Sunday, December 27, 2009

When Austin was still a Jim Crow city, my father showed me the way.

This essay about a father's quest to get an education and the lessons he passed on to his daughter was very moving. The writer reminded me of how far we have come. She also reminded me of the generation that changed the world -- THE GREATEST BLACK GENERAITON -- When Austin was still a Jim Crow city, my father showed me the way.

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Black World War II veterans offer lessons for today’s black youths

In the late 80s noted journalist and author, the late Carl Rowan wrote in an editorial that he did not understand how the black youths of that time could complain about being oppressed. Rowan noted that black youths of the 80s had not had to endure what their black ancestors had endured and that each generation stood on the shoulders of people who had endured and persevered during unimaginable persecution.

When I read that column it reminded me of how fortunate I was and that I had incredibly strong ancestors to thank for my opportunities. Rowan complained the same message is still true. Today there are black or African American (whichever you prefer) youths who are not living up to the legacy their ancestors left for them. When I am asked why I believe it is important to write about a period in our nation’s history that happened so long ago I have defer to Rowan’s article. Rowan reminded that if my ancestors endured slavery, Jim Crow laws perhaps my difficulties are not so bad. Rowan was part of the greatest black generation and served in the navy during World War II. He was one of the first black men to receive commissions as naval officer.

For black men, such as my uncle who was drafted in 1944, military life was no better than civilian life – they were still laborers, domestics or servants. Some men such accepted their lot, others refused to be servants even in the military. Yet some invisible warriors beat the odds.
For example, Virginia native Samuel L. Gravely, Jr decided not to wait for a draft notice to arrive. Soon after the war began he dropped out of school and enlisted in the navy. His cousin was already a steward in the navy but he didn't want to be a cook. Gravely also said he knew he did not want to join the army. "My father had spent three years in the army and he did not like it. Most people told me that in the navy they slept in clean beds at sea. In the army, they slept in mud holes or tents. I just felt the navy would give me a better life,"

The opportunity to do something other than cook came in 1942 when the navy began enlisting black men in general job specialties. Gravely took advantage of the new policy and signed up as a fireman apprentice. He would train to work in the engineering, boiler room or fire room and assist with ship-to-ship transfer at sea of fuel and supplies. Navy tradition dictates that every new recruit spends six months cooking in the galley but, Gravely avoided this detail by volunteering to clean his unit's living quarters. Cleaning detail led to managing the bowling alley. Soon there would be more opportunities for the young sailor as well as challenges.

Subsequently Gravely would earn the right to a commission as a naval reserve officer and eventually become the first black admiral in the navy. I was fortunate to serve in his command and in May 2009 the navy commissioned the guided missile destroyer USS Gravely to honor the late admiral.
Gravely was not the only invisible warrior who refused to be a steward – Performing the work of domestics, serving as cooks and doing menial jobs such as cleaning up in the galley, the wardroom and living quarters of officers. Robert Sharpe, who was a teenager living in Jamaica with his mother and grandparents on December 7, 1941 never thought the events, "on the other ocean" would affect him. However, Sharpe's American father lived in Eastern North Carolina where Sharpe soon traveled in order to finish high school. Once in the United States the young Jamaican-American had to register for the draft. Sharpe received his letter with the familiar salutations two months before he was due to graduate from Pattilo High School in Tarboro, North Carolina. "I was drafted into the navy, but they agreed to let me graduate before I had to take the train to Bainbridge, Maryland for training," Sharpe said.

From the moment, Sharpe arrived in Maryland for basic training he began challenging what he describes as the "racist status quo." In boot camp, he gave his company commander a bloody nose, but fortunately, nothing happened to him.
Also in boot camp, he learned he was expected to become a steward. He did not want to be a steward as he saw no logical reason to wait on commissioned officers. However, Sharpe's superiors ignored his protest and Sharpe soon found himself onboard a navy ship waiting on officers. "I didn't come into the military to be a servant. They wanted me to make their beds and I said 'I won't do that.' So they put me on report and I spent thirty days in the brig on bread and water. Then they sent me back to the brig for thirty more days. Next they decided to let me work in the galley (the kitchen of ship). In the galley I watched a steward's mate from Alabama come running into the galley to get an officer some butter, I was so disgusted with him I stuck my foot out and he went flying across the deck (floor) and back to the brig I went. Finally they decided I would be better suited for the deck force (scraping paint and painting the side of the ship)."

Sharpe later became one of the first black men to receive formal training to become a hospital corpsman and today in his 80’s he is a college professor at my alma mater, North Carolina Central University. Thus, the lesson for today’s black youths is that invisible warriors made the odds much better for today’s generation to succeed.

Copyright © 2009 by Sharon Dense Powell ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


It is hard to imagine not being able to be at home with family and love ones during the holidays but this is the plight of service members. For the last eight years thousands of military men and women have been in harm’s way on Christmas Day – Fortunately service members have an uncanny ability to look after each other especially during the holidays.

This Christmas they are onboard ships ready to respond where they are needed. Others are standing watch, patrolling, providing escorts or in combat. Their Christmas Day meal may be a MRE (Meals Ready to Eat), or turkey and trimmings prepared in a tent galley or onboard a ship. The meal may not compare to a home cooked meal, but it will do. In the end each sailor, soldier, airman, marine and Coast Guardsman will rally together and offer support to their comrades. Some will pray that next year they will be home with their families -- others will pray for peace and safety. And when the meal is over they will go back to doing what they were trained to do – The men and women of the greatest military in the world will continue to defend and protect their country.

Merry Christmas to the men and women of the armed forces and God speed.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


In the chaotic days after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor hundreds of patriotic American men rushed to recruiting stations – ready to defend their country. Others waited undecided about how they should respond.

On December 7, 1941 in Indianapolis future army medic and West Virginia native, Frank James was at work in the autopsy room of Indianapolis City Hospital. "I was listening to my radio and it was interrupted. There was a special announcement that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. This left me quite disturbed but at the time I didn't even know where Pearl Harbor was," he writes in his 2007 memoir titled Capers of a Medic.

James knew his life was about to change. He writes that he had experienced discrimination but still felt a fierce love for his country. "It stirred my patriotic blood and I knew from the very moment I heard the news that I simply couldn't sit at home and know our country was being attacked by an enemy."

That night James went home and told his wife, Ada he was going to join the army on Monday morning. "Ada was upset because I was going to volunteer, so I told her maybe I would not be accepted. Maybe I would be classified as a 4Fer, (anyone classified as disabled or unfit to serve in the military) but I simply must go down tomorrow and volunteer and wait and see what the result will be." James writes that he did not get much sleep that night.

In a historically black university (HBCU), Johnson C. Smith University, in Charlotte, North Carolina, a pre-theological student and future marine, Thomas McPhatter, was just another college freshman with a reputation as a radical. He would barely escape expulsion for his role in a campus protest after a coed was mistakenly accused of "un-lady-like behavior," remembers McPhatter. December 7, 1941 would change his life – he would soon become a Montford Point Marine – the first black men allowed to become marines.

In San Diego, California, James (Pete) Ludlow who as a young boy often stood outside the fence at Naval Air Station North Island watching ace navy pilots, all Caucasian, wheeling in formation in Curtis SA-3 Seaplanes, or Scout Seaplanes and dreamed of flying. When the war started he would rush to the nearest Navy Recruiting Station to enlist only to learn blacks could not become navy pilots.

In Richmond, Virginia, news of the attack would mean another college student at Virginia Union University, freshman Samuel L. Gravely Jr. the son of an army veteran would soon trade his newly earned Greek letters as an Alpha Phi Alpha for Navy seaman strips.
# # #


The response to the attack was immediate, on Monday morning; men began lining up outside store front offices with signs in the windows that read, "Uncle Sam wants you!" What the signs did not say was "except if you are black," as many young black men quickly learned.

Young and some old men throughout the country began flocking to recruiting stations. Black men were often turned away. In an Indianapolis Army Recruiting Station, one young man who was ready to fight was Charles T. Kelly but when he spoke with an army recruiter, he was disappointed to learn the only jobs available for him were digging ditches or building bridges. "I didn't want to dig ditches," he said. He decided to try his luck with the navy.

Frank James was met with the same disappointing words when he went to enlist even though he worked as a hospital orderly. In spite of the mistreatment by recruiters, he would enlist and struggle to get the opportunity to become an army medic.

In Raleigh North Carolina John Hope Franklin, a young college professor was ready to leave his teaching position at St Augustine's College in order to serve. In an interview for a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary he said, "I went down to the recruiting office, the navy to volunteer. I volunteered in response to the call they made specifically for men to operate the offices. The recruiter for the navy said, 'What can you do?' I said, “Well, I can, run an office. I can type. I can take shorthand if that’s needed.” I said, “And, oh, yes, I have a Ph.D. in history from Harvard. I wondered what he was going to say. He said, 'You have everything, but your color.' And, I said, “Well, I thought there was an emergency, but obviously there is not, so I bid you a good day. And I vowed that day that they would not get me, because they did not deserve me. If I was able – physically, mentally, every other kind of way, able and willing to serve my country – and my country turned me down on the basis of color, then my country did not deserve me. And I vowed then that they would not get me," historian and author, John Hope Franklin, ><.

Those who were accepted soon learned life in the military was no different from life on the outside – with few exceptions they would become stewards, cooks, domestics, or stevedores, not pilots or infantrymen or office clerks.
Copyright © 2009 by Sharon Dense Powell ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Monday, December 7, 2009


"Ladies and Gentlemen, we interrupt our regularly scheduled broadcast with
breaking news that Japan has launched a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and has declared war on Britain and the United States. Details of the attack in Hawaii are scarce but initial reports say Japanese bombers and torpedo-carrying planes targeted warships, aircraft and military installations in Pearl Harbor, on Oahu, the third largest and chief island of Hawaii."
National Broadcasting Company

As dive-bombers descended on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941, across the United States, Americans went about their normal Sunday routine. It was cloudy and chilly in San Diego, California. Further east, in Chicago it was also "a chilly, gray afternoon that threatened snow," writes Perry R. Duis, W.O.R.L.D W.A.R II, December 7, 1941 Chicagoans and World War II, Historical Research and Narrative Soon news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was relayed around the world by telephone, telegraph and teletype.

Radio listeners were enjoying music, dramas, public affairs programs, and football. But at 2:22 p.m., a one-line bulletin flashed over the Associated Press wire. “Within minutes, all four networks began relaying news of the attack. Radio covered the story in depth -- perhaps the most chilling moment was when the voice of an announcer at NBC's Honolulu affiliate, proclaims, ‘This is no joke!’” Old Time Radio Moments of the Century, By Elizabeth McLeod,

"Special editions of the newspapers hit the streets, vendors shouting as loudly as they could. At Wrigley Field, where the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals were playing, hundreds of fans wandered out to buy papers before half-time; soon the game was of very minor interest," writes Duis. Newsboys in Oklahoma City stood on sidewalks yelling "Extra, Extra" as they peddled their five-cent special edition hot off the presses – the headline, read "JAPANESE ATTACK HAWAII AND MANILA FROM THE AIR." And in New York City, nearly 55,051 cheering fans who were packed into the Polo Grounds watching the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Giants heard news of the attack.

On the Caribbean Island of Jamaica future sailor, Jamaican-American Robert Sharpe, who was only sixteen, could not imagine how the events of that day would affect his young life. "I was sitting on the veranda of our shack in May Pen, an area in Clarendon Parish, listening to my mother's parents talk about the British and how they took the island from the Spaniards, and how the local people were treated by the British. I had never heard of Pearl Harbor. Everybody became excited and was saying how they knew the Americans would respond and wipe out the Japanese." Soon Sharpe would join his American father in Tarboro, North Carolina, a small town 60 miles east of Raleigh, the capital. His draft notice would arrive within days of his graduation from W. A. Patillo High School in Tarboro.

Meanwhile, in Raleigh, Georgia, native Durrell Russer, a young soldier on a weekend pass, was spending time with his pregnant wife. Outside their window in the street they heard people yelling, "Attack; the Japs (sic) just bombed Pearl Harbor!"

"People came out in the street and started yelling,” Russer remembers. Like Sharpe Russer did not know where Pearl Harbor was. The young soldier and his wife huddled around their radio where they heard, "All soldiers on furlough are ordered to return to camp." Raleigh was still a small town in 1941 and the bus station was in walking distance to the couple's small rooming house. Russer's wife, Hester, said a prayer then the young couple walked slowly to the bus station unsure of each other's safety -- after all, the nation was under attack.

Dressed in his smart, starched and pressed olive drab "Class A" dress uniform, and wearing spit shined shoes Russer boarded a bus for the 50-mile ride back to Fort Bragg Army base in Fayetteville, North Carolina. On the bus, he would have to walk past empty seats in the front of the bus. As he made his way to the back of the bus more than likely he brushed passed a tobacco farmer or cotton farmer, perhaps a minister, or church deacon, all white and all of whom probably avoided his eye contact. On that bus that Sunday evening there were probably other soldiers wearing the same uniform, the only difference was the color or their skin. It is unlikely that any of the white soldiers would have offered this young black soldier a seat, as he was not allowed to sit in the front of the bus in spite of his uniform. He was an American GI ready to defend the white Americans he brushed by on his way to the back of the bus – the "colored section." Perhaps on this Sunday someone in the "White's Only Section" might have felt a twinge of regret at seeing a soldier who was about to risk his life for them relegated to the back of the bus.

That night as Russer traveled back to camp all across America, families began to experience that sinking feeling that comes with fear of the unknown. Mothers and fathers across the nation began to realize their sons were about to go into harm's way and might never return. The next day back on base, Russer gathered with other soldiers around radios and anxiously waited to hear encouraging words from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. What Russer and the other soldiers heard from Roosevelt was that the United States had been “suddenly and deliberately attacked."

Four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Congress declared war on the Axis powers Japan, Italy and Germany – the country was at war.
Copyright © 2009 by Sharon Dense Powell ALL RIGHTS RESERVED