Black Soldiers in America’s Race War

Had my grandfather been in Durham during the 1930s and 40s, Pettigrew Street is where you would have found him. The strip along Durham’s first railroad tracks was lined with dance halls, restaurants, movie theaters, and liquor houses. Hayti’s entertainment district was black-owned and financed by black investors and black banks. Places like The Donut Shop, The Regal Theater, and the Biltmore Hotel attracted greats like Malcolm X, Zora Neal Hurston and Duke Ellington. Alcohol induced fights became so rampant on Pettigrew Street that folks likened the area to the Wild West and the area earned the nickname, “Mexico.”


Pettigrew St. 1940s

Grandpa talked about skirmishes he had with the white boys in Boston aka “The Jungle”. I stood in awe of Grandpa’s “stick lick’n” stories: crotch-grabbing, eye-poking and head-butting. Grandpa gave my brother and I lessons on how to fight like a “Bajan”. We never even playfully tried to fight back. Sometimes, Sean or I would end up in tears. Grandpa pulled my hair too hard and Sean got bit once. We couldn’t always tell when he had too much to drink.

During World War II there were 40,000 soldiers stationed at Camp Butner just 20 miles north of Durham. African American soldiers came to Hayti on passes with money to burn. The war made the need to blow off steam on Pettigrew Street doubly great. Soldiers were fighting for freedom abroad yet continued to endure the degradation and racial violence of Jim Crow at home.

Manhood is Patriotic
When Grandpa’s war stories got too tall, Grandma never failed to remind him that he never actually saw any action. “Mind your business Agnes!” It meant the world to him to have worn the United States naval uniform [if only for a short month]. “I was born in America. I fought for this country!” Grandma immigrated from Barbados and became a naturalized citizen in 1953. Because of The Depression, Grandpa was sent to the island as a boy to live. My grandparents were in constant competition over who was more worthy of their American citizenship.


Agnes and Lawrence Darlington January 15th, 1947

Racial tensions were at their highest during the war. A year earlier, race riots in Detroit threatened the war effort. Meanwhile, northern soldiers both Black and White, publicly contested segregation laws in the south. On July 8, 1944, army volunteer, Private Booker T. Spicely was in uniform when he boarded a bus along with two other White uniformed officers, a Black woman and her daughter. Spicely refused to move to the back of the bus. “If you weren’t a 4-F you wouldn’t be driving this bus” he told Herman Council, the White bus driver. A 4-F classification meant Council was unfit for military service. Spicely had insulted a White man’s patriotism and manhood.


Private Booker T. Spicely age 35

Double V is Double Deadly
In addition to belittling Grandpa’s wartime heroism, Grandma would send Sean and I to the bar-room to fetch him. She hoped our presence would shame him sober. Grandpa’s drinking got worse over time. When he retired from Domino Sugar after 44 years he had lots of time and money on his hands. He and his Puerto Rican buddy drank his pension away. Now that his children were grown, and the house was paid off Grandpa no longer hid his addition. If the gout in his legs bothered him, he simply drank more to cure it.

Spicely apologized to the driver before exiting the bus, but the damage was done. Council, known for his hot temper and on-the job drinking shot an unarmed Spicely with his .38 caliber handgun. Segregated white Watts hospital stood just out of reach of a dying Spicely. He arrived too late at the Colored hospital. The death certificate read “Dead on arrival.”

Grandpa sat glassy-eyed in the passenger seat of Izzy’s car. His eyes were open but not moving. His loose unshaved cheeks were cold. His breath reeked of alcohol. Squeamish, I dialed 911 while others tried to revive Grandpa with mouth-to-mouth. Grandpa was rushed to the hospital the nearest hospital. He too was “Dead on arrival”.

Peace, Be Still
It took an all-white jury only 28 minutes before finding Council “Not Guilty” by reason of self-defense. Blacks did not wait for this unjust verdict nine and a half weeks later. Within hours of Spicely’s murder, the old tobacco auction houses in downtown Durham were ablaze. It took 3,000 servicemen to extinguish the mammoth flames. Dozens of cows and horses were burned alive. The buildings were reduced to smoldering embers. Property damage was estimated at close to half a million dollars. No one was arrested or convicted for this reciprocal act of arson. Law enforcement and the community were hushed. Durham’s spirit of cooperation between the races endured.

Our family was relieved. Thank God, Grandpa’s drinking didn’t hurt anyone. Or worse, make us lose the very house his GI bill made possible. Grandpa had gone down by his own doing. No one pushed him. He had everything. At least everything a black man born in 1920 should want.








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