By Harry C. Alford
For the United States, World War II began after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy. A year before that, the military draft began and more young men were going into military service. After the Pearl Harbor attack, millions enlisted into service to defend our nation. For those who fought in the Pacific Theatre, California military bases were the venue for final training and deployment to the battle lines. Also, our industrial activity was expanding exponentially creating a growing demand for workers. The demand was so great that race didn’t matter. They needed workers in a desperate way as national security depended on it. This became the perfect place for young Black men growing up in the Jim Crow South.
During this time, growing up in the South was terribly demanding. My people were from Bossier Parish, Louisiana. It was basically wooded countryside. Very few people had steady employment. Basically, they lived off the land – farming, fishing, hunting and raising poultry, hogs and cattle for precious protein. My maternal grandfather was a sharecropper while my paternal grandfather was dirt poor but hustled up temporary work here and there. Living conditions were deplorable by our standards today. Most people lived in little wooden homes they had built themselves. The homes had no plumbing as there was no infrastructure built outside of Bossier City (much of Bossier City had no plumbing, either). If you needed water, you went outside to a well. If you needed to use a toilet, you went outside to an outhouse (little wooden structure saddled over a deep hole in the ground). Some didn’t have an outhouse, like my maternal grandparents. You went out into the woods and did your business. Imagine no electricity. Many children would sleep on the wooden floor with sheets.
The school system, for Blacks, was quite basic. The children would attend school three months a year. That was during winter when there were no crops to tend to. The other nine months were spent in the field. The education consisted of reading, writing and arithmetic. There were no high schools for Blacks; education extended to the eighth grade. If you dared to go to high school, you would have to travel to Shreveport and board or stay with relatives. Two of my father’s sisters somehow made it through high school. That was so prestigious that they were given teacher certificates and began teaching school.
It was certainly rough. If a child became sick their chances of survival were slim. Just about every family experienced childhood death amongst their offspring. My father lost a brother and a sister to the flu. My mother’s oldest brother died before he was 10 years old. Healthcare was certainly Third World ,if it existed at all. Most couples strived to have many children to offset those who would not live to adulthood and, also to work the fields as free laborers.
Bossier Parish was typical of the rural South that was the venue for the vast majority of Blacks during pre-World War II. Take the above and mix it with pure, evil and debilitating racism. Our Jim Crow style of racism was so fierce that after World War II the White South Africans modeled their apartheid system after it. They found it most effective in suppressing a certain group of people. Southern Blacks were not full citizens nor were they protected by the U.S. Constitution. Our nation during this part of history was a sham of a democracy.
So when these young Black soldiers went to California, they started to realize what freedom means. No more rural areas but cities and growing towns with complete modern infrastructure. They saw a job market that was accepting all people regardless of race. Housing was plentiful. Communities were even starting to build public housing for the new residents to get a jump start on family life. Immediately, they started writing home about this new and sparkling California. From their word of mouth alone, Southern Blacks starting venturing out to the West Coast.
As the war ended, these Black veterans started settling in California. They sent for their loved ones. Wives, brothers, sisters and friends were joining these young veterans. Veterans had priority on all of the defense jobs that were recently created so it wouldn’t take long to find a good paying job.
Many would settle in clusters. Many of the Black students I grew up with had parents who grew up with my parents back in Bossier Parish. We would even develop Southern style “tribes.” The Texan migrants might have a football game with the Oklahoma migrants. We Louisianans might take on the kids with Arkansas roots. In all it was fun.
I ran across an old picture of my people which inspired me to write this piece. http://www.nationalbcc.org/news/latest-news/1935-a-time-to-celebrate