MS. REBECCA SHEIR
From the future, we move back in time now, to the year 1940. As the nation geared up for war, not everyone who wanted to fight was allowed in. African Americans made up 10 percent of the population at the time, but comprised just 1 percent of the military, and that included only a dozen black officers. Joseph Hairston was part of a generation that would change that. As Jacob Fenston tells us, the long-time Washingtonian would see combat in two wars and become the Army's first black helicopter pilot.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
Growing up, Joseph Hairston never really experienced segregation. He grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania.
MR. JOSEPH HAIRSTON
We were too poor to go places, so I couldn't be excluded from restaurants or hotels, I never went.
But after graduating from high school, he and a white friend went to the local Army recruiter. The recruiter signed up the friend immediately, but told Hairston there was no room.
The military was completely segregated. There was a quota of blacks worldwide, and he couldn't find a vacancy. He gave me a list of 30-odd black organizations. I wrote to every one of them. They wrote back and said, "Sorry, no vacancies." The last unit I wrote to, they wrote back and said, "Sorry, no vacancies, but we think there's a vacancy at the medical detachment." The only unit not on my list. The medical detachment wrote back and said, "We have one vacancy. You can come up for an interview."
Now, the key part of that story is that if you tell me I can't do it, then that forces me to try. That's how I got in the Army.
What was racism like in World War II? How did you experience that?
Well, the top general staff were uniform in their position that blacks were not good soldiers, that they wouldn't fight, and you couldn't be depended on. In 1942 I was stationed near Little Rock, Ark. The commanding officer called the white and the black officers together on a Sunday. And after his first ranting and raving, he dismissed the white officers and the black officers remained. His statement was, "You people constitute 10 percent of the population of this nation. I'm going to see that you exercise 10 percent of the casualties." In other words, he's going to make sure we die.
How did African Americans in the armed forces in those years, when it was segregated, react to this sort of racism that you were describing?
It varied. To begin with, the military tried not to concentrate too many blacks in any one place. We were put together for the first time at Fort Huachuca, which is on the border in Arizona. At one time we had about 30 black officers in the guard house for being -- my words -- uppity. In other words, they didn't react properly -- well, what was expected of blacks to whites.
So the guard house was like a jail?
That's a jail.
During World War II, Hairston was commissioned as an officer, and fought in Italy. He went on to serve 20 years in the Army. Then later, he got a law degree from Georgetown University, and became a senior executive at the IRS. While the military officially desegregated in 1948, many aspects of civilian life were still years behind. In 1963 Hairston was part of the security detail for Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington.
During that march I was on top of the Lincoln Memorial. If the camera had panned up, you would have seen me at the top.
That same year he was looking to buy a house in a white neighborhood in Northwest D.C. He had a friend who was in the real estate business call up the listing agent.
He didn't have a black accent, so the agent thought he was talking to a white person. And the agent told him, among other things, "But, she's not going to sell to any (censored by network). Now this is a challenge.
To put an offer on the house, he sent the white secretary from his friend's real estate office, so the owner didn't know he was the one trying to buy it.
And the owner of the house says, "I'm not going to sell to this (censored by network). The agent tells her, "If you don't sell it, you can never sell it because there's a cloud on the title." So she has to sign. That's how I'm in this house.
Over the years, he and the former owner got to know each other, and they eventually became friends. Hairston is now 91 years old. And one lesson those years have taught him, don't try to get even.
Getting even, to me, is ancient. That's not a civilized way to think. You bring yourself down in getting even with the person.
And he says there's always a better way, whether you're buying a house, launching a career or fighting for racial equality. I'm Jacob Fenston.
To see photos of Joseph Hairston and other members of the 92nd Infantry who served during World War II visit our website, metroconnection.org.
Time for a break, but when we get back, a brand new kind of diet, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with food.
MS. LAUREN TALLEY
You can just, like, run to any department store and, like, pick up an outfit, but to make something, like you really have to want to make it.
That and more in just a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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