“Young Ladies, Coffee and Donuts”
Oral Interview with Fred Hurns
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
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Fred Hurns was born in 1918 in the small steel-milling town of Besmel, Alabama and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. In February 1941, he was among the first to be drafted from Ohio and spent the following three years in Fort Huachuca, Arizona and Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi, where he was trained as a medical supply sergeant.
Hurns left for England in Spring 1944 and worked for the 429th Medical Battalion, part of the 3rd Army, moving through Belgium, France and eventually into Germany. He received five Bronze Stars for his brave conduct in the war, which included driving medical supply trucks through open fire zones. Upon his return to civilian life in 1945 he worked as a butcher and later a post office clerk in Cleveland, Ohio.
Hurns’ account describes the unofficial ways of enforcing segregation in Ohio, assessing that “Cleveland was the most segregated city in the North.” Hurns was not concerned with the integration of the military or challenging entrenched racial hierarchies in the South. Instead, he followed his family’s advice which had instructed him beforehand on how to adapt to racism in the American South.
Consequently, Hurns states, he did not get in “one drop of trouble.” Remembering his segregation in Cleveland and his family’s insistence on his quiescent behavior he concludes, “I didn’t have to go to the South to find out. The South came to me.” While Hurns recalls few particular instances of racial discrimination in American society and the U.S. military, his need to adopt certain behaviors to stay out of trouble, is only further evidence of its ubiquity.
In the few instances, where Hurns experienced direct discrimination, he found the army quick to resolve the dissatisfactions of its black troops stationed overseas. He details one occasion in Liege, Belgium, when he and his friends were reprehended by MPs for dancing with white girls. They responded by writing a letter to General Patton explaining their grievances and demanding equal treatment while fighting a war that they were “not particular about.” Just 10 days later, Hurns recalls, “we had […] young ladies to entertain us, coffee and donuts, as much as you wanted.”
Overall, Hurns considers his time in the army a positive experience and finds that his opportunities in society were broadened by his status as an ex-soldier.
[On Integrating the U.S. Army during the War]
Morehouse: But I’m curious if you were reading anything in the black press where they were concerned between these elite spokesmen, Du Bois and A. Philip Randolph and they’re battling it out about whether to integrate or keep the troops segregated or send them off to war?
Hurns: Well, that was in the black paper, which was at that time, let’s see there was two black papers, because the other paper there was, the second paper was being shipped in. Pittsburgh Courier. Now the Cleveland Collin Post, they wrote, they wrote about, they wrote about integrating the troops and I think that during that time they couldn’t get any headway with the President or the Armed Forces (U). So I think they talked mostly with Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a big thing behind the scenes. As far as black people was concerned.
Morehouse: Did you read the papers and give this much thought? This whole, did you go to the barbershop and talk to people about it?
Hurns: No. I, in fact, at that time it didn’t make much difference to me one way or the other.
[On Segregation in Cleveland, Ohio]
Morehouse: Okay. Were things in Cleveland segregated at the time?
Hurns: Oh, yes. Cleveland was much segregated. It’s the most, I’d say at one time, Cleveland was the most segregated city in the north.[…] Because as a kid I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t walk from one corner to another if I lived in the places where I moved when we came to Cleveland. See, in Cleveland we didn’t know that, I guess my father knew. But my father wanted to be as close to his job as he possibly could so we moved in the south side of Cleveland, Broadway and 37th Street. Back in there was (U). That was a (U) neighborhood. And we fought going to school and we fought coming back from school.
[The School] was an integrated, the integrated schools was already on the east side. And the south side was always integrated. They had black and white in them. But it just, the thing about going back and forth to school was the thing. In school there was no problem. I had a teacher that was really, I’ll always remember. Her last name was Jessell. And Miss Jessell used to bring me an apple a day to school. She was nice. [chuckles] I’ll always remember Miss Jessell.
[On his Family Preparing him for his Time in the American South]
Morehouse: So things were already segregated in Cleveland so when you go into the military and you encounter this it was not a surprise to you?
Hurns: No. And then I’ll tell you another thing. My mother and my grandmother on my mother’s side of the family had told me too, that if I ever was shipped to the south, she explained to me how I should act and I wouldn’t get any trouble: [Laughs] Stay on your side of the street. If you’re on the side of the street and white people are coming down that side you go on the other side of the street. And I tried to live by all of the things that they told me. […] So I didn’t have to go to the South to find out. The South came to me. And then when I went there in, to Camp Van Dorn I knew exactly what to look for. And never got in any, not one drop of trouble the whole time I was there.
[…] As far as knowing about Mississippi. I didn’t know about it as far as the Army was concerned. My knowledge from it was when my grandparents and my mother told me about Mississippi, how to act when you go south. […] I would have heard it before because my grandmother would have told me that too. Yeah, because she had told us that there are certain places you just didn’t go.
[On Black Soldiers and White Officers at Fort Huachuca, Arizona]
Hurns: Well, they already had troops there that was assigned to that Unit from the 25th Infantry, which at one time was a Calvary Unit changed over to an Infantry Unit. And they was, what did they call them? Cadres. They took command and took us on in to the barracks.
Morehouse: Black or white?
Hurns: No, no, no. All black.
Morehouse: So you don’t encounter the white officers until you get on . . .?
Hurns: Until, oh, I guess about two or three weeks later. We had one maybe. But we didn’t start to get the others until a couple of weeks later. […] Each Unit had one white officer. Which was, most of the time, was a Second Lieutenant or a First Lieutenant. No Captains, no Majors, nothing like that. [Not] At that point. Unless they were in a high echelon where they never came out to see the troops. […]
Morehouse: Okay. And in a couple of weeks you got some of the white officers in.
Hurns: But you know, before I say that, before you said that, when the white officers came in there was very little intelligence as far as the Army was concerned. [laughs] These black troops that were cadre men they still did all of the schooling and training. These white officers was just overseers. Because some of them hadn’t been in, hadn’t had gun training either. And they was just coming, and the thing about it, what is hard to understand, is why they gave us southern officers. These were southern white men. They knew nothing about, well, them in the south, in the north, most of them didn’t know nothing about how to treat or how to talk to black troops. And they all had to learn. We were all there under, what you say? Teaching experience. Or learning experience. […] It was an experiment. […] Because they weren’t trained to do anything either other than just be the leader.
[On Black Troops Getting into Trouble at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi]
Hurns: When I arrived at Camp Van Dorn, we were there about three months before this artillery Unit got in trouble in this little town of Centreville (?), Mississippi. Which was, I guess was about five or 10 miles away. And they put a few black troops in jail. And the commanding officer went over there and demanded that they turn them loose. And, well, I, a lot of hearsay that I heard, that he told them that if they didn’t turn them loose that he’d come back with his artillery and blow the little town off the map.
Morehouse: And do you know anybody who was in the jail at that time?
Hurns: No. I didn’t know any of the troops at all.
Morehouse: And the commanding officer was white?
Hurns: Oh, yeah. They said he was white.
Morehouse: And you had heard this from other people who were in your organization?
Hurns: From in, in, in the camp at that time.
Morehouse: And what happened that you know of to those troops?
Hurns: As far as I know that they turned them loose. Because they didn’t want no trouble from the Army. I guess they got in touch with Washington and all of that stuff. And, uh, they might have been too skeptical to write the whatever happened, to write it up.
[On the Racial Situation in Mississippi]
Morehouse: So you guys never got into trouble in Mississippi because you kind of knew the boundaries?
Hurns: No. Oh, yeah.
Morehouse: But what was your impression of the south like at that time? Physically the, what did it look like coming from out of the west?
Hurns: Well, my impression of the town was that I didn’t like it there. I didn’t care anything about it. And I wished that I could do something about it. But I knew no one soldier could do anything about a town that’s been like that all its life.
[On Dancing with White Girls in Belgium]
Hurns: We had a little thing that happened there [Liege, Belgium] too. As far as entertainment was concerned. Being a 3rd Army troops attached to the 3rd Army medical section, all black, four white officers, two black officers. We had to have some way of entertainment. So we went to the Red Cross. This was a large building. There was a large dance floor and everything. And most of these fellas was young like myself. And we danced. So we got that. We went out on the floor to dance with the girls. The MP’s came in and said, ‘You fellas can’t dance with the girls here.’ So immediately a fella that I know in Detroit right now, him and I have kept up with one another for years, Cletus L. Burrell.
He and I and another Sergeant, we were all Sergeants, sit down and wrote the 3rd Army commanding officer. We addressed it to Patton. And we explained to him that we were black troops. We didn’t ask to come over here and we weren’t particular about being over here and we wanted some entertainment and they would not let us go . . .
So it took us [10 days] from the date of writing the letter until the commanding officer of the Army, which was George S. Patton, we had a brand new Red Cross building, band, young ladies to entertain us, coffee and donuts, as much as you wanted.
[…] We never received a written response. And all three of us knew Patton never seen the letter. Because whoever his executive officer was would have cut his own throat if he had let that letter get to Patton. And he knew he had some black troops wanting, did not fight, not do their job. He would never let it get to him. […] Somebody handled it. And somebody handled it real fast too.
[On Opportunities and Equal Pay after the War]
Hurns: Well, things had changed [when I returned to my job] Because I noticed the opportunities for me, as an ex-soldier, were better than they were when I was working there before the war.
Morehouse: Did people treat you with a little more respect or did you just carry yourself a little more?
Hurns: I just carried myself that way. And most of them wanted to hear how I made out in the service. Tell them about the war and how things was going and different things like that. And I was getting these little with the supervision. I was getting more, more, better jobs. And was getting a little bit better pay. At that time people weren’t paid very much money. I think about 75 cents an hour was the top wages for labor. So when I went back there they right away gave me a butcher job, which ran me about $1.35 an hour. But not top butcher pay.
Morehouse: You knew guys who were right next to you who were white and getting top butcher pay?
Hurns: Oh, yeah. But there were black and white there getting the same pay. In fact, there were more blacks getting more money than most of the whites. Because they were doing much harder jobs, or much more tense of a job.
[Excerpts from Interview with Fred Hurns Conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Cleveland, Ohio, 1998]