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3 The Road to War In 1940, Gene Johnston cut a handsome fig­ ure in his new uniform. He was twenty-­five years old and would soon go to war as a white commander of an all black unit of the Buffalo Soldiers. Like many black and white Ameri­ cans, his first war was a war against poverty. The Great Depression hit Gene’s family especially hard. They had food and shelter, but little more. Gene was born in 1915 and grew up in a segregated South. Gene’s house was not far from the largest black community in Chattanooga, and the streetcar let out all those returning to the black neighborhood nearby, where they cut through his street to get home. Black and white people in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had separate schools, churches, and restrooms, and they rarely associated with each other.1 Segregation was a normal part of the young Gene’s life. He grew up within the racist South­ ern culture and internalized many of its assumptions. Gene did not see a contradiction between the city’s segregated facilities and playing with his black friends like Vann Dee and accepting them as equals. When Vann Dee died young, Gene and his friends went to the funeral and sat with his parents all night at his house. Gene learned the polite term for his black companions was “colored.” South­ erners were used to this sort of racial blindness and being able to feel like they held no prejudices while at the same time believing certain racist assumptions.2 Along with the experience of close childhood friendships with African Ameri­ cans, he cherished the knowledge that one of his own ancestors freed his slaves. His strong faith in Christianity motivated him to treat everyone with respect. A frightening incident made Gene sharply aware of how vulnerable African Ameri­cans were to violence by South­ern whites. When he was in high school, he was part of a minstrel group and saw nothing odd about performing in blackface. One evening after a show, he and his friends decided to stop in Ducktown for something to eat. A sign in the town warned, “No niggers here. Stay out.” While he was waiting in the car, a group of hoodlums pulled him out and began to beat him up, thinking he was black. Gene tried frantically to wipe off his face paint to convince them that he was white. Only when his friends returned did the gang back off. But also a regular part of Gene’s youth were the warm summer evenings when 14 / Chapter 3 the Ku Klux Klan would gather on a large field in East Chattanooga. Gene and his white friends would drift over to hear their speeches. In fact, virtually every­ one in his community attended, except the black families who sealed their windows and doors tightly shut. A number of Gene’s neighbors were undoubtedly beneath those white hoods. He never actually saw any burning crosses, but he saw their charred remains.3 Gene’s parents were poor working-­class people. His mother, Julia, was the oldest of seven daughters. From the time she was only eleven years old, she would leave home each morning before sunrise with a lantern to find her way to the hosiery mill where she worked for many years. When she got older, she became a forelady at the mill. During the Depression, she lost her job and stayed home. Gene’s father Fred was head machinist at the United Hosiery Mill. Gene, his brother, Walter, and his sister, Harriet, were all born at home. The Johnstons had scrimped and saved every dime to buy the property at 2500 Stuart Street. They built a shotgun house on the site, with plans to build a larger house when they could afford it. The Depression killed that dream.4 In high school, Gene joined the Reserve OfficerTraining Corps (ROTC), and became a captain of C Company, the winner in the 3rd Army competition for drill. Since Gene could not afford to attend a university, and he had no promising employment opportunities, he decided to join the army. The war was beginning in Europe, but the draft had not started yet.5 Gene thought he was probably destined to be a soldier. One day he drove his shiny roadster car to Fort Ogle­ thorpe, Georgia, which was ten miles from Chattanooga.The recruiting office was on the highway by the number two gate. While Gene...


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