Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, I published serial blog pieces on a controversial historical aspect of Greenville, Texas entitled: The Blackest Land and the Whitest People. These pieces aroused great interest and passions, eliciting thousands of hits and many comments.
Many of us lived through the tumultuous civil rights crusade of the 1960s. Those convulsive changes in the U.S.A. are better understood by learning the personal experiences of those involved. Toward this end, Dutch Bouwman now offers his searing experience of when he first confronted racism. As a product of the upper Midwest and naive to segregation, he and his fellow Air Force African-American friend experienced first hand the overt racism of Mississippi in 1964.
Following his time at the Greenville, Mississippi Air Force Base, Dutch Bouwman served as a medic in Vietnam in a helicopter evacuation unit and later went on to become a Naval officer, attending the Naval Fighter Weapons School, Top Gun. Following his many years of service in the military, Dutch became a successful regional manager for a large investment firm. His story provides insight into those difficult times. I am pleased to share Dutch’s guest blog piece.
1964: My First Racist Experience
by Dutch Bouwman
I graduated high school in May, 1964. I was as green as grass. Three days after graduation my father dropped me off at the Air Force recruiting station in Watertown, S.D. That same afternoon the recruiter drove me to Sioux Falls where I spent my first night as an independent adult, at the ripe old age of 17.
The next day I took my first airplane ride from Sioux Falls to San Antonio. When I stepped off the plane, the first black man I had ever seen greeted me. I was to be in his care for 6 weeks of basic training. He was big, very black, gruff and profane. In fact he seemed particularly proud of his profane language and practiced it with gusto on the new recruits.
Even at 71-years of age I can still recall his face clearly. He carried a large cauliflower nose and the biggest, most porous looking lips I had ever seen on a man, which earned him the nickname of “liver lips” from the other black NCOs. He was my Momma and Daddy for the next 6 weeks. I never thought to consider why only the other black NCOs called him “liver lips.”
In the next few hours, I was to meet more young black men who were part of my training flight. We all lived in open bay barracks and slept in bunk beds. I don’t recall any specific issues that arose in the group other than 2 bunk mates, one from Ohio and the other from Tennessee who became immediate close friends, and fought like brothers, often referring to each other as “you damn yankee” or “you damned rebel.” Being all in the same boat and under the leadership of black NCOs who often referred to each other with derogatory racial language, the subject of race or racism never the less remained obscure.
I finished basic training in August and on a Friday afternoon arrived at my next duty station- Greenville AFB, Greenville, Mississippi where I was to attend basic medical training school. Early the next morning the first of my classmates arrived. Since we were the first of the class to arrive, we shared a semiprivate room on the lower deck of the barracks. He was from a small town in New England and was just 2 months past his 18th birthday. Since all our belongings fit into our duffel bags, getting settled was not a difficult chore. We were both alone and lonely, far from home, and found ourselves with free time for the first time in several months.
After we became acquainted, we went to the mess hall for lunch and saw a poster that advertised a free Air Force bus ride from the base to downtown Greenville, MS. There also happened to be a tantalizing advertisement for a movie house. Thinking a movie and maybe some ice cream sounded good, we caught the next bus leaving from the base. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention my roommate was black.
On reaching town We stepped off the bus and set out to find an ice cream parlor or soda fountain, as we had some time to waste before the movie started. No one could have prepared me for the events that followed in the next several hours.
We found a soda fountain and stepped inside. Everyone turned and looked disapprovingly at us. Before either of us could say a word, the man behind the counter poked his head over the counter and barked at me, “you get him out of here!” Shocked and not understanding what had happened, we left and walked on down the street until we came to a drugstore and again went inside, this time admittedly with some trepidation. The man behind the counter asked us what we wanted, using an accusatory tone.
“We want to buy a coke.” I said. I don’t remember the proprietor’s specific reply but he informed me that my black friend could go to the “black store” at the end of the street if he wanted a drink, but I could buy my coke there, so long as I didn’t cause any trouble. Completely confused and deeply embarrassed for my companion I bought two bottles of soda, went outside, handed one to my friend and we very quietly headed down the street toward the movie house.
I wish I could recall my new friend’s name, but it was too long ago. I recall asking him if he knew what we did wrong. All I remember is that he told me his mother and father had warned him about the challenges of being black in the south but he added that he really hadn’t believed them when they had said it.
Still naïve to our situation we arrived at the movie house. Again we were met by an angry stare by the male ticket seller and had to twice request tickets before we received a response. The man said, “$1” and then stuck out his hand. We each paid and started for the lobby when the ticker seller stuck his head out the booth door and said to me, “You sit downstairs, he goes up stairs.” By then three times the people we had encountered had spoken only to me and each time it had been apparent that I was expected to pass on their directions to my companion.
“Can I sit upstairs with my friend?” I asked the ticket seller.
“I don’t care where the hell you sit,” he responded, “but he goes up in the balcony.”
Not having any idea what to say, I followed my friend up into the balcony and sat down.
There were perhaps only 5 or 6 other black people in the balcony and me. Several minutes passed, some low muttering could be heard among the balcony’s movie goers and then several of them got up and left before the movie started. I didn’t have a clue then but now, I presume, they were avoiding the potential for trouble.
The movie was a rerun of a western. When it was over, we walked down the staircase and out of the movie house and into the street. It was hot outside and it took several moments for our eyes to adjust to the brightness. We gradually became aware of a small crowd of men gathered in front of the theater. We sensed something was wrong and turned to walk away in the opposite way. Several of the men followed us, caught us, and grabbed at our arms. They forcibly turned us around and demanded, “What do you think your doing?” In this instance, I noticed the men were addressing not just me but both of us.
I sensed we were likely in real trouble and in spite of being scared out of my wits told them we were in the Air Force and just wanted to see the movie. That gave them momentary pause and they then asked where we were from. I explained I was from the Midwest and had only the day before arrived in town for training with the Air Force. I followed that information up by telling them we would only be around for 8 weeks and then move on to new duty assignments. My companion wisely said nothing.
I could sense their indecision, and I thought we might get out of there without a physical confrontation. But soon after several of the men shoved my friend by pushing on his shoulders. Just how it had escalated so quickly and how we got out of it, I don’t recall. What I do know is feeling grateful that we both were fast runners.
It was perhaps 5 or 6 blocks to the Air Force bus stop. Our timing proved incredibly fortunate, because as we closed in on the bus stop, the bus was waiting with its door open. By the time we had darted into the bus, the angry townsmen were no more than 15 to 20 steps behind, and I might add proudly, losing ground to us. The bus driver realized what was happening, because he slammed the door immediately and sped off toward the base. I could see the angry townsmen standing on the curb, yelling obscenities at both the Air Force and us, and throwing rocks at the bus for good measure.
While catching our breath, I remember my black friend’s comment between gasps for air, “Man, those guys don’t like black people!” Neither of us left the base again during the 8 weeks we were stationed at the base in Greenville, Mississippi.
Neither of us had heard of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman or James Chaney, civil rights workers that had been killed by the Ku Klux Klan several months earlier in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a mere 2-hour drive from Greenville. We were completely naïve concerning the local expectations for a black man accompanied by a white man in Greenville, MS in 1964. After all we had simply wanted to buy some ice cream and attend a movie together. We had no idea that we were making a political and cultural statement.
What is especially sad for me is that even though we were roommates, our relationship changed. It became tainted by that unfortunate racist experience. I tried to speak with my roommate about our shared scary confrontation but both of us felt awkward speaking about it. As a result we never were able to clear the air.
I don’t think it was necessarily his fault or mine that we were not able to overcome that awful experience. What is clear to me is that when people are touched by evil it leaves its mark. Perhaps that is why racism proves so difficult to deal with as a nation. Whether or not we as individuals are guilty of racism, the mark is still upon us so long as racism exists.