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“I like this goddamn country, you know that? …It is the first place I was ever treated like a goddamn man.”
William Gardner Smith about the experience of black GIs in Germany, from The Last of the Conquerors (1948)
"Ein Hauch von Freiheit" (Breath of Freedom)
December 16, 10:05pm CET on Arte
"Breath of Freedom: Black Soldiers and the Battle for Civil Rights" (narrated by Cuba Gooding, Jr.)
Premiers February 17, 8pm ET/PT on Smithsonian Channel
"Freed's enduring photos of march part of exhibit"
„Heldin des anderen Amerikas“
für Angela Davis, 1970–1973.
“Plenty of Space to Exist In”
Oral Interview with Charles Hanson
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
> View as PDF
Charles Hanson was born in 1917 and raised in New York City. He attended City College as a Spanish major and later attained proficiency in five languages, including German, French, Spanish and Hindi. Hanson joined the New York Civil Service in 1939, but was drafted shortly after America’s entry into the war in 1941. Upon completing officer candidate school in Fort Benning, Georgia he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant of C Company, 370th Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division. He served in Italy from 1944 on, where he was injured twice and lost his younger brother in combat. After the war, Hanson had a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service, serving, for example, as vice consul to Switzerland.
Hanson’s account details his lack of enthusiasm for joining the Army in 1941, judging that it failed to recognize the abilities of its black soldiers. With regard to his language skills Hanson remembers bitterly, that the Army “couldn’t have cared less.” Hanson disagreed with the black press’ demand to engage African American troops in combat, since he never viewed World War II in terms of the so-called “Double V-Campaign” as a key enabler for equality abroad and at home.
While Hanson recalls instances of segregation even during the officially integrated officer training, he repeatedly characterizes these experiences as little upsetting and race relations overall as “amicable.” Hanson’s account, however, illustrates that the most severe discrimination did not necessarily only exist in day-to-day situations but in the entrenched racist thinking of the Southern military leaders African American troops had to serve under.
Hanson outlines one particular speech by Colonel Sterling A. Wood to his black officers and recalls its blatantly racist undertones. According to Hanson, Wood introduced himself to his black officers with the little assuring words, “I understand colored people. I had a plantation in Alabama.” Furthermore, Wood clarified which parts of town were off limits to blacks soldiers and informed them that in order to meet certain casualty quotas black soldiers would have to fight “where the fighting is thickest” and suffer the heaviest losses.
Despite his confrontation with openly racist mindsets Hanson never directly challenged racial discrimination. Instead he successfully strove to distinguish himself academically, thereby overcoming professional limitations traditionally placed on African Americans. Looking back on his military experience and, subsequently, a distinguished career of more than 25 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, Hanson concludes, “Well I couldn’t run for president but it never occurred to me to run! Anyway you get born into something and there it is! But there was plenty of space for me to exist in.”
[On the Lack of Opportunities For Blacks in the Military]
Morehouse: […] Why did you choose the Army?
Hanson: That was the only thing. You think I could take the Air Force? Me?! Have you looked at my skin recently?! (Laughter)
Morehouse: So did they tell you...
Hanson: No, no you know the Air Force did you read did you see that movie? The Tuskegee Airmen?
That was later you see. So it was unthinkable. My brother went to the where they were training him in Alabama wherever it was there but he was an enlisted man too later on. Anyway I just got in and they sent me to basic training.
[On Colonel Wood’s Speech to Black Officers]
Hanson: […] On completion of the infantry officers training program at Fort Benning I reported to headquarters at the 92nd Infantry Division at Cmap Robinson located in the vicinity of Little Rock Arkansas. While awaiting assignment to various companies the personnel officer and enlisted participated in a series of lectures and training exercises including day long hikes and sleepovers in the area. On one 25 mile hike the troops were settling in for the night when the cry of “All colored officers report to Colonel Wood’s tent.” Echoed through the area and shortly thereafter a large number of officers meeting the stated qualifications assembled outside the colonel’s tent headquarters. Colonel Wood was sitting on the ground his legs folded under him like an Indian chief. You know how you be sitting? He began, “My name” - I want to make sure you get this - “my name is Colonel Sterling A. Wood.” Pause. “And I understand colored people. I had a plantation in Alabama.”
“So I know your wants and I understand your needs. A few words about the situation in Little Rock. In Little Rock you will confine your activities to an area bounded on the north by” I’m sorry I don’t know what street “on the south by” “one the west by” “and on the east by” the specific street names have faded in my memory over the past 50 odd years but it’s crystal clear that the area described as the colored section. After a pause the colonel would continue. “There’s has been much discussion in the newspapers especially the colored newspapers as to whether this division will see combat. As you know in the last war” - you know he’s explaining everything to us and we’re supposed to “oh thank you we want to hear this!” –
“As you know in the last war colored troops were mostly SOS” services and supply troops “I was talking to General Marshall the Chief of Staff” of that division “at the activation ceremonies of the 92nd division and I said and he agreed with me that colored troops would be very likely to see combat in this war. Why is this? 10.4% of the population of this country are colored people. So it is only fair that in this war 10.4% of the casualties should be colored casualties. But since there are only two colored combat divisions and that probably 100 or more white divisions you will have to expect more casualties from the two colored in order to make the percentages.” I’m sitting there as I said before going to the bathroom dreaming having a fit you just name it. I never heard of such nonsense!
“Therefore you will be trained and you will be sent where the fighting is thickest. The normal time for training a division to combat readiness is about” I don’t know about 10 weeks “you may not get that much time. You’ll be sent here and sent somewhere else and you’ll meet each other” and he described what chaos there was going to be and so forth and so on. He said “You see if the percentage” I’m finished with that. I was going to finish it later on. “If the percentage of the colored was less than 10.4% you might rise to 16.4% and that’s not fair.” Can you imagine that? Look you straight in the eye “and that’s not fair.” Whew!
[On “Integrated” Officer Candidate Schooling in Fort Benning, Georgia]
Hanson: First of all the training of course was mixed. It was very interesting. They had to be the black candidates in one section of the barrack or something like that but not too much trouble there. […] We were in a section a certain section of the barrack. But we had no objection. We were used to that. Everybody was halfway decent you know and...
[On Black reactions to segregated mess halls in Arkansas and the ways the Army set “traps” for complaining black soldiers]
Hanson: We had some problem. For one thing they found out in the mess hall the colored officers sat in the rear at a table in the rear and the white officers sat at the table in the front. We didn’t exactly like it but you know you get used to it. There’s nothing wrong with the table.
Morehouse: But nobody really tried to go over and sit with the white you just...
Hanson: No not yet. When we got to Fort Huachuca there turned out to be a sort of a well people were just annoyed and angry and they began sitting any old where.
And sit at the colored table at the end yeah at the rear [In Arkansas] Which is just as good as any other place I mean it was. No one said much. You got used to it. Now apparently they were getting more and more annoyed so right after we arrived [In Huachuca] they began sitting everywhere and people asked them, “Here sit over here.” They’d sit over there. Then when someone tried to bring food to the man sitting the opposite sitting there. The enlisted men would be bringing it or the waiters you might say would be bringing the food and the officers would try to tell the waiter to go and the waiter in rebellion would hand it to the officer you know hand the food to him anyway and then move out you see. So Colonel Wood was much annoyed and he called a meeting and said that he wanted he said he wanted to know how many officers wanted to eat at the white tables. You know. Then he passed out paper and said well please write down what you think about the seating in the mess hall.
Morehouse: Secret? Or were you supposed to sign your name?
Hanson: I don’t know. I really don’t know. But I told him I said it was totally ridiculous and had never heard of any such thing. Some of the others probably did the same. But since I was so good at penmanship and my command of English they probably identified me as being one of them. Then they set the classic trap.
The idea was that they ask for your opinion and so forth. Then they called me in and said, “We would like for you to check the accuracy of maps in the Fort Huachuca area.” They gave me a number of maps and a jeep and a driver and I was supposed to go to it says Mount Satchmo I was supposed to go up and see if Satchmo was written on the mountain I suppose to check the accuracy of maps. So I took the maps. At first I didn’t realize...
[They assumed] the black people are lazy shiftless and oversexed I suppose. So you give this guy a driver and a jeep and tell him to go out and check maps he’s going to go someplace and then Wood’s will send out for him you know to see where he is and when he’s not there he’s AWOL. Then we do like we do with (laughter) and court martial or something you see. Well I guess... […] First of all I was serious. I didn’t know that this was ridiculous. Imagine me checking the accuracy of maps at Fort Huachuca. The damn place has been...
Morehouse: Been mapped since the 1800’s by the military.
Hanson: I’m wandering up and down checking this place and that place and this crossing and that crossing. […] No you know just be absent just not be around where you supposed to be. Yeah be absent for a day or two. Hoo boy that would be wonderful! Now I can’t guarantee this but I mean the only logical and sensible means that I can see why they would want to send a single officer with a driver and a car to check the accuracy of my maps in the Fort Huachuca area except that they didn’t want him to come back. They wanted to find him AWOL...
So I would send back reports. See they’d of send someone up every day to find me. It was a beautiful thing. Didn’t find him. What?! You see but there I was and I was sending notes back to them saying’ “Checked so and so and so and so and so and so.” The next day again and again. […] I guess it must have been a week. Maybe a week and a half. So then all of a sudden they said, “ Come back.” So I went back. So that was one of their little tricks.
[On the Black Press, Joining the War and Integrating the Troops]
Morehouse: Were you reading anything in the black press or the Negro press at that time?
Hanson: Well there was the __________ News and there was The Age and other mostly in the form of I thought of editorials. Everybody I got a column see and then you just read war writing. They the newspapers had got gung ho on the subject of ‘We want to see combat. We want to do our duty.’ And well let me put it this way. I was not amused. Since I was the one who was going to do it.
[…] Why should somebody who’s been beat on the head daily and looking forward to being part of the 10.4% and say I demand to be sent to the frontlines?
Morehouse: At home not so much in New York where you were describing your experiences but certainly what you were seeing in other parts of the country that there was this segregation and discrimination there. Then you were supposed to go overseas and fight for democracy which in its more simple meaning would mean that everyone is equal.
Hanson: Well I mean frankly I guess we weren’t quite that evolved. The idea was you are in a situation where you are going overseas and you went overseas. We finally got into combat. My brother was killed as a result. I was injured twice.
Morehouse: In the black press there’s a controversy about whether to integrate the military or keep it segregated. That was a written fight between A. Philip Randolph and W. B. DuBois. So at first it was should it be should the military be integrated or segregated. Did you have thoughts about that when you read through the editorials or...
Hanson: No. I didn’t have any reflections on...when you got drafted you just got drafted. There’s no question there.
[On the Army making sure black soldiers would remain lower ranked than white soldiers]
Hanson: I didn’t particularly support [the war] and after I got into well and find out what the service was like...oh I might mention that when we reported to the 92nd division with Sterling Woods outfit there had been the first thing they did what they did is they said OK we’re going to activate the regiment. They send the army. They say we’ll send white officers in first. So they send in all the white officers and they do this this this and that. They’re all second lieutenants.
Then they open the floodgates and send in the black officers. So they did two things. If a white officer was good enough to be promoted to first lieutenant they did it immediately (snap) just like that. But if he wasn’t they would put him in a position where when they sent a black officer in you had to be junior to this. In other words the bit of rank you know what I’m talking about and that’s where they got the problem. That went on for awhile and all of a sudden there was all this breeze about no promotions no promotions no promotions. So all of them decided that oh my goodness we’ve got to promote somebody. So they promoted one officer in each company.
So [,,,] well we had some white second lieutenants senior of course and black second lieutenants. They decided to promote Jim who was black. But all the second lieutenants whites were transferred to another company. That’s good for discipline and good for training you understand me? So you know all the men. You know their capabilities. You know...so therefore coming up in the strange places...
[Excerpts from Interview with Charles Hanson conducted by Maggi Morehouse, 1998]