“Like a Slap in the Face”
Oral Interview with A. William Perry
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
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A.William Perry was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1924. 18 years old and having finished high school, Perry volunteered to join the U.S. army in November 1942 following the example of his two older brothers. In this interview Perry describes his experiences as a soldier in the 92nd Infantry Division, first stationed at several U.S. army posts for almost two years, and later assigned to a combat unit in Italy.
Shortly after his induction Perry was sent to Fort McClelland, Alabama – his first time south of the Ohio River. While Perry had little hopes for integration of the Army he had nonetheless expected equal treatment. His confrontation with open racism and discrimination hit him “like a slap in the face.” These negative experiences in both the military and Southern society revealed a level of racial inequality he had formerly thought unimaginable. As Perry remembers, “it was like somebody pulled a veil from my face”.
Perry and large parts of the 92nd Infantry Division remained in the United States for a little over 18 months of training, while the American public debated African American deployment as combat troops. Finally, in August 1944, Perry was among the first African American soldiers assigned in combat units to the European theater. From Naples, Italy he fought the slowly retreating German Army as part of the 370th Infantry Regiment.
Perry recalls his participation in several larger attacks, among others the disaster at Chinquale Canal, where his battalion suffered heavy losses. He remembers frictions between white fighting units and black supply units in the rear and mentions that, in his view, all-black combat units experienced a much higher degree of camaraderie and internal cohesion. At the same time, African American involvement in combat situations generated a sentiment of equality with white troops. Perry states that “[n]ow we had more of a equal feeling. We were soldiers like they were. You know, we had endured many of the hardships the same as they had.”
Returning to the United States in November 1945, Perry initially expected some change with regard to racial discrimination. While he was able to use his GI Bill to finish college, he faced difficulties finding a good job. One man, for example, employed Perry only on the condition that he would work from home – far away from the white girls employed in his office. Perry concludes that the war was a benchmark in his life allowing him to travel abroad. Nonetheless, his hopes for more equality and less racial discrimination were largely disappointed. Many African Americans, Perry concludes, “left the army with a bitter feeling.”
[On African American Opportunities in the Different Branches of the Military]
Morehouse: Yeah. So in August, that August, [you] signed up for the service. Why did you choose the Army?
Perry: I think you couldn’t get in the Navy. The Navy you could only be a mess man in there and I didn’t want to be a mess man. And it’s very limited, limited opportunities in the Air Force. You know, this was in the Air Corps it was then. And then really you didn’t have a choice. You didn’t even really, you thought you did but you didn’t really have a lot of choices. They assigned you where they wanted you to go. You didn’t, it was not like now where you go in and you pick a branch service. When you went in the draft they assigned you where they wanted you to go and that’s where you went.
[On Debates in the Black Press During the War]
Perry: You didn’t really get much information. Because you only had the radio. And you didn’t really have access to local papers. So you really didn’t get a lot of information. Once in awhile I’d get some information from Cleveland. Um, we have a black newspaper, The Cleveland Call Post, my father would send me. Yeah.
Morehouse: Okay. So you were getting that mailed to you?
Perry: Yeah, irregularly.
Morehouse: Uh-huh. But you could be reading about some of the, um, disputes like with W.E. B. Du Bois and A. Philip Randolph?
Perry: Yeah, well I, uh, I was aware of some of those because I had had some knowledge of the NAACP and things, see, before the war. So and I knew something about, uh, this combination. I knew of it. You know, I didn’t really, I didn’t really know direct like they had legal segregation. I had never really experienced that. Where you couldn’t go in a place. Now there were places there in Cleveland I knew even then, you know, you weren’t encouraged to go into. But I never saw a place where it said, you know, ‘Colored and White’.
Morehouse: But the dispute that’s going on about whether to, um, the military should integrate or whether you should just close ranks . . .?
Perry: That wasn’t an issue. That wasn’t an issue then. And that was just, it was accepted, you were assigned to a Negro unit. That wasn’t, the integration had nothing to, I don’t even remember hearing the term. Nobody even discussing that as an issue at that time.
Morehouse: Right. Right. But certainly Du Bois had talked about, you know, that there should be integrated troops and that sort of a thing. But from what I understand no one has been . . .
Perry: Nobody got that far out on a limb. I don’t think the Army was ready to accept that.
[On Racial Discrimination in the Army]
Morehouse: So what about the other thing, Double V, Victory at Home and Victory Abroad. Victory at home so that you could, you know, push for your rights at home and then Victory Abroad?
Perry: I think [Du Bois] always loved about pushing your rights, but I never, some of the things you just, you never envisioned it, some things were going to happen. And, uh, some things you accepted that this is fact, because this the way it’s always been. And they’d always had Negro units and white units and you always thought you were going to get the short end of the stick with a black unit because that’s just the way life was.
And I thought it would be better, quite frankly, I thought the Army would try to really live up to a separate but equal thing. You know, when we went there. And some of the things they said at first when they saw this guy, this black Major Beezly, you know, and you didn’t realize then that he really didn’t have no authority of nothing. He’s just a preacher. And, uh, then you saw, you didn’t see Almond. We see these guys once in awhile. And then you begin to learn something about them and their background. See all three of the Commanders were from VMI [Virginia Military Institute], Almond, Woods and Coleman, they graduated with the VMI. Well, this, you begin to find that this is the theory the Army has.
And, uh, I really found out, my first real experience, I got sick about two weeks after I was (U). And I was in the hospital. I had a caught a flu or pneumonia or something. And they had me bedridden the first week and they brought my food to me. And I didn’t, you don’t really ever think about these things. All the people in the hospital, of course they white, the nurses and everybody. And they brought your food and everything. Everybody treated you, you know, you didn’t receive anything. So after the first week they said, ‘Okay, you can get up, you can go on down to the mess hall and get your food.’ So I got up and I went on, bouncing down to the mess hall and I got there, there might have been half a dozen or so black guys, they were standing there. I started going in and the guy tapped me, and said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘They told me to come on down and eat.’ He said, ‘Well, you can’t go in there and eat now. You gotta wait until the white guys finish.’ And that was the first that really, like somebody slapped me in the face. You know. I had never experienced anything like that. And it’s like somebody pulled a veil down, you know, begin to take a whole look at the whole situation after that.
[On Black Troops not Being Allowed to Go Out in Arizona]
Perry: The whole state of Arizona was off limits. You couldn’t go to any town in Arizona.
Morehouse: Where you could go and where you couldn’t go?
Perry: Well they told you that all the towns in Arizona was off limits. Because they felt, there weren’t that many Negroes in Arizona at that period of time. And, like in most cities, they felt there wasn’t a large enough minority community to entertain a large number of Negro troops. That was the attitude, that’s the attitude of the Army then. So rather than have you cause social unrest in the town they just, they tried to bring some things to camp there like Rochester and Lena Horn and those things. You know.
[On Expectations to End Racial Discrimination]
Morehouse: Why We Fight, exactly. Right. It’s part of his series and it’s the one about why the Negro soldier should fight. Well, when you saw it a couple of months ago even, what was your reaction to it then?
Perry: I thought it was a good idea to have the movie. And I thought, I had always thought even as I showed you that survey for Carlyle, I had been under the impression that things were going to be different if, you know, if you proved that this was yours or anything, you know, things were going to be different. You just assume that that happens automatically.
I think what people don’t realize, actually after each war things do improve a little bit. They do. But there still was a lot in the South you’d read about. Like I read about, you read about back in the thirties when I was a kid, the big thing was the Scottsboro Boys. All you heard about is Scottsboro Boys. And then when it got up in the fifties, even after World War II, Emmett Teal, the incident happened in Mississippi. And, you know, you wonder what the heck is going on, these guys, you know and you had fought for this country and then you listen to guys like Stenos, Eastling and Bill Boa Mississippi ranting and raving. And then things gradually, when they got Du Bois and the guy who played, not Du Bois he was in Congress, Oscar DePriest. He came into Congress I think in ’34 or something. And then the guy Dawson replaced him eventually. And then Clayton Powell came which made two black Congressmen. And they began, you begin to have somewhat of a voice at that level. And I’ve got another story too about Clayton Powell (U) Towmitch. Towmitch would eat lunch with him but he wouldn’t allow anybody to take his picture eating with him. You know. Things like this.
[On an Armed Confrontation between Black Soldiers and White MPs in Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia]
Perry: We left Huachuca and went to Camp Patrick Henry of Virginia. That’s where we had another problem:
Well, we were I think, we were only the second Negro unit that went through there that was armed. The 366 I think it went through there early in May. But see they use them air base security when they sent them there. They didn’t use them to fight. We came there and we were armed. And we were in the PX one day, I was there. And they had a system like in the theater, you know, where the person handles money, like a ticket taker. And they didn’t want you to put the money in the hands of the clerks. All the clerks were white girls and they didn’t want you to put, they want you to put your money on the counter, then they would rake it over to them. And they got it mistaken in the change one day, a mistake. And of course an argument pursued. So then somebody in the PX called the MP’s and they flooded all in the place. And there was a black Captain there. I don’t know who he was. He wasn’t in my Company. But he came, he was trying to settle the thing. But evidently it wasn’t working out. They couldn’t settle it.
So then one of the MP’s I guess (U), ‘Then we’ll close the PX.’ So then somebody in the rear said, ‘Well, then close the MF.’ [chuckles] And that’s what happened. All of sudden it looked like on cue everybody just left there. That like somebody just vacuumed people out of the PX. Everybody left there and they went across the street. And when the MP’s went to step out of there there were BAR’s and machine guns and people laying up on the road with rifles and everything. So the MP’s went back into the PX and called Colonel Sherman, our Regiment Commander. And he came down. And he quieted the issue down. And for the next two weeks, we spent about two more weeks there getting assembled, but the MP’s never came back in our area again. Each day they would detail some guys out of each one of the Companies to act as MP’s to the area. But we never were bothered.
[On Frictions between White Combat Troops and African American Supply Troops in Italy]
Perry: Well, the Army was segregated by Units then. You had a Negro Unit and you had a white Unit. […] Well, one problem I found in Italy too, you had a better feeling, combat troops had more of a camaraderie than, there’s a lot of friction between troops of different races, was between the Negro troops in the rear, the Quartermaster troops, the truckers and the white combat troops. Now we had a, more of a equal feeling. We were soldiers like they were. You know, we had endured many of the hardships the same as they had.
[On the Different Treatment of Italian Civilians by Black and White Troops]
Perry: When the war was over they sent us down to Naples to guard the port because there was a great deal of hijacking of supplies and things. So when any truck left the Port of Naples we put an armed guard on it. It got so people well they’d steal the whole truck. Drive it off somewhere and black market it. And this is the first time I’ve ever seen down in Naples, you know, people talk about having it hard in this country. But we had a chow line when you finish eating you go through there and they had some big, tin garbage cans, and you shake your excess food off there. And then you wash your mess kit and things. And we had these big tin cans of, gallon cans of tomatoes and things, you know, that they give troops. And these civilians would get these and they’d put a little wire on them and keep them. And then they would come in our garbage cans and get the food that we threw away, out. I know down in Naples a couple of guys, this guy got in the garbage can and was eating and the other guy was trying to get him out of there and they were fighting all over the dock there. You know. People were that hungry.
And when, they knew we ate better than they did because you’d see a long line out there. People with their tins, they’d come get the food that we were throwing in the garbage.
And most of the time our guys, if they were standing there, they would empty their food into the guy’s can rather than put it in the garbage can. That’s why a lot of civilians there they got kind of a, more of a camaraderie of the black troops, because we were more humane in that sense. We would just pour the food in. But the white troops they wouldn’t, they’d put it in the garbage can.
Morehouse: And I had heard that before. That the Italians were really quite appreciative of you guys.
Perry: The 92nd has a monument up near Milan that was built to us. Some of the guys went back a couple of years ago to celebrate the 50th anniversary. And they were treated royally.
[On Disappointed Expectations after World War II]
Perry: Well, you wondered what it was going to be like now [after the war], you know. Because you expected there would be a lot of changes. And my father he was there and I greeted him and he hugged, we hugged and everything.
Morehouse: And did you expect after your time in the service that the government owed you anything more?
Perry: Well, I didn’t think they necessarily owed me anything, but I thought that a lot of things would change as far as discrimination and that sort of thing, I thought it would be.
Morehouse: And what did you discover after your service?
Perry: I didn’t, I wasn’t, when I got out in December the high school here had what they call a government refresher course. And that’s when they had the GI Bill came out. And I could go out there to Callowin High School and take some refresher courses. And it’s been a predominately white high school in Cleveland. They weren’t segregated but just predominately white neighborhood. I went there and I was pretty well accepted. Most of the people there. It was a very large school with veterans going there. And we didn’t have a great problem, you know, they just intermingle with the regular, because most of them weren’t much older than the high school kids. And the end of June I went to West Reserve University after that. And decided I’d go on there.
[…] After I finished this kind of refresher course at Collinwood and went down to register at West Reserve they had a downtown campus. And they had a life drawing class. So I went up and there’s a family, the Growers, they were artists, they were in charge of it. So I registered and I went up and they came in and he seemed kind of apprehensive. And I didn’t say nothing because I didn’t . . . Finally […] he says, ‘I don’t know if you can register for this class.’ And I said, ‘Why not? What is the problem?’ He said, ‘Well, we use, we use live models.’ So I did, (U) Well, you use live models. Well, that’s what you assume you do use. He said, ‘We use white women.’ So. I explained to him, you know, the last year and a half I’d been in Italy. And most of the women there were. And, uh, we had a little discussion and I talked to my father about it. Well, eventually it went on and nothing came of it. And then I was able to enter the class. And I didn’t disrupt everything, you know.
Yeah. I got in. It worked out okay.
So I got a job with a surveying company adjoining plots. You know when they survey? Well, this guy what he would do, he would let me do the work and take it home and turn my time into him. He didn’t want me to work in the office. I could do it at home because I had some equipment, drawing equipment at home and I could do, draw these plot plans and everything at home and bring them to him and give him the thing. Because he had an office basically with white girls in there. So that wasn’t acceptable for me to work there in the office. After awhile I worked I think two or three months like that and I finally quit.
[Excerpts from Interview with A. William Perry Conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Cleveland, Ohio, 1998]