Stories of the past two months featured events during a significant period of my life — 20 years of active duty in the U. S. Air Force. Those stories appear in my book titled, Forks in the Road. This month I share the experience that prompted me to take the fork in the road that guided me to this day. I did not travel alone. My guides were:
God and the Library of Congress
Important link to the Story of the Month for February: On that Sunday afternoon in June 1951, when we recruits arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, seventy of us were organized into the training unit designated Flight 1607, under the leadership of Sergeant Wayne Hall, Flight Chief. I was selected to the position of Flight Right Guide, a flight officer.
On a day when Flight 1607 had KP duty, flight officers were excused. Sergeant Hall summoned me and another flight officer, Airman Bullock. 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. Bullock and I became research assistants.
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 got my attention. He was a White male college graduate, and he talked and acted like others in my flight 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 nervousness and exhilarated. The nervousness was more intense. I heard Bullock’s words, but my mind was dominated by a memory that a ten-year lapse couldn’t extinguish.
At age 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?” Her sharp voice shocked me, and I forgot the author’s name. I questioned, “Ma’am, 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 vestige of slavery, when a slave’s surname identified his or her owner. The number of persons owned was an indicator of “how much” the owner was worth. During that period of racial segregation her remark was intended as just another reminder that the value of Colored folks was still determined by White folks. She was unaware that so many Colored folks in my community, who were too illiterate to read her books, were otherwise smart enough to teach me that my value as a human being was not subject to her appraisal. I didn’t answer her question, instead, I asked again for the book, and even remembered the author. “Miss, the lady who wrote the book was Anna Sewell.” Her response was, “Boy, you get out of here.” Confused, I left and headed homeward, but after a couple of blocks I headed back. I reasoned that she ordered me to leave the library because I had used the front door. Colored people used separate entrances to important public buildings like the hospital, the court house, etc. I returned to the building and entered the back door 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. She moved swiftly to the telephone and made an excited call while keeping me in focus to ensure my position didn’t change. 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 and 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 I still didn’t understand the protocol. He was emphatic. “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, I was enroute 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 at Frosty Fred’s 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 importantly, 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, looking for a clue that would solve my problem. I was a high school graduate, yet I couldn’t do a simple library assignment. Not having access to the public library, my civilian teachers had even used part of their meager paychecks to purchase training aids to help students meet the challenge. I had not been as diligent as I should have. Standing there in that library, I felt that I had done my teachers a disservice, and a terrible harm to myself. It was an awful feeling. I felt ashamed, and I started to lie. Within minutes Bullock 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 and that I would soon join him. I just couldn’t ask for his help, even though 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 know. I felt uneducated and alone.
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. Pride, and not common sense, answered the librarian. “Oh, no ma’am, I’ll find it myself.” She went away. I continued to lie. After another long spell she returned. “How’s it going airman?” Exasperation softened my response. “OK, I guess.” She sensed my turmoil. “What’s your name, and where are you from?” My name is Alexander, James E., and I’m from Valdosta, Georgia.”
Every thought of this incident convinces me that 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 expand 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 E., from Valdosta, Georgia.” I rushed to the street.
My guts burned and I found myself moving in a direction opposite the barrack. A couple of blocks later I reached the edge of the giant parade field and quietly selected a temporary haven near the display of vintage World War II aircraft. I sat and wept. Seventeen years of tears ran freely.
Finally, when there was a brief clearance in the storm clouds of my predicament, I stood, and I swept the ground with my brogan boots and covered the wet spots of my despair. In that gesture I symbolically recognized the pain of the past, and I gave myself a clean slate to chart a new direction. And then I prayed for help; for a chariot to “swing low” and lift me out of a cavern of ignorance. My boot print also helped me fix the spot where I vowed to return, with God’s help, at another time, as another person.
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 41 years and four months later, I stood there as Alexander, James E., Attorney at law, and gave thanks to God for helping me keep the promise.