going back to the inn to eat, Louis was hesitant. Eventually our route did take us back there, and we stood looking in at a window and then hesitantly entered the lobby. The hostess, an older woman in a floor-length satin gown, busied herself with other patrons, never once meeting our eye. No one asked if we wanted to be seated; as we waited people seemed to move into the dining room around us. We saw no signs that said "White" or "Colored," but everyone in the dining room was white. Neither of us spoke. Finally we turned, and feigning indifference wandered out.
Other than ticket venders and tour guides, who were courteous, no one had spoken to us that day. Despite the fact that we were in uniform, people seemed to avoid looking at us. They let us be; pretended we weren't there. It was as if Louis and I were ghosts. We could see them, hear their chatter, smell their sweat. But they did not acknowledge us. They acted as if we weren't there.
We ate standing up at an outdoor hot dog stand, then in the early evening we walked back to the bus depot. By mutual, silent agreement we had abandoned our plan to stay overnight. We talked very little on our way back to Fort Lee. It was dark. I curled into my seat searching warmth, no longer caring about rumpling my uniform. I listened to the high-pitched whir of the bus tires on the rain-wet highway and tried to sleep.
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