Anoka County History: An Anoka solider sees Jim Crow with his own eyes

By Rebecca Ebnet-Mavencamp
Contributing Writer

Anoka County has suffered the loss of yet one more World War II vet, one more storied mind, one more history-keeper … the one and only, Tom Ward.

Tom served as a volunteer and on the Board of the Anoka County Historical Society for over 10 years. One of the most memorable and public-facing tasks Tom took upon himself over the years was writing columns filled with memories, stories, and research. As a tribute to him and the time he donated to the documentation of Anoka County history, we would like to reprint some of his thoughts for the next couple of weeks.

Glad to be raised in Anoka County

(originally printed in 2011)

During World War II, several Japanese POW camps were built in Minnesota. We were told this was the least prejudiced part of the country. I liked that a lot.

Back in the 1930s, on the sidewalk in front of the old city hall in downtown Anoka, there was a black man with an old popcorn machine that made the very best popcorn. He was there for many summers. People would come from all over for the popcorn or just to see him. Everyone loved his popcorn.

When I entered the Air Force Cadet program in July 1943, I was sent to the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. One of my first friends was a young man who happened to be from St. Louis. One day, we were walking to the main PX and had to go by four large swimming pools. As we walked by, all four pools were filled with black soldiers — and only black soldiers. I mentioned this fact to Joe and he told me that it was because it was Thursday and that was the only day that they were allowed to use the pool. On Thursday evenings the pools were drained and cleaned so that white cadets and officers could enjoy them on the weekends. That was my first experience with racial prejudice.

Our next move was to Drury College in Springfield, Missouri. Our first Sunday there we went to Mass downtown and on the way out after Mass I mentioned to my same friend that all of the back rows were black worshippers. He told me that is where they belonged. I told him how awful that was and he told me that the Protestant churches didn’t let them in at all. They had to go to their own churches. Again, this was in 1943.

My next experience was after I became an officer. I was stationed at Drew Field in Tampa, Florida. I was in town and decided to return to the base. The base bus was not subject to the same Jim Crow laws that forced black people to sit in the back of city busses. As I entered the bus there was a three stripe sergeant sitting in the front row, he was black. Two white master sergeants kicked him out of his seat and tried to send him to the back of the bus. As a 20-year-old officer, I pulled my own rank and said, “Excuse me soldiers, I’m sitting with my friend.” They snorted, moved to the back, and shut up. I told the sergeant, who was about 35 or 40 years old, that I was sorry. He thanked me, but told me that he was quite used to it. He was just back from Europe and had a chest full of medals.

I had never experienced these things growing up in Anoka and Minnesota. I’m so glad I was raised in Anoka County.