“No Time to Think about Civil Rights”
Oral Interview with Spencer Moore
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
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Spencer Moore was born in 1921 in Magnolia, New Jersey, the place his family had lived for over 200 years. He enlisted in the State Militia in September 1940 as part of the first black National Guard unit in New Jersey. In August 1942, Moore joined the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning in August 1942 and, having finished three months of officer training in an integrated class room, was assigned to the all-black 92nd Division shortly after its inception. Moore, a 2nd Lieutenant at this time, left for Italy in July 1944, where he landed in Naples via North Africa.
During the following months he fought in the Italian Campaign as a platoon leader with C Company, 372nd infantry regiment, and was wounded in October 1944 earning a purple heart. Moore remained in federal service, first in the New Jersey National Guard, then in the Post Office, for more than 40 years after the war and received the Distinguished Service Medal of New Jersey.
Moore’s account offers a vivid description of the bitter fighting taking place in Italy as the German forces slowly retreated north. The German Army was well aware they were fighting an African American Division because, as Moore remembers, they dropped propaganda leaflets particularly addressing African American soldiers and the issue of civil rights, urging them to rethink their loyalties to the United States.
Moore also shares his fond memories of the Italian civilians and details his strategies of getting around in Italy. These good relations between Italians and African American soldiers were often viewed suspiciously by white officers and the army command.
In addition, Moore remembers repeated experiences with racial discrimination and segregation abroad as well as at home. Due to his long service in the National Guard and the Army, Moore exposes the often obvious, but sometimes subtle mechanisms through which the Army ensured that African American officers would not be immediate superiors to whites. Although Moore laments the fact that he was not promoted in accordance to his achievements, he contends that racial and personal motives lay at the heart of his superiors’ decisions.
Moore does not recall being aware of connections between his own struggle as an African American in the U.S. and his fight against fascism. For the ideals of the “Double V-Campaign”, he judges, he was simply too young or, in his own words, too “unintellectual.” Altogether, he concludes, he accepted racial discrimination and segregation as a given, because in wartime other concerns seemed to be more pressing. He sums up that“ in my position I didn’t have a lot of time to be thinking about civil rights. I was thinking about Spencer Moore keep from getting killed. Keeping my men from getting killed.”
[On Traveling to the South]
Morehouse: Tell me about, this is the first time you had traveled south?
Moore: Fort McClellan. That’s from McClellan, you’re talking about Columbus, Columbus, Georgia. Well, you don’t start there. You start there in New York. You see, the train came down with about 30 guys from the 366th. And the 30 more from the 372nd made a total of 60. I’m just saying this approximate. We had one or two coming from some place else. So when we got to DC they put us right behind the engine and turned the air conditioner off. Jim Crow car. […] Well, it was subtle. But this was positively, you’re not getting any air conditioning. And we had to ride along with the windows open and all that soot was blowing in on us. And, and we had to ride from Washington, DC to Columbus, Georgia.
Morehouse: Did you get off the train at all in DC? Like did it hook up to another train?
Moore: Hooked up to another train back in the freight yard somewhere.
Morehouse: But you stayed on it? They don’t let you off?
Morehouse: And there’s 60 of you on a . . .
Moore: I think we all were on one car.
[On Army Strategies to Ensure that African American would not be Superiors of White Soldiers]
Moore: Yeah, but see, the 92nd had been cadred by the 93rd, so they had white officers who were all Commanders. All the Company Commanders were white. All the Executive Officers were white. And all the Platoon Leaders were black. All the junior officers. The very bottom commissioned was black. Because see what they would do, say you and I were in the OCS class, same class. And your name is Morehouse and mine is Moore. So I would, alphabetically I’d come before you because I’m M-O-O and you are M-O-R-E. So I would outrank you and you’re white. But I’m black. So they would give me 10 days delay en route. And I’d be so happy to go home to show up in my new uniform. They send you right to the Regiment. And when I come back off my 10 days you were First Lieutenant.
[…] But the point of it is, I wasn’t there to be promoted. I mean, that’s the way it worked, because there was a regulation that said no black would ever command a white, regardless of the situation. And so that’s why they kept the junior, the black officers down. So now when they got to the . . . Well, the 365th Infantry was at Camp Attebury, Indiana with the 597th. The 598th and 370th were at Camp Breckinridge. And the 599th was at Camp Robinson with the 371st. The reason why they spread up so much was because there was no facility that would accept that many black armed troops in the United States. And Headquarters and Service Companies were in, uh, Headquarters and Service was in Fort McClellan, Alabama. They had four places. Because nobody wanted that many, because they figured they was gonna have a riot like they had down in Brownsville, Texas. See, and they found out that they had been mis, there was a miscarriage of justice and these men were just murdered.
[On Discrimination and Civil Rights]
Moore: But I wasn’t into, like I was just a kid. I was into having a good time. I wasn’t trying to be any hero. I was just following orders. They say, ‘Go here.’ I went there. If they say, ‘Come back,’ I’d come back. I mean, I didn’t know anybody who was, uh, I should say an activist in the Jim Crow situation. Now I would write home to my mother and father. I’ll get those letters for you.
Morehouse: Did you think about like the, even on that video where you’re on, you see the women giving the double V for victory. Victory at home and victory abroad. Was that something that you’re thinking of?
Moore: Well, we would all say V for victory. I mean, I never thought about it as fighting, in my position I didn’t have a lot of time to be thinking about civil rights. I was thinking about Spencer Moore keep from getting killed. Keeping my men from getting killed.
Morehouse: But when in fact you would have a personal affront to your civil rights? Like your Commanding Officers or something, you’d find other ways of dealing with it. But it wasn’t that you’re not caught up in what’s going on with the Double V?
Moore: I guess I just accepted the situation because, like you said, I wasn’t thinking about that. Maybe I wasn’t, uh, intellectual enough to think about stuff like that. Like I said, I was just a kid. I was 21, 22 years old, 22 years old when I went overseas. I had been in an integrated school all my life. But I know that when they went on the class trip I didn’t go because it was more or less segregated, plus I didn’t try to scrape up the money. So this, this, this double V stuff is just something that’s come out. Just like Ebonics. Just like, uh, what’s that black thing they have instead of Christmas? Quanza. I never heard about that crap when I was coming up. And somebody’s trying to make money off of it.
[On Standing up against Segregation after the War]
Moore: Twice in the country after the war. I come back, I was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge. I was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. And I was awarded a Purple Heart. Actually I should have had three Purple Hearts because I was frostbitten due to enemy action twice. But I was hit by shrapnel. And I got on a bus in Fort McClellan, Alabama, this is 1945, and the white WAC driver told me to get in the back. I said, ‘Who are you telling to get in the back? This is America.’ I said, ‘You see the medals on my chest? I don’t have to get in the back for nobody.’ I said, ‘In fact, I’m gonna sit right down here and breath on your neck.’ So the next thing, I went to this officer’s meeting and they wanted to find who wanted to be retained in the service and who wanted to go home. If you wanted to be retained in the service to go to Japan. So this Colonel got up and he was a cracker. Southerner. ‘Well, you know, you’re down here in the south and you’ve got to abide by the social structure of this community.’ And he was talking with this southern drawl. ‘And you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to that.’ And I jumped right straight up and I said, ‘No, sir. I don’t have to do it.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna sign to go home.’ I said, ‘Man, I’d be in trouble down there.’ And my wife was unhappy I was down in Kentucky, I mean, Alabama.
[On his Rejection of the Term “black”]
Moore: And all, they started making black Captains in the 92nd. Well, like I say, I should have been one of the first black Captains, but they, I was on the shit list and the guy, nobody . . . Today if you make out an Efficient Report about an officer and you give him too high a rating you have to explain that and if you give him too low a rating you’ve got to explain that. But back in them days you could just give them unsatisfactory and there was no question. Because I was black. Or a Negro, colored. Whatever you want to call me. I hate that term now, you’re black, because I’m not black. I’m colored. And the most people who are of African persuasion are colored. They’re not black. And when I say, I’m 7/8 white. But that 1/8 makes me colored. You understand what I’m saying?
[On Propaganda Leaflets from the German Military]
Moore: Well, that’s propaganda leaflets shot over by the Germans. That’s a leaflet. You can take it. […] There’s two or three of them in there.
Morehouse: (reads)’After they got you into the Army they shipped you off to a foreign country (U) to fight in a rich man’s war. As for you fellows, you have nothing to gain but you may loose your lives or get your limbs smashed up. Don’t wait for that. Better say goodbye to war. Slip over to Jerry’s some night, as many other colored boys have done before you. They are now safe in a POW camp waiting for the end of the war.’
Moore: Some guys were using them leaflets for toilet paper. It depends on how dense they were when they dropped them. You know, the density of the thing. Because sometimes toilet paper was at a premium.
[On African American Expectations after the War]
Moore: I had to work my way over and I had to work my way back, on the ship. Coming back after the war I had to give, return-to-civil-life lessons. You know, I got the pamphlets and stuff they put out by the Department of Defense. And you had to give lectures to the, to your men, to the men on the ship actually.
Morehouse: You must have sensed that when the soldiers went over there and then came back that they had higher expectations of things.
Moore: Well, some. Some. The fellas that lived in the deep south, I don’t think they did. Because they weren’t, there were so many low, low intelligence people. I mean, they were human and they hurt when you hit them or they bled when you cut them. And like that. But they were going back to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, wherever. And they didn’t see any bright future. Whereas I was going back, I said, ‘Well, I might go to college, you know, on the GI Bill.’ And I did go for a year. But I had married and my son was born. […] And so I went out and borrowed $500 and we got an apartment. We’ve been at it ever since. But that stuff that you read about now in some of those books, that never crossed my mind. It might have crossed some of the older people’s mind. But I was coming back to Magnolia and it was gonna be the same type of discrimination. When you go down the street here three miles to the movies you had to sit up in the balcony. Which I didn’t give a damn because I liked sitting up in the balcony and nobody could sit in front of you. Or stand up in front of you and disturb you. And of course, when I was in high school you couldn’t go in none of the pools, they were segregated. The YMCA, Young Men’s Christian Association. What the heck kind of Christian is that? And you couldn’t go into the Camden County Vocational School pool, where my father was paying school tax. But that was just a way of life. But I never went into all that stuff they talk about.
[On Lynchings after World War II]
Moore: I’ve heard it but I haven’t any first hand knowledge of it. I believe it. Because in Europe the racial bigotry is not as great as it is in this country. And a lot of those girls would marry a black guy just to get to America, you know, and that kind of situation. And I have heard and it’s been in the black papers, where they lynched a guy in his uniform. And I believe that because it was terrible. Man, when I was down at Fort Benning, Georgia I left the post twice. And the second time I left it I was leaving to come out of there. I didn’t, no, indeed they wouldn’t get me downtown. The only time we went down was where they, I was in OCS and we asked the Company Commander could we have a bus to go see the Tuskegee – Morehouse football game at Columbus. And that’s the only time we left town.
[On Segregation while Serving in Italy]
Moore: I even asked them couldn’t they do something about the segregation in the 92nd Division. Well, see, I’m the one that took that picture of the 92nd Division off limits. With Mose, this picture. I took that and sent it home. See, because in the common vernacular they had the PBS whores there. Peninsular Base Section were white WACS and nurses were on this street. So they didn’t want us on that street. That was the PBS, that was the Service Units.
Morehouse: Oh, that’s why they didn’t want you there.
Moore: They were service people. They were American, white women.
[…] Oh, yeah. Also, they had officer’s clubs that were off limits to the 92nd Division. Now let me show you. All the white officers had to do was wear a shirt without the patch on it and he’d go on in there.
Morehouse: So if you get the buffalo you don’t get in, but if you’ve got . . .
Moore: Yeah. If you don’t have the patch you can go in. If you got any other patch or no patch . . .
Moore: Well, you had to put them on, you put them on. But see, by that time the bars were on the collar. They took them off the shoulder and put them on the collar. But this patch, you had to wear a buffalo patch. That was a must. But what I’m saying is all the guy had to do is have a shirt without a patch on it and he could go in and we had nothing.
[On Friendly Relations with the Italians and White Officers’ Reactions]
Moore: We [African American soldiers] had no social activities [in Italy]. This is, except with the natives. The Italians treated us great. They were crazy about us.
I learned to speak Italian because, uh, in January of ’45 I was up there in the Carara, near Carara at Marbaquaries(?) and I had a special assignment. […] I had 55 Italians working for me and a Sergeant and two Privates and myself. And in this building that we had commandeered two rooms and the use of the kitchen. Nice apartment place. […] So, uh, in this house was an Italian who taught English at the University of Florence, who had taught. He was teaching the King’s English and I was teaching him the President’s English. […] And I would go to the PX and get chocolate bars, cigars, cigarettes and soap. I had something for everybody. Candy for the kids, soap for the ladies, cigars for the men and the wine and we were sitting around and talking. And they’d give them a couple of candy bars.
And then this woman, this woman who owned the building, I don’t know where her husband was, if he was killed in the service or he left her or whatever, but she had a boyfriend. […] And then she had a little Anna Maria who must have been four or five years old. So every time we Americans ate we sat her down with us and we fed her. […] So we’d take and have, we’d have scrambled eggs and bacon and toast and coffee. You know. We’d set this little girl down and feed her. We never threw nothing out because, you know, whatever was left over the Italians would eat.
But as far as, the only ones that didn’t like us messing with them Italian women was the white Americans. Even the British, I was out hanging with a guy in a kilt, a Scotchman and a British paratrooper and myself, we was hanging in this bar. We had a good time. And the Americans came in and said something nasty to me and them guys told the Americans where to get off at. But they would have these bars and as soon as you go to walk in it they would have, uh, they were segregated. They were run by these Service Units. They were segregated. But anyhow, we had our fun some places in there. I mean, when, this was mostly after the war was over.
[Excerpts from Interview with Spencer Moore Conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Magnolia, New Jersey, 1998]