In honor of the Juneteenth holiday, KETR presents an interview with an African-American veteran: Fannin Garrett of Emory, Texas.
This feature was made possible by the archives of the East Texas War and Memory Project, an interdisciplinary collaboration at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
Haslett: Think about World War II. What image comes to mind when you think of a World War II veteran? If you think about a white man, that’s not surprising. Of course those who served were overwhelmingly male, and most were of some kind of European ethnic heritage. But about one in 20 were black. And those servicemen and women had what one would call a complicated relationship with their home country. They were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice – that of their lives – to defend the United States. However, they didn’t enjoy the full rights and freedoms that other Americans did. Some were from Northeast Texas.
Garrett: I left from out here and went to the army December the second 1942. Got discharged uh, January twenty, uh, seventh I believe it was forty-six.
Haslett: That’s Fannin Garrett, interviewed in 2007 when he was 86. He was born in Rains County. Garrett’s father died when he was still a child. He got all the public education that was available to him - which was eighth grade - in the little town of Sand Flat, in northeastern Van Zandt County.
Garrett: Eighth is as just as far as they went. But sometimes the teachers would try to carry you further, but eighth is as far as it would go out here. After my dad passed I was basically on my own. We could cut wood, pick up potatoes, mow or whatever you could do. It wasn’t steady jobs like we have now. It was whatever you could do.
Haslett: Garrett was drafted after the war began and soon found himself in the Army, assigned to drive trucks. He was assigned first to England, where Garrett says he and other new recruits were rushed into service.
Garrett: They didn’t give me no training. You know most of them knew how to drive, but they carried you just a little piece and then, brother, you go on your own. We had some bad drivers out there. You had to be careful for certain.
Haslett: Almost immediately after the Allied invasion of Normandy, Garrett found himself in France, trucking supplies and soldiers to the front - and returning from the front with the dangerous task of carrying German prisoners of war. As the front slowly pushed eastward, Garrett was often given reconnaissance duties – scouting out a route for the caravan through the unpredictable landscape of war.
Garrett: You couldn’t go across the road all the time. See the bridge was blowed out. So now I have to find a way to get all these trucks across to where the tanks. And I had to make an alternate route. And me walking and stepping with my foot. I could have fell in a well, you know. We were more familiar with the area than a lots of the boys was cause some of them had just, man we lost quite a few. Just because you are behind the line doesn’t mean that you’re in a safe place. You’re not. You are definitely not. I’ve made trips and trips and trips. And I would say, hey where is old so and so. And oh yeah, they got him oh two or three weeks ago, you know. That’s how you miss them, you just miss him. And then oh, yeah, they got him too. They swing on the side of them trucks and cut them boys’ throats or slip into the back of your truck and shoot you through the thing. Just because you’re on the back of the line, don’t mean that you’re in a safe. We lost a lot of people. Lots.
Haslett: Garrett passed away a couple of years ago, but he and other African-American veterans live on through the lives of those they touched. Garrett was interviewed by Jim Conrad. The interview was transcribed by Tori Bass. The complete interview is in the archives of the East Texas War and Memory Project at Texas A&M University-Commerce. For KETR News, I’m Mark Haslett.
Garrett: I don’t know, it’s a lot more I guess would come to me if I sat here long enough. That I could tell you about that, but. But I’ve had my experience in that. And I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it at all.
Notes from student researcher Tori Bass:
My thesis project is an in-depth look at the history of an African-American military family. I will be specifically concentrating on the World War II veterans, because their oral histories already exist. These veterans include David, Mildred and Fannin Garrett.
Their story is especially interesting because of the time period where it is set. During the early twentieth century African Americans were still overwhelmingly suppressed into a system similar to slavery. Not only were the buildings that they were allowed to enter segregated, but also their lives. Many African American families were forced into a tenant labor system that constantly left them indebted to their landlords and local grocery stores through a high-interest credit system. These families lived in poverty and still choose to join the military.
Mildred was hoping to break the constraints of her race and gender, allowing her the opportunity to have a career outside the norm. After serving she came home and was forced into careers that she was trying to escape. David and Fannin were drafted. They also returned home to menial labor jobs. I choose this thesis project for those reasons.
Our veterans are often revered as heroes for their time served. These three, and hundreds of others, were ignored because of their race and gender. They gave as much as their white counterparts, even losing friends in the process. However, their efforts were ignored. I want highlight not only the injustices that they faced, but also honor them for their time spent in the service.
Every day our society is faced with the choice of prejudice and hate. The stories of the past should help ease the decision into choosing not to judge based on any exterior factor. I hope that the history of the Garretts will encourage local society to look closer at being equals, but also to respect the older members of our community because many of them served during wars that we can only study about. These families are living history and deserve the same respect as heroes.
I was born and raised in Midlothian, Texas. The first time I ever moved was to attend the university in Commerce. I graduated with honors from Midlothian High School in 2011. I will be graduating with my bachelor’s in History and Political Science in 2015 from Texas A&M University-Commerce.