My Father’s Story: The Black John Wayne by: V.Lyn
( My 80-year-old father and my daughter dancing at her wedding)
My Fathers Story: The Black John Wayne (tentative title) this is an excerpt from a book on my father
By V. Lyn copyright 2010
The image above of the Army Master Diver badge is awarded to qualified United States Army soldiers who hold the rank of sergeant first class or master sergeant and pass all the military requirements for such an honor. They are unequivocally the most qualified divers, and can diver in any sea. The award was created on February 15, 1944. The Master Diver Badge is symbolic of a marine spearhead, standing for valor and strength.
While the heroic exploits of the Navy’s First Black Diver Carl Brashear are well-known, my father Sergeant First Class Stanley C. Drayton Jr. Ret. was part of a little known élite group of men in the United States Army, The Army Diver. He had his first dive in 1956 and became one of the first Black Army Master Diver. In 1966 he was one of only 8 U.S. Army Master Divers. This is a significant feat at any time but one of even greater weight when you consider the era in which it was achieved.
He was determined not to be limited by the perceptions and boundaries the America of the 1940’s had set for Blacks, which were that Negroes were inferior, irresponsible, less capable and less intelligent than their white counterparts. Sadly these pervasive attitudes and boundaries permeated the psyche of some African Americans as well, who also adopted a defeatist attitude. Some blacks were despondent assuming that it made little sense to even try to get ahead, because ultimately they would never be allowed to succeed. In spite of these prevailing attitudes my father set about a path that proved the lie of the stereotypes placed upon Black men in the military and the nation. At the end of the day his resolve, along with the fight and sacrifice’s made by countless other nameless men and women who went about their day striving and achieving, helped change the perception America had of us as viable and productive citizens. This includes the perceptions of Black Americans, and how they felt about themselves, as well as their opportunities in this country and how they acted upon them. Most of us are aware of those men and women who spoke and fought for the cause of Blacks during what is called the “Civil Rights Period”, the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Ella Baker, Septima Poinsette Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, John F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, but long before that “period” (The fight for civil rights began for Africans and for their descendants the moment their shackled feet touched the soil of this new continent) by the likes of Fredrick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Senator and Former Governor Seward, David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, and Angelina Grimke to name a few. In our history many other albeit nameless average men and women like my father quietly and valiantly went about the job of living and succeeding and in the end opened doors for minorities to come. As I mentioned above minorities were not the only ones who adopted this cause from the beginning when Africans first were brought to these shores; these courageous and conscientious people sacrificed not only their reputations, properties, families and in some instances their own freedom and even their lives. Many whites saw the injustices heaped on Blacks and made a stand for their principles and the ideologies of America. They never lost sight that the vision of America was one of inclusion and freedom, and not one of divisiveness. They were all courageous people whether they were White, African slaves or freeman, and they were stretched across both time and these United States of America. America was ready for a change, and change was coming in small leaps and sometimes in humongous bounds, inching ever nearer to the ideal of equality, inching ever closer to the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and that of the Constitution. Although we are still not there with complete parity we are however inching forward, we are moving, advancing towards the perfection of the American principles. Although along the way there have been and still are many hurdles in our path. With many of our populace forgetting what the words of the Declaration of Independence truly stands for, and that its purpose was to protect the rights of individuals and that segment of the population that was marginalized, and it was also meant to represent the moral standard for which the United States and her citizens should strive for. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are our most powerful mandate for not only her citizens but for the government as well. And the duty of the government and in particular the President is not to be swayed by popular opinion and the desire for re-election but to do what is morally and legally right with a vision of keeping her citizens as well as the country on the path set forth by the ideals of our founding fathers; one being the separation of church and state, as posed by Thomas Jefferson during his first term as President he declared “His” belief that the separation of church and state was critical in the growth of this new world called America. In a letter to the Danbury, Conn. Baptists Thomas Jefferson said: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should `make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
My father’s many achievements need to be viewed through the optics of the time, 1940’s -60s was pre civil rights, post slavery by a mere 60 years, and Jim Crow. This is the reason I have referenced some of the history of Blacks in this country from slavery until the civil rights period. I felt it was significant to paint a picture of the time in which my fathers served in the military. The backdrop of his story “IS” as critical as his story itself. While my father sadly does not agree, I feel compelled to include the feeling and emotions of this country towards its black sons’ and daughters. I have included a few pivotal speeches that I feel are essential to conveying the social mores of this nation and the state of mind of the nation, as well as emotional state of blacks. And while I am neither a sociologist nor psychologist, I do know how we think of ourselves often colors how we behave, and what we can or will ‘allow’ ourselves to achieve. How we define ourselves is critical but how others define ‘US’ can be almost if not equally as important. The positive expectations of others can be a positive motivation just as negative expectations (low expectations) can serve as a catalyst for an individual to meet them. Low self-esteem is self-feeding, (reinforcing) an example of this is if someone tells someone long enough that he is not smart enough or good enough to read, in many cases that person often will just give up when the first difficulty arises, after all they now believe they are not good enough or smart enough to read. That self-perception (self-identification) can spill over into other areas, and the cycle continues. As highlighted in these findings:
(Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996; Chen & Bargh, 1997; Wheeler & Petty, 2001). Unintentional fulfillment of the stereotype by a targeted member reinforces it, setting off a dangerous cycle of self-perpetuation.
For instance, Steele and Aronson (1995) found that activating a negative, self-relevant stereotype had detrimental effects on its targets. Black participants who were asked to indicate their race on a demographic questionnaire prior to completing challenging GRE questions performed significantly worse than both White and Black participants who were not asked for their race prior to the test. Steele and Aronson concluded that the subtle activation of a negative stereotype led to underperformance in a relevant domain by the targeted group. Their finding has been replicated with Latinos stereotyped as poor students (Aronson, Quinn, & Spencer, 1998), with women stereotyped as poor quantitative problem-solvers (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999), and with Whites stereotyped as poor athletes (Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999; see Wheeler & Petty, 2001, for a review). Deflecting negative self-relevant stereotype activation:
The effects of individuation* Nalini Ambady,* Sue K. Paik, Jennifer Steele, Ashli Owen-Smith, and Jason P. Mitchell Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA Received 18 March 2002; revised 28 July 2003
Somehow my father did what many could not do, dared not do, not then or now, he broke the mold and defined himself, through self – determination and self- actualization. So while we won’t find these “average men and women” mentioned between the pages of our history books, ( due to the fact much of Black history is lost, or was never chronicled[V2] ), neither will we find their successes, nor their individual trials and tribulations, but they existed, they lived and not just survived, so that they as well as their children and their children’s children could have it a little better with each successive generation. They were our great grandparents, grandparents, mothers and fathers, and while their triumphs may not seem much, or as great when looked at by today’s standards, when one looks back through the lens of time the era and the atmosphere of the time the significance of those accomplishments are staggering. They spit back in the eye of the stereotype and did not buy into the “jibe”.
In 1931 Stanley C. Drayton Jr. was born in Harlem, N.Y. and came of age in this country in the 40s. The early part of the forties for America was a time of impending war; World War II had dominated Europe, and with the Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor catapulted a previously reluctant America into the war. The beginning of 1940 found the first peace time draft enacted. In 1942 America’s military started the draft, and a rationing system in the United States was employed, it was no longer peace time the United States was at war. The forties in America was a time of high unemployment, for all. It was the Time of the Red Scare, when Senator Joseph McCarthy created a micro version of his own Hitlerism in America. While a few of those brought to trial were actual Communist sympathizers, most were innocent. Allegations were often bandied about by citizens for their own personal agenda, and ideologies. Whatever the truth was they (the accused) all had their civil rights violated and personal and professional lives destroyed. This destructive period in the U.S. history would last into the late 50’s. America in the 40s was a time of the Big bands, Rhythm and Blues, and Jazz! Exposing many to unfamiliar sounds and bringing people tentatively together across racial lines. Despite the turmoil of 1940’s America, or perhaps because of it, people of all races, ethnicities, and religions found a reason to dance in America. The end of WWII saw the birth of the Cold War between America and Russia with both vying for control over a defeated Germany. America was rife for transformation and the 1940s was the harbinger of that change. Yet the forties for “Negroes” in America in some ways was little changed from slavery. Jim Crow laws were on the books and the continued subjugation of Negroes was intertwined within government and its policies, social and judicial systems and institutions, and the mores of her people. The African Americans then, far more so than they are today, were marginalized in America and were relegated to the status of second class citizens, several steps up from the chattel they were considered a mere 60 years earlier. Nevertheless at the close of WWII veteran Negro soldiers were no longer willing to be relegated to the status of second class citizens, change was at the threshold and Negroes were determined to nudge it through the door.
Unaware of the impending changes the country and blacks were going through, a young ‘coloured’ kid by the name of Stanley Clifford Drayton Jr. was making his first tentative steps towards manhood. Determined, he decided that regardless of the many barriers and hurdles set in front of him and other blacks he would excel, and attain his dreams. Surpassing the expectations that America placed upon black men became commonplace for him, it proved to be a practice that he would continue throughout his life. His accomplishments are not only a testament to the man he is, but to the generations of African Slaves and freemen, and their descendants that came before him and the sacrifices they made for the advancement of subsequent progeny. It is also a testament to all his ancestors who struggled to achieve the American Dream and who lay the foundation for all Blacks to achieve equity. His achievements are a life message of encouragement to the young Black men and women who continue to struggle today, striving to take full advantages of the opportunities that are available in this country, and who refuse to give up, won’t give up. It serves as a powerful edict to those who have given up.
The message is “Don’t!”
Long before the candidate and now President Barack Obama said “yes we can” in November of 2008 to millions of expectant and hopeful people of all races, my father showed the world as did many Black men and women of the time that indeed “YES WE CAN”. They had a vision a goal, a dream and they never listened to the naysayers in their midst, instead through diligence, intellect, and a willingness to put the “work in” they not only accomplished their goals but in many circumstance… shined. What defines my father are patriotism, loyalty, and duty. Honor. The ideals of The Constitution are living, viable and tangible to him. The one thing they are not however is malleable. He believed and still believes that the American dream is possible for anyone to obtain no matter the circumstances of their birth, the religion they practice, or the color of their skin. My father believes in the “idea” of America, and the spirit of her people. His story is as relevant today as it was over 60 years ago. And it needs to be told to the millions of young men and women, particularly of color who feel that the hurdles are way too high, and the barriers far too impenetrable even today. While his story may be of special import for minorities this is of value to every young man and woman who finds themselves floundering, unsure, and unhopeful about their future and their place in America. My father says his life is “evidence of what can be accomplished when decent people of all races do what is morally right, despite prevailing racist attitudes and practices.” I say my father story is a message of strength, hope, perseverance, and the best and worst of America. Mainly it is a lesson of what can be realized in this nation if one never settles.
I say “SFC. Stanley C. Drayton, Ret. epitomizes the American ideals.”
During his military career he has been stationed in post-World War II Germany where he served three years, this is also where he won the Army Boxing Division Championship. His odyssey in the military brought him to Inchon, Korea during the Korean War where he dove in brackish water while maintaining the underwater pipelines, and then on to Japan. He was stationed in Ft. Bragg, N.C. and was a Paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne Division. He also served as section chief in Vietnam in 1965-1966. This is where he earned his black belt in karate after years of training. He has received a Vietnam Service Medal, a Vietnam Campaign Medal, and a Bronze Medal for Meritorious Service for his contributions to the military. More significantly and of historically relevance during his service he was a member of an elite group of Black Army Master Divers, he had his first deep sea dive in Alaska in 1956, and was among the first Black Divers in Army history. In 1968 he was one of only 8 Master divers in the U.S. Army. The Army Diver was a little known unit by even officials at the Navy Seal Museum, as Carlos Harrison a metro editor for the newspaper Florida Today discovered during his research in 2004 when he was doing a story on my father. Also unaware of the history of the Army Diver was Assistant Historian Seth Paltzer at the Army Historian Foundation as noted in a correspondence with me “Information on Army Divers is very rare and difficult to find. This is probably due to the fact that there are only a very small number of Army Diver units and these consist of small numbers of soldiers.” Mr. Paltzers’ dedication and actions lead me to several sources that pointed me in the right direction for verification concerning the Army Divers program and extensive training, as well as diver equipment.
The Army Diving Unit was created during WWII because of the need for specialized Engineering outfits for port support as well as the need for Salvage Divers. The Army Divers has since endured sniper fire in Somalia, and was also sent to Port- Au- Prince, Haiti as part of Operation Restoring Democracy in order to secure port operations. It is and was especially “back in the day”, one of the toughest courses in the Army, 14 weeks at that time, and very few made it or completed the training, there were also very few slots available. It specializes in underwater demolition with explosives; the danger of this cannot be minimized, as well as reconnaissance, patrolling, salvage, underwater construction and engineering, just to name a few of their responsibilities. The Deep Sea Diver which my father was one of was also known as the Hard-Hat Diver or John Brown, and is not to be mistaken for the scuba diver. The diver is often required to work for long periods of time in depths up to 190 feet[V3] , which requires constant caution. Compressed air is pumped into the diver’s helmet which is known as a ‘Hat’; this allows the diver to breathe normally and stabilizes his internal pressure with the water pressure while he is attached to an umbilical hose. The diver breathes air at the same pressure as the surrounding water pressure. They must rely on the proper mix of air made from above. Hydrogen-oxygen, helium-oxygen and helium-nitrogen-oxygen, are used to dive deeper than previously possible with compressed air. The simple fact is the greater the depth the greater the risk. At those depths the sea is so cold, dark and lonely, there is no sunlight filtering down and some divers can be lost in the euphoria of being underwater. Ascending to the surface poses all types of potential dangers. An ascent to the surface from those depths demands extreme caution. The immediate physical dangers as well as long term physical and neurological dangers that divers’, in particular deep sea divers face are enormous. They face the potential for the bends, and air embolisms, to name a few. I believe that for those divers in the 40s, 50s and 60s it had to be especially hazardous without the technological advancements the Military offers today. The Army patterned their training after the Navy’s but stressed underwater welding, burning, rigging, and added the underwater use of explosives for demolition, also the use of pneumatic tools. This was strenuous training that required that the Army diver learn physiology, currents, tides, dive tables; CPR, submarine lock in/out, day and night diving, and they also needed to have the ability to stay calm under stress. The need for being in good physical shape was and is a requirement. The divers hat (what they called their helmet) and breast plate weighs 54lbs, divers’ belt weighs 84lbs, and his shoes 40lb, as well as the extreme depth mandated they be in good health, mentally and physically. The training in the past was said to be far more difficult than what it is today.
My most powerful memory of my father is one that is seared into my mind and heart; it is of the day I saw him come home when I was 7 or 8 yrs. old. I was playing in the front of building7 of the projects that we lived in. I remember the sun shining the smell of the freshly mown verdant green grass, the shrill laughter of the kids I played with as we ran chasing one another, the sun on my skin, and I felt alive, free, and happy. Adults and older teens sat on the benches and watched as we children played. Then someone said something like “Look Val your father’s home.” Everyone seemed to stop and gasp with what I recall was awe and pride, because he was one of theirs, the warm burnished brown of his skin laid testament to that. Every eye seemed to be glued on this tall handsome African American soldiers approach. I remember turning and there marching straight and tall, in his dress greens was my father, silhouetted by the sun with the flag raised on its pole behind him. A perfect photo op, perhaps he planned it, if so to good effect. The stars and stripes bellowed in the soft breeze, serving as background for this proud Black man as he walked ramrod straight, shoulders back, chest out, stomach in, with perfect military bearing, as he came into view. My father! I remember running to him, my short plump legs propelling me forward as he dropped to his knees, his duffel bag discarded he hoisted me in the air. And he hugged me tight to him. Black faces of every hue came to welcome him home; there was the shaking of hands, the prerequisite back slaps were exchanged, and a few shy hugs as well.
“Hey Mr. Drayton welcome back.” Someone might have said.
“Welcome home Sir.”
And these people looked proud as though he were family, as he was; because when you are black our common shared experience makes it so.
“Good seeing you sir.” While the dialogue might not be exact the context is. It was all very respectful, of a man worthy of their respect.
And I know I felt safe, protected, loved, and mostly proud. My father! My father….the man who everyone watched and admired.
Realization came to me years later, at least in my opinion that my father basked in the fact that he was looked upon with respect and that others saw that his life’s actions had value.
That is my father and that is the image he has conveyed throughout his life. That is what defines him. Military service, Military man to the core, and loving father. He is defined by that, his love of country and his desire to be a good father. My father does not want to be forgotten. And he will not be by his children or those who know him, nor should he be.
John Wayne was his childhood hero and remains his hero to this day. Strangely the ‘characters’ John Wayne played are my heroes as well. What is so strange is the fact we did not know about each other’s admiration for John Wayne until much later in life. We never had much of an opportunity to sit around and watch television together, for most of my childhood my father and mother were separated due to his military life, later due to their separation and divorce. My parents’ divorce was not an amiable divorce. Still we three girls saw our father often, and he has always been present in our lives. Yet it is interesting to me that this tall white man, John Wayne, was something that we shared and which influenced the direction both our lives took.
The other male hero in my life is of course my father. He was my hero from my earliest time. It does not take much effort to remember reciting my father’s many exploits to anyone close to hear or not quick enough to dart away. I spoke with my seven year old chest poked out about his Black Belt in Karate that he earned in Korea, his boxing prowess, but mostly the fact that he was a Deep Sea Diver in Americas Army a feat that few men especially black had achieved. My father was always a source of admiration for me. He was tall, handsome, and as strong as any Super hero, and he always had a quick toothy smile. He would sit us besides him on the couch and tell us tales, or show us photos out of a large photo album, of himself an our family as well as the place he had been and the people he had met. Mesmerized we sit there in delight, captivated by every word he spoke.
My two sisters and I recall being about 4 (my youngest sister), 7 (me), and 10 (the first born), our three plaits what my father called braids (three on each small brown head) sticking straight out in salute, as we marched up and down the hall of our apartment reading the duty roster (List of Chores) our father had posted on the bathroom door. I did my chore with relish, after all I was a soldier in this man’s army, and that was a damn fine thing to be. Later after his divorce from my mother he would have two sons’ from two other women, Stormy, and then later Irma who he married, but before their births he would tell me I was the son he always wanted to have.
My father sees himself as the Black John Wayne as would most people who hear of his many exploits and accomplishment. It is a source of pride for him when in truth he is so much more. He is real, flesh and blood and therefore vulnerable, while John Wayne was a fictional character, one designed by Movie Studios to create an image of the best of America, loyalty, honesty, patriotism, selflessness, heroism, staunch ally, a hard man with the capacity for love and forgiveness. Yet he never spent a day serving in the military. It does not go unnoticed by me that John Wayne held racist and very conservative views about Native Americans, and Blacks.
“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them if that’s what you’re asking. Our so called stealing of this country was just a question of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves…. I’m quite sure that the concept of a Government-run reservation… seems to be what the socialists are working for now — to have everyone cared for from cradle to grave…. But you can’t whine and bellyache ’cause somebody else got a break and you didn’t, like those Indians are. We’ll all be on a reservation soon if the socialists keep subsidizing groups like them with our tax money.”
These were John Wayne’s comments during an interview with Playboy.”
Or his views about Blacks and the Civil Rights movement during the same Playboy interview:
“I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people…. The academic community has developed certain tests that determine whether the blacks are sufficiently equipped scholastically…. I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or ten generations ago these people were slaves. Now I’m not condoning slavery. It’s just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and can’t play football like the rest of us.”
When asked how blacks could address the inequities of the past, Wayne replied:
“By going to school. I don’t know why people insist that blacks have been forbidden to go to school. They were allowed in public schools wherever I’ve been. I think any black man who can compete with a white can get a better break than a white man. I wish they’d tell me where in the world they have it better than right here in America.”
But it is not the man he admired but the principles his characters embodied. What my father endeavored to immolate, what he venerated was the image of the heroic man, who the studios so aptly tailored Wayne’s roles to personify, the quintessential American hero who was bigger than life, a patriot. These were the traits, the characteristic that my dad idolized. John Wayne played a role, a character that died only seven times in his many movies, (The Shootist, the Cowboys, Wake of the Red Witch, The Fighting Seabees, Reap the Wild Wind, the Alamo, and Sand of Iwo Jima) only to rise and live again in the next. While these honorable attributes were scripted characteristics for the roles John Wayne played in movies, these however are the qualities that in real life my father tried to embody every day of his life, even if it meant he put his life at risk.
My father was a military man for 20years, a boxing champ in the Army, a first degree black belt in the martial arts, and one of the *FIRST* Black Master Divers in the US Military, Carl Brashear notwithstanding. His accomplishments are even more phenomenal when one considers this is a man who did not graduate from high school. This was a time when Blacks were marginalized and oppressed, in and outside of the military, and when most everyone within his sphere of reference told him, as well as many blacks “NO YOU CAN’T”. Yet this is also the story of America, of the best in her people, and her worst. Indirectly it is the story of those men and women who stood by my father’s side and stoked the fires of his dreams and uttered the words of encouragement that every boy and young man needs, “it’s possible, you can do it, I believe.” There were men as well as women who encouraged my father through the course of his life, both Black and White, they too epitomize the best of this country. There was Father Dohman who helped to instill values and the skills to carry him through life, and Mr. Sid, who taught him how to fight and as critical when not to, as well as The “Uncle“ Dan McKinnons who shared with him his first glimpse of an Army Diver, and didn’t laugh at him when he said “That’s what I want to be.”. The Donald Coxes, The Mel Aldermanns, of the world whose belief in him, and willingness to look beyond the color of his skin, who made sure that he saw the opportunities before him for what they were, and maximize each. In addition to his family those people and people like them played significant roles in shaping who he became. Nature and Nurture working in tandem.
This is the truth of America, that she is flawed, sometimes immeasurably cruel and unjust to segments of her citizenry throughout her history. The Native Americans who saw their lands taken and their people decimated, culminating in their virtually annihilation. Yet they nevertheless fought alongside American citizens in virtually every war. The Irish who came to American in the 1840’s were viewed as dirty and shiftless they too fought and worked to build this nation. Japanese Americans citizens were interned in camps across America during World War II still many enlisted during that war to fight for this country that had treated them so unjustly. The Repatriation of an estimated 2 million Mexican Nationals and Mexican American citizens, adult and children were sent back to Mexico during the depression so that whites would have jobs.
“Repatriation” plans to send Mexican immigrants back to Mexico in busloads and boxcars. Many Mexican Americans were also sent out of the United States under these programs, there being no differentiation between Mexicans and Mexican American U.S. citizens. Mexican American U.S. citizens who were children at the time were also deported to Mexico along with their Mexican parents. (Excerpt taken from Picture this: Depression Era)
And the enslavement of Africans ripped from their homes and brought to an unfamiliar and vastly different land. At a time when Europeans came to this country seeking liberty from tyranny and persecution for their selves but denied it to a race of people based on the color of their skin, for economic reasons, and justified by edicts and the constitution, and the NEED of the citizenry TO JUSTIFY the enslavement of others. The ramifications of 400 years of oppression both social and institutional still resonate to this day. Conversely that is only a part of what America represents, she is also great, and a land of opportunity. Undaunted and unbowed she fights on for what she believes is the betterment of those to come no matter where they are in the world. America represents to countless people around the world perhaps even more than its citizens, who maybe have forgotten what America represents, which is… “Hope.” Without question she is flawed but so is my father, as are we all, but what makes them so wondrous, inspiring is that they both strive for perfection and often reach it.
Undaunted and unbowed.
While my father journey and many achievements are the focus here, both illustrated and lauded this is as much the story of America, and what can be accomplished despite the adversities, despite the racism and oppression. Because she is growing and evolving and she is often GLORIOUS to behold. This is my father’s story; this is his journey in the country that he loves. His was a journey culminated into a significant accomplishment by even today’s standards but far more because of the time, becoming an Elite Master Diver in 1966 in the U.S. ARMY. His aspiration and subsequent accomplishments eventually and inadvertently helped push open doors for countless African Americans to come. This is the story of the REAL JOHN WAYNE, and The United States of America.
This is my father’s story, the Black John Wayne[V1] .
1930’s Harlem NY/ 1930’s America
Stanley Jr. was born in 1931 in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. Blacks in the south were migrating north in droves, they had heard about the movement in Harlem, perhaps had seen their neighbors pack up and moving out. Maybe conversation like this transpired between them.
“Where you folks going Rus?” Rus’s neighbor asked while eyeballing the suitcase laden car.
“East to New York, Mary can’t take it anymore, neither can I man, we takin’ the kids and heading out. I hear things are better there. Negroes in Harlem are doing good there. Ain’t gotta worry about no cracka stringin’ ‘em up to no tree there.”
“Hell Rus, they ain’t got no trees in New York, from what I hear…” then looking around, he speaks in a voice so low and forlorn that it is virtually a whisper, so low that Rus practically needs to strain to hear. “Maybe we’ll see you there, pack up the missus and kids and head on out too. Nothin’ here for us for sure.” Perhaps conversations transpired like that all across the South, entire extended families picking up and leaving or maybe for some the familiar no matter how bad it was, it was still more comfortable than the unknown, so they decided to stay. “This is home” they would have said. “Our home, where we lived as husband and wife for 50 odd years, your mother were born in this here house, her father built it and it’s where he lived until he died, and it’s where we’ll eventually die, the Good God willing.” Instead they said good bye to loved ones, the old, the infirm, and the ones who chose to stay behind. The deep-rooted with tattered rags or handkerchiefs wiped tears from old cataract eyes but whatever the conversations were that facilitated the move, every one of the blacks moving north was optimistic about the possibilities of America and their future in Harlem. Certainly they universally would think things would be different; better, times were changing after all, and not just for black either, yeah things were sure to be better.
Yet one needs to recall that while one of the most despicable periods of American history had come to a “technical” end, the mindset in the American population and the countries policies would not significantly change for another 100 years after the emancipation of Black slaves. To this day remnants of that oppression and racism persist. However while slavery had ended less than 60 years earlier, the country and its citizens mentality had not changed far from the time when it believed Blacks were less than human, inferior, and chattel.
1930s America was a time of Jim Crow in the south and the bordering states where laws were devised post emancipation to segregate and perpetuate the marginalization of newly freed African slaves and those Freed Blacks. Then there were cities like Chicago and New York City, and while there was not the same level of oppression as there was in the south, there was still racial segregation and discrimination. Blacks in the north were as strictly defined by the color of their skin as their brothers and sisters in the south. Evidenced by the fact that they had their own schools, own theaters, own clubs, own neighborhoods. Still it was better than being whipped or lynched and blacks moved north in droves. Many came with their meager belongings for the promised better future to Harlem. Middle class and professional blacks moved in droves as well, for the same reason that their poorer brothers and sisters, and though their belongings may have been a little less worn, and far more substantial, they moved seeking the same, ‘things were sure to be better.’
But when the Blacks from the south moved in the whites moved out.
Harlem had been experiencing a cultural movement called the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s- 30s which was spurred on by the increasing difficulty of life for Blacks in the south. The demand for unskilled industrial labor in the north, particularly after the end of World War I was an impetus as well.
Harlem was alive with elaborate black Churches and mosques; religion played an integral role in the lives of Blacks. But so did and jazz and what it represented to Black musicians and her listeners was freedom, with its improvisation and lack of constraints. Harlem was alive with the sound of Jazz, and invigorated by Black Writers and plays, and a black population that strived for social and civic equality, political power and economic power, and self-determination. Blacks were seeking out one another for spiritual and emotional support, networking for social gain. Harlem was alive with the belief that racial equality and integration was possible. And that art and literature would serve in bridging the gap between the races. The concept was not far off the mark as many whites were intrigued by the black style of music, dance and literature. Perhaps many were curious seeing this as a lark an experience to be had still many whites fervently wanted to see the advent of change for Negroes as well, and worked diligently towards that end.
In 1936 eighteen African Americans competed in the Olympics in Germany including Jesse Owens. Jesse Owens was the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave. He ran in Germany shattering records and winning four Olympic medals and in the process humiliated Hitler, who thought blacks were inferior. African American athletes, who included two women won a total of 14 medals. America rejoiced, and not just black Americans either. Chinese Americans, Japanese Americas, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Ecuadorean Americans, White and Black Americans, were one, they were Americans for that moment one and the same. However for blacks in America the reaction to Owens and the other African American athlete’s victory was particularly intense and significant, and served as a resounding affirmation of what they already knew, they were equal, and American. However once the 14 athletes were back in America these black athletes including Jesse Owens could still not ride in the front of the bus nor eat any place they chose. Little had changed for them once home. The sentiment that for a brief moment that touched every American no matter their race nationality or religion, and which served as the harbinger of the magnificence of unification was short lived. So while advancements were made in the black culture, racism and discrimination continued in America. For many whites the pervasive attitude of white superiority and black inferiority had not changed. So entrenched was this perception in the psyche of the American populace.
While Blacks were making strides in Harlem and in many other major cities in America, there was always the reality of separateness. Of not quite belonging in a country that they had helped build, and in which they had fought valiantly for. This duality was epitomized so eloquently by W.E.B. Du Bois.
W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).and the author of the influential book The Souls of Black Folks (1903): “One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
That is how blacks saw themselves and more notably how laws were devised to keep them.
“In 1943 Harlem there was a great energy,” says playwright John Henry Redwood. “We are 10 years removed from the end of Prohibition, we are in the war years. African-American soldiers are chomping at the bit to prove themselves again as good citizens by waiting to fight for the Democracy they share very little in. We are just coming out of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s the Harlem of Malcolm X, and of Duke Ellington and Count Basie and all of these giants in music and literature, such as Zora Neale Hurston. Soldiers and sailors walking around in uniform, the Cotton Club going, the Savoy going…
“This is the Harlem that my parents would go to when they wanted to go out. Born and raised in Brooklyn, they were the first generation from the South. Elizabeth and Quilly, you have two generations there. And then a generation after, you have Lou Bessie and Bucket and Husband coming up from the South. It’s like the second of the great migrations. The [Harlem] churches still have remnants of the Southern black church. We are still at that point where we speak of our life in the South. All these things make for a colorful people trying to make that transition from rural South to urban America.”
Who Will I be
This is the backdrop for the time in which my father came to age. The Renaissance in Harlem its’ flow of ideas, music, and literature and the perception of Blacks themselves that they were entitled/ deserving of more than what society had previously made available to them. All attitudes which helped shape my father’s personality. Unfortunately this also helped shape my father as it does countless minorities then and now, Harlem in the 1940’s was a place of escalating crime, poverty and drugs. Liquor was prevalent and heroin was beginning to take hold on the black community. Sadly this persist in many minority urban communities, although the drug of choice maybe different. In 1940’s Harlem poverty and hard times persisted. This is an unfortunate truth today in many minority urban communities. During this time over 40 percent of Black households had to take on lodgers just to meet their rent, the “house parties” that were thrown where also a way of garnering income, because if you wanted to party then you had to pay. This [V1] is still common in many black communities. And everywhere bootleg liquor was prevalent even though the laws for prohibition had been repealed. In 1940’s the disparity between whites and blacks were glaring in many respects none more tragically as in health care. This is an unfortunate statistic that remains true to date. In Harlem one out of every twenty infants died. Additionally the death rate for blacks in Harlem was twice that for the rest of New York, the main culprit of this was tuberculosis, statistics show it was five times more prevalent among blacks then whites. Black unemployment in Harlem was higher than it was for whites a statistically fact nationally that remains true today. Harlem was in the beginning stages of decay and many of its residents were in various states of dysfunction, and desperation. Children hung out on the corner for the most part unsupervised, the parents at work, worrying about the well-being of their offspring’s. Most likely keeping their head down least the supervisor spots them and writes them up. What would they do if they lost their job, can’t survive without that income. Surviving was all what that many hoped for; still it was better than the south. Far better here at least here was hope, there for the most part only despair.
In the late 30s and early 40s Harlem saw two race related riots. So sadly Harlem for all its allure and successes had significant societal issues. Still there were quite a few triumphs in Harlem, one of which is Harlem had gained political clout with the election of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to city council in the 1940s.
This is the dynamic world for which my father navigated his childhood, an entered his pre-teen and teen years. For many black children what is outside their door, down the block, around the corner is all they truly have as a reference of the greater world at large. In the 1940’s this was even truer, there was not a television in every home as there is today so the knowledge of what transpired outside their realm was derived from newspapers, radio, and aunt Sue or uncle Joe’s gossip. An example of which might have been “Did you hear that 5 million dogs just dropped dead ohhh I almost broke down when I heard that.” Ella asked.
“It wasn’t five million dogs; it was 5 hundred hot dogs fell out the back of a truck. You best get your hearing checked.”
While the truth might have been, 100 hundred packages of hot dogs spoiled in summer heat killing 5 Negroes and leaving countless other ill. As reported in the Blah ..blah ..blah Times.
“Damn ya’ll are some fools the paper said some people got sick eating bad meat.” Rus tells them. He is glad he and his family have moved from down south even if the bright future he envisioned hasn’t quite manifested yet.
The accuracy of the news passed back and forth across the dinner table, or in the barber shop was often suspect.
My father’s life consisted of his father, who had come here from Barbados, and his younger sister. Like so many people from around the world who come here in search of a better life my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island. My Grandfather was a handsome man, who the ladies adored. In a few years my father will prove to be a chip off the old block. My father tells me that my grandfather had a tough life and he was dedicated to his children, often over compensating because of this.
I remember my grandfather as a sweet soft spoken man with a lilting Caribbean accent. I remember going over to spend the night on many occasions and he’d make me pancakes after pancakes, until I was about to burst. We’d take walks around the neighborhood and I remember him holding my hand, he was a very sweet and quiet man.
My Grandfather, father and my fathers’ sister Ruth frequently moved from place to place in Harlem. My father’s mother was non-existent in his and his sisters’ life. Emma Gaines was a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem that is all I know of her, all that that my father would reluctantly say about her and that is the only time I can recall him ever speaking about her and that was at the writing of this book. (Strangely I always thought he didn’t have a mother, when on those infrequent times I wondered if he had one. She was so not a part of the life I shared with my dad that for me she became irrelevant. She was equally as non-existent for ME as she had been in her sons and daughters life.) Despite the fact that he never mentioned her I am sure her absence hurt him immensely; which might explain his love of women and his adoration of my mother. Sometimes their moves from one apartment to the other, “ each a little less nice than the one before”, was prompted by financial concerns but also, by my father’s account, because he was a difficult child to raise, a mischief-maker, he was always curious about things, consequently he was always getting into trouble. Therefore the moves were almost always the result of some damage or trouble he had created.
In the early 1940s after World War II America was in a depression, and as the saying goes “when whites are in a recession, blacks are in a depression.” So “Negroes” were having a very difficult time just trying to survive. My father’s father was lucky he had a job as a “cutter” in the garment district. He was a loving father and a responsible man who did his best by his children, sacrificing at every turn for them. Being a single parent is never easy no matter what the era, being a single father in the 1940s of two young children, and of one very rambunctious boy, must have been extremely difficult. My grandfather often tolerated and excused my father’s wild behavior as my father and his sister tell me. He describes one such occasion when my father poured kerosene in a bucket, struck a match, proceeded to blow it out and handed the still hot match to his sister Ruth, and then told her to toss it into the bucket. He assured her that it would not burn…he was wrong and the house nearly burned down. His father tolerant as ever excused it as childhood foolishness.
They moved once again.
They found their selves moving in with his guardian Nannie and her husband Martin. Martin was a huge mahogany color Black man in his fifties, who was built like the Superman of comics. Despite his large intimidating frame he was kind and tolerant to everyone and especially to my dad and his sister Ruth. He also had a penchant for defending Stanley against his almost daily whippings by Martins’ stern wife, Nannie. Nannie was a southern black woman, from Atlanta Georgia and tolerated no foolishness she wholeheartedly believed in the proverb “spare the rod spoil the child”. Where his father and Martin were tolerant, Nannie was a strict disciplinarian. She treated this young unruly pre- teen as though she were a drill instructor; she did everything in her means to temper his wild spirit just this side of the law in order to raise him into a successful seasoned and reasoned young man. While her tactics didn’t always work, at least in the immediate, they did help create the man he would ultimately become.
Stanley’s sister Ruth was another one who was always willing to overlook my father’s foolishness. In some ways she as much a mother to him as any women had been. One day my father and his sister Ruth were home alone, and my father and Ruth were again playing with matches, what this perverse fascination with fire was he cannot explain to me this day. He lit a newspaper, and up went the curtains. Suffice it to say he got a beating but he took all the blame and punishment solidifying his status of hero in his sister’s eyes as well as reinforcing the role he would deem for himself throughout his life.
My father was and is very handsome, with strong features, and the girls adored him, as they have throughout his life. And it must be said he liked the ladies as well, a characteristic and at times to perhaps some a flaw, which age did not quell. Once when he was 11 he and the girl from the apartment above tried to escape the prying eyes of his sister. They got caught by Ruth doing “the nasty”. Ruth promptly ran downstairs and told Nannie what Stanley had been trying to do with his “little thing to Lizzie.” That day he got the hell beat out of him, from what my father says he did not try that again until years later.
Eventually my Grandfather moved his family from 140th and 7th avenue to 144th street between 7th and 8th avenue. It was a far cry below where they had been living. The family’s financial standing had diminished and in my father’s words “we lived a class below our past.” Each block in the neighborhood had its own gang.
It was here he had his intro to violence Harlem ghetto-style. His first day in this new neighborhood was a lesson in street life. It was a hot night and in New York humidity always accompanies heat. The moon was full and hung high in the night sky. The block was full of people, windows were open and curtains bellowed at every rotation of the fans blades. People filled the streets trying to escape the heat that hung heavy inside their small cramped apartments. Their sweat laden clothes hung heavy against their bodies. Women had their hair pulled back in scarves, as both men and women fanned themselves. Black faces of every hue lined the stoops catching the slightest of breezes, passing the hours with gossip and laughter. There was talk of the weather, sports, the latest fashion fad, who was doing who ‘ had you heard about Mr. Thomas down the block messin’ with Mrs. Cook when her husband was away’, the unfolding events in Germany, and of course no small amount of complaining, some legit and some just for the sake of complaining. And there was always the naysayer in the midst, the optimist killer, the killer of hopes and dreams, he was always near to whisper his toxic insight of part truth/ part paranoia “I don’t care how smart he/she think they is, they ain’t never gonna be nothin’. Hell the gov’ment and them white folks ain’t gonna let no nigga be nothin’. You know dat. Best they stay here..” Intermingled with the laughter and chatter the aroma of foods cooked earlier, rich with exotic spices would have most likely filled the air, as did the smell of garbage that sat in metal cans cooking in the summer heat. And men and women continued to fan themselves.
My father and his sister sat on the curb; he was good at drawing and was making a picture of a plane for Ruth. As he was sketching one of the neighborhoods boys walked up. Unknown to my father he was about to be introduced to the pavement via the soles of shoes.
This would not be the welcome he had envisioned.
“Draw another plane for me.” a tall muscular boy told him.
As Stanley looked up he noticed that other boys had walked over surrounding him. And since Stanley was unused to violence and a bit naïve he thought to himself, “Boy am I gonna make friends now.”
As he looked down preparing to draw a picture for his new found friends he felt an explosion in his head when a foot caught his face. Stunned and in pain he jumped up and tried to run. But his path was blocked by the other boys who punched and then kicked him mercilessly. They beat him for the simply reason he was new to the block. It was his initiation into the hood and a way of telling him “what’s what.” Eventually finding an opening in the pack he was able to get away and he ran, lanky arms flailing and limb wildly driving him forward and away from the ass kicking. Running down the street dodging and ducking between cars and buses, and periodically casting a terrified glance over his shoulder, finally he came to a breathless stop when he found himself on 143rd street. As luck would have it this was another gang’s block, who promptly took over his intro to the hood. “Boy whatchu doing running through our block” someone might have shouted, or not. A punch flew and connected, then more punches, some skimming off some connecting solidly. After they got tired or bored with their sport my father bloody and battered staggered his way home.
“Like a wounded puppy.” He recounts with a shake of his still handsome head, even at 79 years old.
When he got home his father was not there, there was no one there other than his sister to comfort him, no one other than another child there to tell him that things would be alright, no one to tell him that while his body hurt it would heal, was more his pride and sense of justice that was devastated. He was a pre- teen and while he intellectually understood that his father had to work, he still wanted and needed the reassurances’ of an adult, of his father. Maybe even of his mother, or the stern storm trooper nanny. My father recalls that it was that moment that he changed. The change occurred in his gut, hot bile gnawing at his insides, and then in his hammering heart that felt betrayed. Now what was once childhood foolishness toughened into anger and bitterness. Stanley eventually began hanging out with the tougher older boys. And he grew tough and hard as well. This is a sad thing that happens to people of all races who live in rough areas, if you expect to survive in the hood then that metamorphosis to some degree is an unfortunate necessity. Still his actions however we’re completely out of character. He and his new friends raided the local corner stores, stealing things sometimes just for the sake of stealing, such as potatoes, cookies and candy, whatever. However their main goal was to find things to eat and have what they considered to be fun in the process.
As time passed his grades worsened and Stanley had little interest in the things that would bring him success in the future. He hated most everything about school, Math and English were top on that list. History he felt offered him nothing, since in the history books there were no Black people that he felt represented him, no black historic figures depicted between the white pages of history books, none of “their” stories or accomplishments were told that young black boys and girls could aspire to be like, emulate nor look up to. No “negroes” in the pages to encourage young Black children in the possibilities of America, no heroes that reflected “their” stories. Those history books only reflected White America’s views and accomplishments. My father tells me that the only black men he can remember reading about in the history books at that time were the “Uncle Tom-types.” Those men and women who had groveled and shuffled their feet through life, these were the images of Black Americans in the movies and history books. He craved a hero.
It was only later in life that he saw the heroism that existed in his father who displayed it on a daily basis, by being there as best he could, working and struggling to provide a decent home, provide food for his children, and a decent future, as well as putting his children above his self.
In school what did capture Stanley’s attention though were geography, the Babylonian history, and planes. In life what really captured his mind and spirit and encouraged him to dream past the small vision of the world he had from his Harlem neighborhood were John Wayne movies. This young lanky Negro boy had found his soul, his self, through the roles of a tall lanky actor who depicted images of dignity, integrity, honesty; the most noble of traits, traits not unique to any one race and which any culture could and should aspire to. The image of John Wayne huge on the big scene, the crimson curtain swept aside, the smell of buttery popcorn, the stuttery movie scene as the hero came to life, his rifle cradled in the crook of his arm, his cowboy hat at a cocky angle, his face saying he wasn’t taking no shit, but could sure dish it captivated my father. For my father this was a visceral experience. A kindred moment, even if Big John Wayne was totally oblivious to it. My father knew. That’s what mattered.
And it didn’t matter that his hero was white.
Stanley’s fascination for planes was consuming as well. He spent many hours, when not roaming the streets, daydreaming out of his bedroom window. The small casement window and the small segment of the world he could see from it caught his eyes as intrinsically as a television set. He watched the sky for any sight of a plane that he could see. He became familiar with old bi-planes, the ones with the double wings, and often wondered to which faraway place they gracefully flew. Longing for adventure, new experiences, anything.
Still while he had found his passion in planes and his hero in John Wayne, more importantly he had even found a school that stimulated him. It was Harron Aviation High School on 99th st. on the east side of Manhattan, here there were parts in the thousands, where he could build and repair planes. Going home at the end of the day however had become unbearable. Stanley was still a constant target for the bullies, and to him it seemed that he had to fight his way every day. The hands on the clock would tick forward, and with his head bowed perhaps he sighed and labored harder at whatever he was working on. The end of the day neared regardless of his wishes. Life is a bitch that way.
There was one particular bully whenever he saw my father he punched him hard in the stomach causing him pain, but in the process those punches also made him rock hard. This was something the bully did not know, but would all too soon find out. One day the bully prepared to throw his customary ‘how you doin’ punch to my father’s mid-section when my father fought back with surprising vengeance to an eventual standoff. And while the stuff of novels would be that they became fast friends that did not happen. Nevertheless from that moment on the bully did form a wary respect for my dad. Now whenever this boy would pass by my father or would see him on the street he’d say “How you doin’ man.” with respect and not a punch. My father earned his reputation as a tough guy. But he never was a bully, always choosing to protect the weaker kid on the block, always choosing to fight the injustices that he perceived. He was still being the hero that his sister Ruth had always seen, and attempting to be the heroic figure his idol John Wayne portrayed. He found that being a good guy, a stand-up guy was a great way to make friends. One of his oldest friends that he stood up for is a priest today, and my father says he has the scars on his butt from a dog bite he received while playing in the back with this priest.
It was a white Catholic Priest, Father Frank J. Dohman, who helped give my father direction and turned him from the course that plagues so many men of color. He could have easily gone the way of so many of his neighborhood peers, prison, or dying by the hands of someone a tad bit tougher, or a lot more scared. Gun and knife deaths were not uncommon for young Negro men who then as now… felt that life has little to offer. Father Dohman got my father through the doors of the Catholic Church, without them going up in smoke as he passed through the threshold and from there the Father got him involved with the Catholic Boys Club of Harlem on 141st. It was here he started to box. My father got tough and could take a beating and at the Catholic Boys Club in Harlem my father learned to fight honing his skills and learning the craft and art of boxing. And while my father could not foresee a future for himself, luckily fate and someone else had.
Thankfully Father Dohman saved him from what could have been a disastrous future. Father Frank J. Dohman must have seen something in him because he took him into the church and into his heart and helped lead him on the path that he has travelled to this day. Another man who assisted in this was Sid Martin. Sid Martin and the Catholic Boys Club of Harlem had trained many great Boxers in New York City, and helped guide my father to a boxing career.
One thing that was clear to all those who saw my father fight was that he could take one hell of a punch. Certainly that factor went a hell of a long way in earning him a berth in the ring with other fighters of equal and/or better talent for the Golden Gloves as well as the Olympic trials.
It was around this time my father met and fell in love with my mother, Elizabeth. She was and still is a beautiful auburn haired green eyes African American woman, 5’4”, small petite frame and beautiful features. She was fire then as she is now. And she played, to hear my father tell it, him like a violin. And he loved her with a passion and though she was his best friends’ girl, he relentlessly pursued her and finally won her over. He was rough and tough and in love and nothing else mattered but making her his.
They first met as they both jogged around the gymnasium keeping in shape. And never in his life had he seen someone as beautiful as she. The truth is my mother is gloriously beautiful, and that beauty has still not waned even at 80 yrs.
The battle between my fathers’ pal Albert, who happened to be another boxer, and he was on. Both vowed to capture Elizabeth’s heart. It would turn out to be an ongoing thing between all three. He started hanging out on 141st between 7th and 8th avenue hoping to catch a glimpse of her. At that time no one messed with my father because of his reputation as a fighter, he wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. And if someone happened to not have heard about him he said, “They paid the price with a right cross or his special left hook.” Stanley was all lean muscle, and skilled enough to be unafraid to use them. The problem was that a petite young female 5’4” had him deathly afraid, he was unskilled and inept at romance, especially with a woman who had her pick of young men. He’d never felt that way before about a girl and didn’t know much about HOW to go about approaching one. Especially this girl! He had no skill, no experience. How did someone even TALK to a girl. My father says he had seen the guys and girls in the neighborhood, the girls with their backs pressed against the wall talking. Just talking, and the guy talking also, what they said he had no clue. With whatever lack of skill he had he must have done something right because they eventually started to date…off and on…off whenever he made her mad… an or whenever his pal did.
http://soundclick.com/share.cfm?id=10118031 song written for my father by
The story, as my father recounts it, goes that whenever Elizabeth got mad at him off she’d run to his pal, whenever she got bored at a dance because he didn’t know how to dance off she run to his pal. And while it was fine with Stanley for the other guy to be the rebound he didn’t like it when the roles were reversed. He didn’t want to be second best; not to anyone but especially not to Elizabeth. He’d be damned if he were “settled for” punching his fist into his hand. That is until the next time of course.
He’d chide himself and say “If…If only I learned to dance.” but then he’d hear John Wayne in his head from one of his many movies saying “I ain’t much for talking.” After all he was like the cowboy John Wayne, what in the world did she expect of him. Then again maybe he could try…for her, and back and forth it would continue, this verbal sparring with himself.
He wondered if she would really quit him one day and not come back…he hoped not, it would have broken his heart. And the “if only” would start again.
Stanley idolized John Wayne so much that he even imitated his mannerism, the way he walked and spoke. He was just 15 at the time on the periphery of manhood. In love for the first time, his body morphing, and his soul and spirit transformed, he was just seeing a glimpse of the man he wanted and could be. When he wasn’t boxing or pursuing Elizabeth creating elaborate plans on how to win her love once and for all, he was at the movies drinking in every film that John Wayne had on the big screen. Here was John Wayne riding into town, John Wayne riding into the sunset, John Wayne rifle out saving the town, blowing up Japs in the Pacific and of course getting the girl. It was the1944 movie ‘The Fighting Seabees’ that stirred something in my father. The sight of Wayne playing a hard edge Construction boss fighting the Japanese during WWII rigging a Bulldozer with explosives, and then driving it into the Japanese was like electricity coursing through his body. This movie imbued him with a sense of purpose, he knew what he wanted to do, he’d become a soldier!
Most white’s students at the Harron Aviation School he attended had a good chance of going on to the U.S. Air force if they choose. They had the possibility to become pilots or aircraft mechanics, but opportunities for Negroes were limited. What they were told to look forward to was becoming cooks, butlers, maids, or security guards. If the military was where they wanted to be, then consider serving in a secondary role. Young Black men were told that they could not become pilots, besides there were no coloured units in the airforce and certainly no coloured fighter pilots. After all the findings on coloureds was that they were not intelligent enough to be pilots. (There was a prevailing belief within the War department and the AAF in general that black males lacked the aptitude to be military pilots. Excerpt from: The U.S. National Archives & Records Administration). Basically what he was being told was “Forget about that Stanley that is a dream better left undreamt.” Or like that old killer of hopes and dreams, who sat upon the stoop and whispered his cancerous wisdom of part truth/ part paranoia “I don’t care how smart he/she think they is, they ain’t never gonna be nothin’. Hell the gov’ment and them white folks ain’t gonna let no nigga be nothin’. You know dat. You do don’t you?”
Many people of all races, including blacks and whites knew nothing about the Tuskegee Airmen as it was an experimental program, forced upon a reluctant Airforce. Archives and anecdotes show that some whites who had heard of them didn’t much like it, and conversely the blacks who knew about this unit were enthralled. To them this meant Negroes in America were on their way. Stanley had heard of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen the all black squadron who fought and flew during World War II with distinction despite the racism they faced. He had learned of them from his Uncle Clifford who was a member of the 99th, he is unsure in what capacity though, but never once did he hear of them at his Aviation High School. Whenever he asked a teacher about the 99th Squadron all of whom knew of his desire to be a pilot one day, never once did he hear a word of encouragement. The running answer was that there were “No colored units in the United States Air Force, and that he should (in essence) forget the whole thing”.
Sadly my father’s education ended shortly after that. A silly school prank that involved a firecracker, a glue pot, and a huge mess got him kicked out of the only school that he had connected with and that had connected with him. When the teacher had returned to see the mess the glue pot and fire cracker had made he had asked who had perpetrated the prank. No one answered and he told everyone they would stay after school for a week’s detention. Knowing it was wrong to let everyone bear the brunt for something he had done he confessed it was the “John Wayne” in him that made him tell the truth. Shortly after Harron Aviation High School and my father parted ways, my father choosing to drop out so that he could instead help financially around the house. Money was always short around the house, my father didn’t think he was “poor” but we were not far from it. Yet this announcement came as a shock as well as a disappointment to both Ruth and his guardian. He went to work at a job in the garment district at a button works factory that required few skills and brought his meager earnings home.
His boxing career was going slow as well, winning about half of all his fights. In 1947 Father Dohman and Mr. Sid entered him an a few other fighters into the Golden Gloves competition at Park Avenue, where he got his butt summarily kicked. He was peeved and disappointed in his performance, but both the Priest and his trainer wouldn’t give up on the “kid”. They saw something in him even if he didn’t. This confidence that they had in him an instilled in him, as well as to the other young black men, was the attention they all craved and needed. A White Priest and a Black trainer gave the love and respect that those boys from the ghetto craved. And which their harried parents were often unable to supply try as they might. Optimism, I believe, not only moves the soul but opens the pathways to the stars. This added and positive attention helped keep them out of jail, and off the drug of choice in those days, heroin. My father worked at the buttons works during the day and fought at night. Thankfully while his life was moving forward slowly he did not sink into despair because he had the Catholic Boys of Harlem and his Boxing, and a tantalizing view of his hero at the corner of his mind’s eye…and his future.
Take Me in The Army …Please
At a particular fight at the New York Downtown Athletic Club, my father experienced another turning point. On the way to the fight he had forgotten to bring his mouthpiece. It was a silly but critical mistake. So instead he wore a much smaller one which meant that his mouth and teeth were vulnerable to punches. His mouth, teeth and gums were not protected. A punch in the first round caught him in the mouth, fast and hard. My father said he heard the punch in his head, in his teeth, gums, bones, and down to his toes. Every part of him reverberated with the agony of that punch. Blood gushed, and rained down his chin in viscous gobs, and teeth cracked. The fight continued. He spat and swallowed large quantities of blood. He would have it no other way. It was only later that he learned of the damage done to his teeth, gums and the bones in his mouth. For a while he was called fangs by his coach and mentor. Besides when black fighters fought, fights were rarely called due to a fighters injury, after all the mentality of the time was that it was only a colored, not much above an animal, who had little feelings anyway. My father fought four rounds this way. He didn’t want them to stop. He was winning, boxing, moving, and sticking and boxing with the confidence of a professional. He wanted to fight. The fight was called. Life is a bitch that way.
At the end of the fourth round the doctor came over and stopped the fight with only one round to go. Stanley was furious at the doctor for snatching what he believed to be his glory away. The fighter he fought that night would later become a ranking fighter in the pros’. ***(get name of the fighter)*** It was later that he learned of the damage to his mouth and the gum bones, they were severely fractured. The dentist informed him that in order for him to continue boxing at the level he was fighting he needed extensive dental work. Something he would later get courtesy of the Army.
He had just turned seventeen, Jacky Robinson was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color line and World War II had just ended.
He went home dejected. Fangs as his coach and trainer would later teasingly call him because he could not eat solid food without bleeding from his mouth because of his injuries, had to give up his hopes of being a champion. Being a champion was something most young men dream of, success, admiration, respect. My father wanted to be like Joe Lewis he wanted to have respect, the respect of America.
Some of my father’s older friends were enlisting in the Army and when he saw them in their creased and classy brown uniforms, and high shine shoes, he thought they were some of the sharpest looking folks he had ever seen. And he began to dream of soldering in earnest, of putting on the uniform. Only one problem stood in his way he was too young to enlist on his own he was only 17. Solidifying this desire to serve came one day just after watching a John Wayne movie at the cinema ‘They Were Expendable’ another movie in which he battled the Japanese in the Pacific, only this time while being a lieutenant on a PT cruiser; it dramatically showed the heroism of those who serve and the great losses they endured. My dad was hooked. There was no stopping him now; he knew what he wanted to do, to serve his country. Although this country had oppressed black folks for century, although his country tried to undermine or deny the service of ‘Negroes’ for a country that treated them as second class citizens, my fathers as did many black people felt a love for this country. And a vested interest in a country that would rather deny and ignore them. America is the country they and their ancestors, many of whom had been slaves, had labored in. They had built the plantations that feed and clothed millions, ship yards, and railways, which had made those individuals (slaveholders) profitable if not rich.
Despite this, Blacks, male and female had fought and served in every war, including the Revolution, although little was or has been taught of their service. Still black men and women chose to be productive members of the society, and many chose to serve in one branch of the military or the other in whatever capacity that was needed. Often in hopes that this service would help to enmesh them in American culture.
The next day my father went down to the recruitment office, to sign over his services. A Sergeant Fowler was there, and Stanley commenced to lie he was no longer 17 but magically overnight had turned 20.
“I’m 20 sir and ready to sign up.” my father stated emphatically when asked how old he was.
“Get your ass outta here boy.. And don‘t come back here until you‘re 18, or get your father to sign you up. If I see you in here again I won‘t be as nice.” was pretty much the response he received, equally as emphatic.
But my father was dogged, determine to convince this Sergeant that he was ready, willing, and able, and a great hereto unexplored asset to the military might. Every week he went back to see Sergeant Fowler explaining how much older and mature he was from the last time he sat before him. Cajoling, pleading, and outright begging were not above someone as determined as he. Here are just something’s I am guessing he might have said, ‘Look at my muscles sir. Look I can help you guys out.’ After all what a difference a week can make. ‘Then I just gotta join sir, I know I can be of value.’ Then ‘Okay I’ll see you next week alright sir.’ Stanley was equally as persistent at home. Tirelessly extolling his father with the virtues of military service, of the opportunities to be had and my grandfather finally capitulated as he so often did for his only son.
My grandfather took his 17 year old son done to see Sergeant Fowler at the recruiters’ office. On October 5th, 1948 Stanley Drayton Sr. signed his name giving permission to his only son to join the Army then watched as his son Stanley C. Drayton Jr. signed his name as well saying that the military could have him. In the back of his mind Stanley Jr. perhaps thought now I truly belong to something, something far bigger than he could have ever imagined, he was a part of the greatest military on the face of the earth he belonged to America, and her respect would be his!
And/or he might have thought ‘now where’s my hip uniform?’ My father can still remember the sensation of signing the mounds of paperwork before him, and passing the test.
This sentiment of patriotism was felt and displayed by many Blacks in all the wars prior to World War II, as was the belief that if they proved themselves on the field of battles that they would have to be accepted by the country they fought for. Regrettably things at home, on American shores, did not change much for the returning Negro soldier nor for the black communities. Due to this many blacks became further disenchanted with the conditions at home. Unhappy with the continued oppressiveness in America during the forties many blacks protested the draft, wondering why they should fight for a country that regarded them as second class citizens, why should they fight to liberate others abroad when they themselves were not truly liberated at home. Despite this new growing sentiment many Blacks, both male and female, still lined up at recruitment stations to represent their country even if she did not represent them.
Sergeant Fowler told him, “I could sign you up for 3,6,20 years, which will it be.”
“Twenty.” my dad howled with glee and what must have looked to his father and recruiter as a little madness because Fowler looked shocked and his father well his father equally so.
“Ummm..umm,” my grandfather recovered first and said clearing his throat, he spoke with his softly musical Barbadian accent . “Why not sign up for 3 years Junior, you can re-enlist for more time if you like it.”
Reluctantly my father enlisted for 3 years. Eighteen years later my father would become Commander of that very Recruitment station. And retire there after 20 years of service to the Army.
His next stop was 39 Whitehall Street. His life was truly beginning- he was just like John Wayne – except if HE(my father) saw action, the fighting would be for real.
There were dozens of recruits at the U.S. Army Recruitment and Examination Station at Whitehall Street in downtown Manhattan when he arrived to be sworn in. They were all lined up in front, eyes glazed, with a mixture of excitement and fear. What the hell had they gotten themselves into many would have wondered. They, every one of them, so my father believes, stopped in front of the building, looked at its daunting façade, swallowed hard and walked inside this imposing structure. They walked forward as if they would never see the light of day again. Universally they were absolutely terrified.
It was the best day of their lives.
Here the inductees were prodded, poked, inspected and shot up, made to cough and then sent forth to be sworn in. March forward overwhelmed their eyes wide and glazed; one and all thought it was a great fucking day. This was the day they joined the Army to fight for the greatest country on the planet, the United States Of America, their country, no matter what race religion or creed. America belonged to them, as much to the poor Negro kid from the slums of New York City, Chicago, Philly, or Memphis as it did to the President of the United States. And fighting for it, their willingness to die for it epitomized this for them. Gazing up the flag stood unfurled overhead.
After swearing in at 39 Whitehall my father headed home to tell his family and friends the “Great News“, with his skinny chest sticking out with pride, to his amazement many of them attempted to try and convince him that he was wrong to have enlisted, some even burst into stunned tears especially his sister Ruth. She would miss her older brother and protector.
Some most likely questioned his sanity, why the hell you gonna fight for America, why are you willing to die for her, what about your boxing, what about your girl? What? What? What?
My father heard none of this he was already somewhere else, he just kept thinking, knowing in his core something that they seemed to have forgotten that America was worth fighting for, after all America belonged to him. Now he would be part of something grand.
Stanley was transported to Fort Dix, New Jersey, the state only an arm throw away from NYC, which now could have been a continent away. He would be stationed here for basic training in D company 365 Infantry Division an all Negro Company. There is something about the moment you step on to your first base for the first time especially as a recruit; it is almost an overwhelming sensation. You inhale deeply, your chest lifts, and you stand straighter, your chin rises, and your jaw might drop a millimeter or two with stunned pride. You might feel heady or you may have that what the fuck feeling and wonder what the hell you’ve done and why oh why hadn’t your parents stopped you. Whatever the reaction, the tangible feeling that something significant was about to happen and which would leave you forever changed was undeniable. It is a feeling that harkens to something majestic; it is a moment of both pride and trepidation, but mostly it is a sense of belonging and of Becoming. For my father it was the reality that he now had a greater calling, an obligation to something other than his splintered family. His family was no longer just his father and his sister, his obligation wasn’t just to the people of his community, it wasn’t just to blacks across America or to whites, it was to America herself and to all her people, Native American, Mexican, Irish, Italian, Muslim, Christian, Jew, etc. no matter what race or nationality. He belonged to the ‘melting pot America’ and all she stood for.
And it was all of this, the people, the opportunity, the faith that makes her great, he was convinced it was his task, no matter what obstacles he had to endure, to make something of his self.
My father was assigned to third platoon and to hear him tell it, it was the worst platoon in the army with a PFC (Private First Class) who was their Platoon Leader, but who believed he was a general. This young man made life extremely hard on the new recruits. My father also wasn’t enthralled with the “lack off style” of his newly issued military haircut, nor the baggy uniform that hung from his lean frame 6’1” 135lb. It certainly wasn’t the hip uniform he had coveted. So far military life had lost a touch of the glamour that he had imagined and he and the other recruits were just beginning to wonder what the hell they had gotten their selves into. At the time few of these new enlisted men were aware that it was only going to get worse. And that worse came in the form of their field First Sergeant. His job was to make these raw recruits into soldiers, and he did it with a zeal that bordered on the psychotic. His job was instructing them on the art of warfare and discipline. Fitness, discipline, structure, rules, self-confidence is virtually forced feed to you while you are verbally berated, threatened, and on occasion a pop upside the helmet was not unheard of in the Army of old as opposed to today’s military where that treatment is looked upon as unnecessary or counterproductive. And each day of the eight weeks they suffered more than the last, taking the full brunt of the First Sergeants anger. After that whatever these new recruits would need to learn would be at their next duty station or more likely on the fly. During Basic Training the recruits would soon grow to hate military life and most wished they had never enlisted. Military life was definitely NOT what they had expected it to be. For some even with the bitching, even though they hated basic, it was a goddamn blast.
And while my father was never disillusioned or discouraged at or by the military, nor did he or has he ever waivered in his love for her, each subsequent year he was more cognizant of all the military and his country had offered him. More than ever he knew/believed that America was truly the land of opportunity, and the words “Be All You Can Be” are not hollow. He believed and believes in her fairness and integrity even if everyone else (government and military included) were trying their hardiest to convince him otherwise.
His D.I. First Sergeant Callahan was a huge black man and a man my fathers will never forget. His name is indelible etched into his mind. The Drill Instructor is viewed as a god, because he is the best. First Sergeant Callahan taught his recruits everything including the M-1, which is a 30 caliber rifle, it is a gas-operated semiautomatic rifle capable of firing eight rounds before reloading, grenade throwing, and hand to hand combat. He taught them the true meaning of Survival and the breakdown of the acronym:
S-ize Up the Situation and find a hiding place. Security is a priority.
Awareness of your surroundings and understanding your environment and its patterns is critical.
Physical Condition Check your wounds and give yourself first aid. Take care to prevent further bodily harm.
U-se All Your Senses, Undue Haste Makes Waste and can cause loss of life.
R-emember where you are and relate it on a map or spot it on the terrain.
I-mprovise learn to use ordinary objects in different ways .
V-anquish fear, don’t panic and learn to control and use your fear.
V-alue Living this is when the will to live takes over it is vital to survival. A-ct Like the Native.
L-ive by your wits but first learn basic skill
Each lesson was a lesson in the dangers of warfare and the tales the field First Sergeant told them had the soldiers imagining their imminent death at every turn. It was both exhilarating and terrifying, and it scared the heck out of my father, and he loved it. Now this was training that my father could sink his teeth in. And he approached it with both joy and confidence. He imagined himself moving forward with rifle in hand prepare to meet danger and those who would threaten America and her constitution.
Army life might not be so bad after all. That is if it hadn’t been for K.P duty (Kitchen Police) a duty that my father hated nearly as much as the Corporeal in charge of it. An unfortunately it was in the kitchen that he spent far too much time. Peeling thousands of potatoes by hand and climbing into the old coal stove with a cloth wrapped around a brick to clean it, and coming out blacker than ever. However like in most things if one bothers to look there was an upside to K.P. duty and the upside was that for the first time in his life he had plenty of food to eat.
Seventeen years old and gullible, with a large imagination my father was easy prey for outlandish tales told by more seasoned recruits looking to pull the leg of the more naïve. As luck would have it they found an easy prey in my father who was more than happy to drink in their every word. They spun tales of Nazi spies and death lurking in the dark woods. These tales kept the newbie’s jumping during their four hour stints on Guard Duty. Guard duties consist of four hours on and four hours off and then four hours on. My dad saw things move at every turn of his head, the flash of light that hopped from tree leaves to branches and back again that was a mere distant reflection of passing headlights had him quivering with fright, he was sure it was a Nazi spy or a Jap with a flashlight doing reconnaissance. A car backfire or a blowout became the sound of a distant rifle as someone took a shot at him; snipers were everywhere after all in New Jersey. He jumped, spun, and clutched his rifle against his chest at the ready at every suspect sound. And there were many of them. Spies, Nazi Spies, Jap spies, the freaking Easter bunny were everywhere after all, even if that everywhere existed only in his mind and the tales of those who were laughing at his expense, while comfortably ensconced back in the barracks. Nerves on edge, Guard Duty quickly became another unwelcome assignment right up there with K.P. duty.
Basic training was passing quickly, and he was a relatively happy soldier, having made it through the stress and strains of a world very different from which he had imagined.
Basic Training was over and the “negro” soldiers graduated on their side of the post. My father completes his training without having seen a white NCO or soldier, other than white officers.
The military is a microcosm of America, and segregation was a facet of America in the 1940s and for years to come. Interestingly prior to the nineteen hundreds “Coloreds” “Negroes” had served in the military in an integrated military. They served in the capacity of musicians, cooks, engineers, artillerymen and infantry men. Their service was first prompted by the British use of both slaves and freedmen during the revolution. America’s pragmatic need for soldiers opened the door for “negroes’ in the Continental Army and Navy during the revolution. And “negroes” were eager to enlist. They believed it afforded them an opportunity at promised freedom and at social advancement and that it would prove to those men and women who had so much control over their daily lives that they were as capable as any, and that America was their country as much as it was the whites.
The need for soldiers again prompted their enlistment during the last Great War of 1812 by General Jackson which explains the presence of the Louisiana Free Men of Color. During the Civil War Negro soldiers were recruited again out of need for man power. Initially the Lincoln Administration was hesitant to have Negro enlistment due to the fear of potentially alienating both sides of the border, but necessity due to the failure of the volunteer call to produce the required men outweighed his anxiety an eventually 186,000 Negro served in the Union Army. Initially they served as laborers but later in a combat capacity. Additionally approximately 25% of the naval strength during the Civil War was made up of Negroes. (Integration of The Armed Forces 1940-1965 by Author Morris J. MacGregor Jr. Center of Military History United States Army Washington D.C) In 1866 Congress authorized the Post War establishment of a permanent all negro- unit, in 1869 they were designated the 9th and 10th cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. However by the 1900s the Navy had practically disbanded its Negro troops. Tragically the status of Negro servicemen paralleled the mood of America society with the rise of Jim Crow laws, the legalization of discriminatory practices against blacks; subsequently the Navy curtailed its employment of blacks. In 1932 this practices changed once again and the Navy began to allow the enlistment of coloreds. The truth was that the Negro soldier was never truly welcome in the military, and their enlistment/recruitment was always need driven, no matter how valiantly or with honor they served. Military officers rarely wanted to command them as it was viewed as an insult, or a path to nowhere in their military career. The overwhelming belief in the military establishment and its lower echelon, both driving the others conviction, was that the Negro soldier was inferior and neither had the intellectual capacity or emotional ability to serve well. An excerpt from ‘The Employment of Negro Troops’ by Dr. Ulysses Lee written between 1946 -1952 A special study For the United States Army CENTER OF MILITARY HISTORY UNITED STATES ARMY WASHINGTON, D. C., 2000 Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 66-60003 First Printed 1966-CMH Pub 11-4
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, D.C. 20402 purported:
(“While statements of praise presented a highly flattering picture of Negro troops in World War I, the public was not unaware that beneath the surface other rumors were running thick and fast. The 369th Infantry, “characterized by some as `possessing black skins, white souls and red blood,’ ” The Outlook commented, “ought to silence for all time the slanderous charge that Negroes are cowards and will not fight; and the service which these representatives of their race have rendered in the war to make the world safe for democracy ought to make forever secure for that race in this their native land their right for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”)
His study also asserted that:
(Cowardice was not the only charge that worried Negroes at home. During the war other disturbing reports had spread through the larger cities: Negro troops were being abused by their white officers; systematic attempts were being made to “break” and demote Negro officers; American white officers were attempting to import the worst features of color prejudice into France; Negro troops were being employed as “shock troops” in the most dangerous battle zones and as labor troops where the work was hardest. )
Unfortunately their demonstrated valor did not sway many hard held convictions. Another excerpt from Dr Lees’ Study: (Confirmation of the skill and courage of Negro soldiers was reported in other ways. The news of Pvts. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, of the 369th Infantry (New York National Guard), who together put to flight a German raiding party, killing or wounding twenty or more of the enemy, was carried in newspapers all over the country and became a subject for commendatory editorials. The Boston Post, under the heading NO COLOR LINE THERE, commented: “In the service of democracy there is no such distinction. General Pershing’s late report places on the roll of honor the names of two soldiers of one of our colored regiments, Privates Johnson and Roberts . . . . This is the true ideal of service. No matter what the color of the skin, we all recognize it.” And the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegram said, quoting General Grant’s Civil War comment: ” `The Colored troops fought nobly.’ That was more than half a century ago. They `fought nobly’ in the plains, in the islands of the Pacific and the Atlantic, wherever they have been called upon to fight . . . . And now in France they are living up to the reputation they have won on other, far distant fields.” 4 When their unit returned, Johnson and Roberts were the subjects of laudatory newspaper and wire service interviews read all over the country.) The Negro soldier had served exemplarily in most circumstances. However their lack of education a direct result of the illegality or lack of academic education blacks received did pose problems particularly in the 1940’s when white officers complained that they had to train black service members to read.
However my father’s concerns on graduation day from Basic were not on race relations or lack of, in the military. The fact that two separate graduations were taking place one for the white recruits and the other for black recruits while not unnoticed was of little concern to him. The fact that he never had any interaction with white troops was something he gave little thought. He was already thinking of his new duty station in Germany. He was being shipped overseas to the European Command in Occupied Germany, the war had been over a short time ago and Germany was in a state of turmoil. It wasn’t until later that he had his first “AHA” moment concerning racism in the military, and the inequity of being black even in the military. It was at Fort Kilmer New Jersey where they went for processing after leave. Blacks and whites were assigned to different sections for their processing to their permanent duty base. After processing they were loaded on to the troop transport, General Maurice Rose.
“Get these niggers on board and down below…” A white Sergeant yelled as they boarded the ship and hustled below to where they were berthed in the bottom hole of the ship. It was at that moment he realized that life for the black soldier would be different from his white counterpart. He hadn’t seen anything yet, there was more racism to come through his stint in the Army.
My father recalls how fresh they were, a bunch of young wet-behind- the -ears recruits who were supposed to know how to fight, fight for other people’s freedom. Yet they did not know that they needed to fight for their own, those young men of color believed that freedom was and should be a given. They would learn differently.
This ‘learning’ was particularly hard for Northern Blacks to understand, while racism existed in all corners of the United States, inner city blacks youths often did not journey beyond their predominantly all black neighborhoods, therefore they were often impervious to the racism outside the boundaries of their neighborhoods. Racism in the North was often far more subtle than the overt racism in the South. These northern black youths were sheltered, simply by the mere fact they lived in more insular communities, as well as a more accepting northern attitude. They were in many respects unaware of the depth of animosity that was focused their way by a people and a nation that did not even know their name, but disliked, hated, or mistrusted them simply because their skin color was deemed inferior, and by extension so were they. Their parents were well aware of the racial tensions that plagued America but that was a conversation and a reality best discussed amongst adults, which their parents knew all too well their children would soon be. But Southern Black youth who often came into contact with whites in their daily lives, whites who were far less forward thinking than those whites that frequented the Harlem Clubs and eateries, were well aware of the existence of racism, and their status as inferior. They were raised in an environment where blatant racism was given full reign, and Jim Crow was the Kingdom. These Southern blacks did not hesitate to school their Northern brothers on how it was in terms of race. Still it was hard for these young Northern Blacks to comprehend since many had never been down South. It was difficult for my father to understand the ill treatment and hate that these young men faced, that blacks suffered at the hands of SOME racist whites. It was difficult for him to conceive that Laws were sanctioned to allow the cruel treatment of men and women who looked like him. Even as Jim Crow laws existed in certain areas of the north, and while there was sanctioned housing, employment, and educational and medical discrimination in the northern states, as well as anti- miscegenation laws, northern youths were to a degree impervious. They played outside with their black friends, went to school with their black friends, shopped at the corner store, this was their life and they didn’t know any different and therefore did not know any better, or that BETTER existed. Years later it was even harder for my father to understand that it would take until the 70s after the march on Washington for this country the one he loved and fought for, his home of the Declaration of Independence, that eloquently stated: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the home of the Constitution that gave us the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, to seriously deal with racism. But that moment of dawning reality in the 70’s did not deter his love, belief and hope in “the Greatest of Nations”.
Once on the General Maurice Rose bound for Germany, the black troops are directed below deck to hole of the ship where they will be quartered for the duration of their 27 day voyage. My father shares with me the image of their being packed tight in the lower holds. It was a newer troop ship but down below they would never have known the difference. For 27 days the duration of time it took for them to get to Bremen they were packed virtually on top of one another and were denied access to various parts of the ship. They had to step on or try to step gingerly over one another just to get around. The new experience wasn’t welcome. The lower holds were cold and dank, and at times the seas were so rough he was sure they were all going to die. The large ship pitched with the movement of the sea, he had never been on a boat before much less a ship, and his stomach initially roiled with each movement the sea and ship made, he thought as well as some of the other men evident by they grumbling that they were going to die. And if the seas didn’t kill him the human closeness, rancid smell of vomit, human waste, sweat and cloying humidity, well surely those things would. This was all compounded by the fact that they were all forbidden to go upstairs even to the black section of the ship because of the rough seas.
My father was seventeen years old, and learning what it was to be a man and what being a man to this seventeen year old was that he had to shoot craps. My father told me “Put a group of men together thousands of mile from home, with no women in sight, then give them a set of dice and instantly the fun is underway.”
They broke sang, joked and laughed and told bogus stories about imaginary exploits and shot craps like it was going out of style. Humor was alive among the Negro troops, just as humor had always been utilized by blacks. Games of Craps could last for days on end, there were card games, poker and coon can. There were the prerequisite semi-professional gamblers, loan sharks, and then there was my father and a pal of his who were the designate “go-fers” of the gang, in addition to some other fresh recruits. These go-fers’ stood in the long lines to get food and other goods for the older soldiers. They would take the place of the older soldiers during K.P. duty, and some other odd job for a small fee. They were the official “flunkie brigade” and they didn’t mind one damn bit because of the camaraderie they shared with the other Negro soldiers. They were a part of something special, they were soldiers on the way to Germany, and even though he was part of the “Flunkie Brigade” “Designated Go-fer”, the lowest of the low, he was having a god damn good time.
Eating was great aboard the ship even for the Negro troops, food was always plentiful. And while he had hated K.P. duty in basic he loved it aboard ship, plus the Corporeal in charge of the Kitchen at Fort Dix was not aboard ship.
The chief in charge of the ship mess hall would often say to my father “Boy when you goin’ quit eatin’.” and my father would reply, “When there ain’t no more food.” and he would continue to joyfully stuff his face. He also found a way to make K.P. duty pay, by selling hot bread and butter to the dice shooters and poker plays. And since craps were played all night my father made a hefty summer of money in those 18 days aboard ship.
Arriving in Bremen Germany in 1948 was a shock for anyone who saw the devastations of war especially for a young man who was not much more than a boy. Everywhere he looked he saw the ruins of people’s lives, bombed out buildings, homes destroyed, lifestyles, dreams, hopes, and the reality of self, what they were capable of doing or allowing to done, irrevocably changed and scarred their concept of self. The German populace seemed to walk to and fro aimlessly in shock, with perhaps the realization of what a mad man had wrought, and what their compliance had bred.
(To Be Continued)