The following is a guest post by Matt McCrady, a Digital Conversion Specialist for the Library of Congress.
“It was a world of men,…We were trained and taught that our whole life was to make sure that these men were happy”
Rose Witherspoon Spence was always a little “different.” That is the word she uses in her Veterans History Project (VHP) oral history interview to describe herself as a child in the 1930’s. Perhaps growing up in a family of 12 children—five girls, seven boys—allowed her some latitude to be herself. Of course, growing up an African-American minister’s daughter also had its constraints. That restricted mindset just didn’t work for Spence.
Her description of herself is of a girl who was “tall and lanky” and “athletic,” whose male friends didn’t even realize she was a girl until she went through puberty. More similar in height to her father and brothers than her sisters, Spence was so tall by age 13 that she started hunching her back to appear shorter; however, her father demanded she stop it. “I had long legs,” she says, laughing; “So I became an athlete.”
Spence played basketball throughout her school years and into college at Tennessee State University, where she was a history major. Due to her interest in history and culture, she was hyper-aware of events transpiring in Europe in the late 1930’s and early ’40’s. Additionally, she watched as her brothers enlisted or were conscripted, and she felt a similar call to duty. Instead of returning to college in the fall of 1943, Spence “joined up”. She says her decision was devastating to her family; her mother fainted. Her brother insisted that he was going to stop her, although it was already too late. Her father, however, was supportive.
I told him, ‘Now Papa, I can do this.’ And he said, ‘Yes, you can.’
It would be a difficult, but rewarding, path that Spence forged for herself. She was a Black woman from Tennessee, well acquainted with discrimination and unfair treatment by that point in life. She entered a military that was still strictly segregated, and would remain so until Executive Order 9981 was signed in 1948. Her talents and education were underutilized in the beginning, as she was first assigned to be a file clerk in an intelligence unit, filing coded messages. She then moved up to a typist, typing those coded messages, and from there to Sergeant in Charge of typists, who were all civilian white women. “There was some sensitivity among the women at times,” she says, “but they understood that they wanted the good paying jobs…and so they did their jobs.” From there, she became Sergeant Major of the Post, where she screened visitors who needed to see the Colonel. Despite her authority and experience, when she got out of the military in 1945, she could not even get a job at the post office, “and you know why,” she says. The ugliness of systematic racism was ever present.
I had given everything I had to give. This was my country. I swore to uphold the laws of this country. I’d give my life for it…Then why could I not get a job working in the U.S. Post Office in the United States?
People like Spence, who had held positions of authority and respect within the military, came out of the service to live in an anachronistic version of America, where not all people were regarded as equal under the law or customs of the land. In her oral history, Spence directly links the military service of Black people, and specifically Black women, to the Civil Rights movement.
We won the war; it can work here. And we came out of it with that philosophy. We can win this war. And let’s take the same love of human nature to win the war of discrimination that is bringing our country down.
Black men and women of the “Greatest Generation” were among the most prominent proponents of Civil Rights in the 1940’s, ’50’s and ’60’s. As Spence puts it, their attitude was that “This is my country. The same reason that it is your country, it is mine. I was born here, and I fought for it.”
Of Black women specifically, Spence says, “She no longer accepted from the male that she couldn’t do it… And she remembered, when you were not here, I had to go and do this, this, and this. And I did it…Now that you have returned, I want to be recognized as an individual person.”
Rose Witherspoon Spence was an uncommon individual at a time when a Black woman’s individuality was not widely respected, either by men or the government which white men founded. It may have been her father’s words that inspired her throughout her life, “Remember this, you are your own decision maker.” However, it was Rose Witherspoon Spence who lived the experience of those words. Rose decided for Rose, and she fought, both in war and peace, so that other individuals could decide their course in life for themselves, free of oppression and fear.
Spence’s oral history is part of VHP’s new Experiencing War online exhibit, “First, Serve: Athletes in Uniform.” If you or someone you know would like to contribute to the Veterans History Project archive so your story will be carefully preserved in the curated collections at the Library of Congress, visit www.loc.gov/vets and click on How to Participate.