June 19, 2013
Posted on Nov 11, 2009
“Especially since it gets spilled enough here at home.” Yates stirred her coffee.
“My uncle was one of the Black Rattlers, you know about them?”
“The 369th, sure. They fought the longest with the French on the front during World War I.”
“Yeah,” Crimpshaw talked around more of his food. “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they seen Paree,” the ofays sang once the negro troops got home – the ones left alive at least. Plenty of them got chewed up in that goddamn slaughter ground of the Argonne Woods and what not.”
“Including your uncle?” She held the cup half way to her mouth.
“He lost a leg and an eye,” Crimpshaw confirmed. “But he and his pals, damn near 200 of them, got their medals. The frogs awarded them the Croix de Guerre, the Cross of War. That sure got the white boys riled up with jealousy.”
“Yes,” she concurred, “I’ve read accounts of the rioting by white against returning black soldiers. Men who came back home and assumed that their sacrifice overseas would mean something better for them here. That they would respect us for doing our share.”
A silence extended between them. The raucous sound of the men playing dominoes came to them as if through a heavy fog. Then Crimpshaw spoke, “And that’s the reason you can’t be looking into this mess, Alma.”
“This may not be some old wife’s tale,” she said. “This is about a persistent rumor that the United States Army willingly participated in, and covered up a secret fatal experiment of 20 negro soldiers after a violent altercation at Fort Huachuca.” She frowned at her cooling coffee as if it were wheat paste suitable for gluing.
“And you want to be the one to break the big story? The first colored reporter to earn herself a whatdoyoucallit, Pullzer?”
“Yeah. Or maybe that nigger hatin’ Jew Jack Warner will make a movie out of it, and you can be played by Lena Horne or that gal I saw in that Herb Jeffries cowboy movie.”
“Are you scared I’ll embarrass the Brotherhood by talking with Mr. Bascome, or what white folks will say if some part of this is true?”
“The union will survive because we’ve come through hell to get what’s due us, Miss Yates. But we also understand when to confront and when to compromise when larger matters are at stake. And you stirring this up is bound to have negative repercussions among those we’re trying to motivate. The Tuskegee airmen are itchin’ to fight, Alma. We got fellas that have trained and re-trained for combat in all its forms. This dam is about to break.”
“Then Bascome won’t hold that back,” she countered. “Have you talked with him about his brother? The one I understand was supposedly one of the murdered men?”
Crimpshaw blew out a loud gust of air. “Not directly. But I heard he tied one on one night and was going on about it. But it’s not like Bascome’s got the straight dope, he wasn’t there you know. His mother got a letter from the War Department saying his brother died in the service of his country.”
“Had his brother shipped out?”
“Don’t know many more particulars than that.”
“I’m not out to hurt our cause,” Virgil,” she soothed. “But there’s been bad incidents at several bases, Fort Dix, Fort Bragg, and I hear Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi is a powder keg waiting for the match to be struck.” She gestured forcefully. “At Freeman Field in Indiana, 100 negro officers were arrested for trying to enter an officer’s club reserved for whites. They’d planned this to show just how hypocritical the Executive Order really is. That no matter what we do, Jim Crow is the order of the day no matter where we find ourselves. So I’m not saying I believe or don’t believe this story. But it’s persisted for months now on the negro grapevine. The fact that the Department of the Army hasn’t done more than say there’s nothing there, has left a very unsatisfied taste in a lot of mouths.”
Crimpshaw put up a hand as if trying to hold back gravity. “Good to see you get passionate about something.”
“I see,” was his subdued reply.
“I’m no man-hater, Virgil,” she smiled and he could feel it all the way back to Arkansas. “I like to have fun too.”
“That mean you’d consider accompanying me to see Prez at the Five Spot Thursday night? I haven’t seen Lester Young wail on his sax since he and that singer, Gil Giabretto, played the Cotton Club a couple of years back.”
“If I get to talk with Mr. Bascome.”
“You drive a hard bargain, woman.”
“I have no choice.”
He sighed but he knew he was going to give in. He’d been in knockdowns with Pullman’s goons and kept swinging until his arms were too heavy to lift. But the turn of an ankle and a pretty girl’s smile got through his defenses every time. When would he learn. “Okay, but for chrissakes, don’t let this get back to the Chief.”
“It won’t, at least not from my end.” She finished her coffee, watching the man over the rim of her cup. He was a little too taken with himself, but there was a forcefulness to him she found appealing. As the steam warmed her face, she was glad her mother, Clara, wasn’t witnessing this. What would she say about her properly raised daughter flirting with a known red labor agitator. What indeed?
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