All Joe LaNier 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.
In late 1943, LaNier had seen a small black-and-white advertisement in the Columbus, Mississippi, newspaper, the Commercial Dispatch. Uncle Sam looked directly into LaNier’s young face, finger pointed at him. Even though LaNier knew the military was segregated, he wondered if perhaps this was the route he could take to escape the racism and poverty of northeastern Mississippi.
A small recruiting office kept normal business hours in Columbus, but it was there only to pique interest and funnel recruits to a larger office in Jackson, which was a few hours away. Without much thought, and without consulting with his family, LaNier decided to go in, alone. A retired Navy man turned recruiter named C.B. Roberts sat and talked with LaNier. After their discussion, LaNier was ready to join, but he didn’t know that to officially enlist he had to first convince his father, Joseph, to sign the necessary papers. LaNier had no idea he was too young to do it all on his own. He was 17 years old.
LaNier walked home with paperwork and then explained to Papa, as Joe Sr. was known, how he could help the family with a U.S. Navy allotment every month, and Papa agreed without hesitation. At 17 years and 10 months old, LaNier was accepted into the service. The teen was eager to leave the gravel roads and cotton fields of Columbus and take a chance.
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.
Iwo Jima 1945
One year after he’d enlisted in Mississippi, LaNier found himself far from home and part of an elite fraternity: He was one of the fewer than 1,000 African-Americans serving on Iwo Jima. For the blacks in the U. S. Navy 23rd Special Seabees, however, the monotony quickly set in as they were at best grunts amidst what would be the most publicized Pacific battle of World War II. While death was all around them, their world was comprised of just a few hundred yards. They carried out orders as they were handed down, unloaded ships, battled thirst, and sweat through the blazing sun in the middle of the Pacific. On the north side of the island, Marines continued the advance to gain control of “Sulfur Island” (the English translation for Iwo Jima) against Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who’d spent time in the States for part of his schooling. To the southwest, LaNier’s segregated unit went about its daily routine, despite the certainty that the enemy was still scattered within nearby Mt. Suribachi, which was filled with undetected tunnel systems.
On the other side of the small island, evidence of the carnage and chaos of the landing on Iwo Jima still littered the beaches, all within walking distance of LaNier’s unit. Amazingly, LaNier’s unit never lost a man on Iwo Jima; none of them was even injured. “You have a power structure in the service that doesn’t see you as a group that’s making a contribution to the fighting of this war,” LaNier says. “You are the guy that picks up the cans—you’re ancillary. It’s an indication of what the ‘powers-that-be’ thought about us as a unit.”
On a plateau, a small tent city operated as planned. It was here that LaNier was assigned a job as an assistant inside the carpentry shop. As a gopher, he would haul two-by-fours, two-by-sixes, planks, wood, and other imported construction materials around in the crude lumberyard. The 23rd Seabees were tasked with constructing makeshift structures, while others in the unit were stevedores, responsible for unloading ships, working the docks, and transporting goods.
It was on the plateau that he noticed the flies. They were much bigger than ones he’d seen at home. These were big, green flies—bigger, LaNier surmised, because of the bodies on the island. The carnage was everywhere, and the putrid smell of death consistently filled the air.
The unit spent four months in this new, sandy, dusty plateau area up from the beach. LaNier and a fellow Seabee shared a small canvas tent. Each Seabee tent had two cots but lacked basics like tables and lights. Wool blankets were issued, but because of the warm temperatures, the men usually slept on top of the blankets in their shorts. It was up to each man to decide how he would use his two canteens of water per day. Men grew itchy stubble or full beards to save the water used shaving. The Seabees built a shower system comprised of half-barrels that tilted and spilled water, but bathing was infrequent. As the front expanded on the north side of the island, American troops took over Japanese-built water purification systems. Slowly, water became more readily available.
There were occasions when the men of the 23rd were able to see newsreels from the States. The Seabees, an ingenious bunch, would hang a sheet against a tent as someone manned the film projector. This was the only visual clue of the war’s progression; however, the soldiers were able to hear the music from back home on the radio—via the enemy. Several radios were scattered about in the tent city, and many of the men gathered around the small devices to listen to the infamous Tokyo Rose. Beginning at 6:30 every evening, the sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey could be heard coming from the tents, all lined up just a few hundred yards from mass carnage.
Of course, there was propaganda. Despite the misinformation, the black Seabees were amused by the Tokyo Rose broadcasts and listened every evening. Even so, LaNier noticed that on certain nights her psychological warfare succeeded. Many men would often stare off into the night, wondering if their girls back home still loved them and if they would live to see another day on Iwo Jima.
The weeks on Iwo Jima had now turned into months of living on the dusty, acrid island. By the middle of the summer, the men of the 23rd were informed that they would be moving on to another “destination unknown.” LaNier didn’t need an explanation. He wasn’t eager to leave Iwo Jima: The fact remained—LaNier was better off socially and economically in the Navy than he was back home in Mississippi. His unit’s time on Iwo Jima was coming to an end, and the men began the organized teardown of the tent city.
Over the course of the next two weeks, the tents came down, the dump was cleared out, and matériel was packed in crates headed aboard LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks). Trucks and ammunition were loaded back up; the stevedores, maintenance workers, construction specialists, ensigns, chaplain, and even medical and dental officers all prepared to leave Sulfur Island. Sweaty, dirty men went back and forth countless times from the plateau to the shore, loading and unloading trucks full of supplies. LaNier had never seen trucks like these in Mississippi and was fascinated by the size and power of the ones used in transport. He quietly continued to hope someday, in the near future, he would get his wish to drive one. He watched as his home on Iwo Jima disappeared— every bit dismantled and loaded up for the next destination.
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.