McLaurin Oral History Interview with John L. LeFlore

[The following transcription was made from taped interviews with John L. LeFlore, 1970-1972. The tapes are part of the Melton McLaurin Collection at The McCall Library.]

Ms. LaVorne: Continuation on track 2 of taping session dated August 7, 1970. The next topic in the seamens' cases [concerns] obstacles placed in the way of a proposed hotel for colored seamen in Mobile. Would you care to comment please?

Mr. Leflore: Thank you Ms. LaVorne. The United Seamans' Service, which had housing facilities for American seamen throughout the world, established such a facility here for seamen during the war days. One has only to remember that German submarines were taking a heavy toll [on] allied shipping, including American ships, and that German dive-bombers would fly out to sea to attack cargo ships carrying war materials and food stuffs to Europe. This was very taxing physically [and] it was also a challenge to the nervous system of seamen. The United Seamens' Service, cognizant of that fact, began constructing or leasing facilities for American seamen in ports throughout the world. One such port was Mobile. The United Seamans' Service would set up a local committee. And, in this instance, the committee was composed of a large number of whites and three or four blacks. I think, if I remember correctly, the blacks were the late Dr. Benjamin F. Baker, I think, the retired school principal Mr. C. E. Powell, John L Leflore, and perhaps one other. The whites included your public officials, especially those who were connected with the city and with the county, and other prominent white citizens. The question arose as to the housing of the seamen. Those of us who were black…and who were the minority insisted that all of the seamen would be housed under the same roof. At that time, the place selected for a seamens' hotel was the building which is now occupied by the First Federal Savings and Loan Association on St. Joseph at St. Michael Street. It was known as the George Self Hotel. But despite the fact that black boys and white boys manned the ships, and when they were attacked by German submarines or dive-bombers that they fought and manned the guns together that were aboard the merchant ships, and if the ship happened to be hit, they bled and died together, the power structure here in Mobile at this time could not reconcile itself to feeling that there should be complete equality while these men were in port at home. The plea of the three or four blacks on the committee was turned down by a majority of the whites, including at that time city commissioner Ernest Megginson. And of course, Mr. Megginson's viewpoint was apparently not favorable toward housing the seamen under the same roof. So we had to set about to locate a place for black seamen, which we found on Dearborne Street between Dauphin and St. Francis. This facility was named the Dory Miller Seamens' Hotel. It was rather repugnant to us, quite distasteful in every particular, to have to submit to this sort of humiliation because those who represented the power structure at that time in Mobile could not accept the fact that all men are equal and that black seamen and white seamen should have been permitted to be housed together in American ports at home, just as they manned the ships together at sea, fought, bled and died together if necessary, when their ships were attacked by German submarines or German planes, in an effort to destroy what we regard as a democratic way of life by destroying the nations' military might and also the effort that we were making as Americans to feed Europe, especially that part of Europe which was allied with us in the war against the Germans at that time.

Ms. LaVorne: During the war and post-war years there were several efforts to open vocational training to Negroes. Two documents in the files are dated 11/11/1940 and 3/16/1946. Would you care to comment on these efforts to open vocational training?

Mr. Leflore: Yes I would, Ms. LaVorne. Apparently, blacks were taking a more serious attitude toward the necessity of developing the nation's full manpower productivity for the purpose of winning the war than [were] whites. We say that for this reason: there was discrimination against blacks about vocational training opportunities. This was an almost intransigent situation. Whites, those who were in authority, just would not capitulate (if we may use that sort of terminology) to the opening of equal vocational opportunities to black people. It became necessary for us to direct a letter of protest to the then National Defense Advisory Commission head, the late Sidney Hillman, on this question. And that was in 1940. Because of that and because of the efforts we continued to make before the War Manpower Commission and other federal agencies, also protests we continued to file with the president of the United States, we were finally given, as I mentioned previously, a school for training blacks in welding. The whites, who were being trained – [and] there were schools available for whites, oh yes, a lot of schools: in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile – they were being sent to high paying jobs as far away as Honolulu, Hawaii. But the only jobs that blacks could get anywhere would be in the most menial capacities as laborers, helpers, and similar categories. As I mentioned a few moments ago, we were able finally to get a welding school here and we were able to get in-plant training for blacks, and certain other limited number of skills.

When the war was over, these opportunities ceased to exist; the schools were discontinued. Then the veterans began coming back. Training was set up for white and black veterans on a dual basis. The only training that was available for black veterans who had fought in the Pacific or European theater[s] of the war was at a cooking and baking school. It certainly was an insult to the dignity of black people that our own government condoned and permitted this sort of condition to exist, which meant that all the black boys who desired training would take training to become cooks and bakers. The whites of course had training open to them which would prepare them for employment in the various skills of that time and day. As a consequence, we continued to file complaints here, people in other areas filed complaints, until finally this sort of school disappeared from the scene, that is the cooking and baking school for blacks. But for a long period of time, that was all for a number of years, throughout the post World War II period that was the only training available to Negro veterans returning from having fought for their country. It is interesting to note that in our files, as you have related, Ms LaVorne, is a letter from a black war veteran to us on 3/16/1946, in which he states:

"I am a veteran of World War II. I wish to attend a vocational school. I'm wondering why there isn't a vocational school here for the benefit of the colored race. We have about 150 men eligible for this type of training and no place to take up the training. In my case I am disabled to take the job I had before I entered the service."

Now we can well understand the frustrations of these people who have been out to fight a war for their country and to come back and find conditions in their country that were far more intolerable than perhaps the enemy itself would have imposed on them if they had remained on foreign soil. This is one of the hypocritical situations about American policy, or as we would say, American mores, as it relates to race relations affecting black citizens of our own country.
[End of first taping session, second interview]

Ms. LaVorne: Mr. Leflore, we understand that you have investigated at times incidents of personal violence such as lynching. Two such cases in the files are dated 5/28/1940 and 6/5/1940 in Mississippi and Tennessee. Would you care to comment on these cases and any other?

Mr. LeFlore: Thank you Ms. LaVorne. There had been some trouble up at State Line and Waynesboro, Mississippi, between whites and blacks at that period, and there was an attempt to lynch a black man at Stateline or Waynesboro, and there is of course close proximity between the two communities. We did go up there, when I say "we," I mean "I," went up there to cover an investigation and found that the whites had precipitated the trouble and that they had imposed on the blacks to the extent that some of the blacks resisted what was happening, and in their resisting it one man was thrown into jail and there was an attempt made to lynch this man. We had to go up there to cover the attempted lynching and to give a report at that time to the NAACP in New York and the Department of Justice in Washington.

We also covered in the same year, well we didn't cover this but we went to Brownsville, Tennessee, as part of a speaking tour for the NAACP. Brownsville is in Haywood County, and this county, of course, has more blacks than it does whites, even today. The question of blacks participating in elections was off limits. Whites just didn't intend for the blacks to register and vote and every effort was made to prevent them from doing it. At the time of my speaking engagement there, the blacks were urged by me to register to vote, that in the ballot there was power, power to rectify some of the injustices that had been heaped upon blacks over the years. The people took my advice. They attempted to register to vote after I had left Brownsville. The next week after I left they attempted to go down and register to vote. This so incensed white citizens of that community that several of the blacks were threatened. These people who headed up the NAACP effort, I recall very well that Reverend Buster Walker was president of the [Brownsville] NAACP at that time. While I was at the NAACP national conference in Philadelphia at this time, Reverend Buster Walker and several of the NAACP members had been forced to flee Brownsville because of threats to lynch them. One man was actually lynched there because of the efforts of blacks to get registered to vote. And these others fled for their lives to keep from being lynched in Brownsville because their only sin was they wanted to vote.

In a previous period, two years before that, we investigated the lynching of Wilder McGowan at Wiggins, Mississippi. Wiggins is the home of Dizzy Dean, the former Cardinals baseball pitcher. Wilder was lynched because of, from what we were able to uncover in our investigation, he resented the fact that white men, on weekends, would come into the Negro quarters (blacks stayed in quarters in Wiggins at that time) and would demand the better looking Negro girls. Of course this was for the purpose – their only purpose was to [take] the girls out to seduce them. This has been a very definite part of southern mores over the years. It was more pronounced a few years ago than it is today. A few years ago, up until about 1930, say at least forty or fifty years ago, many of the white men who were wealthy had two families. They had an illegitimate black family and their legitimate white family. But the black family gained nothing with the exception of having a few crumbs given to them by the white father who sired them, the children had only a few crumbs. In some instances, the white men did provide for their black children, sent them to various black colleges throughout the South, but in most instances this was not done. Wilder was lynched for an alleged crime that was later discovered was supposedly committed by a white man. But it never mattered because the black man's life had been taken and the community of Wiggins went about its business as if nothing had happened.

In 1946, I investigated the lynching of four people at Monroe, Georgia. This included George Dorsey, who had just come back from the Pacific fighting for democracy and who had done nothing whatsoever, his wife, and Roger Malcolm and his wife, Dorothy Malcolm. Roger was the only person who had done anything whatsoever. Roger had cut a white man for whom he worked. The man didn't die and the story as was told to us, or was told to me at the time of the investigation, that Roger was a sharecropper and he and the man for whom he worked had a dispute. The man lunged at Roger with a hayfork. Roger's agility enabled him to step aside and at the same time he cut his employer with a knife. As we said before, the man didn't die. Roger was put in jail at Monroe, Georgia. Monroe is just twenty-six miles from Atlanta. He stayed there until a [foreman?] in an adjoining county, Jay Loy Harrison, made an agreement with Roger's wife Dorothy, with the brother-in-law who had just returned from the Pacific, George. George Dorsey was Dorothy Malcolm's brother. The four people we mentioned were all members of the same family. There was Roger's wife, a very pretty little woman – not not Roger's, George Dorsey's wife – and the three of them, Dorothy, George, and his wife, went to the jail in Monroe with Jay Loy Harrison, the white [foreman?] of adjoining Appalache County, who paid Roger's fine, whatever sum was required to have him released. Mr. Harrison put the four blacks in his car and instead of going down the main highway toward Appalache County, Mr. Harrison went down a dirt road. There, a mob was waiting at the river bottom. A river separates Monroe and Appalache counties. The mob seized the four blacks and lynched them.

That was my assignment to cover and I went into Monroe, Georgia, the next day after the lynching. It was not a very pleasant experience, but it was one of the many challenges that people in civil rights have to fulfill if they are going to be true to the cause that they represent, of trying to make conditions better for all people irrespective of race, color, or creed. I stayed in Monroe for twenty-two hours to cover my investigation. The lynching of those four people shocked the nation. It was on July 26, 1946, Mr. Truman, at the request of the governor of Georgia, sent twenty-five FBI agents into Monroe. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation had seventy-five men into Monroe and the Monroe area. But the irony of the situation is that neither the highly regarded FBI nor the Georgia Bureau of Investigation came up with a clue to the lynching. A lynching that, in my judgement, if they had carefully questioned Jay Loy Harrison, could have been solved without any great difficulty. There is another irony of the story. The FBI could not pin anything on Jay Loy Harrison at that time, but the next year the same Mr. Harrison was arrested for making elicit whiskey and failing to pay a federal tax on it. This lynching was one of the ghastly and tragic happenings of the mid-twentieth century. We've had more than five thousand recorded lynchings in our country since the Civil War. Lynchings were a pastime in America until recently. We feel that any student or any citizen who does not know of this tragic and ghastly and fiendish part of our nation's history should get some books and read about lynchings that have occurred in our country since the Civil War.

Right here at Citronelle, a score or more years ago, we investigated the attempted lynching of a black man there. We also investigated the shooting down in the Grove Hill, Clark County jail of Moses Jones by the then sheriff Jenkins Hill, in what appeared to be an attempt by the sheriff to do away with persons who had allegedly been involved with him in a whiskey scandal in that particular county. We shall not go into details but it appears that the sheriff – in order to silence Moses Jones, who had agreed to testify for the federal government which had the responsibility of prosecuting Sheriff Jenkins Hill – had [Jones’] life snuffed out so that he wouldn't be able to talk, true to the adage of "dead men tell no tales." That these few incidents represent some of the many of a score of questions of violence that we had been assigned to investigate as a part of our responsibility to the civil rights cause. In covering the Monroe, Georgia, lynching, we were given, or I was given a citation for the thorough story that they claim we got at Monroe, Georgia. We have pictures of the victims of the Monroe, Georgia, lynching and would make them available to students or others on request.
[End of second interview]