Memphis 1948

Posted on 10/19/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

Cold War Story Nr. 3; Excerpted From Cold War Stories

Photo is in the public domain

Author’s Foreword

I attended aviation electronics classes at the Naval Air Technical Training Center near Memphis in 1948. At the time, the United States military services were becoming fully integrated, while the South, including Memphis, remained fully segregated as defined by Jim Crow laws. This resulted in conflicting practices in how people of different races interacted depending if they were located inside the Naval Technical Training Center or outside it.

I had grown up in rural South Dakota and never had contact with non-white people of any kind before entering the navy. I remember seeing only one black person in the town near our farm before I left in my late teens. The separation of races—separate drinking fountains, separate restrooms, separate eating facilities—bothered me, but I had no experience with living in a society where racial differences existed. I didn’t feel qualified to comment on the practice of Jim Crow laws, but I did feel uncomfortable with the practice of segregation. On its face, it seemed immoral and conflicted with many of the basic principles on which our country had been founded, like all men are created equal. My memories of that 1948 experience are the basis for this story.

This story has been published and is protected by copyright.

Memphis 1948

Isaiah and his wife Sarah, sharecroppers who lived in the Mississippi Delta, farmed twenty-four acres of cotton on land owned by Ed Sharpton. They had one son, Tyler.

Isaiah was a descendent of three generations of the Williams family who had lived in the Mississippi Delta as slaves, field hands, landowners, and, finally, sharecroppers. Isaiah’s father, whose parents had been enslaved, worked as a field hand and accumulated enough money and good enough credit to buy eighty acres of rich Delta land. Isaiah inherited the eighty acres with an outstanding mortgage in 1915, a time when Negroes were facing increasing political pressure and finding it difficult to obtain credit. At one time in the late 1800s, Negroes owned two-thirds of the Delta. By the 1920s they had lost most of it. In 1920, Isaiah lost his farm and became a sharecropper.

During this time, Ed Sharpton was buying up land lost by bankrupt Negroes, using credit unavailable to them. Ed claimed his great-grandfather had been a general in the Confederate Army, a common claim in the South at the time. With all those generals, one would think the South would have won the war. If Ed’s great-grandfather had been a general, Ed hadn’t inherited characteristics one associated with a general. He was short of stature and skinny, with poor posture. His face had a hawk-like appearance: narrow lips, beaked nose, small eyes.

Ed Sharpton had been working deals since he was in grade school. Most of his deals had gone nowhere but buying up distressed farmland seemed to be paying off. In order to utilize the land, he had accumulated, he broke it into small plots for sharecroppers to farm. Ed furnished the land, a mule, plows, other tools to work the land, seed and fertilizer, and a shack without electricity or running water for the sharecropper’s family to live in. For this he received half of whatever the sharecropper produced on the land. Ed wouldn’t let the sharecroppers use any of the land for a garden. All the land had to go into cotton. In addition, all the sharecroppers’ shacks were bunched together, with no room for yards or gardens. The shacks were part of a hamlet that included mule barns, sheds filled with plows and other field tools, and a warehouse for fertilizers and seeds. Also, in the hamlet was a store owned by Ed Sharpton where sharecroppers bought necessities.

Each year the crop yield depended on many variables, such as the amount of rainfall, if boll weevils were a problem, if plant diseases affected the crop, or if Ed provided enough fertilizer. When the crop was harvested at the end of the year, Ed Sharpton would buy the Williams family’s share of the crop at a price determined by Ed. What the family received at that time was their only source of income until the next harvest.

If the money ran out before the next harvest, the family had only one place to get credit to buy necessities—the store Ed Sharpton ran. As a result, most or all the Williams family’s share of a year’s crop might be needed to pay for the necessities they had bought on credit during the previous year.

In the spring of 1940, Isaiah was in his fifties. He was all bone and muscle, but slightly stooped over. He had turned prematurely gray and lost most of his teeth, and his face was wrinkled from spending many years working the fields in the heat of summer. Sarah was only a few years younger than Isaiah but didn’t display the signs of aging in the way Isaiah did. Her face was smooth and her hair a mass of black ringlets. Not that Sarah didn’t work hard. During the summer and fall, she hoed and picked cotton beside Isaiah, as well as cooking for the family and washing their clothes by hand in a wash tub. Sarah was just one of those people who didn’t seem to age. Tyler appeared to be a typical eleven-year-old boy, a string bean who couldn’t get enough to eat. However, to someone who knew him well, he wasn’t a typical eleven-year-old boy. He had the bright shining eyes of youth but often looked beyond where there was anything to see, and his mind also seemed focused on that far-off place.

As an eleven-year-old, Tyler worked in the fields. Tyler’s father, Isaiah, had gone to school for four years and had a rudimentary ability to read and do figures. Sarah had never attended school. Despite this meager experience with education, the pair made certain that Tyler went to the one-room, one-teacher school for Negroes where grades one through six were taught. Other sharecroppers often sent their children to the school when they didn’t have anything better for them to do. Tyler’s parents sent him because they wanted him to learn. It worked out well, because Tyler liked school and wanted to learn.

Sarah wanted her boy to go to school, as most mothers did. Isaiah had a more personal reason for wanting Tyler to go to school. Isaiah believed he had lost his farm in part because he had an inadequate education. He signed contracts he couldn’t read and knew nothing about the laws that allowed his farm to be taken away from him. He didn’t want that to happen to his son.

The school was a shack similar to those the sharecroppers lived in. Miss Brown, a black woman, was the teacher. She was big and had an attitude. Her wardrobe was limited, but she managed to dress neatly in a clean dress every day. Miss Brown had been teaching single-room, multiple-class schools for fifteen years before taking over the sharecropper school. She maintained order and discipline by doing whatever the situation required, and students who didn’t understand this soon became educated. For this she had the use of one of the sharecropper shacks and was paid ten dollars in cash each month and given twenty dollars’ worth of credit to buy supplies and food from Ed’s store.

Despite her rough exterior, Miss Brown loved every child she ever taught, and Tyler was no exception. However, Tyler was exceptional, the best student she had ever had. That became apparent soon after he started first grade. He wanted to know everything about everything and had the capacity to absorb all the knowledge Miss Brown could provide. Miss Brown’s concern was that what she could provide was limited by her abilities and the school’s resources. The school used twenty-year-old workbooks designed for children learning to read and do basic arithmetic. They were not books filled with the knowledge that Tyler needed. Miss Brown had been around long enough to know that talking to the county superintendent would be like talking to the sky: a waste of time. As an alternative, Miss Brown decided to talk to Ed Sharpton.

Ed Sharpton spent a lot of his time in the store, and Miss Brown approached him there one day about the school’s needs.

“Mr. Ed,” Miss Brown said, “I know you’re interested in educatin’ sharecropper children. Always said you were. I’d like to thank you for that. Now, I have this problem that you kin help on. I need more books. Some of da high grades need books ′bout history, geography, grammar, things like that.”

Ed laughed. “Niggers don’t need anythin’ but learnin’ how to read a little an’ some ′rithmetic. You don’t wanna put fancy ideas in their heads.” With those words Ed left the store to tend to something.

Miss Sally Bates, the white woman who tended the store six days a week, spoke up after Ed left. Miss Bates and Miss Brown had become casual friends. Miss Brown came into the store often to pick up groceries and other items, and if things were slow at the store, as they often were, they enjoyed visiting for a while.

“Miss Brown,” Miss Bates said, “Maybe I can help you. I use the library in Clarksdale, and I can borrow up to three books at a time for three weeks. I don’t have that much time to read, so I could help you with two books every three weeks.”

“Miss Bates,” Miss Brown replied, “that’d be so kind and so helpful.”

The two women huddled and decided what kind of books to borrow. This unlikely partnership continued for the last three years that Tyler attended the sharecropper school. Older students who were interested had their education enhanced by the borrowed books too.

In the spring of 1940, Tyler was eleven and finishing the sixth grade when Isaiah decided they should leave the Delta. Isaiah’s brother Howard had moved to Chicago the year before and gotten work in a factory making auto parts. Howard wrote, “There is plenty work for them wants to work and the pay is good.”

The Williams family had been living in the Delta for generations; Isaiah and Sarah knew nothing else. When they’d owned the farm, it had been a satisfying life. Sharecropping was a setback with no future, and the oppression of the Negro race in Mississippi continued to increase. The information from Howard, if half true, meant an improvement over their present situation. Isaiah didn’t have a hard time convincing Sarah that they should break their bonds with the Delta and leave the unsatisfying known in hopes of finding a better life in the unknown.

Late one night that spring, they packed everything they would take with them into a relative’s car. It took them to Clarksdale, where they caught the train to Chicago, leaving behind the life they knew and their unpaid debt at Ed Sharpton’s store.

They moved in with Howard’s family while Isaiah looked for work and the family became acquainted with Chicago. In the evening over dinner, Howard would fill them in on things he had learned about the neighborhood. “They’s good, they’s bad, but better than the Delta for sure. They’s still segregation—not Jim Crow, but still segregation,” he said. “Ya can’t live just anyplace, only places where Negroes live. Da schools where Negroes live, dey not much better than da Negro Delta schools. Po’ teachers, po’ everythin.’”

Isaiah was disappointed to hear most Chicago schools in Negro neighborhoods were no better than in the Delta. They were not officially segregated, but in practice they were. Isaiah didn’t know all the reasons why, but Howard said they were, and he believed his brother.

Isaiah decided to find out what he could expect from Chicago schools. Isaiah knew Tyler was a smart boy. Miss Brown had told him Tyler was the smartest student she’d ever had, and Isaiah wanted to get Tyler in a school where he could make use of those smarts and learn as much as he could. Isaiah started talking to people who knew things about education.

He talked to the preacher at Howard’s church. The preacher didn’t have a high opinion of schools in the community where his flock lived. “They’s bad schools and they’s worse ones. Da children spend the day there but don’t see them learnin’ anything.”

He visited a neighborhood school. It was summer, so the principal had time to talk. The principal, a white man, didn’t talk up his school, didn’t talk up the Chicago school district. He talked about problems. It didn’t seem like the principal was talking to Isaiah. Isaiah happened to be an object the principal could use to unload his frustrations. He talked about the huge influx of Negroes from where Isaiah was from and other places in the South. They had to live somewhere. When the Negroes moved into a neighborhood, the white folks moved out, often to the suburbs. The Negroes didn’t have the wealth the whites moving out had. The Negroes moving in had many educational needs while the district’s finances were deteriorating.

Isaiah wasn’t understanding everything the principle was saying but he understood that the Chicago school district had big problems and wouldn’t be a good place for a Negro, especially Tyler, to go to school.

A friend visiting Howard planted an idea in Isaiah’s mind. The friend lived in Joliet, a community on the southwest edge of Chicago. The friend told Isaiah that there was a Negro community in the middle of Joliet, compact and segregated just like the neighborhoods in Chicago, which were the only places Negroes could rent or buy a house. The elementary school in the Negro community had mostly Negro students and struggled with staffing and lack of support. However, there were only two middle schools and one high school in the district, and they were integrated because there was no other option.

Joliet wasn’t far from where Howard lived, so Isaiah took a bus to visit the city and check out job opportunities. Good-paying jobs weren’t plentiful, but there was work. The result was that the Williamses moved into the Negro community in Joliet, where Isaiah found work as a janitor. Tyler entered middle school the next fall.

Tyler spent the next six years in Joliet schools and graduated from high school with almost perfect grades despite some teacher’s reluctance to give him the grades he deserved. However, the school would not allow Tyler to be named valedictorian. That would stretch tolerance beyond reasonable limits.

Tyler’s graduation from high school had been the goal for Tyler’s parents. The goal had been met. Now what? Neither Isaiah, Sarah, nor Tyler had given that much thought. Despite being at the top of his class, opportunities for a Negro were limited. Few jobs were open to Negroes that provided more than the lowest level of pay for unskilled work. Negroes were the cleanup people in service businesses; in manufacturing they worked assembly lines and did work other people didn’t want to do. In the construction business Negroes provided unskilled labor.

College for Tyler was really beyond Isaiah and Sarah’s level of comprehension. Tyler had a broader understanding of the education hierarchy, but he also understood that neither he nor his family had the means to consider college an option. He thought about what his real options were. The most likely would be a manufacturing job. It didn’t take long for him to find work in Joliet on an assembly line. He continued to live at home and contributed to family expenses.

Tyler did not aspire to working on an assembly line for the rest of his life. Tyler had been worrying about his options for almost two years when a fellow assembly line worker named Clayton informed him that he would be leaving soon to go into the navy. Tyler was surprised by Clayton’s announcement. “Going into the navy?” Tyler questioned. “The navy don’t take Negroes.”

“Well, they’s taking me,” Clayton replied. “Not a steward polishin’ officers’ shoes, but a real sailor. Something ′bout an executive order Truman usin’ says the navy has ta take any citizen meets the requirements. Skin color’s not one of ′em. Be going up ta Great Lakes boot camp nex’ week.”

Tyler didn’t question Clayton’s veracity, but, curious by nature, he decided to check out for himself what was going on with discrimination in the navy. After a few hours at the library, Tyler had found the source of the change. In 1947, President Truman had interpreted Executive Order 8802, signed by President Roosevelt in 1941, as the basis to begin ending discrimination in the armed forces. Then that year, in 1948, Truman issued his own executive order 9981 to make it clear that there would be no more discrimination in the armed forces of the United States. Apparently, this executive order was working for Clayton.

That the navy was accepting Negroes as recruits opened up a possibility that Tyler hadn’t considered. He hadn’t seen much of the world other than the Mississippi Delta and Joliet, Illinois. His future so far seemed limited to low-level jobs, no matter what field he worked in.

He talked to his parents. Isaiah and Sarah had long ago decided that they could give Tyler support and love, but he was more capable than they were in just about any subject they could think of. “You decide for yourself,” Isaiah said. “You know more about it than most folks do.”

Tyler had never considered joining the armed services an option. He had heard that, with few exceptions, Negroes in World War II were used in all-Negro units and mostly in noncombatant roles. The thought of a segregated, separate but equal type of military organization turned him off. The idea of Negroes serving in the military confined to their own toilet facilities, own mess halls, separate barracks, and maybe colored-only fox holes seemed ridiculous to him. If, as Clayton said, Negroes were being accepted to serve in an integrated navy, that could be a be a different story.

Tyler stopped in the navy recruitment office in Joliet. A lone man in a uniform sat at a desk drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. A half-eaten donut sat on a napkin beside the coffee cup. The man didn’t project the image in recruiting posters. He slouched over the desk, was a little flabby, and his uniform could have used a good pressing. The man glanced up and then resumed reading the newspaper. Tyler stood waiting to be recognized. After a few minutes he realized that he was being ignored.

“Sir,” Tyler said, “I would like to ask a few questions.”

“About what?” the man asked.

“Well, I heard that Negroes could enlist in the regular navy now.”

“What do you mean, regular navy?” the man in the recruiting office asked. “Negroes have always been able to enlist as stewards. You want to be a steward?”

Tyler was becoming irritated. He knew he was getting the runaround. This man didn’t want him in his office and didn’t want Tyler to be in the navy. Tyler reacted in kind. He wasn’t going to be intimidated. “No,” Tyler said. “I don’t want to be a steward. I want to be in the regular navy as a deck hand or whatever regular sailors do.”

“What makes you think you can enlist in the regular navy?”

Tyler, struggling to remain calm, answered, “A friend of mine has enlisted in the regular navy and will be going to the Great Lakes boot camp next week.”

The man in uniform had a scowl on his on his face, but his mind was working on a different problem. He was a recruiting officer whose job was to encourage men to join the US Navy. The goal for the number of men he was to recruit that month was far from filled. As a recruiting officer, he had been informed he could recruit Negroes. He didn’t like to see Negroes serving in the navy, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. What he could do was sign this Negro up. It would increase his number of recruits for the month, no matter what color the man was. He reached into a drawer, pulled out some papers, and asked Tyler if he could read or write.

Tyler didn’t respond to the question.

“In any case,” the recruiting officer said, “you can take these papers home, get some help if need be, and bring them back with a certified birth certificate.”

Tyler asked the recruiting officer if he had something to write with. “I’ll fill out the papers now.” Tyler hadn’t intended to enlist that day, if ever, but he was so ticked off he decided to do it right there in front of the recruiting officer so he could see Tyler reading and writing.

Tyler filled out the forms quickly and handed them to the surprised recruiting officer, who noted how quickly and neatly the forms had been filled out. “Well, very good,” the recruiting officer said. He reminded Tyler to bring in a birth certificate and handed him a card with the date and place he was to go for the physical.

From that point the process moved along quickly. Tyler passed the physical and was told to report to the Chicago City Center recruiting office in two weeks when a group of navy recruits would assemble to be transported to the Great Lakes Navy Training Center boot camp. Two weeks later twelve nervous, anxious young men were herded into a conference room. A navy officer had the men stand up and face him. He said something about swearing in and had the men raise their right hands and repeat after him the enlisted men’s oath. They all did that, and the officer said the men were now United States naval recruits. “Good luck.”

When the recruits arrived at boot camp, they were outfitted with uniforms and assigned to a fifty-man company. In the integrated company, Tyler and five other Negroes were part of the otherwise all-white unit.

The first week’s training proceeded with a heavy emphasis on the importance of discipline, which included close-order drills as an example. The navy chief petty officers responsible for training the recruits used whatever means necessary to shape them up to march in step and react to verbal commands without stumbling over each other. The half-dozen Negroes were not singled out from the rest of the company. From Tyler’s perspective, it appeared that discipline was applied where needed; color wasn’t a factor.

After a long day of drilling, training, and classes, the recruits would return to the barracks to clean up, wash their clothes, get themselves ready for the next day’s activities, and maybe find a little time to relax.

There were several southern white boys in the company who Tyler would label as rednecks in their natural environment. Some of them didn’t hide their disdain for the Negroes in the company. This became apparent soon after the company had formed and moved into the barracks.

Two long tables with benches where recruits could write letters, shine their shoes, or just hang out rested in the middle of the company barracks. A Negro recruit sat down at one of the tables to write a letter. Two southern white boys were shining their shoes at the other table. One of the southern boys remarked that he didn’t know niggers could write. The Negro recruit reacted instantly, picked up the uncapped ink bottle he was using and flung it at the two southern recruits. The ink bottle hit one of them and spilled ink over both rednecks and across the table. The southern recruits jumped up and lunged after the ink thrower, tipping over the table he was sitting at.

“You son of a bitch!” one of the rednecks yelled. “We are going to skin your black ass.”

The ink thrower stood up and was ready to do battle. Tyler and the rest of the company were drawn to the chaos of tipping furniture and yelling. Tyler, instinctively sensing this could not be allowed to continue, grabbed the Negro recruit. Other recruits, following Tyler’s example, grabbed the two rednecks. What could have escalated into a larger race-incited incident cooled down. They tried to clean up the mess, but there was no way all traces of what had happened could be erased.

The following morning, the chief petty officer in charge of the company learned the whole story. The morning’s training schedule was altered. The company stood at attention in front of the barracks while a navy officer lectured them on Presidential Executive Order 9981, which ended segregation in the United States Armed Services. The officer ended with this warning: “It is the law. If you break the law, you will be prosecuted, and if found guilty, punished, and will at a minimum be given a dishonorable discharge. When the commander in chief, the president, issues an order, you better damn well obey it if you want to serve in the United States Navy. We are going to overlook what happened last night, but if it or anything like it happens again in this company, there will be consequences.”

There were other no racially motivated disturbances during the remainder of boot camp.

Boot camp tested the recruits physically and mentally. They were required to meet certain strength, flexibility, and third-class swimmer standards. Anyone falling short of meeting the physical requirements received individual training in order to meet the requirements before leaving boot camp. Tests to determine math, reading, and general knowledge levels were administered. At the end of boot camp, each recruit was interviewed and informed about what options were available to that recruit based on his background, test scores, and related capabilities.

The interviewer, Josh Brisson, watched as Tyler approached his desk. Josh didn’t spend a lot of time with each recruit and sometimes hadn’t looked at the recruit’s file until the interview. Josh was surprised to see Tyler was a Negro. He hadn’t interviewed any Negroes before, although he knew Negroes were now allowed to serve in any capacity in the navy. Josh had grown up in rural Wisconsin and had never known or had contact with Negroes. He went into the navy from the farm; it had been an all-white organization until then. The Negro walking toward him made a good physical impression: trim, good posture, pleasant looking. The deep tan skin enhanced his impression of a handsome young man.

Tyler stood in front of the desk, and Josh gestured for him to sit down. “Excuse me,” Josh said to Tyler. “Give me a minute to look through the file.” What Josh saw in the file was evidence of an obviously sharp recruit. This contradicted what Josh had heard about Negroes; he struggled to get his head around what he now saw. To place recruits in slots where they would best fill the navy’s needs, interviewers had guidelines to follow. It was the interviewer’s responsibility to select candidates, based on their capabilities, to be trained fill those needs. The navy was a technology-oriented fighting force and needed large numbers of skilled personnel to operate and maintain complex facilities, ships, submarines, and aircraft. The evidence in front of Josh indicated this recruit should be guided into one of the demanding skills most needed by the navy.

Josh looked up from the file. “Very impressive. You are qualified to go into any rating you’re interested in. What are you thinking about? What would you like to do in the navy?”

Tyler studied the interviewer. “I get to pick what I want to do?”

“In your case, that is true,” Josh replied. “Are you interested in shipboard duty, aircraft, or submarines? Those are the categories to choose from, and then you decide what you want to do in the category.”

World War II had only recently ended, and Tyler had become fascinated with aircraft and their use during war. The Tuskegee pilots were his heroes. “I’d like to have something to do with aircraft,” Tyler replied.

“There is a full set of navy ratings related to aircraft maintenance and operation,” Josh explained. “The rating I would like you to consider is aviation electronics technician. You will get almost a year of training, and if you do well, you can come out as a third- or second-class petty officer. Some enlisted sailors spend years and never make second-class petty officer.”

Tyler took the recommendation and found himself at the Memphis Tennessee Naval Aviation Training Station attending aviation electronics technician school. He was in a class of twenty, the only Negro in the class. Not surprising, since few Negroes had been accepted into the navy at that point in time.

Tyler encountered bigotry at the Memphis Naval Air Station, the kind that any Negro would consider normal. Otherwise, the Memphis Naval Air Station was fully integrated. Off the base, however, the state of Tennessee and city of Memphis were a different matter. To Tyler, Jim Crow seemed more prevalent in Memphis than it had been in the Delta.

Tyler found the training interesting and not difficult. He graduated, as had become normal for him, at the head of the class. He had the petty officer second-class rating sewed onto his uniforms and decided to celebrate by going into Memphis to spend some time on Beale Street. He’d go alone. Of the few Negroes on the base, Tyler found none who shared common interests. None of his white classmates would want to go with him, and Tyler didn’t fault them for that. Sailors of different races together on a Memphis street could draw a crowd.

Tyler wore his dress blue uniform with the new second-class rating on the sleeve. He caught a navy bus that circulated through the base and then made a run to Memphis. The bus was nearly empty, and Tyler took a seat behind the bus driver. When the bus got to the main gate a marine guard stepped on board and checked the servicemen’s liberty passes. When the marine had finished checking the passes, the driver stood up and said, “All you colored folks now have to move to the back of the bus.” Tyler, the only Negro on the bus, stood and moved to the back of the bus.

After completing his training, Tyler was assigned to a unit at Miramar Navy Air Station near San Diego, testing high-definition radar being developed to detect snorkeling submarines. Navy technicians were working with civilian engineers to get the kinks out of the new radar before it was deployed for fleet use.

Tyler found the work interesting and challenging. The radar guys were more interested in the technology than in skin color, and there wasn’t any obvious bigotry in the group. One of the sharpest technicians he worked with was a first-generation Mexican American. Tyler got to do some flying when testing the equipment, something he liked, and it also made him eligible for flight pay.

Tyler had finished his second year of a three-year enlistment when the Korean War broke out.

The navy was interested in using their new radar for airborne command and control operations, and Korea offered a chance to test its applicability under realistic conditions. As a result, a contingent from the Miramar radar group, including Tyler, was sent to Japan to test the radar’s command and control capabilities while flying over Korea and adjacent waters. During this deployment, Tyler became aware that the GI Bill that had assisted World War II veterans wanting to attend college was being extended to Korean veterans. Now Tyler knew what he would be doing after completing his navy enlistment, an enlistment extended for a year because of the Korean War. He would attend the University of Illinois at Urbana, a school that admitted Negroes, to major in electrical engineering,

Once at the University of Illinois, Tyler changed his major to physics, a change endorsed by his advisor. This was driven by Tyler’s interest in the physical world beyond electricity and its various forms. He graduated with honors from the University of Illinois and went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then became a research scientist at Stanford University.

Tyler’s world had changed dramatically since he left Joliet. He was now a respected PhD conducting research at Stanford. The Civil Rights Act had been enacted in 1964. which Tyler considered long past due, although he had no illusions that that the act would immediately eliminate prejudice or bigotry in America.

All these changes did not cause Tyler to forget or ignore his parents, who still lived in Joliet. He not only respected and loved them but was grateful for what they had done to be sure he became educated to the best degree they could provide. They had started him on the path that carried him to where he was today.

Tyler visited Isaiah and Sarah often. They were now in their early eighties, both still in good health. They were proud to be independent and self-sufficient. Tyler had helped them buy a home they loved in a still-segregated part of Joliet.

Once while visiting Isaiah and Sarah, Tyler suggested taking a car trip together. They’d follow the Mississippi River down to Memphis. “We can take our time, visit sites along the way.”

Isaiah wanted to know why they’d want to go to Memphis. “Remember?” Tyler answered, “I spent time there when I was in the navy, and I wonder if things have changed much.”

Isaiah and Sarah agreed it could be interesting. They spent a day preparing and then began the road trip following the Mississippi River. Their first stop was in Galina, Illinois, a well-preserved historic town near the Mississippi River. They visited several other historical sites, including Hannibal, Missouri, the home of Tom Sawyer, as they leisurely moved south. When they reached Memphis, Tyler suggested they ride a bus. Isaiah didn’t understand why Tyler wanted to ride a city bus. “I ride them all the time in Joliet.”

Isaiah and Sarah relented, and they caught a city bus. They didn’t know where it was going, but Tyler said it didn’t matter. The bus wasn’t crowded. They sat right behind the driver. Tyler smiled to himself, remembering having to move to the back of the bus when it’d left the Naval Air Station in 1948 on the way to Memphis.

Tyler looked for Whites or Negroes Only signs while riding the bus. He didn’t see any.

The bus happened to stop in front of the Peabody Hotel. “Let’s eat in the Peabody,” Tyler said. “It’s about time for lunch.”

Tyler and his parents walked into the hotel toward the large dining room adjacent to the lobby. The Peabody, an historic hotel in downtown Memphis, had experienced its up and downs. In 1948 it had been out of bounds for black folks. Now there didn’t appear to be any black folks dining, but the people waiting on tables were black, as was the pretty young black lady who greeted them when they walked in.

“Table for three?” the pretty lady asked.

“Yes,” Tyler replied, “over by the window.”

“There will be a little wait,” the pretty lady replied. “We need to clear a table.” As they drove back to Joliet, Tyler reminisced. Yes, Memphis had changed drastically over a short period of time. More than Joliet, where discrimination was always under the surface. But he was encouraged that change was possible; he could feel it, see it, in Memphis.

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