Half a century ago, in 1961, my family lived in West Germany (a name of a state now washed away by history), as my father, an Army captain at the time, finished a tour of duty there. It was time for him, in Armyspeak, to “rotate back to CONUS” (i.e., to return to the continental United States). By early summer, he had received orders to report to Fort Lee, Virginia, by 15 September 1961.
The tides of history were about to exert a very personal force. To understand this force we have to look back to May 17, 1954, and understand how life in America changed that day.
In the spring of 1954, my father was in his junior year at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, a college which had been founded by members of the 62nd and 65th Infantry Regiments of the United States Colored Troops. My mother had graduated a year before. Like nearly everyone else in America, they were awaiting the the decision of the United States Supreme Court in several consolidated cases, collectively known as Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. On May 17, that decision came.
Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for a unanimous Court, held that racially separate facilities in public education were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The court directed that states end segregation in public education.
One of the consolidated cases was called Davis versus County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia. It arose from the segregation of Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. In reaction to the decision of the Supreme Court, Virginia state officials instigated what they called “Massive Resistance.” The campaign, led by Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., was intended to keep Virginia schools segregated. Byrd signed on to what was called the “Southern Manifesto,” a tract sponsored by more than 100 members of Congress from Southern states. The Manifesto asserted that the Supreme Court had abused its power.
This unwarranted exercise of power by the Court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the States principally affected. It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.
Most of those “90 years of patient effort” had been characterized by the passage and enforcement of “Jim Crow” laws.
Local officials in Virginia were especially willing to take the Manifesto to heart and vowed to do all they could to prevent integration of their schools. Indeed, in Prince Edward County, the school board vowed to shut the schools completely rather than comply with the laws requiring integration. And they did so in 1959.
My parents were certainly aware of this situation. And so when my father got orders requiring him to be posted to Virginia, let’s say he was something less than enthusiastic about going. He would rather risk is Army career than go to Virginia. He emphatically told his commander that he could not go to a place where his children could not go to school; that he would not go to a place where his children could not go to school. For awhile, nothing happened. It caused my father much anguish contemplating what he would have to do, possibly resign from the Army. But one day, a friendly white NCO told my dad about a place called to Sandia Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My father had never heard of it; not surprising because it was at least semi secret and had only existed for less than 15 years. It was not an Army base, per se; it was run directly by the Department of Defense and had members of all services as well as numerous civilians to support the military’s nuclear weapons program. The friendly noncom told my dad than Albuquerque’s high altitude and dry climate would help a chronic respiratory condition that my father had had for years. There was his escape hatch. With the NCO’s help, my dad requested to have his orders changed to Sandia Base, New Mexico. Providentially, the request was granted, and we arrived at Sandia Base in time for school to start in September 1961.
The nation was in the throes of change when it came to issues of race and civil rights. A new president had been inaugurated that year and civil rights advocates had high hopes that he would push legislation to end Jim Crow laws throughout the South. And a young minister from Georgia, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who continue to show bravery and resolve through difficult situations, always urging nonviolent responses, to achieve the goal of racial equality in America.
Growing up in Albuquerque, the civil rights movement was more like a TV miniseries to me than anything real. Albuquerque was a a city of barely more than 200,000 people as of the 1960 census. According to the Census Bureau, there were just 3,568 blacks living in Albuquerque at the time of the 1960 census, comprising only 1.8% of the population. [Today as a city of more than half a million, Albuquerque has something less than 20,000 African-Americans making up 3.8% of the population].
There was no particular place in town where black people lived although there were racial covenants and restrictions in deeds. There did seem to be a concentration of blacks in the southwest area of town, where Lincoln Junior High School was located. The perception was that that area was the black part of town, but with less than 3500 like people in town, how could there be a black part of town? Nonetheless, I remember trepidation expressed by some of my white classmates when Van Buren Junior High School went to Lincoln to play a basketball game.
One of the few racial incidents that involved our family I recall very vividly. Soon after we arrived in Albuquerque, my parents were told that it would be a long wait for base housing. So they decided to look for a place to rent off the base. My mother found in the newspaper a quite suitable place in the relatively desirable neighborhood called Princess Jeanne. She called the landlady on the phone and inquired about the place and was told that she could have an appointment to come see it. So we all loaded into the 1961 Rambler and went out to the Princess Jean neighborhood in the Southeast Heights. The four of us children stayed in the car as my parents approach the house. I could see the door opened just a crack and saw an elderly white woman talking to my parents. They talked for a while and then my parents came back to the car, and it was clear that we would not be renting that place. The woman had said “You didn’t tell me you were colored.” The woman said, “You didn’t sound like a colored woman on the phone.” She said, “I would not have wasted your time and mine if I’d known you were a colored woman.” So ended our adventure to live off-base. Once again, providentially, base houisng was soon opened.
From the peace of the ultimate gated community my siblings and I watched the civil rights movement on television. We saw Bull Conner and his policemen in Birmingham release dogs after firehosing a crowd. We saw the aftermath of the bombings in Birmingham. In 1963, we watched the March on Washington. All along the way our parents tried to give us a sense of context of what was going on, because nothing like that happened to us in Albuquerque.
In 1964, we watched television news reports of the reopening of the schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia. There were children 10 and 11 years old who had not been to school a day in their lives and were starting first grade. As I watched this, it occurred to me that the people hurt the most by the school closure were not the black people, but the poor white people. The middle class white people had opened so-called “segregation academies”, private schools where they educated their children. The black people using survival skills that stemmed from slavery educated their children in their churches and in the homes of others. The poor whites went without school. That’s one of the ironic contradictions of institutionalized racism.
The Albuquerque public schools were completely integrated. The two schools on Sandia Base certainly were. But if there were few black people in Albuquerque itself, there were even fewer on Sandia Base. I don’t recall seeing a black child in school with me who wasn’t one of my siblings until I was in sixth grade.
It took a trip to Texas in 1962 with my grandmother [Jessie Beatrice Bowie, 1909-1973] for me to see firsthand the effects of Jim Crow. I’ve written about my Texas vacation in this space before, but I left out one significant incident.
We were primarily visiting in Rockport and Corpus Christi, but my Aunt Pansy [Pansy Emely Manson Warren, 1911-1990] owned café and motel in the town of Taft, Texas, a distance away from Rockport. One afternoon and evening, we took a bus to go to Taft from Rockport. It was a stormy night, with rain and wind like only the Gulf Coast can experience in late summer. At some point, the bus driver stopped and announced a break of about 15 minutes. We were in front of a small café in some town between Rockport and Taft. My grandmother and my sister and I went into the café with the other passengers. My grandmother went to the counter to order Cokes. A young white girl behind the counter brought her three Coca-Cola’s in the classic Coca-Cola bottles. We stood at the counter and began to drink. The white girl came back over and said politely, “Colored people are not allowed to sit at the counter.” My grandmother said, “Come on, let’s move away.”
I was outraged. I thought to myself, my Daddy is a captain in the United States Army. What do you mean I can’t sit where I want to sit. I didn’t say it aloud, however, because I didn’t know how my grandmother would react. We found a table and sat there and continue to drink our Cokes. Then I had to go to the restroom. My grandmother said, knowing what I would find, “It’s right through there,” indicating an arch opening at the rear of the cafe. I went “right through there” and was confronted with not two restrooms, but four: one that was labeled “White Men,” another labeled “Colored Men,” and two others signed “White Women” and “Colored Women,” respectively. I was so dumbfounded that I wasn’t exactly sure which one I should go into. After a couple of minutes of thinking over the situation I went into the “colored” bathroom.
There were two drinking fountains outside the bathrooms: one marked “Colored People,” and one marked “White People.” Fortunately I didn’t have to get a drink of water since we’d been drinking Cokes.
People began drifting back to the bus, and my grandmother said we should go finish our Cokes on the bus. And we did. Soon more passengers drifted back to the bus, including the driver. It was still seriously raining in the Gulf Coast storm. Just as the bus driver was about to pull out of the parking lot, I saw a huge fat white man, come running out of the café with his belly barely covered by his T-shirt, barefoot, and yelling something. As he got closer, I could make out what he was agitated about. He was yelling, “Don’t let them niggers run off with my bottles.” His 5-cent deposit bottles.
Late that night we got to Aunt Pansy’s place in Taft. It had been a long day so we went right to bed. In the morning, we went to to breakfast at Aunt Pansy’s cafe. I noticed in her café there was a sign that said, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” And I immediately thought of my experience the previous night. I asked Aunt Pansy, “Does that mean you can refuse to serve white people?” She chuckled, and she said, “It means I can do anything I want.” Somehow, that didn’t ease my troubled mind.
Life is different in America today; different for the better, mainly. And we, all of us regardless of race, owe a debt of gratitude to the civil rights pioneers, exemplified by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
January 17, 2011 Monday at 8:52 am