“I had lain on the beach many times, but never before with a white girl [...] No one stared as we lay on the beach together, our skins contrasting but our hearts beating identically and both with noses on the center of our faces. Odd, it seemed to me, that here, in the land of hate, I should find this all-important phase of democracy. And suddenly I felt bitter.“
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.
“I Put Blinders On And Shut Out Bad Things”
Oral Interview with Joe Stephenson
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
> View as PDF
Joe Stephenson grew up in Greensboro, NC and studied science and history at North Carolina A&T. In February 1942, he enlisted in the army and successfully attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. Stephenson was sent to Italy in 1944 as an officer in the 365th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division. Injured by a land mine in February 1945, he received a bronze star for his brave conduct.
Upon his return home in the early fall of 1945 he reenlisted and spent twenty years of military service stationed in the U.S., Japan, Korea and Germany. During this time, Stephenson also taught ROTC classes at his alma mater in North Carolina and Howard University.
In this interview, which was conducted in the presence of fellow African American World War II veteran Jehu Hunter, Stephenson relates very few particular instances of racial discrimination in the army. However, his encounter with illiterate and “extremely, poorly educated” black troops from the deep south, made him comprehend inherent racial injustice in American society, remembering that, “I was angry when I saw what the country had done to them.”
Despite this insight, Stephenson states that he generally accepted the predominant military policies with regard to matters of race. His account thus exemplifies the diversity of attitudes among black soldiers toward the struggle for racial equality.
Stephenson, for example, remembers that a black soldier once denounced General Benjamin O. Davis, the highest-ranking African-American soldier during World War II, as an “Uncle Tom” for his reluctance to challenge racial discrimination head-on. In Stephenson’s view, however, Davis had behaved appropriately since “there wasn’t much he could do.”
Skeptical about any possibilities for change within the U.S. army, Stephenson also avoided instilling GIs under his command with a sense of entitlement because of their military service. Far from encouraging them to view World War II as a possible springboard for demands for greater racial equality, he explains that “I knew when my soldiers went back to their homes [after World War II] they were still going in the back door.”
However, viewing the army as the best avenue for personal success at the time, Stephenson reenlisted despite a continuing reality of discrimination, judging from hindsight that “I put blinders on and shut out the bad things.”
Even though President Harry S. Truman initiated the integration of the army in 1948, Stephenson remembers that very little changed in the early 1950s since military leaders consciously delaying the implementation of these policies. Only when volunteering for Korea and being stationed abroad, Stephenson served in integrated units and for the first time commanded black soldiers as well as white officers as a captain in the 187th Air Borne Infantry RegimeLooking back on these experiences in Korea and twenty years of military service, Stephenson concludes with regard to the advancement of racial equality in the military that only when “manpower [was] needed things changed.”
[On his choice not to attend Tuskegee Institute]
Stephenson: I would have done the same thing the other boys did around town, mostly nothing. Hanging out at the pool room. But that was not for my mom. So when I came out of high school my mom told me, 'You find a school that you want to go to. And if you don't find one I'll find one for you.' I went to Tuskegee. I don't know why I went to Tuskegee but the name just got me and then Booker T. Washington and all of that. And that, when I got down there, I said, 'There's no way in the world I can stay four years down here in Alabama. I can't do it.'
[…] It's a different world. Because my home town was not a bad home town. So I just got on the train and came home after one, mama met me at the station and said, 'Son, I don't know why you came back. You had one week. I ought to find you a school.' So a fella up the street, a fella up the street went to A & T and he was always talking about it so I said, 'That sounds like the school for me.' So I applied for it and they, I got a telegram from the president to come. And I had my records sent. And I never regretted that because Greensboro is a different city than Tuskegee. It's a college town and people are real nice and generous around there.
[On encountering the illiteracy of other black soldiers]
Stephenson: Fort McClellan, Alabama. Now while I was there, uh, the troops that came into the Company where I was I noticed that there was a high degree of illiteracy. And I was shocked at what I saw because I had not experienced anything like that in North Carolina where I came from. Five of us went down on the train together. I was a college graduate and the other four were high school graduates. And when I got down there most of the soldiers that came into the service at that time in my Company came from Mississippi, Alabama, the deep south. And they were extremely, poorly, poorly educated. And I was, I was angry when I saw what the country had done to them. It was just a lack of education. And so even some of the kids, they saw that I had a little compassion in me so I wouldn't make fun of them, they would come to me and bring their letters and I would go out behind, in the woods and read their letters. And I'd answer their letters for them. And then the other four fellas that came down with me and a few others would do the same thing. So we had a little cadre of people that we could identify with. And I was glad to do it and I was proud to do it. Because I had had advantages that they never had had.
[On “integrated” Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning]
Stephenson: I don't know, I guess it was 150 or something like that. [men in the OCS class] I don't remember.
Morehouse: And how many were black?
Stephenson: Two. […] In the whole class.
Morehouse: They didn't give you separate quarters or anything did they?
Stephenson: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Just for the two. It was a blessing. It was a blessing. Because what happened was my separate quarters were down the street there in a great big barrack built for 40. There were five blacks already there in another class. And then two of us came, so we had seven where 40 should be. And it was quiet and those five other blacks had been there three weeks. And they were able to give us so many pointers about what to do, what to look for and stuff like that. And then over there in the barracks where I should have been they were noisy over there and a lot of rebels were over there too, rednecks. And they wanted us to even eat in the kitchen. And they went to ask the Company Commander about not allowing us to eat in the regular dining hall but to eat in the kitchen back there. Well, the First Sergeant threw him out because he didn't go for it. But as time went on attitudes changed because we were in the 90's all the time on all our exams. And they were posted. So they wondered what was our secret. Well, our secret was we were living quietly over there and we worked.
So you know what they did? They started coming over to study with us. [Laughs] […] We were just studying together. […] Together. That's right. Because we had it quiet over there where we were. And then the five blacks graduated and left so there was just two of us in the barrack now.
Morehouse: And all five of the other guys made it?
Stephenson: They made it. All five of them. They went to the 92nd ahead of us. And then the two of us are in the barracks now. So the word got around that only two of us were over there. So a little committee went to the orderly room and demanded that we be, that we should be moved from that barrack to over with them. Because we were too comfortable over there by ourselves. So we had to move. We had to move where we should have been in the first place. [And there] I had no trouble at all.
[On white MPs discriminating against black officer candidates in Alabama]
Stephenson: So anyway I was platoon leader and Harris was the Platoon Sergeant. So I had done all that kind of drilling before back at Fort McClellan so what I was doing was nothing new to me. Because I remember after all this was over the platoon leader told me, he said, 'You don't have a thing to worry about. The only thing you have to do is stay out of trouble.' He said, 'Don't go to Columbus.' That's the trouble he was talking about. 'Stay out of trouble.' I said, 'I don't want to go to Columbus anyway.' He said, 'But you don't have a thing to worry about.' And I think he told Harris the same thing.
Jehu Hunter [another WWII Veteran present]: But you know why? You know what was going on? The white MP's would (U). You had these OSC patches. Remember those OCS patches? And the white MP's would find some transgression to put you in jail in Columbus.
Stephenson: That's it. That's it.
[On a black soldier accusing general Benjamin Davis of being an “Uncle Tom”]
Stephenson: I was there one night when General Davis came. But something very unfortunate happened that night. I came, I walked into the club and I looked over and I saw General Davis and Colonel Mousefield. He was the medical, our post medical officer. And they were sitting there talking. So I went on in the club. And later there was a commotion. It came from the outside. So I went back to see what the problem was and I found out that some Lieutenant had gotten half drunk. And he took a handkerchief and he tied a knot in each corner. And he walked up behind General Davis and jammed it down on his head. And he said, 'Now, take that you handkerchief head so and so.' I've forgot the exact words. But that's what he called it. 'Now you look natural.' Because they were accusing him of being an Uncle Tom and an Uncle this and Uncle that because they thought he could do more than what he was doing, but he had a very difficult job to do. I was aware of that at the time that there was nothing much General Davis could do. And so anyway, they took the Lieutenant and put him under arrest, took him to the post and fined him $25.00. And while he was gone his buddies collected, sent a hat around, people put money in it. So they found out that he had been fined $25.00 they gave him the $25.00. And everybody cheered this fella's a hero. But I didn't feel . . .no, I didn't see it that way. I didn't see it because I don’t know, I kind of understood General Davis' role.
[On not imparting too many hopes about racial equality in his black soldiers]
Morehouse: Did you try to also impart to them that if they did well in this then it would help other people at home? Or help the race? Or you're just saying do it so you're not just getting killed?
Stephenson: That's about the limit of it. I didn't look beyond that point. I thought beyond that point myself. But I didn't try to impart that. Yeah, when you go back home so and so is going to happen. Because I know when this man went back to Alabama he was going in the back door. And there's no need for me telling him that he isn't. Because he ain't going back to meet George Wallace.
[On his decision to stay in the Army after World War II]
Stephenson: And so anyway, Montell and I were on the boat [to the United States] together. And I was thinking, 'What do I want to do when I get home?' And I said, 'Now a lot of people are going home now. And I think the job market is going to be real, real tight.' And I said, […] Well, how do I feel about the Army?' Well, actually I liked it. I liked the Army. And, because I didn't have any bad experiences in the Army as far as Almond is concerned. I had the same platoon [in Italy] up to a point. And I, a lot of the bad things that did happen around me I kind of put blinders on and shut that out.
And I made it through it. And the only thing I wanted to do was train and have a good platoon. Which I did do. And I also cultivated a lot of good friendships. So I thought about all of that on the boat. Then when I had to make a decision in Fort Meade over here I just told the man that I thought I, well, he told me, he said, 'You've got good records here. You ought to stay in.' […] So I went on and made it for 20 years. I did make it.
I thought so [this was my best opportunity]
Morehouse: As a career choice.
Stephenson: That's right.
[On integrating the Army]
Stephenson: Well, I had just come from Aleutians when [Truman] signed the order in 1948. And then it didn't affect me at all when he signed it and right after that. Because they were dragging their feet. They didn't want to integrate the Army. The Congress didn't want to do it and the military, they didn't want to do it. So I didn't feel anything. And then when I felt it I was really in Korea.
See, Korea was the thing that triggered this whole integration thing off anyway. Because the foot dragging had to stop. Because the man power was needed in Korea. It was needed badly. And they had a lot of black troops over there and they weren't being used. MacArthur didn't want to do it but a man named Ridgeway came over.
So now this Company had about 120 whites in it. And they had about 20 blacks and six Koreans. That was the makeup of that Company. And most of the people there were high school graduates. At that time. Most of them, I wouldn't say all of them. Which was a big difference between that World War II soldier. So training them would be a little easier and a little different. We had to do a lot of repetition in World War II. A lot of repetition. But a little less of that in the Korean War.
My First Sergeant was from Mississippi. He was white. And my platoon Sergeant, one of them, that I got to know real well, his name's Smith, he was from Louisiana. And he was a white fella.
Morehouse: So you're a Captain over them?
Stephenson: Yeah. And then, but you know, race was never a factor. It was never, never a factor in that particular Company. It never was.
Any time manpower is needed things changed.
[On black soldiers in World War II and General Almond]
Stephenson: Another thing during World War II, a lot of blacks went into the service Units because number one their AGCT Scores were extremely low. And then number two, there was an attitude that blacks have always been accustomed to service jobs. We don't have that many professionals so they're accustomed to that. So it's easy to transfer them into the military and to a Quartermaster or what have you. And then another thing, this was not a war like World War I. This was a global war. And service troops were needed throughout the whole world. They were needed to build the Leedo Road. Alcan Highway. And then Red Ball Express.
So there were so many service troops needed it was just natural that blacks would be found in these particular places. But there were people who said they should be fighting too. And then they created the 93rd, then the 92nd. And for awhile I honestly didn't think we'd ever see combat. Because we were training over and over and over again. And I said, 'I think we're just going through the motions here.' But it turned out . . .
But I think [General] Almond, I think he had a lot to do with us getting us into combat though, because I knew Almond wanted to go. Because he was gung ho. And, now why they didn't take Almond and give him another Division, I don't know. There might be some politics.
Jehu Hunter: I'll tell you why. Because he was not worth a damn.
Stephenson: Well, that's probably it.
[Excerpts from Interview with Joe Stephenson conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Washington, DC 1998]