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

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