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Story ID:10214
Written by:Frederick William Wickert (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Musings, Essays and Such
Location:Orlando Florida USA
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By Fred Wickert

I had returned from five years on overseas duty and was assigned to Orlando Air Force Base, Florida. I had grown up in Gilboa, New York where there was only one black person in the town. He was a farm hand employed by a local farmer and was known only as “Heavy.” He was a very big man but among the best in farm hands.

After high school I spent part of a year at Cornell University. There were some black students there. One was from Africa and I knew him because he was a member of the same church group that I was. Cornell was located at Ithaca, New York.

When I went in the Air Force there were a lot of black men and I became friends with some of them. Before I got married I had black roommates in Japan. We had from four to six men per room there.

I knew nothing of any difference between the way blacks and whites lived or were treated in the South. I was not prepared for it. I had to learn and find out by myself because no one took the trouble to explain it to me.

Before going overseas I was stationed at Bolling Field for a few months. Bolling was located in Washington, D.C. directly across the Patomac River from Washington National Airport. When I had a three day break I took a train to Baltimore and visited cousins there. I did notice a few things that puzzled and appalled me at the same time. I remember going to see some of the national monuments in the area. At one of them was a public rest room building. It was a small cinder block building covered with vines. On one side it was marked MEN and on the other side, WOMEN. There was another sign saying WHITE ONLY. Outside that building was a drinking fountain covered with slimy green algae. Above it was a sign saying, NO COLORED.

I was surprised and confused. I could not understand how this could be. I looked around for another building and water fountain for the Colored. There was none that I could see. Where were they supposed to go I wondered? I did not understand why. I had also noticed in front of Trailer Parks and apartment housing areas, signs that read, NO DOGS, GI’s OR NIGGERS ALLOWED. That angered me and I spoke to a number of people about it. They just shrugged their shoulders and told me that was the way it was. This was in 1953.

I arrived in Orlando, Florida in May of 1959. In 1960 three things happened that I have never forgotten. The first was that our Flight, the organizational equivalent to the Army or Marine Squad was planning to have a big overnight party at Cocoa Beach. We were taking garbage cans with ice and beer and soda. We were taking some brisket and Bar-B-Q grills and buns and charcoal, ketchup and mustard. We were taking swim trunks and fishing equipment. We even took shovels for digging a fire pit in the sand on the beach. Most, but not all of the men were coming. A black man named Stevens said he was not coming. He had no other pressing business. He just wasn’t coming. I urged him to come and enjoy the fun. He said, “Oh yeah. I want to come and hang around.” He put a lot of emphasis on the word HANG. Then he told me that was a white only beach and implied he could be lynched if he dared show his face on that beach. I was shocked. I asked a couple of the guys who were native Floridians and they acknowledged that it was true. That was very likely if he were to show up there.

I tried to persuade the men not to have the party there because Stevens could not come but they were set on going to Cocoa Beach. In the end we ran in to some problems with the locals just because for some reason they resented military people. I don’t know if nearby Cape Canaveral had anything to do with that or not. They just were not very friendly towards us.

One morning I had to have some work done on my car and I had to drop it off in Winter Park and pick it up at the end of the day. After dropping off my car I got on a bus headed for the base. I was in my uniform. I saw another man from my squadron in uniform also. He too was headed to work on the base. I worked my way over to him as there was standing room only. We were standing a little to the rear of the middle of the bus. Soon he and I were the only ones still standing. Then some people who had been sitting in the front half got up and got off the bus. I suggested to him that we sit down in those empty seats. He told me to go ahead but he could not. “Why not?”, I asked. He advised me that because he was black, he was not allowed to ride in the front half of the bus.

I was dumbfounded. I got a little angry and I raised my voice so all on the bus could hear me. I told him in that case I was going to stand in the rear of the bus too. I said if he wasn’t good enough to ride in the front of the bus then neither was I as we both wore the same uniform. A United States Military Uniform. Then I added that it was a rotten damned shame that a man was good enough to fight for the Country but he wasn’t good enough to ride in the front of the bus in that country.

All conversation between passengers on that bus ceased. No one said a word to anybody. As I looked up and down the sides where the passengers were seated, not one of them met my gaze. Every one of them found something fascinating on the floor to occupy their attention. I knew that every one of them knew I was right. When the bus arrived at the gate and we got off, before we separated and he went to Pass & ID where he worked and I to the Air Police Office, he said to me, “That’s the way it is. What can you do?”

The third thing that happened I will never forget involved a neighbor, Paul who lived across the street. One afternoon he and I went fishing together. On the way home from fishing, we pulled in the graveled parking lot of a soft ice cream stand. We ordered banana splits and root beer. As we sat in our car eating our ice cream a school bus pulled in to the stand and stopped.

It looked like the kids on the bus were a baseball team and they were returning from playing an away game. Every one of the kids on the bus was black. The driver and two men I believed to be Coaches, were white. The driver remained seated. Only the two white men got off the bus. All of the boys stayed on the bus.

As I watched, the two white men made several trips from the door of the bus to the window of the ice cream stand. They got a few cones each and took them to the bus. They were passed around inside the bus. They then returned to the window for more cones. Each cone was wrapped in a paper napkin. When all the kids on the bus had their cones, the two men got a cone for the driver and one for each of them. They stood at the door of the bus, talking with the driver as they consumed their cones. When they finished their cones, the two men collected all the paper napkins, put them in trash cans and then boarded the bus. The bus then drove off to continue their journey.

While all of that was going on, I said to Paul, who was a Floridian all of his life, that I thought it kind of stupid to keep all those kids on the bus and carry their cones to them. I thought it should have been much easier to let the kids go to the window and get their own cones. Paul advised me they could not do that. He said blacks could not be served there. The only way those kids could get ice cream was if those white men got it for them, and the kids never set foot off that bus. I told Paul that I thought that was really stupid. He sighed and said, “I know what you mean, and I feel the same way, but what can you do?” I said, “Well, at least this way the whites are serving the blacks for a change instead of the other way around.” Paul laughed.

A few short years later, I had been transferred for duty with Presidential Security at Andrews Air Force base, Maryland. There the segregation was a little different. There the rest rooms were not designated white or colored. They were designated Officers or Enlisted. President Kennedy was killed and Lyndon Johnson became President. Robert Kennedy had begun his work to desegregate the South and at the same time Dr. Martin Luther King was doing his peaceful marches and making moving speeches that touched the conscience of a nation.

In the Congress, civil rights legislation was fought against tooth and nail but in the end a Republican majority passed it and President Johnson signed it in to law. Senate Democrat Robert Byrd, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan saw the hand writing on the wall. He quickly became a convert and put as much distance between himself and the KKK as he could.

I watched over the years as times changed. We began electing black Congressman and Senators and city mayors and judges. We got a black man on the Supreme Court. Over the years the people became used to the idea and gradually things were coming along very well I thought. Under a Republican President we got a black Chairman of the joint Chiefs. Later he was to become Secretary of State. We had a black woman as National Security advisor. When the Secretary of State resigned, she became Secretary of State and did a superb job.

Then we got our first Black President. The nation celebrated. Never again could black equality in the United States be questioned. Unfortunately the new President appointed a black Attorney General. Between the President and the AG, suddenly everything anybody disagreed with in the administration, the disagreeing party was labeled a RACIST. Soon all sorts of things were being branded racism when they were not. The word Racist became a club and a weapon used by the President and the AG.

All kinds of innocent things were being branded as racist. The President seemed determined to divide the country in every way he could and creating racism where there was none became a large part of his policy. A short time ago I heard he had made a speech in which he boasted that since he took office, that he had greatly improved race relations in this country. Sadly, most of us believe he has done just the opposite. I for one believe he and the AG have turned back racial harmony in this country for decades to come. It breaks my heart to see it. I remember well how it used to be. I don’t want to go back there, and I hope we won’t. I hope we can save it in spite of Obama and Holder.

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