Prior to his deployment to Korea in the early 1950s, a friend named Bernie was on his way home one steamy Southern day. Just 19, he’d grown up in the North and had just completed basic training down South. He was eager to get home to see his family before shipping out overseas.
Dressed in his stiff khakis, he was waiting at a bus depot in South Carolina on a day of triple-digit temperatures. His starched collar was tight around his neck, and as he entered the depot, he looked longingly at the air-conditioned waiting room on one side of the building.
Then he turned toward the cramped, stifling room marked “Colored”, went in and politely ordered a cheeseburger at its small counter.
The members of his family, like many African-Americans, had a wide range of skin colors because of a heritage of African, Native American, and European ancestry. The options this gave him as a light-skinned man were quickly brought to his attention when the man behind the counter leaned over to talk. The older man lowered his voice and told Bernie, “Now look, son, there’s no reason for you to get that nice uniform all messed up in here where it’s too hot to breathe. You’re serving your country; you deserve a break. Nobody here’s gonna know the difference if you go over there with the white folks and have your lunch where it’s cool. Go get comfortable before you take that long ride home,” he urged.
The roomful of people grew quiet as Bernie thanked the man, then told him, “I’m happy to stay right here.” His reply drew warm smiles, nods, and “God bless yous” from around the room. He was enjoying the first few bites of his lunch when two white police officers strode into the room. The lively chatter instantly ceased as the two made their way toward Bernie.
He braced himself for whatever might be coming, then was completely surprised by the placating tone of the officer who did all of the talking. “Now son, you’ve obviously made a mistake. We know you’re probably not familiar with the way we do things around here. There’s no reason for you to stay here where you surely don’t belong. You just take your lunch there and come on over next door where you can be cool and comfortable.”
When Bernie started to explain that he was happy to stay where he was, the man behind the counter gave him a warning look. So Bernie stopped talking.
Then the police officer continued, “Now, we sure don’t want any trouble here, son. You’d best come with us and be with your kind, where you belong.” The policeman’s tone had grown much sterner, Bernie noticed, echoing through the complete silence in the room.
The young soldier shrugged and rose to comply with the policeman’s request.The one who had done the talking stooped to lift Bernie’s duffel bag to his shoulder, and the other policeman carried Bernie’s plate and glass of milk carefully. Every set of eyes in the room was watching as the officers escorted the young black soldier as deferentially as if he were a visiting dignitary.
The most memorable moment came after the room’s double doors closed behind the three men. There was another beat of silence, and then the entire room broke into a chorus of delighted cheers and applause. Bernie, now a grandfather, says that he imagined that a great many of his ancestors were cheering right along with them.