Conversation in the Becketwood Mancave (basement workroom) recently had a Yankee GI veteran describe a confrontation he had with segregation in the Jim Crow wartime South. A gentleman in his early nineties and a quietly reserved Mancave regular, raised in Minnesota, stated he had virtually no awareness of or interaction with African-Americans prior to military training in the South during WWII. He recalls his dismay and lack of understanding as to either the nature, history, social context, or rationale of Jim Crow racial segregation he experienced in the South.. Why separate black and white water fountains, rest and waiting rooms? He spoke, for example, of befuddlement when observing negroes deferentially moving from the sidewalk to street gutters thus clearing the way for approaching whites. On one occasion he was standing behind the driver on a jam-packed bus returning soldiers to base. A black GI standing alone outside the bus wished to board the bus. Our Mancave friend described the harsh, crude verbal attack the bus driver uttered declaring no black would be allowed entrance to a bus filled with white soldiers. Remonstrating with the bus driver and insisting on the right of the black GI to ride that bus our veteran outstretched his hand clasping the hand of the black GI. With the aid of others the black GI secured his space on that bus.
A broad ranging discussion ensued questioning whether what we were taught in school regarding the heroes and founders of America were historically truthfully presented or taught with overblown heroic rhetoric. Our GI Veteran observed that he had recently read an article about Tom Jefferson. As a result he has come to view Jefferson as a slave master hypocrite. Jefferson’s heroic iconic image in the American imagination, our Yankee GI Veteran suggested, was misplaced. I was aware the reading referenced was an article in the October Smithsonian, “Master of Monticello: The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson”. Henry Wienieck’s article challenges the image of Jefferson the benevolent slaveholder. Based upon new evidence long suppressed “the secrets of the world he created on his Virginia mountaintop” draw “a new portrait of Thomas Jefferson”. Upon reading this article small wonder our Yankee GI Veteran has a jaundiced view of Jefferson and associates Jim Crow racism he experienced with the injustice of slavery as practiced at Monticello plantation.
Our Yankee GI’s physical opposition to Jim Crow in the context of WWII, a struggle against racist totalitarianism, can be viewed as one small act in the larger struggle leading ultimately to the death of Jim Crow.