A Place Called Home
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.
Joseph Conklin LaNier II was born Thursday, March 25, 1926, inside the bedroom of a rented home six miles from the center of Columbus—population 3,000. Outside, two magnolia trees swayed in the wind; inside, a midwife helped 34-year-old Savilla LaNier deliver her fifth child. A kerosene lamp stood nearby.
There was no doctor to announce the time of his arrival or his official length and weight. After the birth, the midwife walked across the wooden floors to the front door and back to her house two miles away. One month later, the LaNiers filed baby Joe’s birth certificate with the state of Mississippi and the State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics.
Papa rented the small home from a railroad engineer who traveled back and forth from Columbus to Birmingham, Alabama. The family lived there until LaNier was nine, on the southern edge of 40 mostly wooded acres. The surrounding fields were covered with fruit trees, rows of corn, and cotton fields. This was manual-labor land. Papa made much of their furniture by hand, including the chair where LaNier sat and cried as they took his first picture in 1930.
Two younger sisters, Ruth and Gladys, were born in 1930 and 1932, respectively. The home had just two small rooms. There was a living room and bedroom in one, while the other served as the kitchen. Papa later built an actual kitchen, which expanded the living and sleeping space into two bedrooms.
Across the dirt road in front of the LaNier home, a German family worked the farmland. Six-year-old Joe would watch from his yard as the man worked the fields even at night, under a full moon. He worked the plows with mules and horses, going up and down the rows.
When LaNier was old enough, about once a month he would hop in his father’s homemade wagon, pulled by two horses, and ride down the bumpy dirt roads into town. Papa owned a four-door Model T he bought in Birmingham before LaNier was born, but it didn’t run. That didn’t stop the young boy from climbing in and pretending to drive to far-off places. In Columbus, cars were rare, even for the whites, and paved roads were few where LaNier lived. As the dust would fly up in the distance, children would often run out to the dirt road simply to see a car pass.