Sammy Davis Jr.
Excerpts from "Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father", by Tracey Davis and Nina Bunche Pierce (via):
“I WAS SEVENTEEN when I joined the army, all of five foot six inches and one hundred twenty pounds. All the soldiers were twice my size. A little lost, I politely ask a white PFC sitting on the barracks’ steps where Building Two Hundred Two was located. He sized me up and down, reluctantly told me it is two buildings down followed by ‘And I’m not your buddy, you black bastard!’ ...
“When I arrived at Unit Barracks Two Hundred Two, a corporal checked my name off his clipboard and told me to wait on the sidelines until they ‘figure out what to do with me.’ White kids showed up, simply walked inside and took the first bunk they saw. Another colored kid, tall, with his gear, was sent to sit on the side by me. We shook hands. His name was Edward. We both knew trouble was stirring.
“Felt like a lifetime that me and this colored kid waited outside the barracks watching the last white kid march in. We sat outside a screen door, as we were ordered.
“We could hear the corporal address the unit. He said, ‘Folks, we got a problem, we got n-----s outside assigned to this company. I’ll stick ’em down there, but move your gear so I can give ’em the last two bunks.’
“Then one of the guys piped up, ‘Hey, that’s right next to me! I ain’t sleepin’ next to no dinge!’ The corporal made it clear who was in charge of the unit, but the same guy kept mouthing off, ‘I’m only sayin’ I didn’t join no n----- army,’” Pop recalled.
“All the guys started shouting about how they ain’t sharing no toilet can with no n-----, and what the hell’s the army need ’em niggers for, just to steal us blind while we sleep? The corporal quieted them down with a simple, ‘Knock it off. I don’t want ’em anymore than you do, but we’re stuck with ’em. That’s orders.’
“The corporal motioned us in with our gear ‘on the double.’ My legs were shaking, trembling. As he marched us down the aisle — eyes glaring on either side of us — soldiers guarded their cots spaced about three feet apart. The corporal pointed to the last two beds on one side, separated from the rest by about six feet with one empty cot between us and the white soldiers. It was as if we had the plague and were being quarantined.
“A sergeant marched in. He announced his name, Sergeant Williams. He glanced at the space between the beds. He gave a cold stare to the corporal and said, ‘What the hell is that?’ The corporal whispered quietly to the sergeant about how he was trying to deal with the n----- problem.”
“Sergeant Williams was fuming, ‘There is only one way we do things here and that is the army way! You have sixty seconds to replace the beds with exactly three feet of space, to the inch, between every cot in this barracks. Move!’ For a brief moment, I felt safe.
“Sergeant Williams asked us questions: When did we arrive? How long did it take for us to get our bunks? Did you choose your bunks? Then the sergeant told us to move our gear one bunk closer to the white soldiers. He addressed the whole unit, ‘No man here is better than the next man unless he’s got the rank to prove it!’
“I remember years later, George Rhodes, my conductor and arranger, told me he was surprised that with all the racial tension I endured, I never turned around and hated right back. I think that was because when I reached out for help, there was always some white guy like Sergeant Williams or Frank Sinatra, who helped me back up. The black press would scrutinize me for it, but believe me, those cats saved the day for me.
“But the minute the sergeant left, the soldiers tried to turn us into their slaves — making us polish their boots and such. I refused to do it and was teased as the ‘uppity n----- boy.’ Edward on the other hand, was not going to put up a fight for his own dignity, and I had no right to judge his desire to hide his pain. ‘Yes, suh!’ said Edward, ‘Glad t’do ’em, suh.’ I felt like I was on an island all alone.
“That’s only the prelude to the circus act. Your grandfather had given me an expensive one hundred twenty–buck gold watch to take with me to the army. I treasured it. The white soldiers got ahold of my watch on the first day in the barracks. They tossed it back and forth to each other, over my head, laughing as I chased after it. You know how little I was — still am! These white cats were huge.
“Eventually, Jennings, the biggest bigot of them all, ground my watch into the floor with the heel of his boot. He crushed the glass, twisted the gold, and broke the hands off. It was mangled in pieces. I picked up the remains, went to my bed, and wrapped it in paper. Jennings shouted behind me, ‘You can always steal another, n----- boy!’ The whole incident crushed me, deeply.
“Every night I would lay in bed, wondering what is it about skin that made people hate so much. But it was far deeper than skin; to these white cats, I was a different breed.
“I had to face the fact that the army vultures were going to prey on me daily. Try to eat me alive. I thought of my father, Uncle Will, the agents, the managers, the acts we worked with — nobody treated us this way. Or had my father just shielded me from it all? I knew we stayed in colored boarding houses made of wooden crates, but I didn’t realize we had to stay there. ... All I knew was that when the Will Mastin trio got onstage, people laughed, clapped, were entertained. Talent earned us respect.
“Talent was my only weapon. Eventually in the army, I was transferred to an entertainment regiment in an ‘experimental’ integrated Special Services unit. But until that transfer, Sergeant Williams got me a few gigs at the service club, thinking it might help.
“After one show, Jennings appeared to be offering me his friendship. He handed me a beer. ‘C’mon over here, Davis, let’s get acquainted.’ He pulled out a chair for me. ‘You notice I ain’t calling you ‘boy.’ I thought my talent finally broke the ice. But sure enough as I picked up the bottle of beer, I realized it was warm, not cold. I smelled it. Jennings had replaced my bottle of beer with urine. ...
“I had a knock-down, drag out fight every two days. I can’t even count how many times I was in the infirmary for a broken nose. When we finished basic training, my physical turned me down, and I was put through basic again. I didn’t qualify for any of the army’s specialist schools because I had no education at all.
“Sergeant Williams was my savior. He would call me into his office to offer his advice. ‘You’ve got to fight with your brains, Sammy, not your fists.’ Sergeant Williams told me I had to stop looking at comic books and learn to read. He taught me to read and write. God bless that man.
“The first book I ever read was The Three Musketeers. Long, thick, and let me tell you, I am never going to read it again. But Sergeant Williams had me read all the classics. He would select books from Dickens to Twain to Abraham Lincoln, even The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I would circle the words I didn’t know. He would sit in the squad room at the end of the barracks and explain it to me. Sergeant Williams gave me hope that I could overcome this battle.
“The latrine became my temple. I would read religiously after taps in that dimly lit latrine, and report back to Sergeant Williams. We would have our own civilized discourse on each book. I hungered for that time with him. He made me feel like a human being again. His office became my own sacred refuge, a retreat from the racism, hate, ignorance, and intolerance of my unit. ...
“I owe him my life. He tempered all the humiliation I felt from my unit. He distracted me from all my rage, all my anger. I wouldn’t have survived the army without him.
“The last straw with Jennings was the worst of all. After I did a little Frank Sinatra number at the Officers’ Club, impressing a general, word was out that I might be able to transfer into the integrated Special Services unit. Jennings wasn’t pleased. He thought I was kissing butt to escape his abuse. ...
“Jennings and his gang jumped me on the way to a meeting with the captain. They cornered me, dragged me into a latrine, and beat the crap out of me.
“But that wasn’t the worst of it. They took a can of white paint and wrote the word ‘N-----’ on my chest. They beat me until I was bleeding from every part of my body. I thought my life was done — I was going to be beaten to death. Just to add some icing on the cake, Jennings ended his circus act with, ‘Now be a good little c--- and give us a dance.’
“I danced for my life. After Jennings finished his finale, I wanted to crawl into the walls of the latrine and die. I thought to myself, I joined the Unites States Army to fight the enemy in whatever country at whatever time, but I never thought I would be sleeping with the enemy in my own unit, my own barracks.”
After the attack, Davis was transferred into the entertainment regiment.
“I was able to perform to larger crowds, even got cheers from those who previously mistreated me. Prejudiced white men admired and respected my performances. I saw Jennings in the audience once. He didn’t crack a smile, but I could tell from his expression I had won the battle, maybe not the war, but that battle. The spotlight lessened the prejudice. For me, it was a revelation. My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking. From then on, deep in my heart, soul, and spirit, I knew I had to be a star.
“My father and Uncle Will met me at the station in Los Angeles after I was discharged. After hugs and all that good stuff, my father noticed my treasured gold watch he had gifted me was not on my wrist. I just couldn’t bear to tell him the truth. Why would I put my father and Uncle Will through the pain and suffering of hearing stories about prejudice, beatings, and white paint smearing the word ‘N-----’ across my chest? I told my father ‘the watch got smashed on maneuvers.’ ...
“So there we are standing in the Los Angeles station. I am discharged from the army, free at last. I ask my father the same question I always asked him as a kid: ‘Where we goin’, Dad?’ The melody of his refrain was music to my ears when I heard him exclaim, ‘We’re going back into show business, son!’ And off we went, full speed ahead.”
::: Talk on the BBC (1966): Sammy Davis, Jr. on Hate, Bigotry and Pain (2 minutes): WATCH
photographs by Burt Glinn via, via, by Philip Halsman via, by Phil Stern via, via, via, via, via, via