“So we must speak, even as we fight and die. We must say that the fight against Hitlerism begins in Washington, D.C., the capital of our nation, where black Americans have a status only slightly above that of Jews of Berlin. [...] If the ghettos in Poland are evil, so are the ghettos in America.“
Editorial, “Now Is the Time,” The Crisis, January 1942, 7.
"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.
“Integration by Five O’Clock”
Oral Interview with Harold Montgomery
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
> View as PDF
Harold “Monty” Montgomery was born in 1919 and grew up in Washington, DC. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in February 1941 and went to Fort Benning Officer Candidate School, where he experienced integrated military education. He served several years on various army bases in the United States and took over Company H of the famous 92nd Division, 366th Regiment, in 1944.
Following World War II he was at once confronted with the lack of opportunities for African Americans and a job market, which discriminated along racial lines. As a consequence, he chose to reenlist in the army in 1945, where he served for many decades.
In 1952, by then an Assistant Chief of Staff, he witnessed the integration of his battalion stationed in Germany. Though four years had passed since Truman’s Executive Order 9981, Montgomery contends that once the army had truly decided to integrate its forces it was done with efficiency and swiftness. Looking out from his staff office, he remembers, “all of a sudden […] you can see these helicopters coming in and landing just about every three minutes. And every one of them had black troops on it. They were bringing the black troops from […] all over Germany, to bring them in, integrating that division. That division was completely integrated by retreat which was five o’clock that day.”
Although Montgomery generally evaluates his military experience very positively, he recounts how he often recognized the inherent injustice and ubiquity of segregation and racial discrimination. Recalling many instances of social and professional limitation, particularly outside the military, Montgomery repeatedly addresses the futility of challenging segregation and agrees with his wife Helen, “that we couldn’t change it so we had to accept it until the time came to change.”
Nevertheless, his story also exemplifies the heightened self-confidence gained by many African American soldiers serving in World War II. At one particular occasion, when seating arrangements in the mess hall led to a dispute between black and white soldiers, Montgomery spoke out and urged his Colonel to end racial discrimination. Drawing a clear parallel between his fight against fascism abroad and the struggle against segregation at home, he told the Colonel, “when I was overseas in combat there was no discrimination. The decision you’re about to make now you think about it before you make it. Because if you make the wrong decision I’m going to fight you with the same determination I fought the enemy on the field of combat.”
* photo credit: Dr. Carolyn Johnston
[On Racial Discrimination when Joining the Army]
Montgomery: I wanted to go into artillery because I love mathematics, but at that particular time they were not placing any blacks into artillery units in the active army. […] The sergeant told me. He said: "Well we don’t have any vacancies there for black enlisted personnel. […] Well, all the army was segregated. The entire army was segregated. You didn’t have any black general officers. The army was commanded by all southerners, so all the thinking of the army was by southern men. It was their belief that no one was qualified to become a captain in the United States Army if he was black. That was publicly known.
[On Segregation and his Experience in the Army]
Montgomery: I want to set the record straight. When I came into the service I realized fully well that the army was segregated and that the leaders of the army were all from the south. They had their set policies and one man coming into the Army couldn’t change those policies, so what the use of me fighting it? When I have to train 197 men and hope that they would take the objectives—push the enemy off of it—and I would try to save as many as possible so they could come back home, I didn’t have time to be worried about segregation. And the Army treated me very well. I hear a lot of people telling the story about the Army and so forth, but I was treated very well. I’ve had people approach me and wanted me to make comments concerning senior officers in the army and what prejudice I ran into. The Army treated me very well. The Army gave me an education. They gave me an opportunity. I was recognized. I was promoted on the spot from second lieutenant to first lieutenant. I had the only black company in my combat team. I think the Army was the best thing that ever happened to me.
[On a Dispute Concerning the Question of Segregated Seating in the Mess Hall]
Montgomery: That’s like when I returned and come back to the States. I was at Fort Bragg with Colonel Miller. I was the Special Staff Officer. I was the S3 of the first student training regiment. The white officers were at separate tables and black officers came in and just sat down, so he had to have a big meeting. He wanted to know what the troubles were. What was up with the black officers—this and that. I listened to what he had to say and I waited until every one had had their opportunity to speak. And I told him: "Well I don’t know about any conversations between whites and blacks." And I said: "But I’ll tell you one thing, Colonel. Before you make a decision, when I was overseas in combat there was no discrimination. The decision you’re about to make now you think about it before you make it. Because if you make the wrong decision I’m going to fight you with the same determination I fought the enemy on the field of combat. The same enemy that tried to take my life I’m going to fight you with the same determination." So, Colonel Miller made a decision that officers will not be seated according to race, rank, or position. In other words, in some battalions the officers were seated by battalions. Then they’re seated by staff. You follow me? So he made a decision that everyone would be seated just as they came into the mess hall.
[On Challenging Segregated Seating Arrangements in the Mess Hall]
Montgomery: I would get there early in the morning [the mess hall] and some of the white officers would see me at the table and they wouldn’t even want to come over there to sit down. So what the hell? They could go out there and drill all the damn day without a meal. I’d be the first one there and the last one to leave. I didn’t give a damn. You follow me? And I didn’t think anybody was going to approach me because they knew my combat record and knew perhaps I would kill them. So they didn’t want to bother with me. That man? Don’t’ bother Montgomery man! That man’s crazy! Goddamn he’ll shoot you! So nobody bothered me. I didn’t have any trouble in the Army. I got along fine.
Morehouse: But didn’t any white officers at all come and sit down beside you?
Montgomery: No, because these were signal officers. I was a captain. But I’m sitting with majors, lieutenant colonels see. I’m up on the regimental staff. Even the damn commander didn’t sit there. So I would say let them starve. […] Hell with them. I didn’t give a damn. I’d be there the next meal. Be the first one in there, last one to leave. I didn’t give a damn.
[On Integrating the Army in 1952 in Germany]
Montgomery: When Truman put out his order...now I’m going to tell you because I was a witness to this. He put the order out in ‘48. In 1952 I was Assistant Chief of Staff for Training, Operations and Flags for the 43rd Infantry Division. My commanding drill was Charles K. Gaylee, a major general. […] He called a meeting of the entire staff and I was the only black member on the general corps staff. I wore stars, which I could show you. He stated that he had just received word on an executive order. They call it DP orders, Direction of the President. That the Division will be completely integrated by retreat that day [when the flag comes down on a military base]
And all of a sudden from my staff office where you can look out on the parade ground and the helicopter pad for the general army, you can see these helicopters coming in and landing just about every three minutes. And every one of them had black troops on it. They were bringing the black troops from … from Stuttgart … all over Germany, to bring them in, integrating that division. That division was completely integrated by retreat, which was five o’clock that day. That means, like I told you, that you can start on this project they said begin on June the 25th, but you want to complete it by August the 25th. They were dragging their feet from ‘48 but when the President put out that order that he wanted it by this date, it was completed. You follow me? I was a part of that; I was the only black general staff corp when they integrated the 43rd division.
Montgomery: They [employment opportunities] were very poor. I went to the Post Office and first thing they had was […] a big something like blackboard with the names of those who served at the Post Office. I looked up there and I didn’t even see my name. Then for the white fellows that I worked with for every year that they were in the service they would give them an increase. I’d been in the service four and a half years. They didn’t want to give me anything.
I made up my mind. I said the hell with this! People can't treat me like this. I was in the service. So that’s when I made up my mind that I would go back to the service. That’s when my life changed.
Morehouse: Did you ask them at the Post Office why your name wasn’t on the list?
Montgomery: I know why it wasn’t there. What’s the use of me asking?
[Excerpts from Interview with Harold “Monty” Montgomery Conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Washington, DC 1997]