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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harold Fleming, January 24, 1990. Interview A-0363. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Fleming gains a new consciousness of racial prejudice while commanding black Army troops

Fleming was assigned to command black troops in the Army. He thinks the assignment was accidental yet essential to his personal transformation because he experienced discrimination for the first time. He had not known many black people before.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harold Fleming, January 24, 1990. Interview A-0363. 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

Your experience in the service involved some commanding of Negro troops, didn't it?
That was very critical, of course. Most people, when they learn a little about my background, jump to the conclusion that, oh well, shit, you went to Harvard so I see what happened to him. It wasn't quite like that. Even before I went off to college I lead a kind of double life. I was a good ole boy when that was politic, but I was also associated with what would pass for eggheads in that situation. I read a lot and I guess the best way to characterize it is that I was still pretty much a victim of my upbringing and so on. But, I felt that I had achieved a state of enlightment that justified my looking with disdain on redneck stuff and on the crasser forms of prejudice, discrimination and so on. But I didn't know any blacks, and I had never seen Atlanta University in all those years-I didn't even know where it was. I knew what it was but I didn't know where it was. I say I didn't know any blacks, I knew black servants and black domestics. I had a certain degree of intellectual liberation on the question. I would have denied vigoriously that I was prejudiced or part of the southern ethos on this. But the fact is, I was pretty damn unenlightened and remained so in those prewar and several years at Harvard. There was nothing there that would encourage anybody to become certainly not a reformer if not an abolitionist. Most of the guys I knew there were. . . . There were only two blacks, I think. There were a handful of black undergraduates. I only knew of two when I was there in those years. The whites were no great shakes. There were the prep school guys and the guys from Illinois and so on. They weren't that much different from us. That's why the Army was critical. It was purely accidental that I ended up as an officer with black troops. In those days there were no other kinds of officers. All the officers were white. It was a very traumatic kind of experience. I don't think anybody could have been prepared for that. You were a white straw boss in a very discriminatory segregated Army, and you felt discriminated against. You lived where they lived. Even though you were an officer and you were white you were a second class soldier because your privates were black, as they say.
How did it happen that you got that assignment?
It was pure accident. That's what they needed when I came down the pipeline.