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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lawrence Ridgle, June 9, 1999. Interview K-0144. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

African American non-commissioned officer in the newly integrated army

Ridgle describes his experiences as a non-commisioned officer in the Army during the early 1950s. At first, Ridgle led an all black battalion; however, following the integration of the armed forces, he assumed leadership over both white and black soldiers. Ridgle discusses some of the challenges he faced and offers an anecdote about how he had a man court-martialed for using racial slurs in defiance. [Ridgle does not say specifically where he was stationed at this time, although just prior to this passage he indicates that he was in Georgia.]

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lawrence Ridgle, June 9, 1999. Interview K-0144. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALICIA ROUVEROL:
The battalion you were in—. I know you were in an all black battalion when you were working as a paratrooper. Was this all black?
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Yeah. This was the 452. See they didn't integrate. They had—. In fact, I was one of the first ones selected to do what they call token integration. They sent five of us to different outfits, just one man per company. In fact, the 87th Airborne division was the first one that tried integration in 1951. They did token integration to see how it would work. They got some nasty reactions. But in 1952 it was mandated by the president that all units in the armed forces would be at least fifteen percent black. And that's when they really started integration in 1952. And that was a horse of another color. I've had white guys to tell me they weren't going to do what a nigger said. Yeah. They just weren't going to do it. Especially if there are two or three of them and you're by yourself where you ain't got no witness. They say some nasty things. But I was a pretty good soldier. And I did some nasty things to them, too. When I caught one of them kind of guys, any time—we used to have. Excuse the expression. There are a whole lot of details that come up in the Army that's called shit details. Them kind of guys, when the shit detail came up, they were the shit all the time. I used to see them milling around after duty hours. And if either one of those nasty guys in one of those nasty groups, I'd find something for them to do. I'd make them police the area and pick up all the cigarette butts. I'm behind them looking hard with a magnifying glass trying to find anything that doesn't grow. If I find something, they've got to go back through. If I find something that time, they crawl through.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
So you're a pretty hard liner.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
I am. Yes. I was romping, stomping. And I felt, I felt that the Army just a little bit, I felt that the Army wasn't quite treating black non-commissioned officers right because one time in the communication section I had—. When you go out—. We didn't have [unclear] what they call [unclear] . Radios was all they had. And they had these little sound [unclear] telephones. But you had to string wire for that. And when you did that, when you go out on maneuvers or practices and you carried that wire, you might string it far as from here to Duke hospital. And then when you get it up and bring it back down otherwise it had to be clean. It had to be oiled. It's got to be put on a big spool straight. And you do all this before anybody goes on pass. You can just forget about pass until we get our communications stuff cleaned up. The guys would want to half do it—roll it up on the reel or either unroll it. And one guy—this is one of the guys who told me he wasn't going to do what no nigger sergeant said—I went to my commander and I told him. And I told him I wanted him court martialed. He told me to go think about it and come back. He said, "I'll see you in the morning. And if you still feel that way we'll see what we can do." The next morning I was still smoking because he did it before my whole section. And if I let him get away with this, I can't run the section. So this is what I told the company commander the next morning. He said, "Well let me give him a reprimand." I said, "I don't want him to have no reprimand." I said, "I want him court martialed." And he wouldn't do it. And then I started looking at him. And in his office he flew the rebel flag above the U. S. flag. And then I got to thinking all kinds of thoughts on some things that he had done. I might have misread them. But I read them into he was a redneck. And the way I got the man court martialed, I went to the IG office, inspector general. And I saw a colonel and I told him what had happened. He drew up the court martial papers, and sent them down to the company and directed my company commander to serve them. [Laughter]
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
That's great. What year was that in?
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
This had to be about '50 or '51.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Wow. That's great.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
No. This was '51 because—no it might have been '52 because we had integration. And see what they did in black outfits—we had a nuclear of NCOs. And when they integrated they might send one NCO here and maybe fourteen privates.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
And what's an NCO?
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Non-commissioned.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Non-commissioned, okay.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
And, actually, NCOs, believe it or not, run the service, not the general and if NCOs cannot get along then the NCOs are not being affected. And when we first went to those outfits—. Like they made me a section leader in a white outfit. Well, they already had a section leader but he had to go. Now they're mad at me because I took his job. I broke up their little nuclear. So you had that to work for—
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Man. So you really broke some boundaries there.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Sure.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Yeah. Sounds like both you and your sister really broke through.