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The right to fight

When Old Sloane Williams was stepping high, Fort Benning stopped what it was doing. For if their drum major was prancing, the band of the 24th Infantry was sure to follow.

Sloane Williams and the 24th added show and sparkle to ceremonies on the undeveloped grounds of the old plantation. They also added color to an all-white Army.

Black soldiers in 1920 were carefully instructed how to travel the Jim Crow south. They were told where to stay and where to eat. Those coming by rail arrived at the Sixth Avenue train station where signs directed them to the waiting room, restrooms and water fountains they were expected to use.

The 24th's official designation was the Infantry School Detachment (Colored). White soldiers carried rifles, black soldiers carried shovels and hammers.

Their job: build Fort Benning.

The 24th lived in separate quarters and ate in separate messes. They were at a base named for a Confederate general, in a state that in 1918 led the nation in lynchings. They took what they were given with a respectful "yes sir."

The presence of the black soldiers would lead to change. Having them here would one day push Columbus to deal with race very differently from its sister cities.

The soldiers of the 24th built structures that became landmarks. But when they weren't working, they were not allowed on Main Post without a pass.

Resisting change

They were black. Their commanders were white. It was 1930 before the 24th had a black officer.

That same year, the post had two theaters -- one for whites, one for blacks. The white theater showed talkies. The black theater featured silent movies.

Walter White, a founder of the National NAACP, thought this unfair. He wrote Brig. Gen. Campbell King, the Fort Benning commander. King replied that he was following the custom of the community: segregation.

A month later, the black theater started showing talkies. In a second letter, White said the issue was separation, not films. The general argued that segregation was for the Negro soldier's protection, shielding them from insults and abuse they might receive if they associated with whites.

In an internal memo, King wrote this:

"Whatever reply be made in this question, I request that the Secretary of War employ every means within his power to protect the commander of this post in the policy of developing sound relationships within this command. No matter how great a pressure might be exerted in favor of breaking down the existing policy of segregation, I trust that such a change may be successfully resisted. If segregation breaks down, there is going to be trouble."

Some black soldiers worked at the Infantry School stables. "It was a lot better than cutting logs or hauling materials," noted L. Albert Scipio, the historian of the 24th.

Outsiders wondered why the 24th wasn't combat trained. Among them was Tuskegee Institute President Robert R. Moton, who wrote President Herbert Hoover.

"The original declaration was that these Negro troops from the 24th were transferred to Fort Benning as a special training unit. Whatever the original intentions, this program has been entirely abandoned. Negro troops at Fort Benning are without arms or equipment of any sort that could be used in training for combat service," Moton wrote.

A poem entered in a contest conducted by The Bayonet, the post newspaper, hints at how white soldiers viewed black soldiers. It is about a Negro nightclub.

"A hide beat flat

with a boogie bat

A Harlem gent

in a garrison hat

At Main and Twelfth

you'll send yourself

With the Bim Bam

Boogie Woogie."

Stereotypes carried over to the 24th's glee club. Scipio, a professor at Howard University, attended many performances because his father was a member of the unit. He detested Negro spirituals the choir was asked to sing.

During one performance, hidden behind the curtain, he stuck soloist Sgt. James Ross in the rear end with a pin.

"He hit High-C with the utmost ease," Scipio laughed.

A place to live

White Columbus saw Army green when soldiers came to town. It saw greenbacks too.

Black Columbus was no different.

Black soldiers needed places to live so black businessmen built apartments in an area called "Cashtown."

Wanting to do something for the black soldiers, locals talked to the presidents of Tuskegee and Morehouse. In 1935, their football teams began playing here -- a tradition that continues. It was a spin-off of the Georgia-Auburn football game, which was also played atMemorial Stadium.

E.E. Farley, a black developer and the son of a slave, recognized the need for a social center for the GIs. He approached Lizzie Lunsford, whose family owned a number of local businesses. She put up $15,000 of the $20,000 to build the first USO/YMCA for black soldiers in the country,

In 1944, Mrs. Lunsford's son Walter started the Red Bird Cab Co., the city's first taxi company for blacks. He opened a restaurant and an amusement center around the corner from the Ninth Street USO. Lunsford also distributed Foxy Beer, driving to Chicago to haul it back.

Around Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street, a person could play pool, get a haircut, try on a hat or buy insurance. There were doctors, dentists and lawyers. Popular entertainers played the Pierce Auditorium or the Masonic Hall.

It was called "The Magic Corner."

The same color

Army life resembled real life.

A black soldier was found hanging in a wooded area on post in 1941. Blacks said he was lynched. The Army said he killed himself. That same year, an MP shot a black soldier who sassed a telephone operator. The MP was acquitted.

Though ill prepared, the 24th Infantry left for combat in 1942. Two years later, the 555th Parachute Company was activated. The first black parachutists graduated in 1944.

"Fellows had one thing in mind: to show the world we were just as good," recalled Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Parks of Phenix City.

In 1948, President Harry Truman enacted Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the armed forces.

Ralph Puckett of Columbus was in the first integrated company in Korea. Two of the 73 soldiers were black.

"We were all Americans," he said. "The blood was the same color -- red. We all had the same aspirations. Everybody wanted to go home. Everybody wanted a better life for their kids."

Colin Powell was just another thirsty soldier.

He and his buddies were in a south side bar in 1958, and the bartender refused to bring Powell a beer. Fellow soldiers said he was a Ranger like they were, but no one listened. The barkeep would never have believed he was denying service to a future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State.

In his biography, Powell remembered 1964, shortly before passage of the Civil Rights Bill. He ordered a hamburger at Buck's Barbecue on Buena Vista Road.

"You're a Negro," the waitress said. "You'll have to go to the back door."

Later, the Civil Rights Bill became law. "I went back and got my hamburger," Powell wrote.

For Earl Woods, Benning was his first extended stay down South. His memory was a downtown shopping trip with four friends: two black, two white.

"We were in civilian clothes, just walking along," Woods said. "All of a sudden, a paddy wagon pulled up. Cops jumped out and threw us against the wall. They patted us down, handcuffed us, put us in the van and took us to a judge."

The judge acted quickly.

"You're two white guys and two black guys walking together," he ruled. "That's Disturbing the Peace. Guilty."

The fine was $37.50.

In later years, Fort Benning tried to deal with such issues. It created a Race Relations Unit. The Bayonet published articles on black history. The post marks the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. every January. The Infantry School developed a race relations course that was adopted across the Army.

Sometimes change requires a black man who has worn a green jacket in Augusta.

Earl Woods, who died in 2006, came back to Columbus in 1996, with his son. Tiger Woods had blown off an invitation to receive an award for being the nation's outstanding college golfer. The dinner was rescheduled and he returned to mend fences.

At the ceremony, Tiger received a handmade golf club from Howard Pitts, retired caddymaster of the Country Club of Columbus. Legends say Pitts would have been a world-class player if blacks had been allowed on golf courses. A photograph of that moment was in Pitts' funeral program.

That night, Tiger Woods received an award named for Fred Haskins, former golf pro at the country club. The selection committee was made up entirely of white men. They gave him a standing ovation.

Ditchfield made Columbus merchant see green


He came South in 1962, assigned to Fort Benning's Infantry Officer Basic Course. Here he met segregation.

"It hit me hard as I saw Jim Crow sitting on every fence," he says.

After Vietnam, Ditchfield commanded a company at Kelley Hill where he received a letter of indebtedness on one of his men, a black sergeant.

Not taking care of your bills was frowned upon, and Ditchfield told the NCO as much. But the soldier said he had paid the bill and had a receipt to prove it.

Ditchfield went to the furniture company in a shopping center off Victory Drive. Asking for the salesman whose name was on the letter, Ditchfield presented the receipt.

"The white man chuckled and said that the debtor was another soldier with the same name. They had discovered the mistake, but had done nothing to clear my man's name," he remembers.

Ditchfield was boiling.

He pointed out that the NCO could be court-martialed, not promoted or have his pay docked. He told the salesman he would personally bring his soldier into the store so they could apologize.

"I don't apologize to no n-----," the man said.

Ditchfield asked for the manager. He promised him that nobody from his battalion would come through his door again unless they apologized.

Ditchfield's man got his apology.

Columbus has dealt with black soldiers since Fort Benning had tents instead of buildings. Even then, the city recognized the benefits of the Army payroll.

An unseen benefit was the variety of life experiences that these soldiers brought with them -- ones that were new to Columbus.

Gary Sprayberry, a history professor at Columbus State University, says military installations "stir the racial pot."

"African-American troops from Northern and Western cities weren't accustomed to the rigors of segregation and would occasionally lash out against it -- and rightly so," he says. "Donning the uniform and risking your neck for your country made African-American soldiers more determined to fight for civil rights and correct the ills of Southern society."

We bear fruit in so many ways. Like their white counterparts, many black soldiers set up shop here after retiring from the Army.

Last week, a local cafe reserved a table for lunch. After 17 years, Rufus Riggs was retiring as director of public services. But this had nothing to do with the Columbus Consolidated Government. These men were friends of long standing.

Chairs were taken by vets whose eyes were no longer bright. A cane leaned against the table.

They were black and, like Riggs, they were command sergeants major. Around the table were memories of wars and more than 300 years of service.

Thanks to Fort Benning, they're our neighbors.