Oral Histories – Barrett

I Saw People Stacked Up Five or Six Feet High”
Oral Interview with Ogelsby Barrett
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina, Aiken)
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Ogelsby Barrett was born in Farmville, North Carolina. During the depression years his mother raised him by herself in Winston Salem (NC), where he was educated in a segregated school system. He was drafted at the age of 18 and toward the end of the war. Due to his completed high school education, he was selected as a company clerk for the 643rd Ordnance Ammunition Company.

After arriving in England in early 1945, Barrett spent several months in North Wales where his company unloaded ammunition shipments for the war in Europe.While his company was sent on to the Pacific, Barrett continued into France, Belgium and eventually Germany as part of a transportation company.

Shortly before V.E. Day Barrett entered a newly liberated concentration camp, seeing the horrors of the Holocaust with his own eyes. Although he returned to North Carolina and civilian life shortly thereafter, the terrible sight of bodies piled up high on the camp side remained barely comprehensible and continued to haunt him. He remembers, “I saw people stacked up five or six feet high that were dead, corpses and all. […] I couldn’t believe it. And I hear people said now that it never happened. I know it happened. I went in one of them. I saw that.”

Barrett’s brief account describes his time in Europe as an experience of social freedoms unlike his situation in the Jim Crow South. In England, for example, he recalls the normality of African American GIs dancing with white girls and the frequent invitations to pubs. Though he enjoyed the comparative lack of racial discrimination in European society he did not believe in or actively pursue an improvement of the situation of African Americans in the United States following World War II.

That the war had changed the thinking of many U.S. soldiers – and not only African American ones – is illustrated by one instance which was particularly startling to Barrett at the time: On the troop train with returning forces from the Europe to Ft. Bragg a white soldier from Mississippi refused to switch and ride on the “white” train car (as did all other white soldiers) upon crossing the Mason Dixon Line. Barrett remembers him telling the other white soldiers angrily, “You mean to tell me you’ve been over there with these fellas fighting and going on over there (U) and all and now you can’t ride from here down to Fort Bragg with them?’ […] ‘I’m not moving. … ” “And,” Barrett recalls, “he stayed right there with us until we got down there.”

Despite this exception, Barrett concludes that limited professional opportunities continued to be a reality for African Americans in North Carolina for a long time after the war.


Interview Transcript

[On African American GIs’ Experience in Britain and his Expectations for the Postwar South]
Barrett:   Oh, yes, we went to some of the towns. There in Wales, Partapol, Sebastopol, visited those places around there.  And learned the customs of the people.  And we were treated nice from them.

Morehouse:   You were?  So was there segregation and discrimination and separate places for you to be?

Barrett:   No, because the Catholic Church would invite us to come to the, they had bingo games they had on Saturday. And the pubs they opened the place up.

Morehouse:   And did you dance with the local girls?

Barrett:   Danced with the girls, oh, yeah.

Morehouse:   Nothing about black and white?

Barrett:   No, nobody said anything about that.

Morehouse:   So how did that affect you when you were thinking in terms of what you’d had in North Carolina?  That was certainly not the way it was in North Carolina.

Barrett:   No, it wasn’t.  I thought about it sometimes, but it didn’t bother me too much.   Because I knew what was here.

Morehouse:   Did you expect that when you came back that things would be more like, you know, more integrated, more open after your time in the service?

Barrett:   No, I did not.

[On Seeing a Concentration Camp shortly after its Liberation]
Barrett:   […] I had a chance to go to, we came across one of the concentration camps.  I went through one of those.  And the site were true that you see on TV now.  I saw it.
[…] There were people in the camps when we got there.  There were some of the people in the camps.  And I saw people stacked up five or six feet high that were dead, corpses and all.  And then the Army took a bulldozer and just dug a trench and buried them.  And they pulled some out of the crematory you called it.

Morehouse:   That had been gassed?

Barrett:   Right.

Morehouse:   So where was it that you went to the concentration camps in Germany?

Barrett:   I believe the first one, the first one we came across was called Dachau or something I believe it was. […] We had plenty of time to go look at it and I went through it.

Morehouse:   But there wasn’t anyone that was still alive in there was there?

Barrett:   There were a few still around there.  Because, see after the Army came through and liberated them all there were a few men around then.  They looked like skeletons but they were alive. […] They were there but the Army was processing them, see.  There was a whole lot of them in that camp.  And they were processing them and getting them out.
[…] I talked with one man and he was telling me about some of the experience he had there.  And he took me to one of the office, where the German officer had and later she had a lamp shade there that was made out of human skin.  And I looked at her and I said, ‘Somebody’s got to be crazy.’ […] The prisoner [showed me].  He was a German, he was a Jew.

Morehouse:   Did you talk to other men in the trucking Company about it?  I mean, that it was just an emotional thing so you were talking about it?

Barrett:   Well, we talked about it.  And the thought was just awful for something like that to happen.  We couldn’t believe that anything like that did happen. […] I wasn’t but about 18 years old.

Morehouse:   I mean, I don’t know at what age you could ever understand it but at a young age it must be just horrifying.

Barrett:   It was something to see, I’ll tell you that.  I couldn’t believe it.  And I hear people said now that it never happened.  I know it happened.  I went in one of them.  I saw that.

[On a White Soldier Refusing to Comply with Segregation after the War]
Barrett:   We were all on the troop train coming back from New Jersey to Fort Bragg.  And as we got coming down to Washington DC coming on down and all the fellas, the white fellas starting getting up and moving back.  And they woke one fella, a white fella and all that, and they woke him up, ‘Come on, man.  Move.’  He said, ‘Move for what?’  They said, ‘We’re going back here.’  He said, ‘What for?’  He said, ‘Why bother?’  He said, ‘Whatcha moving for?’  They said, ‘We’re down south.’  And he said, ‘You mean to tell me you’ve been over there with these fellas fighting and going on over there (U) and all and now you can’t ride from here down to Fort Bragg with them?’  He said, ‘I’m not moving.’  And he stayed right there with us until we got down there. […]  He stayed right up there with the rest of us.  They were all mixed up when we got on the train in Camp Killman, New Jersey.  Then once we got to Washington, it’s called the Mason-Dixon Line then they all started going back to the other way.

Morehouse:   And these were southern guys too?  Because they’re on their way down south?

Barrett:   Right.

Morehouse:   But this other guy?  What was his rank?  Did he have any, was he an officer or was he an enlisted man?

Barrett:   He was a, what did he have?  He was a Tech Sergeant.  And you’d be surprised where he was from.  Mississippi.  And he wouldn’t move.  He said, ‘I’m not going back there.’  He said, ‘I’ve done been over there with them in the Army and now you’re going back there.  You can’t go from here down to Fort Bragg?’  He said, ‘Something’s wrong.’

[On Racial Discrimination in North Carolina after World War II]
Barrett:   [I] tried one time to get, where the GI’s could get a loan but I was going to open a Laundromat up there [in Winston Salem, NC]  But they wouldn’t let me have the money.  They said I didn’t have no collateral.  I said, ‘Well, how is the rest of these white boys open up a Laundromat?’

Morehouse:   And what did they say?

Barrett:   They said they had collateral.  And I knew that was wrong.

[Excerpts from Interview with Ogelsby Barrett Conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Durham, North Carolina, 1998]