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“You’re Not an Individual”

February 19, 2012

Though there was resistance to allowing African American women to serve in the Navy, Jean Byrd Stewart says she didn’t encounter any racism once she was in the military. She ended up being stationed in the Chicago area, but remembers one time traveling to St. Louis. St. Louis was a segregated community, and while she could find a restroom for white women, she couldn’t find one for African American women.

I said to the gentleman in charge, “I am going back upstairs where I saw ladies rooms. And I’m going to use that.  If you hear any commotion, you know I’m in trouble.  Send a Shore Patrol because I might need help.” Because there is no ladies room here. And I did.  I went in and you know, you have to wait until there’s an open on.  And I did, I went into the ladies room, came out, when I came out, I sat down.  I took off my hat.  I fixed my hair, checked my make-up, stood up to leave, and of course they were around talking and saying.  And you say, “Goodbye.”  Or “I’ll see you later.”  And you get up and you leave.  Nothing happened.  It shouldn’t have, but you never know.

You know what they told us when we went in?  “You’re not an individual. Remember your home training and all the things you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to act.  You belong to a group.  You’re not an individual.  You belong to a group and remember your manners.”  And that was it.

This photograph comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.

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