Memories of the Segregated World

Bro Adams
12 min readSep 4, 2020

William D. Adams

ON JULY 25, 1967 I WAS ORDERED TO REPORT to the Godman Army Airfield at Fort Knox, Kentucky. When I arrived, I learned that President Lyndon Johnson had authorized the use of federal troops to suppress the civil unrest in Detroit that had erupted a few days before. Two brigades from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were being deployed, and troops from Fort Knox were being readied in case additional forces were needed.

I was a nineteen-year old 2nd Lieutenant recently graduated from Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Only a year before, I had attended basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Knox. Now I was back and serving as a training officer in a basic training unit not far from the one I’d known as a bewildered enlistee 12 months before. Many of the young soldiers in my basic training units were African Americans from Detroit.

I waited for hours on the runway with nothing but my fatigues, a pack stuffed with gear, and an M-14 rifle. The waiting went on through the night and the following day. I am certain there was conversation, but all I remember now is the heat and the dread.

The prospect of being deployed to suppress an urban uprising was plenty disturbing, but my confusion and fear were compounded by the fact that I had grown up in Birmingham, Michigan, a white, upper middle-class suburb of Detroit only 15 miles or so from the city’s downtown.

My father worked in Detroit and he occasionally took me to work. I still remember the sensation of the mystery of his office and its densely urban surroundings. He also took me to Briggs Stadium to see the Lions and the Tigers play football and baseball, and to Olympia Stadium to see the Red Wings play hockey. Our elementary school classes visited Greenfield Village, the Henry Ford Museum, and the Detroit Art Institute. I have an especially vivid memory of visiting the Ford Motor Company rolling plant at the gigantic River Rouge complex, at the time one of the largest industrial complexes in the world. I must have been around 10. On one of the walkways high above the factory floor, my father lifted me in his arms so that I might see the white-hot ingots being stretched and pressed into sheet metal by the groaning machines many feet below. During the summers we visited…

Bro Adams

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.