“It’s hard to be a patriot when you don’t even feel like a citizen.” This is one of the most impactful revelations in the oral history of Joseph Conklin LaNier II as he speaks about his experience before and during World War II as an African American. Segregation, “the system” as he calls it, was something he said you could not beat. For the first 17 years of his life LaNier never left a few square miles near Columbus, Mississippi, a town that practiced strict segregation. Signs indicating where whites and blacks could go, divided busses, and virtually zero chances of doing any work other than manual labor left many African American men and women in a limbo. Living under this system, every moment was a constant reminder that you didn’t have a future, rather your future had been determined already and was full of “Yes sir” and “No sir.”
It was in this environment that when 15-year-old LaNier learned about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he really didn’t care. LaNier said of the Pearl Harbor attack, "I remember it, but I do not remember it having any kind of effect on my thought process...Patriotism was not part of my vocabulary growing up because I was almost like a non-person. And so I didn't allow myself to dream about things that seemed out of reach for me." He was living a life where he had no idea what he wanted to do, and he felt that an attack on a country that didn’t seem to care for him was not something to take the time to be passionate about, so he went back to living his life. Family was especially important to LaNier. He had two younger sisters and an older brother. Their mother had died in 1940, and their father was out of work. Both of his parents sought to raise him properly and instilled a passion for not living with hate. In his oral history, LaNier speaks about how hate can dominate your life and cause you to judge before you have experienced. In his later years, LaNier constantly spread his message of living without hate. However, in 1944, it was living without money that helped motivate LaNier to join the US Navy.
LaNier never could recall exactly how or why he walked into the US Navy recruiting office but after speaking to the recruiter he learned that the Navy offered allotments, whereby the service would match a certain amount of pay that the sailor sent directly home. Seventeen years old at the time, LaNier went home to seek his father’s permission to join with the promise that he would set up the allotment to help support his sisters. Each month, for the entirety of his service, 22 dollars of his 51-dollar paycheck went to his family, with an additional 15 dollars kicked in by the US Navy.
LaNier enlisted at a very interesting time in the history of African Americans in the US Navy. Up to that point, there was very little opportunity for African Americans except for the steward’s branch where they cooked and cleaned for the white officers. Progressive in many respects, the US Navy was slow to change its views on race. Language in the 1940 Selective Service Act was a victory for equal rights in that it promised that able-bodied males could serve their country regardless of their race. Language, however, was not followed by action. Through a stubborn resolve, the US Navy seemed determined to keep African Americans in menial roles citing the viewpoint that they were not mentally or physically capable of serving in combat roles. Time and time again African American sailors disproved this disparaging view with their actions. Change began after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when pressure from the President and various advocacy groups, most notably the NAACP, began to force the US Navy to reconsider its determination that African Americans were not capable of being rated anything other than a Steward’s Mate. After years of pressure, and resistance, the US Navy began to accept African Americans into different ratings. It was about this time that Joseph LaNier walked into a recruiting office in rural Mississippi and became one of the first classes of African Americans accepted as seamen and not servants.
LaNier attended basic training at Naval Training Station Great Lakes, where he went through bootcamp in the segregated Camp Robert Smalls. To say that the world outside of rural Mississippi was a better place for an African American man is not completely true, but it certainly was different. On the various stops he made before being shipped out to Hawaii, LaNier had a number of experiences that demonstrated the differences of life outside the Deep South. He was amazed to see the huge buildings of Chicago, and even more amazed to see white and black people walking together. LaNier remembered stopping in North Platte, Nebraska, on the way to California and being served lunch by female white Red Cross workers, some of whom actually touched the men on their shoulders or shook their hands, a behavior that was impossible in the South. There were times while he was on liberty he needed to use the restroom and was momentarily confused because he could not find the signs indicating which facility he was allowed to use. Although there were these little reliefs from the life he knew, segregation was the norm, in and out of the navy.
Newly-minted Seaman Second Class LaNier was stationed in Hawaii, where he worked in a boat house and later the laundry before being assigned to a new outfit, the 23rd (Special) Naval Construction Battalion. Naval Construction Battalions, or Seabees, were units that specialized in construction and cargo handling. Whatever the navy needed built or moved they called the Seabees to do it. LaNier’s unit was designated as “Special” because they would act primarily as stevedores. Still tending to push African Americans into manual labor roles, these “special” Seabee units were attached to Marine Divisions to keep them supplied so they could keep fighting. Previous experience with African American Seabee units had led to some levels of change within the navy. One of the biggest problems was the belief that white officers from the South would know how to better handle African Americans. This led to complete disrespect and open racism aimed at the enlisted men, crushing morale and leading to open conflict. By the time LaNier was attached to the 23rd (Special) Naval Construction Battalion, the navy had begun to promote African Americans to chief petty officer, giving them some command opportunities and keeping up the practice of removing disrespectful racist commanders and replacing them with more compassionate men.
Shortly after being attached to the 23rd SCB, Joseph LaNaier was on his way to a small island called Iwo Jima, destined to be one of the very first African American sailors to set foot on the horrible eight square mile piece of hell. Landing on February 24, 1945, just six days after the initial landings and one day after the famous flag raising (both of them), the 23rd SCB got to work. There was no safe place on Iwo Jima, just screaming, exploding shells that did not take the time to assess someone’s race before unleashing their deathly fury. For two months, when not delivering supplies, LaNier lived in a foxhole because it was too dangerous to venture out. The men of his unit received a number of commendations for their work under extremely hazardous conditions. They unloaded ships, moved ammunition, and carried wounded until the island was declared secure and they began to prepare for the next invasion. By the time his unit reached Okinawa, the fighting there had been ongoing for some time. He was assigned to general duty, doing whatever tasks needed to be done including serving as a mess attendant. Again, even after distinguishing themselves at Iwo Jima, African American men like LaNier were relegated to manual labor or service roles, a constant reminder of their standing within the navy. Regardless of this, LaNier kept the belief that “uppermost in my mind was the winning of the war so that we could continue to live in a land where the rule of law keeps us free to keep working on making a more perfect union.”
The end of the war came as somewhat of a disappointment to LaNier. He had actually enjoyed all of the things he had seen, travelling the world, and experiencing life outside of Mississippi. After his discharge from service in 1946, LaNier returned home to a Mississippi that had not changed at all. Realizing he had to get an education, LaNier was determined to beat “the system.” On the advice of a local drugstore owner he finished high school so he could get into college. He used the GI Bill to partially pay for pharmacy school at Xavier in New Orleans, Louisiana, graduating in 1952. He never looked back from there, moving to Denver, Colorado, where he became a successful pharmacist at hospitals and owned his own store. He also never stopped working to “make a more perfect union” by advocating for equal housing and preaching his message of living without hate.