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.
LaNier walked south out of Union Station’s doors into the brisk air. In front of him, he saw a drugstore across Wynkoop Street, and, inside, he knew there would be the standard ice cream counter and soda fountain.
There were no signs that indicated he couldn’t come in through the store’s front entrance. He put his hand on the knob and opened the door to the small drugstore. It smelled good inside. The soda fountain, with its upholstered stools and shiny countertop, was to his left; booths were against the wall to his right. The prescription counter was toward the back of the store, and the place was empty, except for a young white woman in her late teens, wearing an apron, behind the fountain counter.
In another part of the country, just a few years earlier, LaNier would have turned around and removed himself from the potentially dangerous position as quickly as he could. He had no idea of the race relations in Colorado, and, though he knew this wasn’t the South, there were any number of things that could go wrong. He could be accused of something, and it could come down to his word against that of a young, white, female teenager. It was exactly the type of situation his parents told him to avoid as he grew up in Mississippi.
With a bit of trepidation, he walked up to the counter and ordered an ice cream cone. The girl looked at him, walked over to the freezer and scooped vanilla into a cone. They didn’t talk. She gave it to him; he paid a dime.
Then LaNier stood there, still, not knowing what to do. Could he sit? Would he be kicked out, ridiculed, or worse? He scanned the store and saw no signs for “blacks” or “whites only.”
The teenager watched LaNier as he stood near the counter, in his Navy uniform covered by his wool pea coat. She must have sensed something was wrong. “Why don’t you have a seat and enjoy your ice cream,” she said. It was more a directive than a question. His response seemed to be suspended in air. He finally spoke.
“Thank you,” he said to the young woman.
LaNier had just spent two years in the Navy. He was just 19 years old. He had smelled death, seen people shot, been shot at, survived two months in a foxhole, and driven night routes in hostile territory. He had been called a nigger countless times throughout his life. Yet as he stood there inside a drugstore—vanilla cone in his hand—he finally felt a sense of belonging.
LaNier walked a few feet and sat down inside a clean booth. As he sat there, he realized this was a completely new experience. “I felt so comfortable,” he told me. “Comfortable in knowing I could sit. The only explanation I can give for feeling that way is that my mind would automatically go back to where I grew up in Mississippi, where the consequences could have been dire if I had made the wrong decision.”
It was a monumental moment in his life—right there across from Union Station, in the downtown area of a city he didn’t know. The teenage girl continued to work behind the counter. LaNier ate his ice cream, quietly, alone. In Mississippi, he would have been persona non grata, yet here—in this city called Denver—he was seated at a warm booth inside a white-owned drugstore.
He finished his ice cream in about 10 minutes, then got up and walked out into the cold.
LaNier still had time before his train departed for St. Louis. He didn’t have a watch but he knew he had the better part of two-and-a-half hours. With hands in his coat pockets, he walked until he saw the Tabor Theater and went up to the ticket window. Thirty-five cents later he was inside an integrated theater about to see a movie. He told the white usher that he had to catch a train, and he asked the usher if he would mind telling LaNier when he needed to leave. The movie was already underway when LaNier took an aisle seat. An hour later, the usher came in, tapped LaNier on the shoulder and said, “It’s time.”
“At that moment,” LaNier says, “I decided, This is where I want to live. No question.”
LaNier thanked the usher and retraced his steps back outside the theater, down 17th Street, and crossed back over Wynkoop to Union Station. He proceeded down the tunnel, then up onto the train platform. When he climbed aboard and walked down the passenger car, he again took his window seat.
The train whistle blew and the conductor made the familiar “All aboard!” announcement. The engines kicked up, the wheels began to turn, and the train started to roll out of Denver. LaNier looked out the window. He knew he’d be back.