This article was first published in SouthernCrossReview.org in 2014. It's appearing here again – somewhat updated – for two reasons. The sojourn described in the article took place in 1953 – sixty-eight years ago. It tells of a true experience of racism as it was then in the south of the United States. Today we almost daily read of incidents involving racism, often due to aggressive police brutality. And yet, racism was much worse then. Those days, before Martin Luther King and all the other activists who used non-violent resistance successfully mostly, who would not have been called insane if they said that sixty years later a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama would be elected president of the United States?
The other reason is that I just received a request from my grandson for information I might have about racism in the United States for a project he is preparing for his Berlin High school. Well yes, I do have something, not scholarly, but personal and real:
In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the famous “Brown vs. Board of Education” decision, ruled that a previous court’s decision that race relations must be “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. The effect of the ruling was that segregation was no longer legal in public places including, of course, schools. It took a long while to overcome the hate and arrogance of the U.S. southern states, or, rather, of much of the populace of those states, and our own times, the beginning of the twenty-first century, has shown that it hasn't yet been fully accomplished.
I’m from New York where, although de facto segregation existed – and to a certain extent still does – it was not condoned by law. As far as I can remember, there was no black child in my elementary school. White kids went to the schools in white neighborhoods and black kids went to the schools near where they lived. In Erasmus Hall High School however, located farther downtown and nearer to a black neighborhood, a small minority of black children attended. I can only remember our star basketball player by name: Johnny Rucker. Brooklyn’s population was predominately Jewish and Catholic at the time and the majority of students in all public schools was Jewish; the Catholic kids went to Catholic schools – naturally! Although my family was nominally Catholic, I always attended public schools because, I think, my father, who never went beyond elementary school, had had some bad experiences in Catholic schools.
Segregation between blacks and whites was the norm and, although my parents’ generation was certainly what we today would call racist, I don’t believe many in my generation were consciously racist. I had a few black school companions with whom I was friendly, but socially, especially when girls were concerned, we went our own separate ways. It was just the way it was.
In the early fifties military service was obligatory and the Korean War was raging, so the grunts in my basic training company, myself included, were destined to freeze our asses off and possibly get killed or wounded in Korea. So when Classification and Assignment offered me a place in the Army Language School's year-long Russian course in Monterey, California, I made the supreme sacrifice of signing up for a three-year enlistment (the condition). Sunny Monterey instead of the Ho Chi Ming trail. Do I look insanely patriotic?
In 1953, a year before the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, I graduated from the Army Language School and had thirty days accumulated leave to take before heading to Germany (luckily not Korea). The government paid us the airfare to our home cities and turned us loose. In order to save money, or rather to make a profit, many of us chose to go by train, hitchhike or, if possible, drive to our destinations. Those with cars in sufficiently good condition to make long trips recruited others going to the same destination to help pay for gas and share in the driving. I had an old beat-up Hudson Hornet which wouldn’t have made it out of California much less to the East Coast, so I sold it for fifty bucks before leaving. A friend, Jim McCray, who was in the same Russian class as I and was going home to Washington, D.C., told me that a Sergeant in our class who was going to New York had asked him to go along as far as D.C., but they needed a third rider to help pay for gas and help with the driving, and was I interested. You bet I was. But first I’d like to tell you a little about Jim McCray (his real name).
There were over a hundred students in the Russian class, divided up into groups of twelve, and Jim was the only Negro. (I know, that word isn't used anymore, but it was then, and if it was good enough for Martin Luther King, it was good enough for me.) Jim and I used to go to the bar right at the foot of the hill near the school and drink beer and listen to Sarah Vaughan on the jukebox and talk. We talked about jazz, the Russian course, Washington and New York – not about the social situation or racial prejudice, which wasn’t a hot topic yet, or philosophy. The bar was mostly a soldier place, which was good, because there was a wedge in our friendship: women. I hardly ever saw Jim on weekends when I went to the other bars in town where there were girls to pick up, with a little bit of luck, or to San Francisco where the pickings were better. The wedge was that you couldn’t do that together with a black guy, not then. In fact, it was dangerous in a place like Monterey to even hang out with a black guy, at least in the bars where the townies hated us soldiers anyway and a black guy in those places would be like a red (sic) flag to them. I really didn’t know what Jim did on weekends. Maybe he just stayed in the barracks or found some brothers in the camp who knew where they could go for fun. You could say that I abandoned him on weekends, but if my conscience bothered me I didn’t let it bother me too much.
We newly minted Russian linguists were more than happy to be going to the land of fräuleins hungry for American dollars and, we presumed, dicks. The sergeant, Karl Lillienthal (not his real name), was a German Jew who spoke perfect but accented English. The other noncoms called him Lilly; the rest of us didn’t call him anything because he was a silent morose guy who didn’t have much to do with anyone. He was probably the oldest guy in the course, in his thirties I guessed. How he’d come to be a sergeant in the United States Army I never found out, because during the whole trip east he never spoke about himself. He was obviously perfect for intelligence work in Germany – a real German who spoke, when he spoke at all, fluent English and now Russian as well.
My social education about America began with that trip.
The storm warnings came the day before we left. The whole northwest and north-central parts of the country were being swept by heavy snowstorms with ninety mile an hour wind-gusts and most roads were impassable, or at least very dangerous. There were only two alternatives: wait for the storm to pass or go the southern route. None of us, least of all Jim, who was anxious to get home, wanted to delay our departure, so we decided to take the southern route with good weather and bad vibes for a trio consisting of a Yankee, a Jew and a Negro. If we kept our mouths shut the Yankee and the Jew wouldn’t be recognized as such, but there was no disguising Jim. We thought we could take turns driving and in that way go straight through and avoid all but the most necessary contact with the natives.
In Tucson, Arizona, which we considered to be the West not the South, we had a flat tire. While Sarge waited in the garage for it to be fixed, Jim and I went across the street to a bar for a beer. It was mid-afternoon and the place was dark and empty, except for the bartender, who looked up from his comic book and stared at us suspiciously when we walked in.
“Two beers, draft please,” I told him.
“We don’t serve no colored people here,” he answered, looking me in the eye and ignoring Jim, as though I should have changed my order to one beer and asked permission for the darkie to remain while I drank it. It was like a slap in the face and I didn’t know what to say. The slap must have hit Jim harder. After standing there with my mouth open for a few moments I shrugged, looked at Jim and we turned and left. We didn’t speak on the way back to the car, nor did we tell Sarge what happened. Somehow we were ashamed.
Despite our optimistic intention to drive through to the east coast without stopping, we couldn’t keep our eyes open beyond New Mexico. We alternated driving, but couldn’t sleep sitting up beyond dozing, and that wasn’t enough for safe driving, especially at night, and it got dark early in mid-winter. Close to midnight on the first day when I was driving, the headlights flashed on a sign that read: Negro Travelers’ Inn. Jim and Sarge, having been behind the wheel for hours, were dozing and didn’t see it. I pulled over, made a U-turn and went back.
“What’s going on?” Sarge asked.
“Let’s take a look at this place,” I said. “I can’t keep my eyes open much longer.” I drove into the parking space in front of the office and got out. It was the only lighted spot, so there wasn’t much to see. I rang the night bell and waited, while the others dragged themselves out of the car. Sarge, after checking out the sign, wondered if the inn – it was really a motel – was only for Negroes. After about a minute a woman peered out the window at us and opened the door.
“Yes, what can I do for you gentlemen?” she asked. She was an attractive middle-aged black woman with large eyes and a worried look.
“Do you have rooms available for the three of us?” I asked.
The worry changed into a smile. “Sure do. Come on in and register.”
The rooms were simple and very clean. I fell into bed and slept like a log.
The next morning Sarge knocked on my door at seven o’clock. “Let’s go,” he called through the door. I got up, showered and joined Sarge and Jim in the dining room, where they were eating breakfasts of bacon and eggs, toast, juice, coffee – the works. I ordered the same. The lady-in-charge who had checked us in the night before was doing the serving. She must have been curious about us. After all, how often would two white men and a black man stay together at the Negro Travelers’ Inn? She would surely have asked about us if Jim hadn’t broken the ice after his second cup of coffee.
“Ma’am, we’re driving all the way to the East Coast. Could you tell us if we’ll be able to find motels like this along the way? We intend to drive right through, but in case we don't, you know, in case we can’t...”
“You won’t find anything like this, son,” a man said who was seated at a table near us and had overheard the conversation. “In the deep south you white boys can’t stay in the Negro ones either – not that you’d want to.” He was dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie and had what looked like a sample case next to his leg. Probably a salesman. “This is the best hotel or motel for Negroes in the whole southern United States of America.”
“I got just what you need, though,” the lady said. “I’ll be right back.” She walked out of the dining room and through a connecting door to the office. She was back almost immediately, obviously not wanting to miss anything. “Here you are,” she said as she handed Jim a printed brochure: Negro Travelers’ Green Book. “Here’s all the places to stay right across the South. Some’s better than others, of course, but–”
“And most of them worse than the others,” our neighbor commented.
As Jim leafed through the brochure, the lady finally asked, “How come you gentlemen traveling like this together through the South?”
Jim explained about us being in the army in Monterey, and that we were traveling home by car in order to save money. And about the storm along the northern route, of course.
“Well, I think we’ll just drive through from now on,” I said optimistically. When I think back on it, it seems to me that Sarge and I didn’t really want to drive through. It was, after all, much more comfortable to sleep between clean sheets in one of those sanitized motels that sprinkled across America than being crammed in a speeding piece of metal for three days. We didn’t say or think this, though, not even to ourselves.
“I never really thought of New Mexico as being part of the South,” I commented to our neighbor.
“Sure, you’re thinking about cowboys and Indians, not black folks. New Mexico’s the south—west. There are probably more Indians around here than colored folks, but as far as we are concerned it’s almost as bad as the deep south where you fellas are going.” He cleaned his mustache delicately with a napkin, stood up, grasped his sample case, which I now noticed had wheels on the bottom, and gave us a slight bow. “I wish you gentlemen a good trip with plenty o’luck, which you might be needing. Bye, Miz Nelly,” he called into the kitchen. “See you next week.”
We left New Mexico behind, shook the dust of Texas off our tires, and were in the middle of Louisiana when the radio started to talk about the coming Mardi Gras in New Orleans. We were driving on the main road that connects west to east. I don’t know what it looks like today, but in those days it was just a two-lane road that meandered through the South. I was feeling lazy myself and thought how interesting it would be to make a detour to New Orleans, stay there a few days and take in the Mardi Gras. When I considered my companions, however, I knew it would be imprudent to even make the suggestion. Jim was intent on getting out of the South as soon as possible, and our stone-faced Jewish German crewcut Sarge didn’t seem to like it all that much either. I could have gotten out at any of the towns along the way and taken a bus or hitchhiked to New Orleans, but somehow that would have been like abandoning the ship.
So we kept going, alternating driving, but I couldn’t sleep a wink while I wasn’t at the wheel, and I doubt if the others could either. So we rolled on and on into the state of Mississippi, and at about midnight, when six eyelids were closing and Jim, at the wheel, admitted that he couldn’t go on driving any farther, we decided that there was no choice but to bed down in Jackson, the capital of southern racism.
Jim handed me the Negro Travelers’ Green Book and I found two hotels listed in Jackson. Now all we had to do was find them. We drove through the outskirts of town past the genteel whites-only motels’ swimming pools and into the center of town, which was quite deserted.
“There’s a diner,” I said. “We can ask there.” Jim pulled over in front of the diner, The Dixie Cup.
I went into the diner and approached the counterman. “Yes, Suh, what can we do for y’all?” he smiled warmly. There were about a dozen customers, all men, mostly drinking coffee or beer in the booths, two or three at the counter. And, you know, they really do have red necks, or did then anyway.
“Can you please tell me how to get to North Lester Street.?” I asked the counterman.
His smile disappeared. “That’s over in nigger town, ain’t it?” He was looking at me, but when I didn’t answer his glance shifted to the customers at the counter. I realized that everybody in the place was staring at me.
“I’m looking for a hotel for somebody,” I said. It occurred to me to say ‘for my chauffeur’, but I’m really glad I didn’t. At least that answer brought the situation back to basics.
“Yeah, there’s a couple of coon hotels down on North Lester," the counterman finally said. "Straight ahead to the first traffic light, which probably ain’t working this time of night, but you turn right there and after two or three blocks you’ll hit North Lester. I don’t know whether the hotels are up or down from there, you’ll just have to use your nose.”
“Thanks,” I said and turned heel. I got into the car and told Jim to just go.
We found the first hotel without any difficulty in a rundown Negro residential area. One look at the hotel, however, which was so rickety it looked as if the big bad wolf could have blown it over with one puff, and we decided to go to the only other hotel on the list, which was on the same street a few blocks further on. From the outside it looked as bad as the first one. Without a word, Jim got out of the car, crossed the street, climbed the steps to the porch of the hotel and rang the night-bell. After a few words with the man who opened the door, he came back to the car and handed me his wallet. “Hang on to this for me, will you, Frank? You have to pay in advance here, which I’ve already done, so I won’t need any more money. See you tomorrow morning. Pick me up early, please.” He turned, walked back and entered the hotel. Sarge got out of the back seat and sat behind the wheel. I looked at Jim’s wallet in my hand and felt a lump in my throat. I wondered if Sarge felt anything. We drove out of town to a spotless motel, which turned out to be cheaper than Jim’s flea box.
We picked Jim up early the next morning and went on our way with Jim asleep in the back seat. We didn’t ask him how it was, we could imagine. Stopping only to eat together in the car because, of course, we couldn’t eat together in any restaurant, and buy gas, using “whites only” and “colored only” restrooms. We didn’t use the segregated drinking fountains though. We got as far as Macon, Georgia, where we went through the same ritual. We found a hotel on the list that seemed somewhat better than the Jackson one though
The next day we dropped Jim off in D.C. We said goodbye to him feeling embarrassed and pissed off by the whole trip. A few hours later we were in New York, where Sarge was kind enough to drop me off at a subway station. I can’t blame him for not wanting to drive into Brooklyn.
Jim and I sailed on the same troop ship to Germany, but since everybody was seasick we didn’t have much chance to talk. In Germany I was assigned to Military Intelligence; Jim was too—as a truck driver ferrying “confidential supplies” (whiskey, cigarettes and nylon stockings) between Frankfurt and Berlin. That was before the Berlin Wall was built. Jim and I had no contact and I never saw him again. Over the years I’ve thought of looking him up, but never did.
I Just thought this experience might be of interest to you readers who are too young to know what race relations were like in the U.S. back then before the “Brown vs. Board of Education” decision - which is just about everyone.