Joe LaNier grew up in the Jim Crow–era South and served in the segregated Navy during World War II. All he knew was separate and unequal. Until he came to Denver.
The passenger train headed south after several overnight hours rolling through the rugged Wyoming landscape. Joseph LaNier reclined in his seat, his eyes fixed on the vast open Plains. He was on a 30-day leave and had to make it to Millington, Tennessee, for official discharge from the United States Navy in early February. Where they would stop along the eastbound route wasn’t clear, but LaNier’s ticket gave him a rough idea of the route: Portland, Oregon; St. Louis, Missouri; Columbus, Mississippi. He planned to get off in St. Louis for a few days to spend time with his brother and his brother’s wife. As the Plains rolled by, LaNier’s train approached Denver, a place he had never heard of before the conductor made the announcement onboard.
The train slowly rolled into Union Station on the morning of Thursday, January 3, 1946. Outside, the dull, low hum of the engines was interrupted by an occasional hiss as LaNier stood from his window seat. He left his bags on the train when the conductor said the stop would include a three-hour layover. LaNier put his wool Navy pea coat on over his blue dress uniform, the same one he had put on the day before in Oregon. On both his collar and his wool sleeves, stripes indicated his seaman, second class rank. LaNier fastened the coat’s oversized buttons and walked into the cold Rocky Mountain air. There was no snow on the ground, but it was frigid, the kind of cold that fills your nose and stings the lungs. He was the only black man who got off the train.