James Richard Yarbrough
James Richard Yarbrough, husband of Velma Louise Yarbrough, was born in 1926 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At age 18, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was among the very first U.S. soldiers to land at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. After serving his country in World War II, he became a salesman and married Velma Louise Yarbrough. Together, they had two sons, Jimmy Yarbrough and Greg Whitman, and one daughter, JoAnna Yarbrough. This interview includes his observation of the role blacks played in his childhood, World War II, and the Civil Rights Era.
Chase: What was it like living in Chattanooga during the Civil Rights Era?
James: The colored did not have as much social freedoms back then as they do now. It seemed like that slavery wasn't over for them because at that time they still had to sit separate on buses. They couldn't go to restaurants that we went into and they couldn't go swimming where we went swimming. Blacks and whites didn't run around with each other as friends. They did communicate, but it was more of a business-like conversation instead of a personal one. There was a sense that they were beneath the whites.
Chase: Because they didn't have the same social freedoms?
James: That's exactly right. They couldn't go into our residences, they couldn't go into our schools, and they couldn't ride on the bus. If they wanted to ride on the bus, they had to get in the back. They didn't have really good jobs. The jobs that they had were more laborious. You didn't see any of them in politics where they could hold an office. You saw very few of them as policemen. Maybe occasionally you might see one, but I don't remember seeing too many. I don't know how to put this. The colored were...they themselves weren't the type of people they are today. They, I think in a way, they were indoctrinated that they weren't equal to us, because they had been told this growing up. You know, you can't do this because you aren't white, or you can't do that because you aren't white. This was sunk into their heads, especially the older colored people. They felt like they were beneath the white people, because they had been told that all of their life and they didn't know any different.
Chase: I can understand that because there were some Civil Rights activists that thought that blacks and whites should be separate and should be able to govern themselves as a separate society.
James: I think that the majority of the white people wanted things to remain how they were. I am not trying to be prejudice, even though I am a little prejudice, but I personally think that the blacks started to stir up things and cause problems, and of course we were hard to accept it. I mean, we wouldn't have a black person come into our house and sit down like you and I are talking. If they didn't have business with us, they didn't come to our house. I am prejudice because I was brought up during that time, and that was just the way we saw it. When I was younger, we had some colored people that bathed me and cooked for me. They were real nice ladies and I respected them, but I still didn't want them coming into my house because I was bred that way. They were colored; we were white.
Chase: What was segregation like during your service in the military?
James: In the Army, you didn't have colored in the same unit that you were in. When the war first started, the colored...they drove trucks and had service jobs. A few of them went on the front lines, but I never saw any, and I was on the front lines for almost three years. Those that drove the trucks, maybe bringing some soldiers to the front line, when they got within a certain distance, they got out and and a white soldier drove the truck the rest of the way.
Chase: Is that because the African American soldiers would get too close to the fighting and the Army didn't want to run the risk of them fighting with white soldiers?
James: I actually believe that, but whether that is true or false, I can't say for sure. I think that the Army was scared. If they had any men fighting, it was not with the white soldiers. It was with their own group. They almost seemed to have their own Army. We didn't have any in my division, and if there were, they were a cook or something like that.
Chase: So African Americans mainly had service jobs?
James: Yes. When I was in the service, what I realized, and I analysed it, was that they were just doing the jobs that that they could get to be connected to the war. I didn't see any colored medical teams or anything like that. If you went to a field hospital or something like it, there were no colored people in the capacity of the hospital as a nurse or doctor, instead they would be the ones who would clean the hospital.
Chase: What do you think will solve the problems concerning race relations?
James: Time. I think that more time needs to pass before these problems are truly resolved, so that there aren't as many people being taught, like I was, to regard blacks as unequal to whites. I know that this problem won't be solved in my lifetime, and it may not even be solved in yours, but I think that one day it will be.
Chase: Thank you for your time Mr. Yarbrough.
James: Your welcome, I enjoyed it.
This interview was not meant to support the idea that one group of people is superior to another in anyway, but instead was conducted to provide an honest viewpoint from someone who has been influenced by the society that they lived in and the people around them, as it pertains to the Civil Rights Era. Although James Richard Yarbrough claims to be prejudice, he realizes that it is wrong and has grown more tolerant and accepting toward African Americans despite his upbringing.