History and the people who make it: Joseph W. Welch

Joseph Welch [W], WWII vet, Gainesville area civil rights worker and school teacher, was interviewed by Ryan Morini [M] in April, 2013.

This is the 49th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection. Notes in [square brackets] by SPOHP; interpolations in {curly brackets} by Iguana.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

W: I’m from a family of two children, my sister and I. June 16, 1922, I was born here in Gainesville.

M: What part of town?

W: Porters Addition. My mother and grandmother was a seamstress. My father was a minister, in theory. But he was a womanizer who ran around a lot. As a result, he and my mother separated when I was a year and six months old. My mother was pregnant with my sister. He’s dead now – but he never laid eyes on my sister in his life. He hadn’t laid eyes on me since I was eighteen months old.

After I became an adult, was inducted into the army, went over to Europe, and came back in 1945, I was twenty-three, I said I’m gonna look up my father and let him see what I look like now.

I wasn’t able to find him because he was dodging police, even though he’s a minister! His brother took me to a church that he built, with his own congregation, his name there on the cornerstone. My uncle introduced me to the audience there and they say that boy is just like Elder Welch! But, he never did anything for me. I was raised by my mother and grandmother.

Oh, and, I lived with an ex-slave for fourteen years – my great-grandmother. She was born in 1852 in South Carolina and migrated to Florida in 1865, when slavery was abolished.

M: What was her name?

W: Margaret Veal. She worked for the University of Florida in the ag department from, I believe it was 1907 until 1936. She was known by all at the university as Aunt Margaret.

She was a very powerful person. She was one of the earlier Black property owners in Alachua County. Many times, she served as a bond agency for people who were arrested. She only had to sign her name, not put up any money. Even guys who had committed murder, she’d bond them out. I would like to know her maiden name because Veal was a married name. She married Andrew Veal. She had a very large family and she and her husband finally separated and he moved away.

M: Sounds like she was a pretty strong person –

W: Oh, she was. [laughs] She was strong on me, too, because when it came to chores around the house, she thought a boy, he’s supposed to do all those chores. And I’d better not complain, either. [laughs]

If she were still working at the university in the same role, I would consider her a member of the faculty of the ag department. You would find her surrounded by eight or ten or more white males, because it was an all-boys school, and they were getting the theories in the class, but the practical application, they received under her supervision out there in the field.

A white woman – I believe her name was Susie Balknight. She was very wealthy. She was a close friend of my great-grandmother. She didn’t live but about two and a half blocks from us. She’d come to our house, sit on the front porch with my great-grandmother, and they would converse for the longest. And my grandmother would go off to her house and sit on the front porch. They were very close.

She was in slavery until her thirteenth birthday. She must have been a member of the household, and her master taught her to read and write. She spent a lot of time rereading her Bible.

I was required to attend church all day, every Sunday. You didn’t miss. Sunday school at 8:30, morning services, afternoon services, and evening services. You had to attend all those services. Programs that children participated in, we had to be a part of that – learning and saying a speech, or being a part of a play.

Out of all the kids that came up during that time, only three of us graduated from high school. I was the only boy. There were two girls. All the others were dropouts. I graduated May 1, 1942.

Another thing, [laughs] that I used to wonder about – why can’t I attend Gainesville High School? Only one and a half blocks from me! I’d pass by there, going to Lincoln High School, on the other side of town.

Let’s see if I can recall the days of the Depression. My mother was a commercial cook. She earned a pretty decent salary. Most other women who were domestics at that time, you want to know the prevailing wage for them? Two dollars, fifty cent a week.

There was a club, known as the “Twentieth Century Club.” Now it’s the “Women’s Club” out on University Avenue. Their responsibility was to orientate newcomers to Gainesville. They would tell them the patterns around here: see now, you have a maid, and you have to transport her. Never allow her to occupy the front seat beside you. Sit in the back. Don’t pay her more than two dollars fifty cent a week. That was the prevailing wage around Gainesville during the Depression.

My mother cooked at fraternity houses and things of that sort. In 1955, if you wanted a new automobile you had to place an order for it. Then, it would arrive and you could pick it up. At this time, she was working at Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house. The house mother bought a 1954 used car. The next day my mother’s new car arrived. So my mother drove it to work several days and finally, the house mother asked her, Rowena, whose car is that? My car. She goes, anybody who can afford a car like that don’t need to work on my job, and fired her right there on the spot. [laughs]

M: Was your mother upset?

W: [laughs] No. She became assistant director of the Gainesville Black Recreation Center on NE 2nd Street. She worked until she developed breast cancer and had to have a breast removed. She somewhat recovered. Finally, she begun to suffer pain, and we took her to the emergency room. The doctor informed my wife and I that your mother has a terrible case of cancer. The cancer has permeated all of her major organs.

At that time, she was crazy about my young son. She would get him in the car, cause she had an automobile practically all of her life, and she would take off to places like Jacksonville, and take my boy with her. In that condition I didn’t want her to take my boy [laughs] but I couldn’t tell her not to do it.

M: Around what time was that?

W: [19]57, [19]58. Yeah. My grandfather, his name was Doc Willis. He was an immigrant from Haiti. He used to operate a used furniture store in Jacksonville. He was a very prominent looking person.

If you’re interest{ed in} my war record, {US troops landed} on Normandy Beach on my 22nd birthday, never forget it. June 6, [19]44. Ten days after that, I waded ashore. The person in charge of supplies didn’t know anything about our being there. We couldn’t get supplies. Not even any food!

We went a whole day and had to hike. We had only ten miles between the Germans and the English Channel that we occupied. If those German boys had stiffened their resistance [laughs] we would have been in trouble.

The most frightening time during my service overseas was the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans were not taking any prisoners. Old George Patton came through. He rescued us. They were puttin’ hell on us, on American allies. [laughs]

M: When did you go into the service?

W: I got drafted. In 1942. I spent eight months in the States before going to England.

M: Where was your training?

W: Camp Cleveland, Louisiana. We trained under some terrible conditions there, being a segregated army. When it came time to catch the bus back to camp, all Black soldiers had to stand aside while they {lined} up all the whites. If there were seats left, you’d have seats. We’re all supposed to meet at reveille at the same time. You had to just wait. Oftentimes, we were late getting back to camp.

M: They knew what was happening, but they didn’t cut you a break.

W: We went in the same uniform, representing the same country [laughs] yet, we’re separate. And the commanders, all white. Even with black outfits.

M: Do you remember any Black commanders? At all?

W: There was a guy from Jacksonville, Major Devaux. His job was to go around and investigate our conditions. He would stand before us and first thing, he would list off things that if they bothered you, or you had problems with, he couldn’t do anything about it. In the process, he covered – [laughs] – all the problems we had. So he couldn’t do anything. He disappeared mysteriously. They found him dead. They never found to this day what happened, or who killed him.

M: What was it like to be segregated overseas?

W: I enjoyed the English administrators because they’d be switching between the Black and the white soldiers. They wanted things to be fair. Of course, the problem mainly was the English women.

During the whole time that I was over in Europe, I saw only one black woman and she was a Congolese from the Belgian Congo. They would let the whites go to town tonight, and restrict the blacks. Tomorrow night, they would let the blacks go and restrict the whites. It was terrible.

M: Did any of the black soldiers and the white soldiers ever work together?

W: No, we were totally separate. One time in Liege, Belgium we were converting an old cavalry station into an emergency hospital and we had a group of {Germans} to perform certain general duties. We were told that if anyone attempted to escape to cut ‘em down. But we had an officer, he was white, Captain Swiser. We looked ‘cross the hill, boy, there were two or three German prisoners running across there. We could of {shot} ‘em, and he yelled halt! [laughs] We never allowed to shoot them. So they managed to escape. He didn’t wanna see a black soldier shoot a white German prisoner.

I was in the general service organization: our job was to maintain what we call the Red Ball Highway to carry supplies, equipment and manpower to the front line. Oftentimes when the {Germans} would retreat, they would blow up bridges. My job, under fire, was to repair that. Do you know they have private organizations performing wartime duties? During World War II, general service outfits performed those things.

M: Were you ever under fire?

W: The main thing is we were exposed to the German V1 and V2 robot bomb. Once, when we were building an airbase, I was on this steel structure, hangars for B-17 bombers. The Germans came over and {strafed} us. I was in Liege, Belgium, living in an old museum. There was a river right there. Whenever the alarm would sound, we would rush out and get down beside the bed of the river.

On one occasion, that thing sounded and being scared as hell, they stampeded coming down those stairs – ‘cuz we lived on the second floor – with every ounce of strength that I had I had to try to hold on. ‘Cuz if not, you could be trampled to death. Then and there, I said I’d be damned if I will ever run again. When I heard that siren, I lay right in my bed. If I get killed, I won’t be the only one.

M: Do you think that attitude kinda stuck with you after that?

W: Right, right.

To be continued in the October Iguana. Search for “Joseph Welch” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu for the recording of this interview.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching, and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations. 

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