Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Sad, Hilarious, Lunacy of Race Prejudice

I just saw a headline in a WW2-era Southern newspaper that caught my attention. It was carried in the November 16, 1945 edition of the San Antonio Register, and said:
Mob Threatens White Officer for Blocking J. Crow

Major Insists All GIs Be Fed Together in Mississippi Cafe

To me, the account that followed illustrates the utter irrationality of racial prejudice and segregation as practiced for so long in the states of the former Confederacy. It also illustrates the courage and determination of some fair-minded whites who refused to participate in the evil of racial discrimination.
The story concerns the efforts of Maj. Edward Gierring to transport a group of 25 soldiers, including two African Americans, from California to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Mississippi. When the train carrying the soldiers arrived at Jackson, Mississippi, Maj. Gierring took his troop to the Jefferson grill for a quick meal. He had the group seated in various booths in the establishment. The major himself, who was white, sat in a booth with the two black members of his group.
Serve black soldiers? Horrors!
When the waitress saw the two black service members, she immediately ran to get the restaurant’s manager, John Pappas. Pappas went to Maj. Gierring’s booth and informed him that the black soldiers could not be served due to Mississippi’s segregation laws. But Maj. Gierring was adamant that all his soldiers, without any race-based exceptions, would be served in that establishment. The major must have been a forceful man, because Pappas eventually gave in and agreed to allow the entire group to be served.
That’s when things began to get really interesting. White patrons of the grill became incensed that members of the United States Army, who happened to be black, would dare to eat in the same establishment as they. The irony of imposing that kind of discrimination on soldiers who may well have been returning home after successfully fighting a war against a nation that considered itself the Master Race seems to have escaped the angry whites.
We won't stand for it!
By the time Maj. Edward Gierring’s group finished their meal, an irate crowd had gathered at the restaurant. The black soldiers had already left the establishment and made their way to the railway station. But members of the mob followed them there to point them out to police. The two were promptly arrested and conveyed to police headquarters.
As the newspaper story put it, “When Maj. Gierring defiantly resented the arrest of the Negro soldiers as well as the attitude of the crowd he was arrested as an alleged safety precaution and was taken to headquarters.” Military authorities soon arrived and made sure the Major and the two soldiers were released and placed on the train to continue their journey to Camp Shelby.
The sad but ironic lunacy of race prejudice
I’m totally with Maj. Gierring in his “resentment” of the attitude of the mob, but I’m also at a total loss to understand it. Had the white patrons of the grill simply ignored the presence of the black soldiers, the brief presence in their town of this group of defenders of the country would not even have been remembered by the next day. To me, the reaction of the mob was nothing short of lunacy.
But there was an aftermath to the story that I do find somewhat mirth-producing.
After Maj. Gierring and his soldiers were safely on their train and on their way out of town, John Pappas, the manager of the grill, was arrested for having served blacks in violation of Mississippi’s Jim Crow segregation laws.
Segregation may not have been sane, but at least it was consistent.

Photo credit: Ben Shahn, FSA/OWI via  loc.gov (public domain)
Interestingly this 1938 photo was not taken in the segregated South, but in Lancaster, Ohio

© 2015 Ronald E. Franklin

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Black Man Who Looked Too Much Like Abraham Lincoln

The name of Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, is inextricably linked with African Americans.
Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln was elected President in 1860 on a platform of prohibiting the spread of slavery into the U. S. territories, like Kansas and Nebraska, that had not yet become states. His most famous single act during the Civil War was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which effectively shut the door on slavery in this country forever. Lincoln himself said, "If my name goes down in history, it will be for this act."
But in 1940, in the nation’s capital, there were apparently some influential people who hadn’t yet figured out the connection between Abraham Lincoln and African Americans. For them, the idea that Lincoln and his legacy might be represented by a black man was something they just couldn’t stomach.

 A contest to find a Lincoln look-alike

It all started with a publicity campaign organized around the opening of the film “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” starring Raymond Massey as Lincoln. The Washington Daily News, along with the RKO-Keith’s Theatre, where the film would be premiered, decided to have a contest for the Washingtonian who looked most like Lincoln in his early days. Hundreds of photographs were received, and finally a selection was made.
Thomas Bomar as Abraham Lincoln
The man selected as looking most like Abraham Lincoln was Thomas P. Bomar, a Washington attorney. Bomar was invited to meet the judges at the exclusive Carleton Hotel. They were highly impressed that not only did Bomar closely resemble Lincoln in his facial features, but in the rest of his body as well. He was tall like Lincoln, and had large hands with long fingers like Lincoln did. Even his hair looked like Lincoln’s. The judges gushed that Bomar looked more like Lincoln than did the film’s star, Raymond Massey, and in fact, could have been Lincoln’s twin brother.
Bomar was given two front-row tickets for the premier, and told that he would be called to the stage and presented with a check for $25. He would even get to appear along with Massey on a radio broadcast from the stage.

The winner turns out to be black!

Then someone noticed Bomar’s address. It was 132 S Street, N. W. It was that “N. W.” that caught their attention, because it indicated that Bomar lived in a black section of Washington. Suddenly the contest managers lost all their enthusiasm about highlighting this close double of the 16th president. The man looked almost exactly like Lincoln, but wasn’t his skin just a shade too dark?
As far as the officials of the theatre were concerned, the fact that Thomas Bomar looked white but was actually black was an absolute disqualification. You see, the RKO-Keith’s Theatre was a totally segregated “Jim Crow” facility. Blacks were not allowed. In fact, African Americans would be picketing the opening of the Lincoln film because they were forbidden entrance to the theatre.

Let’s just forget the whole thing

When Thomas Bomar arrived at the theatre, along with his daughter, they were allowed to enter, apparently because they looked white and so were not stopped at the door. Besides, with the contest having been widely publicized already, it would have been a little awkward for the theatre, already under fire for its bigotry, to kick out the winner because of his race.
However, once inside the Bomars found themselves not on the front row, as the tickets they had been given dictated, but in row 5. And somehow the cue for him to go up on the stage to receive his reward for winning the contest never came. A brief notice was quietly made that Bomar had won the contest, and that was all.
Publicly honor a black man for his resemblance to Abraham Lincoln? In the Washington of the 1940s, that was a non-starter.

Thomas Bomar has the last laugh

Although he had been dissed by the theatre because of his race, Thomas Bomar would rise above the attempted racial put-down.

Thomas Bomar on the job as a Post Office Dept executive
Born in 1892, he had worked for the Post Office from an early age as a letter carrier and railway mail clerk. He continued as a postal worker even after receiving his law degree from Howard University Law School, and in 1939 was elected national secretary of the National Alliance of Postal Employees, the black postal workers union. He would serve as the union’s general counsel from 1957 to 1970. With his professional qualifications, he also began to rise in the management ranks of the Post Office Department.
On February 13, 1947 an entry appears on President Harry Truman’s calendar for the president to meet with Mr. Thomas P. Bomar, Assistant District Superintendent- at-Large, Railway Mail Service. Then, in 1952 Bomar, already the highest ranking African American in the Post Office Department, was promoted to Assistant General Superintendent of the Postal Transportation Service. He also maintained a law practice in Washington.
Thomas P. Bomar died in Washington, DC in 1974.

© 2015 Ronald E. Franklin

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Roger C. Terry: A Tuskegee Airman Sacrifices His Career For Justice

Roger C. Terry (1921-2009) was a U. S. Army Air Forces officer in World War II. In his short military career, Terry compiled a record most people would classify as miserable: he was court-martialed for shoving a superior officer, convicted, fined, reduced in rank, and kicked out of the service with a dishonorable discharge. But Roger Terry was proud of what he accomplished in his short military career for the rest of his life.
Lt. Roger “Bill” Terry was one of the group of pioneer African American military aviators known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He was a 1941 graduate of UCLA, where he roomed with Jackie Robinson, the future baseball star who was himself court-martialed as an Army officer. Terry went on to train at Tuskegee and earned his pilot’s wings in February of 1945. He was assigned to the 477th Bombardment Group at Freeman Field in Indiana.
Roger C. "Bill" Terry (center) at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, December 1944
Source: National Archives
A Bomber Group the Air Forces didn't want
The 477th was kind of an orphan child from the beginning. The Army Air Forces (AAF) didn’t really want it, feeling that it had been forced on them by political pressure. That was because everybody from the NAACP to Eleanor Roosevelt had been pressing for African Americans to be allowed full participation in the war effort, and the 477th was to be the first bomber group staffed by African American pilots and ground crews.
But in 1944 the American military was still a highly segregated institution. And when the 477th was activated in January of that year, its chain of command had no intention of loosening any of the traditional restraints of segregation. Though the 477th was staffed by black pilots and crews, its chain of command was to be strictly white.
Commanders committed to segregation
Both the commander of the 477th, Col. Robert Selway, and Selway’s immediate superior, Maj. General Frank O'Driscoll Hunter, were rabid segregationists, and were determined that the 477th would be a segregated operation. In his first briefing to the officers of the 477th, General Hunter told them:
This is not the time for blacks to fight for equal rights or personal advantages. They should prove themselves in combat first. There will be no race problem here, for I will not tolerate any mixing of the races. Anyone who protests will be classed as an agitator, sought out, and dealt with accordingly. This is my base and, as long as I am in command, there will be no social mixing of the white and colored officers.
But the officers of the 477th didn’t believe that men who were fighting, and potentially dying, to defend their country should be expected to be content with being treated like second class citizens in that country. They were solidly determined to receive the respect and the treatment that was due them as officers in the United States Army, and were willing to pay the price to make that happen. The one who paid the biggest price was Roger Terry.
Early in 1945 the 477th was moved to Freeman Field in Indiana. When Col. Selway tried to set up segregated officers clubs at Freeman, despite Army regulations that forbade denying the use of any facilities based on race, the officers of the 477th came up with a plan of resistance. They would go to the “white” officers club in small groups and seek to be served.
The Freeman Field Mutiny
This protest resulted in two separate mass arrests for what came to be known as the “Freeman Field Mutiny.” Over the two days of the protest, April 5 and 6, 1945, a total of 61 black officers were arrested and confined to quarters. Most were later released. Then 101 officers were arrested for refusing to sign a certification of having read and understood Col. Selway’s base regulation setting up the segregated club system, even when directly ordered to do so. By this refusal they put their careers and their very lives on the line (refusing to obey the direct order of a superior officer in time of war was a death penalty offense).
Eventually, the firestorm of negative publicity resulting from the Army holding more than a hundred black officers on capital charges arising out their resistance to a patently illegal scheme of segregation, led the Army Chief of Staff to order their release with nothing more than an administrative reprimand added to their records.
Lt. Terry and two others tried by court martial
Lt. Roger C. "Bill" Terry
 Courtesy of Personal Collection of Roger Terry

But Lts. Terry, Thompson, and Clinton were not released. Instead, they were court-martialed for offering violence (by shoving him) to a superior officer. Lt. Thompson and Lt. Clinton were able to produce witnesses who testified that they never touched the officer, and they were cleared of all charges. But Lt. Terry, though acquitted on one charge, was convicted on the shoving charge and dishonorably discharged. With many states viewing a dishonorable discharge as being the equivalent of a felony conviction, the price Roger Terry paid for his participation in the Freeman Field protests was extreme.
For fifty years Roger Terry lived with that stain on his record, but he didn’t let it stop him. He earned a law degree, and became an investigator with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. He helped to found an organization devoted to highlighting the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen, and served as a technical adviser on "Red Tails," the George Lucas film about that fabled group.
Justice is finally done 
Although it took a half century, the Air Force was eventually willing to admit that its treatment of Roger Terry, and the other officers of the 477th who received official reprimands, was wrong. On August 2, 1995 Roger Terry received a full pardon for his court martial conviction. His rank was restored to him, as was the fine he had paid. His record was wiped clean. His comment about that event reveals a man without bitterness at what was done to him:
For the first time in 50 years, I could vote, I could hold office, I was restored Second Lieutenant, and it only goes to show that we’re a nation of laws. If you wait long enough, you will be vindicated. The only thing is that they wasted so much money and so much time doing it. But we did show them that we could fly.
In 2007 President George W. Bush presented the Tuskegee Airmen, including Roger Terry, with the Congressional Gold Medal. And two years later, in 2009, Terry was one of the Tuskegee Airmen invited to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama, but could not because the frigid weather in Washington would be bad for his health.
Roger Terry died later in that year of 2009, having lived to see the nation come to respect and even celebrate the sacrifices he and the other officers of the 477th had made to ensure that all Americans would receive the equal treatment before the law that is enshrined in our Constitution.
Ron Franklin

You can read the full story of the Freeman Field Mutiny at

© 2015 Ronald E. Franklin

Monday, June 15, 2015

A social club of young women who made good for African Americans

Photo: A social club of self-supporting young women

A social club of self-supporting young women (teachers, stenographers, bookkeepers) who have made good. This picture is eight years old. One of the group is dead, eleven are married and four are successful "bachelor maids." While the club is still intact, the original  membership here presented is scattered from New England to Panama and from Georgia to Colorado. [Original caption]

I have always been fascinated by this photograph. It shows a group of young ladies who banded together to help one another make something extraordinary of their lives at a time when doing so was a daunting task for American Americans. But with all the difficult obstacles they knew would be unjustly thrown in their way, they still seem, to my eye, to be determined, serene, and confident as they look to the future. I wish I could have known them.
I did, in fact, want to know more about them, so I tried to track down as much information as I could find about who they were and what happened to them. I wasn’t able to uncover anything about them as individuals, but the background of this photograph tells its own story.
The photograph was published in 1916 in a book by Dr. Charles Victor Roman. As the original book caption notes, the picture was then eight years old. That means it would have been taken in 1908.
The early years of the twentieth century were a time when black Americans were being subjected to the worst kinds of prejudice, discrimination, oppression, and even physical violence. Jim Crow segregation was spreading not just through the South, but in many parts of the nation. And lynching was well on its way to being the weapon of choice among racists determined to keep black people in their place.
Yet, this was also a time of great hope. Knowing the irrationality of the racial attitudes that limited African Americans to the fringes of the economic and social life of the country, many middle class black people, such as these young women, believed that if they could show the rest of the country that African Americans were just like anyone else, with the same dreams, aspirations, and innate abilities as the rest of the country, attitudes would change.
Dr. Charles Victor Roman
That was certainly Charles Victor Roman’s hope. A prominent physician who taught at Meharry Medical College, Fisk University, and Tennessee State University, Roman was a prolific writer and lecturer who strove to make the case, through his many books and public addresses, that African Americans were a capable people who could achieve great things if just given the chance.
That’s why Dr. Roman included this picture in his book, which was entitled American civilization and the Negro; the Afro-American in relation to national progress. He wanted to present to the American public a graphic image of upstanding and upwardly striving young black people whom he hoped would be seen as representative of the race as a whole. That focus is made clear by the paragraph that immediately follows the picture in the book:
The scientific data submitted in the preceding chapter and other parts of this work establish by incontrovertible evidence the Negro's innate capability to meet the conditions of a favorable environment. America is such an environment. It is proper, then, to submit some further evidence that the Negro is manifesting his capabilities by responding to this environment.
Looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century, and knowing the decades of struggle for equal rights and equal respect that lay ahead at the time this photo was taken in 1908, I have tremendous admiration for Dr. Roman and for the young ladies he held up as role models for the world to see. I grew up in the segregated South of the 1950s and 60s, so I have some idea of what these people faced. How easy it would have been to give up in despair when attitudes in the wider society seemed to be hardening rather than changing for the better.
But they didn’t give up. They fought the good fight, and kept on fighting when disrespect and discrimination toward African Americans seemed to accelerate in the decades that followed. And that fight hasn’t ended, even after an African American has twice been elected to the White House.
Maybe that’s why I admire the young ladies in Dr. Roman’s photo so much. If they could aspire to great things in spite of the humiliations so widely inflicted on African Americans in 1908, how can I allow myself to be discouraged by the relative few in our country who still hang on to old attitudes today.