Monday, March 7, 2011
Nana Story #4: 1944
There's a little before, and a little after...
Barbara first encountered segregation when she was training in Texas. There were separate water fountains for “whites” and “coloreds,” and the backs of buses were reserved for “coloreds.” This struck her as odd, more than anything, since she had grown up around Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, and Mexican. If there was discrimination against different races and cultures, Barbara didn’t notice it in San Francisco. But once she was in Cheyenne, she witnessed racism more directly.
Fort Warren was organized so that white soldiers and African-American soldiers rarely came into close contact with each other. One side of the base contained the WAC detachment, Officers Row, and the barracks for all the white soldiers. On the other side of the base, separated by a creek, were the black troops—about 10,000, according to Barbara. The black troops regularly faced discrimination. Sammy Davis, Jr. had been drafted into the army at age 18 in 1944, and by the time Barbara was serving as a WAC, he was attached to the headquarters company in Special Services. The people in the Special Services were responsible for entertaining the troops: football, boxing, dances, vaudeville shows, etc. The other men in the group treated Davis very shabbily. Because they were all white, and he was a novelty—because men are cruel—they thought of ways to hurt him. Not physical so much as mental torture. Humiliation. In his autobiography, “Yes I Can,” Davis describes being painted white by his seven bunkmates at Fort Warren, beaten, and forced to dance until his feet couldn’t come off the ground.
Barbara knew of Sammy, but hadn’t met him yet. One day, a WAC asked her to teach her how to tap dance, and they agreed to meet later in the day room. But unbeknownst to Barbara, the WAC had asked Sammy Davis, Jr., to help as well. When he came in, Barbara tried to bow out: “You’re so much better than I am – a real professional!” He asked her to please stay, but she was too embarrassed. “I’m just an amateur,” she said. Every time she was in his company, he treated her very nicely: “A true gentleman.” She also said that he handled all the ribbing they handed out just beautifully.
Around that time, Barbara was asked to represent the WACs for Cheyenne Days, the biggest rodeo celebration in the country. She rode on top of a military vehicle, waving to the crowds as the parade went down Capitol Avenue. When the parade was over, a young man helped her down. He asked if she wanted to get a drink.
“I don’t know, maybe,” she replied, tentatively to this man she’d seen around base. He played baseball and basketball and even helped the amateur Fort Warren football team beat the professionals from Brooklyn. They ended up spending the day together.
Barbara and Ed were married by a Catholic priest on base at the Champaign Chapel, after a year-long courtship. All the members of Barbara’s detachment came with their boyfriends, and the church was packed. Between Barbara’s family in California and Ed’s in Ohio, only Barbara’s sister came. It was a nice wedding.
After Japan was defeated at the end of 1945, Barbara got her separation orders. She and her new husband traveled by train from San Francisco, where he met her family, to Cincinnati. When they came over the bridge into Northside, the neighborhood where Ed’s family lived, Barbara thought about how dingy it looked. She stayed with his parents, sisters, and brother while Ed returned to Wyoming to complete his service. When Ed came back to Cincinnati, four months later, they continued to stay with his parents. He had signed with the Triple-A baseball team in Montreal at age twenty-one before being drafted; after getting out of the army, he wanted to give professional baseball another try. He signed with the Reds. But not wanting to stay with his family by herself, Barbara told him that if he left for spring training, she was going back to San Francisco. Faced with that choice, he quit baseball. When they decided to get an apartment, Barbara told her mother-in-law, “Thanks for letting me stay these four months.” Ed’s mother replied, coldly, “I would have done that for a dog.”