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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bad Day in Belleville, Illinois

From an article about how the hate radio people are seizing on an incident in Belleville, Illinois, because of an incident there on a school bus, in which some Rainbow kids were at first reported as having beaten up a Euro kid on racial grounds, though that charge was later disavowed by the local police, here is an excerpt that especially interested me.

Belleville has had a long history of racial turmoil, with a past that includes police harassment of black motorists, cross burnings and discrimination in city hiring.

The divide began a century ago, in 1903, when a black man was lynched by a mob of 5,000 people in the town square, set on fire and dismembered.

I know a little something about Belleville, Illinois from personal experience.

Early in 1952, after completing basic training in the Air Force, I was sent to Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois, , to be trained as an airborne radio mechanic. A day or two after arriving there, three or four of us who had been in the same flight during basic training in the Finger Lakes region of New York state put on our little blue uniforms, which we hadn't had much occasion to wear so far, as basic involved wearing mainly the baggy olive drab coveralls called "fatigues," and we took a bus into the nearest town to see what was what. That town was Belleville. I was the only Rainbow in the group. The others were that something universally and erroneously called "white." None of us had ever heard the slightest thing about Belleville, and we assumed that because it was so close to a big Air Force base, it had to be all right. But it seems that the widespread American admiration for our military "brave boys" is sometimes only skin deep.

We went into an establishment that seemed to be a combination drugstore and restaurant, took our seats, and waited to be served. That started to take a while. My friends were all from New England states, and, thinking nothing of the delay, they just kept on engaging in their usual repartee. However along with my pigmentation went a certain alertness to various situations that was necessary for self-preservation in those days of Jim Crow, and I kept studying what appeared to be a conference in the back of the restaurant between a waitress and one or two older men, and it was easy to sense what was about to happen.

Sure enough the waitress, sufficiently instructed, came to our table and asked to speak with one of the guys that she took to be our leader. They went off a little distance, and had a short conversation, after which this guy -- his name was Greenwood -- returned and said, "Let's go."

We left and outside the others started grilling Greenwood about what was up. He said, "They didn't have what we want to eat."

I quickly decided to lift from him the onus of protecting me, if that was what he was doing, and I said, "Come on, Greenwood. I know what that was about. They don't serve Negroes in there. It's segregated."

(Back then, "Negro" was still much to be preferred over being called "black.")

And we went back to the base, where we knew we would all be served. By then it had been five years since Harry Truman, a Democrat, had desegregated the Armed Services.

After that Belleville, Illinois just became an ugly little place that it was necessary to pass through on the way to the nearest big city, St. Louis, which was just across the Mississippi. Other points of interest in that area were Alton, Illinois, which had produced the great jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis, and East St. Louis, Illinois, which later became one of those starved majority Rainbow towns, along with the likes of Newark, N.J., Gary, Ind, Detroit, Mich, and my own hometown, the Nation's Capital. East St. Louis, however, is notable because it is the site of Cahokia, one of the largest of the earthen mounds built by the original inhabitants of this continent. But I only visited St. Louis, because it had the all-important virtue of harboring a chess club, from which I was not barred as I had been from the big club in D.C., where for all I knew I was still also barred from all the department stores except one and also from -- wouldn't you know it -- all the restaurants without exception.


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