Black Vets Reflect on Desegregation; Racism Was in Civilian Life, but Opportunities in the Military Were Plenty

By Brumley, Jeff | The Florida Times Union, July 26, 2008 | Go to article overview

Black Vets Reflect on Desegregation; Racism Was in Civilian Life, but Opportunities in the Military Were Plenty


Brumley, Jeff, The Florida Times Union


Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

Few are likely more grateful to Harry S. Truman for desegregating the military - 60 years ago today - than James Tippins.

Tippins joined the Marine Corps in 1953 in search of solid job training and money for college. His plan was to serve just one hitch.

But things didn't quite work out that way.

As his three-year enlistment drew to a close, and not long after returning from the war in Korea, Tippins took his military electronics and communications training to Jacksonville, where he applied for a job with a telephone company.

"I will always remember this," he said. "The supervisor said, 'You probably are more qualified than most of the people working here, but I can only put a broom in your hands.' "

Tippins was astounded.

"I was a sergeant in the Marine Corps, and I didn't want no broom in my hand," the 73-year-old Northwest Jacksonville resident said. "So I didn't get out of the Marine Corps until I put my 20 years in."

That extended service meant a tour in Vietnam, where he fought through the Tet Offensive of 1968.

"We used to get hit every night," he said of mortar and rocket-propelled grenade rounds that showered onto his Da Nang base.

After that tour, he spent several years as a recruiter and instructor in Marine electronics and communications schools. He retired as a master sergeant in 1974.

The phone company experience was a wake-up call that the sweeping desegregation that Truman mandated in the military was still years away in the civilian population, especially in Jacksonville and the South, Tippins said.

That incident and many other off-base encounters with racism engendered Tippins' feeling of gratitude to Truman and an interest in the history of integration of blacks into the military.

Today, Tippins is president of the Jacksonville chapter of the Montford Point Marines, a black Marines veterans group. Its name comes from the base near Camp Lejeune, N.C., where African-Americans underwent recruit training until 1949.

Besides Truman, the post-desegregation veterans also are grateful to black vets who went before them.

"I've talked to a lot of the old fellas - they fought for the right to fight."

One of the people who fought for that right is William Surcey. The 89-year-old former Army master sergeant was an aircraft mechanic with the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. The all-black combat air unit struck fear in the hearts of Axis aviators in the skies over Europe.

Surcey said he didn't experience much racism in uniform, mainly because the Tuskegee Airmen - like most other African-American service members - were separated from their white colleagues.

The unit had its own bases, with all positions - from pilots and mechanics to police and air traffic controllers - filled by blacks.

Outside of all-black units, African-Americans were usually relegated to support and service roles, such as cooks or truck drivers.

But for Surcey, the exposure to racist America was suspended until the days before his release from the military in 1946.

"A white officer said, 'Now you can go back to picking cotton,' " Surcey said. …

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