In honor of Black History Month we look at experiences of Lieutenant Wives in the U.S. Army.
President Harry Truman mandated integrated units in the U.S. Army for the Korean War, which began only a few years after the end of World War II.
By the spring of 1970 when my husband reported for active duty at Ft.Knox, the U.S. Army had thus been integrated for approximately 20 years.
Yet it was only six years since the implementation of the Civil Rights Acts in 1964, the Vietnam War was being fought (and hotly contested in the U.S.), and Ft. Knox was in Kentucky, a border state during the Civil War that began as neutral and then came under Union control.
Being from a small town outside Chicago and having attended college at Michigan State University, I was uneasy about going to what I considered “the South.” I expected, for example, that blacks (the proper term at that time) might still have to sit in the back of the bus in Louisville.
I accompanied my husband to Ft.Knox and we found an apartment near the post in Muldraugh, Kentucky. Then we wives of student officers were invited to a program to train us how to be good officers’ wives.
I volunteered to be the chair of the entertainment committee for the graduation luncheon for the wives of the men attending Armor Officers Basic with my husband. By some fluke of the universe, our committee consisted of me (a Northern Jew), a Southern Baptist who hadn’t met a Jew before, a black, and two Puerto Ricans (one of whom couldn’t speak English).
The five of us brought our racial, religious and regional prejudices with us. And those nine weeks the five of us spent together were truly eye-opening ones.
When I decided to write about these experiences, I realized the truth might hurt some people.
Instead I crafted a novel – MRS. LIEUTENANT – that stayed true to the experiences but mixed and matched elements of different people in order to protect the real people.
Ironically, some book reviewers accused me of purposely creating characters of different ethnic backgrounds as a “marketing strategy.” The truth is that this is what the U.S. Army was like in my experience – and this “forced” integration was very important for helping people, especially people from the South, to overcome their initial perceptions.
Here then is a scene from the chapter in the novel that introduces the black couple Wendy and Nelson Johnson as they approach Ft.Knox:
Nelson lifts one hand off the steering wheel and pats Wendy’s left arm. “Sweetie, it’s going to be fine. Heck, I’m an officer of the United States Army. I will be treated with respect and saluted and looked up to by the enlisted men and the rest of society.”
Wendy turns away from her husband for a moment so he can’t see her eyes. It isn’t his fault she’s from such a protected environment that she hasn’t been subjected to much prejudice. Now for the first time she might have to face what being a black in America really means. The thought terrifies her.
The night before they left South Carolina her papa called her into his study, the room that has always been the most comforting for Wendy, surrounded by his medical texts and medical school degrees and certificates. He sat behind his oversize mahogany desk in his red leather chair and she sat in a matching armchair facing him.
“Honey,” he said, “your mama and I have always tried to do the best for you. We’ve done some things right and I’m sure a whole lot of things wrong. And maybe some of those things we thought we did right were really wrong.”
What was he leading up to? She rubs her hands along the red leather armrests.
“We wanted you to be proud, proud of yourself and your race. And to do that we chose to protect you as much as we could from the real world as you were growing up.”
He fiddled with papers on his desk, creating several small piles from a single large one as if laying bricks end to end, then returned his attention to her.
“Your mama and I kept as much as we could from you of the truth about the treatment of black people in America. We didn’t want you to know how bad it can be.”
He paused again and Wendy thought about her rudimentary school learning of the slaves in the South, the aftermath of Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement. It had all been pretty much book learning, because in her own black community — and then later at an all-black college in Texas — she led a rather sheltered life, not exposed to the rest of the world. This move to Ft. Knox would be her first time truly in the white world.
Those experiences I had in 1970 have lessons for us today in terms of understanding the global citizens with whom we now come into contact.
Black History Month is important for helping us learn from the past so that we can have a better future.
Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller on Twitter and Pinterest) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and is the co-founder of the online marketing consulting company Miller Mosaic LLC.
You may read about her fiction and nonfiction books along with her volunteer military support projects at www.PhyllisZimblerMiller.com