Monday, September 14, 2009
On Being an African American in the Fifties, Part III
The Fifties, Part III
We're all accidental soldiers in the army of life.
In June, not long after my 18th birthday, I went to Ft. Hamilton, New York to board my ship. I arrived early for orientation. There was only one other Black woman on base, and we became friends. She had been traveling with her husband for years, mentored me, and we ate together every day at the NCO Club. The day before we left they posted the wives' names along with their husbands' names and rank. She was shocked when she discovered that my husband was an officer and told me we couldn't be friends because her husband wasn't an officer. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "We will be friends." On the ship I would slip down to her room and we would visit. When we got ready to dock she told me she was a beautician and she did my hair the whole time we were in Panama. Suppose I had obeyed the rule about not being friendly with women whose husbands weren't officers? Lesson learned.
My roommate on the ship was from South Dakota and she had never seen a Black person. We became fast friends and on the fourth day she got up the courage to ask me how did I hide my tail? I was puzzled. What did she mean? She had been told that Black people had tails and I was very successful at hiding mine. We both had a good laugh when I told her that was a lie. I thought I had heard every stereotype but this was a new one for me. It gave us an opportunity to discuss other myths about both races and we stayed friends the whole time we were in Panama.
I still remember the day in June 1955, when the ship full of soldiers' wives arrived in Colon, Panama. We all dressed our best and my new friend did my hair. The warm, tropical air hit me like a warm sauna. The female passengers on the ship waved to the many waiting soldiers, each looking for only one person, her husband. A scream could be heard whenever one woman found her spouse. It was easy for me. There were only two Black officers waiting for the ship and I knew both of them. What an overwhelming, romantic way to begin a marriage. Who knew it would last over fifty years?
Our Home - Ft. Davis, Canal Zone
We spent a magical year in Panama, young and in love, enjoying the perks that officers had and traveled around the area. I played bridge, bowled, shopped, and went to luncheons and parties. This was a very different lifestyle for a woman who grew up on welfare and lived in a one bedroom apartment with 10 other relatives.
Black officers in an integrated army was still rather new. Even though President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948 it wasn't done with deliberate speed. Integration in the armed services was still in the early stages. My husband was the only Black Officer in his company and a few others were scattered over the Canal Zone.
He didn't like army food. When he was officer of the day at the locks I would take him lunch and dinner. We would sit by the locks and lazily watch the ships going through the canal. One of the most exciting days was the day the Ile de France docked in Colon. Everyone went down to see the majestic ocean liner. Sometimes we would get with a group, rent a boat, and take a ride through Gatun Lake.
I guess we're blessed because we didn't have problems on or off base. This was the first time in our lives that we had white friends and for most of them it was the first time they had Black friends. It was a learning experience for all of us.
We were all newlyweds since most of the younger officers got married when they received their orders. After nine months we all had a "go to hell" party for the people who said we got married because we were pregnant.
For some reason I could never learn to drive our 1947 Dodge. I kept having accidents and running into palm trees. The children who lived in the area would run when they saw me coming. Sometimes when I returned to base, the guard would stop my car and insist on driving me home.
I was surprised to find that segregation existed in the Canal Zone, also, but it was more by color than race, the lighter the better. The water fountains were labeled "silver" and "gold," instead of white and colored.
Our maid was from Jamaica. Yes, the young lady who used to clean white people's homes on Saturdays now had a maid, but having a maid was mandatory for officers and a culture shock for me. Maids had to wash clothes by hand in outdoor tubs and iron them in their quarters behind our house. Because of the humidity sometimes my husband had to change uniforms twice a day. We would surreptitiously buy her pasteurized milk (We didn't have homogenized milk then.) at the PX because only raw milk was available in town.
Since I had finished only two years of college, I took classes at a branch of Louisiana State University (LSU). My professors were surprised to see me because they had never taught a "Negro" student. LSU was white. They were even more surprised that I could do the work and asked me to come back to the states to see if they could force desegregation on the Baton Rouge campus. I thought about it but refused because I wanted a degree in a hurry since my Mom wouldn't speak to my husband until I finished. It was 1964 before African American students would be admitted to the Baton Rouge campus.
Finally, I did get pregnant and the doctors expected complications. They advised me to return to the States because the men spent a lot of time away and the trip to the hospital was through the jungle to Coco Solo Naval Base. It's a good thing I came back to the States in case my son wants to run for President. The birthers won't get him.