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A Look At WWII And Civil Rights Through The Life Of A Veteran

National Archives
A group of African American Marines on a Coast Guard Transport in the Pacific

Just East of Waco, in the town of Riesel you might meet Prez.

Prez: I used to go to the VFW over there and a guy over there said what’s your name. I said Olen Hamilton. He said Olen Hamilton. I said yeah like the President. From that day on that’s what I’m known as.

Prez was born in 1919 during a time when everything was segregated, from restrooms, to water fountains. There were even cities African Americans weren’t allowed to be in after dark.

Prez: I understand in my little town Riesel you couldn’t be caught there after sundown. If you did something bad might happen to you.

Speaking with Baylor History Professor James SoRell, He says these types of communities were common in the state. 

SoRell: There was throughout Texas signs posted on the edge of town "Don’t let the sun go down on you in…” preceded by the N Word.

In 1941 Prez knew some of the things that were happening on the world stage but not everything.

Prez: We didn’t have radio but we took the paper. It was big news, Japanese Bomb Pearl Harbor…Pearl Harbor. Where is that? We wasn’t talking about pearl Harbor in school, we didn’t go that far. Hadn’t heard anything about pearl harbor. Just before that I knew Hitler had come to power.

At the start of WWII SoRell says there’s a lot of African Americans who want to enlist.

SoRell: When war breaks out African Americans are interested in enlisting to fight for their country to demonstrate their loyalty

However, An eagerness to serve was not an absolute standard for all African Americans. Take for example Doris Miller. (another Waco hometown hero.) Doris Miller enlisted but Prez and others felt differently.

Prez: He used to live in the country down here. I knew his momma and daddy had two brothers. We were young. I don’t remember much about him but I knew the family, I think he volunteered because he went to the navy. He was a cook in the navy. Wasn’t too many of us volunteering. We were not patriotic because we didn’t know we didn’t feel we had much to fight for anyway. if you know what I mean. 

It’s important to note that I never got the feeling that Prez regretted his service when he was drafted in 1942. Prez served in New Caledonia.  He was lucky to find a relatively “easy” post. He drove trucks and had guard duty around the base.  He spoke about befriending the natives.

Prez: We had friends we’d go to their village. They had Trala. We’d go dance with them trallala That’s their dance. We’d go dance with them. Tralala

However not all African Americans who served had an easy time during the war.

Prez: We didn’t have to dig holes, we didn’t have to build roads, we didn’t have to build bridges like some of those soldiers. 

In Europe, there was tension over African American men talking with white European women. 

Sorell: Socially they found a much more open society in France and this was troubling to a lot of the white officers and enlisted men in the united states army.

Prez: A lot of conflict. Cause a lot of whites didn’t appreciate seeing the blacks especially from the south with those girls”

Then As the war went on the US needed more man power to fight and African American regiments were sent into some of the worst fighting situations.

Sorell: There was certainly the expectation that some of these black troops were going in almost as cannon fodder in some cases. 

Prez: They did take some of our boys and send them to those fighting units. Some of them got Wasted. 

And as African Americans returned stateside, 

there was a sense that something wasn’t quite right at home.

Sorell: If you’re going to fight the Hitlers in Germany and Europe there are some Hitlers in Mississippi and Alabama and Texas who also need to be dealt with. 

Like many African Americans after the war, Prez left the south. He moved to California where he worked many jobs over the years. Prez never demonstrated during the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s but during his time as a cab driver he often counseled his fares. 

Prez: Tourists. I met people from all over the world all over the world talked to a whole lot of people about a lot of things. In my world people are people. 

Throughout the years of the civil rights movement and into today, Prez says he never allowed himself to hate. He says he follows the golden rule.

Prez: I don’t preach it. I just try to live it. I like to treat people the way I’d like to be treated. 

Despite this long sordid American history that Prez has witnessed throughout his lifetime, the progress of civil rights is apparent in his story. Prez returned back to Texas in his 70’s. He’s been here ever since. And a couple of years ago, at 95 years old, he was hit by another vehicle while leaving his driveway.

Prez: I ain’t ever had so much fun in all my life as I did that night in the emergency room. People from Riesel, Marlin, Waco ...Black and white. The whole thing was full. They get the news and here they come. 

With racial tensions high in today’s world, you can still see the progress of civil rights in the story of Olen “Prez” Hamilton

With KWBU, I’m Will Burney.