Memories of the Segregated World

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 the Boblo Island amusement park in the Detroit River, and a month or so after graduating from high school I took one of my first dates to dinner at the new Hotel Pontchartrain on the rejuvenated riverfront.

I knew that Detroit had a large African American community, but I rarely encountered it directly. The music of Motown filled our rooms and imaginations, and my baseball and football cards proudly included black athletes like Tiger slugger Willie Horton and Lions defensive backs Dick “Night Train” Lane and Lem Barney. But in most ways the wealthy suburbs were an entirely different universe. I didn’t know anything about the black neighborhoods in Detroit or about their histories, and I never realized that our visits to the city might be carefully planned to avoid those places. Perhaps they weren’t, but looking back it’s clear that the urban and suburban landscapes that I encountered as a boy were deeply etched by the implacable forces of discrimination and segregation.

The African Americans we did know came to us. In 1955, when I was 8, my family moved to a new house on Pilgrim Road in Birmingham. It was a quiet, buttoned-up, white neighborhood, with quiet streets lined by giant Elms. The house was small by today’s standards, but relatively large for its time. It included a narrow back stairway leading from the kitchen to a small two-room apartment on the second floor, which served as the maid’s quarters. Unlike at least one other house I came to know well in that time, ours did not have a buzzer under the dining room table used to summon staff.

My mother found it challenging to manage a household of four rambunctious children, and so sometime shortly after the move she and my father decided to hire a housekeeper to help with the cleaning and childcare. There were at least two false starts, including Luella, an African American woman from Detroit who found us way too unruly. Then Irma Williams arrived, and she stayed.

Irma lived in Detroit and took the bus to Birmingham on the days she worked for us. With stops and traffic, the ride from Detroit must have taken at least an hour each way. Sometimes my mother would meet her in the morning and then return her to the bus stop at the end of the day. On other days, Irma walked to and from the bus stop with other black housekeepers working at nearby homes. When my parents travelled or went out for the evening, Irma would spend the night in the maid’s quarters. This arrangement endured for 10 years or so, until we were old enough to watch out for ourselves and my mother needed less help.

Our affection for Irma was deep and genuine, and I believe it was reciprocal, though I can now imagine the ambivalence in her feelings for us. We called her “Do”. In my mother’s telling, the nickname came from my youngest brother, who was about five when Irma started coming to the house. He heard my mother instructing Irma to do things all day and concluded that “Do” was her name. It stuck.

My mother was a committed Roosevelt Democrat. Much to the chagrin of my father, she was relatively progressive on most of the important social issues of the day, including integration and race relations. As vacation began in the summer of 1963, she announced that she would be taking all of us to the Freedom March in Detroit on June 23, the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit riots. Martin Luther King Jr. would lead the march and speak. When the day came, I threw a teenage fit and refused to go. I was stung by my mother’s pained and scolding look of disappointment, but the lure of spending a long summer afternoon with friends was just too compelling.

I reminded her that I’d already heard King speak at Dartmouth College the previous year, as if that fulfilled my duty to the cause of civil rights. I was by then a student at a private boarding school in New Hampshire, and when the King lecture was announced at Dartmouth our headmaster decided that the entire student body would attend.

King’s speech was extraordinary. The part that was especially moving and that remained fresh in my mind was his concluding call to nonviolence and love. “And so throw us in jail, he said, “we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit morally, culturally, or otherwise for integration and we will still love you. Be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”[1]

The audience of mostly young white men responded to the soaring rhetoric with boisterous cheers and extended applause. Coming, as we did, from a white Episcopal school, my classmates and I were struck by the profoundly Christian aspect of King’s vision. We were also comforted by his message of forgiveness. Here was the leader of the civil rights movement assuring us that we had nothing to fear from African Americans, and that the movement he was leading would never resort to violence. Love would triumph over rage.

I don’t recall my father talking about civil rights or other progressive issues. He was archly conservative, though, supporting Barry Goldwater in the election of 1964. I remember his sharp criticisms of President Kennedy. Still, he took a strong personal interest in Irma’s son-in-law, Skip. I never learned the nature of Skip’s challenges, though it’s little surprise that he should have many, as a young black man growing up in Detroit in the early 1960’s. I only knew that my father was trying to help him in his working life and perhaps in his personal life as well. When Irma came to the house and stayed with us in the days immediately following my father’s death, I remember that Skip, and Irma’s daughter, Lolly, came with her.

The bond between Skip and my father, and what I’d heard from Dr. King, came back to me shortly after I returned to Fort Knox in 1967. One of my duties as a young training officer was to oversee the company’s mess hall. It was run by Sergeant Spicer, an African American from Detroit. As we worked together, we moved from a strictly professional relationship to something more personal. He confided in me that he had serious family problems caused by long-standing financial hardships. I wanted to help, and I told him so. He responded with interest and appreciation, but we soon learned that there wasn’t much that I could do. Looking back, I am embarrassed by the patronizing naivete of my offer. I knew nothing about the obstacles that he confronted, never mind the means of overcoming them.

Race relations in the Army were complex. On the one hand, the Army was more deeply integrated than almost any other institution in the country, and certainly more integrated than any institution I had known. On the other hand, racism and racial inequality were abundantly evident. My basic training platoon was 50 percent African American, but there were no African Americans in my class at Officer Candidate School at Ft. Sill. The non-commissioned officers I encountered included many African Americans, some of them quite senior. But African American commissioned officers were unusual in my time in the Army, and I rarely encountered black field grade officers.

On the night Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis, I was in the final weeks of training at the School for Special Warfare at Fort Bragg, North Carolina before going to Vietnam. The news of King’s death prompted a heated, late night conversation involving me and a group of other young, white, Vietnam-bound junior officers about racial discrimination in the Army.

It seemed obvious to me by then that there was discrimination, and I was startled that most of my peers disagreed. Our conversation would have been deepened by awareness of the painful irony in plain view: Fort Bragg was named after the Confederate General Braxton Bragg. By all accounts, Bragg was a terrible general and unpopular, as well. But he was from North Carolina. And he was white.

I enlisted in June of 1966 at the military processing station in downtown Detroit. The draft was in full force, so most of the young men arriving that day had been drafted. Because it was Detroit, most of the draftees were African Americans. It was a long, hot, and anxious day, followed by a lonely overnight train ride to Louisville, Kentucky.

In the morning, we were loaded onto buses and delivered to our basic training units at Fort Knox. At least half of my platoon was African American, including my bunkmate. When he asked me my name, I replied ‘Bro’, the nickname my father had given me as an infant in honor of a close friend killed during WWII. My bunkmate responded: “Bro? You ain’t no Bro of mine.” We got along well enough, as I recall, but we were not friends.

One Saturday evening a few weeks before my enlistment in 1966, I climbed into a friend’s van and drove with him and two other friends to downtown Detroit. Someone had shared information about the prostitution scene in the African American neighborhood along 12th street, and after a few beers we decided to see for ourselves. When we arrived mid-evening, the street was full of people — walking, laughing, drinking, hanging out. There were small groups of unaccompanied women standing at the curbs. We approached one and our spokesman explained that we were hoping to have oral sex in the van. The women laughed, got in the van, and picked their partners. As a complete novice in sexual matters, I was beside myself with anxiety and embarrassment, and I sat rigidly in the back seat as my partner fumbled with my zipper. She sensed my unease, said something quietly reassuring, and tried to coax me on, without success. My friends, meanwhile, were either paralyzed like me or quickly finished with their business. The entire encounter was over in about 15 minutes. Money changed hands and we drove back to our suburban enclave.

Even now, more than fifty years later, this incident is still etched painfully in my memory, and I recall it with no small amount of shame and sorrow.

The Detroit uprising that led to my being on the runway at Godman Airfield at Fort Knox began on 12th Street in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 23 when police raided a private drinking club, a so-called “blind pig,” where a large group of black men and women were celebrating the return of several veterans from the war in Vietnam. Within hours, the police were engaged in a street fight with hundreds of angry residents. More police were called in, and more residents showed up from across the city. The police were quickly overwhelmed and looting and arson began.

On Monday morning, Governor George Romney declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard. The Guard units were ineffective, and by the next morning, many blocks of downtown Detroit were on fire. Late in the day, Lyndon Johnson invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807 and ordered the Airborne brigades into the city, and order was finally restored. The final accounting of the destruction read like a major battle report from the war I would soon experience: 43 dead, 1,200 wounded, and more than 2,500 buildings destroyed. Numerous observers and historians of the uprising have argued that the presence of the National Guard and federal troops led to greater violence and destruction than might otherwise have been the case.

Back at Fort Knox, the soldiers waiting on the runway at Godman Field were sent back to their units shortly after the Airborne units were fully deployed in Detroit. I was enormously relieved, of course, but I was also aware that something fundamental had shifted in the way I perceived Detroit and my childhood in one of its suburbs.

Shortly after I returned from Vietnam, my family left the Detroit area for good, and I never returned except for brief visits. But I followed the city’s rapid decline in the years after the uprising. The automobile industry — the colossus that built modern Detroit and the suburb I grew up in — departed for places in the American south and beyond. White families fled to the suburbs. Over the next two decades, Detroit’s population declined by one-half. Vast stretches of the city were abandoned and razed, including many neighborhoods along 12th Street.

Since the killing of Eric Garner by police in New York in 2014, at least one dozen unarmed African American men and women have died at the hands of police in high profile cases in cities across the country. These cases provoked widespread civil unrest and protests, building in scope and intensity as the record grows. The brutal killing of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis in May, followed closely by the death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta and the maiming of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, pushed protests to new and unprecedented levels, and they continue still.

Each one of these events has felt like a sudden, searing revelation in the unfolding and steadily deepening drama of our national reckoning with the history and consequences of racism and its deeply embedded forms and effects. The narrative arc of this drama is in part institutional. In the deaths of Georgy Floyd and Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice we see exposed, over and over again, the deep inequities in the criminal justice system and, indeed, in all the important institutions of American society — schools, housing, the workplace. But for me, the drama has also been personal — the painful peeling back of layers of memory, and the gradual illumination of the many ways in which my own story has been intertwined with the country’s long and tortured history of racism and segregation.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Toward Freedom,” Dartmouth College, May 23, 1962. http://www.dartmouth.edu/mlk/towards_freedom_mlk.pdf

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