Sometimes there are happenings in one’s life that can trigger emotional or behavioral changes that direct the remainder of life. I call these episodes, Gateway Incidents.
This month, I combine two stories that appeared in earlier published books. In Half Way Home from Kinderlou, I offered the story, “It’s About a Horse.” In my second book, Forks in the Road, I shared the story, “God and the Library of Congress.” Both stories combined into a ‘gateway incident’ that redirected my path to this day. In the book, I did not complete the second story, for I did not know where or how it would end. Now I know. It is repeated here for that purpose.
In July 1951, during the third week of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, I faced a dilemma that brought me face-to-face with despair. It has survived in memory as one of the most traumatic episodes of my life. To find peace of mind, I needed the help of God and the Library of Congress.
The lights in the barrack came on earlier than usual. It was the day my fellow trainees were scheduled to perform that duty which reinforces humility – kitchen police (KP). As the Flight Right Guide, an ‘officer of the training flight’ I was excused from KP. Furthermore, because there was a spare empty room in the barrack, it was assigned to me. That day I planned to use the brief free time and solitude to write letters home.
Shortly after lunch, Airman Bullock, the Flight Class Secretary, another flight officer who also was excused from KP, and I were summoned by Sergeant Hall, the Flight Chief (Drill Sergeant). He asked us to do a small research project at the library. “A couple of sentences on a couple of subjects” was all he said was necessary.
The walk to the library took about 10 minutes. During the stroll, Bullock admitted that he missed his family and home. But it was his remarks about research that caught my attention. He was a White male college graduate, and he talked and acted like others in my flight, of all races and ethnicities, who were educated. I figured he was probably rich too and had the kind of education good money buys. He remembered late night study sessions and the amount of time spent researching his thesis. Researching what? Whatever that word was—thesis—it was obvious that a couple of sentences would be easy for him. I was simultaneously nervous and exhilarated. The nervousness was more intense. I heard Bullock’s words, but my memory was focused on an event that a ten-year lapse couldn’t extinguish.
At the age of seven I had walked into the red brick “public” library on Central Avenue in Valdosta. The librarian gave me immediate attention by asking, “What can I do for you, boy?” I questioned, “Do you have a book about Black Beauty? It’s about a horse.” Her mouth didn’t close, and her stare remained fixed on me. She sought more information. “Did your ma send you here?” “No ma’am.” “Who is your ma?” “My mama’s name is Katherine.” “Katherine how much?” She was asking our last name. Her question was a holdover from slavery, when a Colored person’s surname identified his or her owner, and the number of persons owned was an indicator of “how much” the owner was worth. I didn’t answer the question, instead, I asked again for the book. Her response was, “Boy, you get out of here.” I left and headed homeward.
I had not gone more than a block when the light of reason flickered on. I was ordered to leave the library because I had used the front door. No wonder she told me to leave. Whoever heard of Colored people using the front door to important public buildings like the library, hospitals, restaurants, etc. Aware of my error, I returned to the building, found the back door and entered with the same confidence I always had when I was “in my place.”
The moment I stepped through the threshold, I heard an almost screaming voice. “Boy, what are you doing here again?” I was immediately contrite. “Ma’am, I’m sorry I used the front door.” The lady ordered me to stay put right where I stood. Her move to the telephone was swift, and after a hurried call, during which she talked excitedly, she remained at her desk but peered often in my direction to ensure my position hadn’t changed. Within minutes the front door flung open, and a White policeman entered in a sweat. The librarian spoke to him and pointed at me. I was very frightened. As he neared me, I wanted to be someplace else, but there was no other place for me to get the book I wanted. The officer grabbed my arm and said in a stern voice, “Boy, Miss _ told you to git. Do you want me to take you to jail?”
“No sir, but sir, I told her I was sorry I used the front door.” He seemed perplexed that, even I, so young, could make such a mistake. He clarified the basic problem. “Now listen to me boy, n—— ain’t allowed to use the front door, the back door, or anything else in this here library. Now get your black ass home, and don’t you ever come back.” I never went back.
Now, ten years later, I was going to the library at Lackland Air Force Base, this time with permission to enter. As we reached the door, Bullock offered, “If we finish quickly, I’ll treat us to refreshments before we return.”
The library was much larger than the last one I entered, and this time I had some questions of my own: Where did they get all those books? Who could ever read that much? But most important, how will I find the information for Sergeant Hall? I had a real problem. My frustration mounted as I saw Bullock dart through an aisle, apparently on a familiar course to the proper section. Another irony of this story is my memory of almost every significant detail—except the subject of my research. What I do recall is that the topic was a person, so when I think of the incident I use God as a substitute, a rather appropriate choice, since it was He who sent a rescuer—just as He always has done for me. I moved slowly through the huge shelves filled with books, looking for a clue that would solve my problem. I was a high school graduate, yet I couldn’t do a simple library assignment. It was an awful feeling. So many times, my civilian teachers had warned me of this day. They had even used part of their meager paychecks to purchase training aids to help students meet the challenge. Standing there in that library, I felt that I had done them a disservice, and a terrible harm to myself. I felt ashamed. I started to lie. I knew Bullock would soon finish, so I took a book from a shelf and opened it as I inched further into the maze of bound materials. Within minutes he tapped my shoulder to signal his readiness to depart. I told him I had found a good book that I didn’t want to leave right now, and I suggested he go alone for refreshments and that I would soon join him. I just couldn’t ask for his help. He was away in a flash. I was no closer to a solution of my problem than before I left the barrack. In fact, I was in worse shape. Back there, I didn’t know I didn’t know; here, I knew I didn’t. I felt uneducated and alone. One such experience per lifetime is all the human spirit should have to endure.
About a half hour later, someone stood behind me and asked, “Can I help you find something, airman?” It was the librarian—another White woman. By the grace of God, the line had been drawn from “Boy, get out of here right now,” to a gentle offer of assistance. The circle was complete; what went around had come around. Pride, and not common sense, answered the librarian. “Oh, no ma’am, I’ll find it myself.” She went away. I continued to lie. A half hour or so later she returned. “How’s it going, airman?” Exasperation softened my response. “OK, I guess.” “What’s your name, and where are you from?” “My name is Alexander, James Edward, and I’m from Valdosta, Georgia.” My disclosure to the librarian was one of the most important answers I’ve ever given, for I’m convinced she hastily pasted together fragments of the social order in 1951, and concluded: Valdosta, Georgia + colored child + racial segregation = no library experience. I could feel the librarian’s mind scrambling for an approach that would cause me the least pain. It was that split second when total strangers grant to each a moment of trust. The glint in her eyes flashed excitement. She had found a way. Looking at my bewildered face, she said, “I’m sorry I forgot to tell you about our new filing system. We changed to the Library of Congress filing system, and it’s probably quite different from the one you’re used to.” That was such a neat stroke. It gave me so many options to preserve my self-respect. When she offered, “Would you like for me to show you how the Library of Congress system works?” I accepted.
She pulled a drawer from a file cabinet and walked me through my first steps, just as a mother steadies a child to walk and expands the infant’s borders. My teacher then guided me directly to the publication I needed. To guarantee that my work would have a special quality for Sergeant Hall, she took the book and photocopied the appropriate pages, thus relieving me of another task I couldn’t perform – extrapolating what was salient. I thanked her, and as I fumbled for my fatigue cap and the doorknob, she looked at my relief and said, “Good luck to you Alexander, James Edward, from Valdosta, Georgia.”
I rushed to the street. My guts burned. I thought of Bullock and cold refreshments, but the burning I felt couldn’t be doused or relieved by ice cream and soft drinks. I found myself moving in the opposite direction. I needed time to think of another lie to satisfy Sergeant Hall. The more I thought of something plausible, the more I had to accept the reason for the thought process, and the more my belly ached. I had reached the edge of the giant parade field, and soon I was in the middle of the expansive ground. I felt safe. I sat and wept. Seventeen years of tears ran freely. When my eyelids cleared, I made a promise, a promise that my future would be different.
Sergeant Hall was angry, but before he could mete out any of his variety of punishments, I told him a master sergeant saw me walking alone and ordered me to help another crew of trainees move foot lockers. I was also saying to him, in an oblique way, that he didn’t send someone to do research who was dumb enough to say no to a master sergeant. He grumbled, but another lie had temporarily prevailed.
That night, when the KP workers reassembled at the barrack, my buddies from Valdosta were too tired to talk. I didn’t want to.
On Sunday, November 1, 1992, I returned to Lackland Air Force Base. Even though the parade field had been altered to accommodate more airplanes and a variety of flags, I knew where to find my spot.
It was a very private and personal moment. A little more than forty one years and four months later, I stood there as Alexander, James Edward, Attorney, and gave thanks to God for helping me keep the promise.