Their Only Sin – Part Three

Help Wanted (White)

Selfie time! Two years and three surgeries later and I have a new smile! (And, never have to worry about having another toothache) Trust me, dental implants are no joke. But, they’re so worth it. I am so fortunate to have been able to have this done. I close my eyes and send a message of love and thanks to my grandad in heaven. This wouldn’t have been possible without him.

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After almost 30 years of service, my grandfather retired from the Fulton County Sheriff Department around the time I started school, leaving him plenty of time to hang out with me. I stayed with him and my grandmother almost every weekend. My mother was an only child, so with just two grandkids, my sister and I got a lot of attention. I was only 21 when my grandmother died; my grandfather passed a year later. That makes all the time I had with them growing up even more special.

Law enforcement, as a profession, won’t make you rich. But, my grandfather’s job did enable him to buy a house, make some investments, and put money in savings every month. He did that for us. Leaving an inheritance for my mother, sister, and I was important to him. He wasn’t wealthy, nor are we. But, we have been blessed to have a safety net for unforeseen circumstances. It’s already helped us more times than I can remember. (Most recently, for me, life-changing dental work.) His small estate has made a world of difference in our lives.

If my grandfather wasn’t white, he wouldn’t have gotten that job. It was 1945, and Georgia didn’t allow African Americans to work in law enforcement. Black community leaders, however, were crusading for change. Their efforts seemed to pay off when, in 1948, Mayor William Hartsfield hired eight black men for Atlanta’s police force, a move that would soon prove to be more political strategy than actual progress. Because, although they wore a badge, the eight new recruits had little of the authority that went along with it.

The black cops weren’t permitted to drive or ride in a squad car; they could only patrol on foot. After white officers refused to work out of the same building as their new black colleagues, the basement of an old YMCA gym was designated as the “colored precinct”. Black officers were prohibited from entering the official APD headquarters. But, the biggest rule of all: they were absolutely forbidden to stop, question, ticket, or arrest anyone white. Even if they witnessed a crime in progress, they had no power to intervene. According to protocol, they could request a white officer to the scene. But, in reality, that backup would never show.

The black officers quickly learned to avoid interaction with their fellow white officers at all costs. Even though adding the black officers hadn’t affected existing jobs, the white cops wanted them gone. Everything from filing false complaints to acting like they were going to run over the walking patrolmen was used to torment and try to make them resign. This treatment went on for years.

** In 1963, black APD were given permission to arrest white citizens. They received access to headquarters in 1966. And, in 1969, black and white officers finally began working side by side.**

Law enforcement wasn’t the only career path closed to African Americans. These are actual “help wanted” ads from the Atlanta Journal. Before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, there would be a separate section for “colored employment”. There would be two or three pages of job offerings for white male and female applicants, and then maybe ten total jobs for men and women of color.

Even after discrimination became illegal, many employers still specified “white” in their help wanted ads. Sometimes that would be followed by “no experience needed” or “will train”. So, to be considered, one only needed the right color skin. I found ads like this as late as 1970.

Among the African Americans being denied employment were WW2 veterans. While in the service, many soldiers were trained to be welders, mechanics, and electricians. Once home, however, they found these trades were still “white only”, making their skills useless. Even though they were qualified for better positions, they had to settle for the same low-wage menial jobs they held before the war. But, wait, it gets even worse.

Established in 1944, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (GI Bill) provided low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans for starting a business, and dedicated tuition and living expenses for college or vocational school for soldiers returning to civilian life after WW2. These federal programs were supposed to be available to ALL veterans, however, state limitations and restrictions made it almost impossible for African Americans to take advantage of the benefits. For example, the home loans were guaranteed by the VA but had to be obtained through a separate lending source. Banks wouldn’t loan on homes in black neighborhoods, and black people weren’t allowed to live in the areas where they would. In the New York/New Jersey district, out of 67,000 VA-backed loans, less than 100 were given to non-white veterans. And, in Mississippi, the GI Bill made 3,775 veterans homeowners, only 2 were African American.

There were 1.2 million African Americans US soldiers during WW2. After fulfilling their military duty, they came home to find that the country they’d served still considered them 2nd class citizens.

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One doesn’t have to inherit a fortune to benefit from generational wealth; even a small inheritance can be a game-changer. I’ve experienced that first hand, which isn’t surprising considering that in my age group (baby boomers), 92% of people who will receive an inheritance are white. With so few opportunities in education, employment, and housing, it was virtually impossible for African Americans of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation to accumulate assets. This disproportionate advantage created a wealth gap that, if not addressed, could take another century to close.

A bill recently introduced into Congress would open GI benefits to descendants of black WW2 vets who were denied access to those programs. It’s too early for this proposed legislation to be in the news, but let’s imagine if the story headline “Descendants of Black Vets to Receive GI Benefits” did hit social media. The comment section would be filled with angry white people wanting to know why the heirs of white soldiers aren’t receiving that same severance. A legitimate question… if you don’t know the backstory. But, after hearing how these men who fought for our country were treated, who could be opposed?

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If your knowledge of the civil rights movement is limited to the main talking points, I challenge you to dig a little deeper. We’re never too old to learn; and, the world of information we now have at our fingertips makes it so easy. Understanding the past really can change the way you see things today. I know it helped me become a better and happier person. It might do the same for you. Seriously, what have you got to lose?

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