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

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