Thursday, May 12, 2005


When I was growing up in San Francisco, I was a racist. We just about all were. We hated blacks even though we didn’t know any. What we hated was the caricature of the black that we accepted as real. I’m talking about the late 30’s to the late 40’s.

In our school, Portola Junior High School, there was one black, Wilber Graves. But I never thought of him as black. He was just one of the guys. In his senior year he was elected school president so I guess a lot of people thought like me.

When I joined the Air Force in early ‘48, that service was fully segregated. In basic training there were all black units and all white units. In tech school there were no blacks. I doubt if many schools were open to them.

After tech school, being then a surveyor by trade, I was assigned to an Air Installation Group. Air installations were the same as base engineers in the army and a ‘group’ was the same as a battalion.

Air installations was one of the few places where blacks could be assigned. Every group had three squadrons (companies). Two would be all black and one all white. This was the same throughout the Air force.

In 1950, President Truman ordered segregation ended in the services. In some places there was much resistance to this. In my outfit, one black was transferred to the white squadron.

When the Korean war started, my enlistment was extended a year and I was sent overseas, ending up on Guam.

On Guam, I became the token integration. I wound up being the only white in an all-black barrack. Quite a shock for a racist.

Being a black outfit, we got the worst facilities on the base. The barracks were single story wooden, open from end to end, that dated from WWII. The toilet was disgusting, an 8-hole outhouse where everything dropped into a hole in the ground. It was too much for this city boy. I’d walk a half mile to use other facilities. Every outfit had better stuff than us.

I spent 14 months in that black outfit on Guam. It would be silly to say that my best friends were black because my only friends were black. We went to movies, the PX, service clubs, into town, everywhere. Only with blacks.

Of course there was friction. But everyone was on their best behavior and there was much less friction than I experienced in an all-white outfit.

A couple of months after I got my 4th stripe, they moved me into senior NCO quarters. But that didn’t change my socializing at all. It just gave me a more private place to sleep and a better latrine. I still hung with my friends.

I wasn’t a racist anymore.

Footnote: I ran into a friend from the old neighborhood after I’d been on Guam 8 months. We walked to my barrack together. I didn’t think anything of it and forgot how it might look to him. He took one look inside and turned around and walked away without a word. When I saw him back home a year later, he shunned me as if I were diseased.

UPDATE: I got an email from an old friend on this subject. This is some of what Alvin Duskin said:
It's interesting that the only name you mention from old times is Wilbur Graves. He was older than us as you know and lived a few blocks up Silliman Street from me. He was the only black I knew and I greatly admired him but I barely knew him. Anyway, one afternoon I was playing tennis at Portola Playground, right across from my house ... when Wilbur walked by. He stopped for a while and then came over to talk. He said he'd like to learn to play tennis. I said I'd teach him and so we met once or twice a week for a few months. We got to know each other.The punch line is that about almost a decade later I was half way through boot camp in the Marine Corps when I heard that Wilbur had been killed in Korea. A platoon leader in the army, a captain I heard.


Blogger Das said...

Great story, Walter. Write your memoirs.

May 26, 2005 at 11:10 AM  

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