Oral Histories

by Ché Patterson

James Patterson

Born 1919, in Columbia, Tennessee. Father of six children, now retired and living in Pontiac, Michigan. A religious man, at peace with himself and enjoying old age.

Where were you when you heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

I was on Green Street, in Columbia, Tennessee. It was on a Sunday.

What did you think about it?

Well, it didn't matter to me because I was young. It was Sunday afternoon, and my friend called me and said 'You know, they bombed Pearl Harbor', and I said what are you talking about, Pearl Harbor? I didn't know nothing about Pearl Harbor.

You were drafted?


How did you feel?

I felt...(pauses)...pretty bad. Kinda worried me, 'cause we wasn't used to no war or nothing like that. We hated to leave home, and especially going further South, 'cause things were so dangerous down there.

When were you drafted?

1942. By the Army. Back then when you got inducted and had to go to training camp, the whole town would turn out. You'd get on the bus, and people would be crying and carrying on, because they thought they wasn't gonna see you no more. Everybody would come to town. They'd have a little band and everyone would march around the courthouse.

They took me to Fort Benning in Georgia. I rode the train, then I got on the bus to go to the camp. We had to sit in the back of the bus going down there. No matter how many empty seats there were, we sat in the back. We were all Black on the bus, drinking whiskey, you know? And when we got off of the bus, the Army bus came and we was singing and going on, and the sergeant said "Alright, you niggers, we in Georgia now. You shut your Black mouths up." (Laughs)

So he took all the whiskey away from us and started treating us like Black people.

Then we had to be examined by ourselves. We didn't have no place to stay, so they made little tents for us to sleep in. We'd sleep on a blanket, no heat or nothing. We had to walk about half a mile to get food. Lots of times we had to wait until the White soldiers ate first, then we'd come in and get our food. And we were segregated downtown. We couldn't go in a restaurant or nothing downtown.

Did most of the people you know join, or were they drafted?

We were all drafted. We knew what the trouble was in the army and we didn't volunteer or want to go because we knew it was segregated. Especially going down there in Georgia where they hung us all the time. We didn't like that at all. We didn't want to fight 'cause we was treated too bad.

I didn't want to go. I think I left my wife eighteen dollars and thirty cents. We wasn't making no money then. She was writing me every day, love letters, you know. That's all we had to look at. I think we were getting about eighteen dollars a month. I sent that home. A lot of White soldiers had their wives down there, but we couldn't do that because all of the black soldiers were living bad (poor). We didn't have anywhere to put our wives, and we didn't want them that far South anyway.

I went through basic training. It wasn't hard. They didn't train us too good. We weren't used to fight. We were only used to serve, like in the kitchen, or hauling stuff, you know? They didn't train us that good. A lot of Whites we saw, we didn't get the training they had. They had maybe one Negro sergeant in that whole place, and maybe one Black lieutenant.

So you weren't trained with the White soldiers?

Noooo, Lord! Trained separately. Everything was separate.

How many people did you know that fought?

I don't know; a lot of them, I guess. One of my classmates, Douglas Harmon got killed over there. Carnell Eddings left, and I never did see him again. It was a small neighborhood, you know, and several fellows left and I never saw them again.

They might have just stayed wherever they were because it was a better place. The war helped us out in a way because we got to see different states and things. A lot of guys

just never came back because they knew what went on in the deep South. They'd come up around Chicago or Ohio, you know? Anyplace was better than the South back then.

How long did you stay in the Army?

I stayed in there about four months. I had bad sinuses and they couldn't stop it. So I got a 1-F. Which was good, 'cause I needed to go back home and take care of my family anyway.

What did you do after you were released?

I came back home to Columbia, and got my job back. That's one good thing they did, was give us our jobs back when we returned. I was working at the hotel then. I was a bellhop, carrying baggage and stuff like that.

You didn't get a war production job?

When I came up here to Michigan in 1943, I worked at the Baldwin Rubber Plant. We made innertubes and stuff. We made tank treads for a couple years. All the plants were making things for the war effort, you know? Planes, and jeeps, and guns, and bullets, or whatever else they were making. Everything was concerned with the war back then.

Was the pay good?

It was pretty good. Dollar and nine an hour, I think. We got time and a half, double time on Sundays. Long hours, though, and you had to work. We worked almost every Sunday. Back then, if you tried to quit, they could make you go to the Army if you wouldn't go back to work. But I remember thinking I had some big money back in those days.

Were there a lot of Blacks in the factory, or mostly Whites?

It was about even. But there were no Black mechanics, which was where the money was. The Whites had all those jobs, and the Blacks were all on the assembly lines.

Was there a lot of racism in the factory?

Oh, yes, yes. Racism was everywhere. We had to fight a long time before we could get any Black foremen. Or even group leaders. That was a no-no, a Black foreman. In fact, I don't remember seeing any while I was working there, but they finally got some after I left. I remember Whites

walking around in the factory, you know, trying to tell me what to do when they was doing the same job as me. I didn't even pay them no mind. And, of course, they'd call you nigger and boy and all that. But that didn't really bother me all that much 'cause I was used to it. It wasn't bad compared to the South.

During the war, we couldn't even get a cab home from work. We had to wait until all the White people got rides. Raining, snowing, whatever. We had to wait until that cab was completely empty. One time, I was on my way home when the cabbie saw this White man waiting on the corner. You know he stopped and made me get out, and expected me to pay for how far he had driven me? I just walked away, ignored him, you know.

Were there many women working in the plant?

Yes, quite a few. I remember they'd come in there with their sleeves rolled up, you know. They worked just as hard as the men did. The war was good to them, in a way, because a lot of them that didn't have jobs got jobs, got some good money. But it was bad for them, too, because their kids were over their in the war fighting, you know. I remember seeing quite a few Black women working in the factory, too. I remember it was hard for a Black woman to find a good job back in those days. See, back then, all the Black women used to work in the suburbs, in White folk's yards, or houses, or something. Those factory jobs were a whole new thing for them.

It's often said that the racism in this country was better during the war, because the country had to concentrate on fighting abroad and not on discrimination at home. Do you agree?

Well, we always had that race deal. Things got better after the war, but not during it. No way. That's why so many people migrated North. That's why I came here. No jobs, no money. You'd go to work at seven o'clock in the morning and work until seven or eight o'clock that night. We had to work in hotels and restaurants, delivering meat and things like that. Bakery, sawmill, any job that he (the White man) didn't like, we took it, and were glad to get it.

See, maybe things got a little better in the cities, like Nashville and stuff. But them little small towns, where most Blacks lived? They were still rough, maybe even worse, you know, because nobody really had that much, and during the war everybody had less.

But the war changed things. After we came back, we didn't take no mess. We got more....we got stronger. We were braver, Willing to die, anything. We didn't care. A lot of Blacks you never even heard anything about died down in Georgia and other places when they came back, cause they didn't take any mess. They'd get hung and things, you know. But they came back from the war and didn't want to go back to the same old stuff, you know?

The Whites didn't really want things to get better, but there were jobs up in the North, where you could get jobs. So we came North after the war because we were tired of that life. We felt that since we served in the war, we deserved better than that, fighting for our country, you know?

What was the rationing like?

Oh, it was pretty tough. You only got so much. There was black market, you know. (Laughs) You could take your little ticket to them, and get a little more if you knew the right people. Rationing didn't hit us as hard as Whites, though, 'cause Whites were used to eating that good food. We couldn't buy ham, or pork chops, except once a week on Sundays. We ate beans, collard greens, salt pork, you know. We ate a lot of chickens. We raised them, you know. We knew how to survive, you know. We were always in a depression.

I bought some war bonds, too. I believe they were eighteen dollars and fifty cents, and they went up to twenty-six dollars later. I bought a couple, kept them about three years. Made about six dollars on each one, something like that.

Did you ever watch movies back then?

Yes, of course. I used to watch Amos and Andy, Stepin Fetchit when I was young. We'd break the show down to go see Stepin Fetchit. When we went to the show, we had to sit up in the Jim Crow, way upstairs in the balcony. They had a big rail there so you couldn't even look at the Whites downstairs. They used to call it the crow's nest, you know. We couldn't go in through the front and look at the previews and posters and everything. We had to walk through an alley and go through a side door. And then were times they just didn't let us in, period. But when Joe Louis was fighting, they had to let us in, or we would've broken the door down anyway.

So did you go see any movies with Whites in them?

That's all we saw! (Laughs)

Did you ever watch war movies?

We saw war movies, you know. Once in a while, you'd even see somebody Black in there. But they had them in the kitchen, or waiting on tables, things like that. Which actually wasn't that bad, for us, because a lot of Blacks who got drafted wanted to be cooks. You could send food back home to your family like that, and when the war was over, you could find a job as a cook and make some good money. I heard they made a movie or two for us, you know, but I never saw one. You might see them show a Black being a hero or something, jumping on a bomb or something like that.

We used to watch a lot of newsreels, you know? That's where I saw how they were treating the Japanese people here, calling them spies and everything.

The newsreels were how we kept up with what was going on, you know. They showed the Japanese in the jungle and things, hiding everywhere, you know. Climbing trees, throwing spears and poison darts and stuff. I don't know whether that was made up or not.

I'm sure it was fake.

Well, we didn't know any better, you know? They called them newsreels. They got them out of New York, and that was the only news we got, besides the paper. So we thought it was news, you know, not lies.

So you couldn't tell what was real and what was made up?

Well, we figured if it wasn't real, it was something that had happened anyway, you know?

How did they portray the Japanese in the movies?

They made them look pretty bad in the shows and the newsreels. They showed them killing Americans in the camps and everything, treating us bad. But when we captured them, we didn't do them like that. We treated them alright, you know.

They showed them with big teeth and squinty eyes and stuff, for comedy. You know, exaggerated, like they used to show Black people. They made them look like monsters, beasts, you know. They made fun of them the same way they made fun of us. They had a hard way to go, just like us.

Their airplanes weren't any good, I know that. They made them out of the wrong material.

What sort of things did you hear about the Japanese during the war?

Well, we never really got too much news from the Black man in the Army. Because there weren't too many of us fighting, the racism was too bad. They had us over there to cook and clean, not to fight.

I remember people calling them different names, this and that. I can't really recall what they used to call them...

Japs, nips, yellow...

...yes, yes, I remember those.

But they (the Japanese) had it hard just like us. You've seen that on television, when all those Japanese lost all their houses and businesses and everything? That was a bad thing. But I guess I didn't feel too bad about it, 'cause they were the enemy, you know? They could've been spies or whatever.

See, the Japanese, and the Germans too, they couldn't see us (Blacks) fighting against them, with the White man. They knew about slavery and all that, and segregation, and how we were getting killed all the time. They just couldn't understand why we would fight against them. Here I am going over there fighting and whatever, and I can't even come home and get a nice home or anything.

I remember when I was young, about ten years before the war, we would take all of our iron and scrap metal and take it to the scrapyard. They would buy it from us. Anything we could find: copper, tin, steel, iron, anything. We found out later that the Japanese bought a lot of that metal to build planes and weapons in that war. They bought that metal and shot it right back at us.

What were you told about the atomic bomb?

Well, I saw it on a newsreel, the effects of it, and everything. I know a lot of people got killed, and a lot more died later from the radiation.

We were glad when they dropped the bomb, 'cause that was the end of the war. I was glad it was over with.

It seems that, at least among Whites, there was a feeling of duty, that we had to go over there and eliminate the Japanese. Would you say there was the same feeling among Blacks?

Nooooo. (Laughs) No, 'cause we were treated so bad ourselves. We were citizens, but we weren't first-class citizens. We hated them, 'cause we had children and friends over there dying, but we didn't hate them as much as the Whites did. They were our enemy.

Whites thought differently. Every White man wanted to go to war. This was their country. I'd talk to White men, and they'd tell me how they wanted to over there and kill some Japs, or some Nazis, you know, cut their throats and everything. See, they had a reason to fight. They had all the jobs, all the factories, all the stores; we had nothing.

They went 'cause they wanted to. We went 'cause we had to.

Wanda Taggart

Born 1925, in Columbia Tennessee. Now retired and living in Pontiac, Michigan. Opinionated, strong-willed, and always honest.

Where did you work during the war?

Chrysler Motors hired me in 1942. They sent me to school to learn to rivet. We used to do work on military planes. I remember later on, we started working on the wings of B-29 bombers. I remember because they taught me how to read the blueprints. I was laid off soon after the end of the war.

Before the war, I had been working as an elevator girl in Crowley Miller's department store. That was considered a pretty good job for Blacks back then. I remember the light-skinned girls would work in the front of the store, and the dark-skinned girls would work in the back.

I had it nice at the plant. Of course, it was very prejudiced, but I was very fortunate. I had it very easy. Sometimes we worked long hours, or on Saturdays and Sundays. I can't remember how much we got paid, but it was very good back then. We weren't forced to work, but we considered ourselves fortunate to be working. Going from working the elevator to reading blueprints was a pretty big step for me.

Mostly women worked in the plant, because the men were off in the service. A lot of men worked in the plant, too. 1-F's. A lot of Black women, too.

They asked me to come back in 1946, but I was going to beauty school then. Cosmetology school. Working at the plant didn't agree with my health, because I was anemic.

Where were you living? And what was it like?

On Brush and Hancock, in Detroit.

Of course, the racism was really bad. They tried to make it seem like it wasn't that way during the war, but you could tell when they didn't want you there.

I remember there was a race riot, in 194.I don't exactly remember the date. Some disagreement between Whites and Blacks. It spread through my area. People were being pulled off of streetcars and beaten. It was horrible. Any Black man who came into a White neighborhood had it bad. And the same thing for a White man. I remember sitting on the porch, watching cars go by with light-skinned people driving by. They would have these white flags hanging out of their windows saying 'I'm Black', so they wouldn't be attacked.

How did the people you knew feel about going to war?

Well, nobody wanted to go fight because of the segregation, you know? We were over there trying to save people, and they couldn't even treat us right. That's a hell of a feeling.

I remember my father telling me that the Army didn't want the Black soldiers fooling around with the White women over in Germany. Didn't want them to have anything to do with White women. So they told a lot of White women over there that the Black men had tails, like monkeys.

Do you remember a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment during the war?

Oh, I guess so. We really didn't think of it like that, though. All we knew was that our boys were over there fighting, you know. They didn't have a choice, but they had to go. It wasn't pleasant for Blacks, because we didn't have anything to fight for. We didn't really care if they were White, Japanese, German, or whatever. It didn't matter. It was just a job.

Do you remember hearing about Pearl Harbor?

Yes, in 1941. I don't really remember anybody really caring that much, you know. We were down South, poor, you know. I don't recall hearing very much about that.

But, see, the war didn't surprise us, because we knew America was gonna get in there sooner or later. Whites have always considered themselves superior to all the other colored races, you know. We knew they'd get into it sooner or later, because the Japanese were getting too strong over there. We knew America would butt in sooner or later, Pearl Harbor or not.