Crossing the Color Line in Nebraska

Civil rights activist and long-time NFP member Hugh Bullock died this past week after a recent health crisis.  For over half a century, Hugh and his surviving wife Leola fearlessly championed the rights of African Americans in Nebraska, challenging discriminatory practices in housing, employment and opportunity wherever they found them.  In February 2008, their close friend and activist colleague Lela Shanks chronicled some of the experiences Hugh had to daily contend with as a postal worker in 1950s Nebraska for the Nebraska Report.  In tribute to Hugh’s contributions to justice and racial equality, we are posting the article in its entirety.  For most readers, this is absolutely unknown history, and once you start reading, you won’t be able to stop.

Lela Shanks Interviews Hugh Bullock

The idea for this interview came about over lunch with Hugh and Leola Bullock and other friends. Hugh began telling about the discrimination he faced in 1953 in Lincoln as the first African American hired to work for the U. S. Postal Transportation Service. As I listened to him, I began choking up, remembering similar problems my late husband, Hughes, had faced as the first African American hired by the Denver Social Security Administration in 1956. My husband had to go to Baltimore for training, but because of legal segregation, he was not permitted to stay or eat in the downtown hotel where his fellow white trainees were housed. He stayed across town at the black YMCA. Since the Y had no cafeteria, he ate out of cans, got ptomaine poison, had to have his stomach pumped, and almost died. I decided to interview Hugh in honor of my Hughes and all the other black men and women who have endured racial discrimination in order to break down employment barriers in America. -- Lela Shanks 

Lela: Hugh, will you tell me what you thought about when you saw the obituary in the paper about Shirley Hutchison who was from Broken Bow, Nebraska. 

Hugh: I thought about the time that I was in the mail service on the train and my run was from Lincoln to Broken Bow and many of the small towns in Nebraska. And Broken Bow was one of the places I didn’t have any place to stay because my people that I worked with didn’t want to stay in the same place I did, so I had to find a place to stay and I went to the train station; and the police didn’t want me to stay in the train station so they took me to the hotel. The hotel wouldn’t keep me, but they had an older fellow that was a cook and he evidently suggested that I stay in the hotel. And I was told that he said if I didn’t stay in the hotel he would quit as their cook. 

Lela: Now, he was an African American? 

Hugh: African American. I’m fairly sure his name was Mr. Conrad and that’s really all I knew. He was Shirley Hutchison’s father. And the police would pick me up at the station every time I went to Broken Bow, take me to the hotel, and the hotel gave me a room and would bring food up to the room so they wouldn’t have to show me at the hotel. 

Lela: What year was this? 

Hugh: I wish I knew for sure, but I was on the train, [U. S. Postal Transportation Service], from 1953 to 1956. 

Lela: Where did the other guys stay? 

Hugh: They stayed with a private individual and it was some of the railroad people and some of the postal service people that I worked with. At first, I slept there two nights, and ate in one of the little cafes downtown. But after the second night, I was told by the landlord that these guys that lived there would not stay if I was allowed to live there, and the café was off limits, too. 

Lela: So what did you think you were going to do? Did you talk it over with your supervisor? 

Hugh: I didn’t dare talk it over with the supervisor, because the supervisor didn’t want any parts of me in the service. I was the only black person on that train from Lincoln, and the supervisor and most of his employees would prefer not to have me on the train with them or in the same organization with them. 

Lela: Did you see any signs up? 

Hugh: I didn’t see any signs. I don’t remember in any place in Nebraska. That’s one of the reasons that I got into trouble in several places and was thrown out because there wasn’t any signs. In Mississippi there were signs, but I come to Nebraska and there was no signs. But the policy was not to accept me in. 

Lela: Can you remember some of the towns you were thrown out of? 

Hugh: Oh, yes, the only place in Nebraska that I had a place to eat and stay as far as I know were two places: Ravenna and Alliance. 

Lela: Can you name some of the towns you couldn’t stop in?  

Hugh: Well, Falls City. The guys on the train told me, don’t stop at Falls City. I was supposed to stop in Falls City. But I had connections in St. Joe [Joseph], Missouri so I would just ride the train on to St. Joe and catch the train back from St. Joe. But I was working overtime to do that or whatever. 

Lela: Did you get paid? 

Hugh: No, you just got paid for your run. And in one of the towns, Hyannis, Nebraska, I went to bed the first night, and the second night there were two men that came in my room and woke me up and said get out of town and don’t never come back. Hyannis Nebraska. I’m not sure who these fine gentlemen was, but it was just two white fellas. 

Lela: And where did you go? 

Hugh: I went to the train station and stayed until the train came the next day. And after that, when I was going to Hyannis, I would continue on to Alliance, because Alliance was the stopping point and not too far away, but that was extra for me because I didn’t get the sleep I was supposed to and had to work extra, really. 

Lela: So were you as frightened in those times, as you were when you were in Mississippi? 

Hugh: Not really. One reason is, in the postal service (transportation) you carried a gun, and this was to be used on the train, really to protect the mail. But you had a gun, and you had it loaded. And because I didn’t have any place to stay, most of the time since I couldn’t stay where the other guys lived, I carried the gun all the time. It wasn’t supposed to be loaded, but I carried it. As I told you, one of the reasons I had so much troubles was because the top man in Lincoln, when I first showed up in Lincoln came up to me, pointed his finger and said,” I don’t like you because you are you.” That’s just the way he said it. I understood he was an ex-army officer, and he told me that I had to leave Lincoln as soon as possible because he wouldn’t have me in Lincoln. And after six months he told me again that I couldn’t qualify for the postal service unless I was willing to leave Lincoln. So I left Lincoln and went to Omaha, and Omaha accepted me because they had many minority folk in Omaha. I started in Council Bluffs, and Omaha was where I went back to. 

Lela: Why did you come to Nebraska in the first place? 

Hugh: What a long story. I knew after the army I couldn’t stay in Mississippi, because I wanted to live, and I felt that Mississippi and I could not live together with the attitude that Mississippi had, so I took off. At that time, black people could not vote in Mississippi even though I was just out of the army. Trying to vote, you could have lost your life, really. So, I had some friends up in St. Paul, Minnesota that I had lived with and worked for when I lived in Mississippi, and I went there, but I was not happy in St. Paul, so I left there after I met a friend who had been stationed at the airbase in Lincoln, and he gave me the name of Reverend Trago McWilliams. And I left St. Paul without knowing Rev. Trago or anybody else except what this fellow had told me. I came down to Lincoln and met Rev. Trago, and he sent me to Ms. Stella Hammond’s house who rented rooms to single people. And that’s where I lived until really, I got married and bought a little house. 

Lela: Where were you were born? 

Hugh: I was born in Springfield, Mississippi on July 23, 1924. 

Lela: When were you in the military? 

Hugh: Went in 1943 and got out in 1946. 

Lela: And were you in the big invasion? 

Hugh: I was after the invasion, but I was there close. We were in Belfast, Northern Ireland when the invasion started. We went to South Hampton, England and went over from South Hampton and walked around the beach into France. 

Lela: Were you associated with whites at all? 

Hugh: A few were mostly officers. We had some non-commissioned officers who were black, but it was all a black unit except for the commanding officers who were all white. We worked with unloading ships when we got to Cherbourg, France and loaded the Red Ball Express of Patton’s army. 

Lela: How were you treated in France and Ireland and those places by the people? 

Hugh: The regular people mostly treated us… how should I say… fair. They called us black yanks. And they called the white soldiers white yanks, so we were just American soldiers as far as most of those folks went, and they were fair. They only thing was when we run into the same nightclub where the white soldiers went, there were troubles. Real troubles. 

Lela: If the white soldiers weren’t there… the white citizens… did they object to you mingling with the women? 

Hugh: There might have been some, but we didn’t confront that. Not really. They would ask questions and try to find out why you were different. 

Lela: ’Cause some of the people hadn’t seen anybody black? 

Hugh: Yeah, and the white soldiers told the folks before we got over there that the black guys had tails and that we were half monkeys, so that’s one of the reasons we had fights as soon as we saw the white unit. 

Lela: When you were in those other countries, did you ever feel like that must be what it feels like to be free? 

Hugh: It felt much better than the United States. I considered retiring from the army and living in France. That’s how I felt about France. I went all over France many, many times. But my sisters and brothers were still young, and I had supported them since my father died. So that’s why I came back. 

Lela: How old were you when your father died? 

Hugh: Twelve. And when my mother died, I was 16, and as the oldest boy I was supposed to be the man of the family. And the oldest sister was 13 years older than I was, and this older sister and I cared for all the others. We cared for six younger siblings. And that older sister was some kind of lady. She was a great lady. Her name was Juanita. J-U-A-N-I-T-A. She lived to be 52. 

Lela: How long did you take care of your six younger siblings? 

Hugh: Until they all were really grown. When I was in the army, I sent an allotment check back to the family. The older sister took care of it and kept the younger bunch. 

Lela: And did the six siblings graduate from high school? 

Hugh: Oh yeah, they all graduated from high school. I was the only one that didn’t graduate from high school. 

Lela: And did you quit school at age 12? 

Hugh: No, I went to school after that but kind of part time, and I just kind of survived in school; because I was working some to help with the others. I started working at age eight, and at age eight, I could plow just like any man. Hook the horse up. Plow. 

Lela: Back to Nebraska. When you saw that you couldn’t stay in the place where everybody else stayed, when the police picked you up that first time and took you to the hotel, what did you think you were going to do? 

Hugh: I figured I would stay in the train station and carry my lunch, because after that I had to take my lunches sometimes if there was someplace that I couldn’t eat or stay. So I would stay wherever I could, in the train station or go further to the next town that would accept me or whatever. And the reason that I did this because I couldn’t talk to the head manager because he didn’t want me. And he told me that. And so I couldn’t talk to him. Finally, I found a way to get by, by talking to the second manager. The assistant manager. And the assistant manager was fair. And I could go through the assistant manager and get what was needed. And the one time the head manager called me in and said that I shouldn’t go through the assistant manager, that I should come to him. But it was real unusual for him to do that because that’s where almost everybody went — to the assistant manager first. But he wanted me to face him, but I stayed with the assistant manager and got things done that way — what I needed. 

Lela: Now were you the first black working for the U. S. Postal Transportation Service in Lincoln? 

Hugh: First and only. There were plenty of [black] guys in Omaha. 

Lela: So were you taken off probation after that first year? 

Hugh: Yes. 

Lela: And was it the manager that was so terrible to you who took you off probation? Hugh: No, Omaha. I was in Omaha. As I said, my supervisor told me I was not going to make it in Lincoln. So I moved to Omaha after six months and stayed until the year was over, and then when there was a job opening, I come back to Lincoln to work on the train. They could hound me, but they could not take the job away because I had made it that far. And Omaha said I was qualified to do anything. 

Lela: How were you treated in Omaha? 

Hugh: Much better than Lincoln. In Omaha I was treated… I’d say fair because I was almost equal, because there were many black folk in Omaha, even some supervisors. But after I came back to Lincoln, I left the train after a couple of years because I had so much trouble with the boss on the train and asked to be transferred to the Lincoln Post Office. I lost all of my seniority I had on the train. So I started in the post office, new. And the interviewer in the post office personnel asked if I would fight. So he evidently felt that some of those words and some other stupid things would come up, and I might want to step out by fighting somebody in the post office. 

Lela: So you told him no? 

Hugh: I don’t remember what I told him, because I had just gotten out of the army, and I thought about it, and I was in the army to fight. So I don’t remember what I told him, really. I know I almost had to have the job because I had stayed on the train with this supervisor as long as I could stay. And what finally happened to me and the supervisor was he asked me to work 16 hours or something. I had just gone on a run, and they asked me to turn around and go right back. Woke me up. I had just got home and was in the bed. After an hour they wanted me to go out and go on another run. And I refused to do it. And because I had refused to turn around and go out, the head supervisor, the head man that had been all the troubles to me before, came up to me and screamed and he was standing in my face. And I call it spitting in my face, but he wasn’t spitting in my face — he was just screaming. And I knew at that time that nobody needed to ask me about fighting, because I was ready to go; so I knew I had to transfer. So I transferred after that day. I never went back. I could have waited and kept my seniority because the train was going to be off after about a year anyway. They took all the mail off the train. But I could not stay and wait until that time, so I lost my seniority. 

Lela: Do you think that affected what your retirement is today? 

Hugh: I don’t think so, because the only way that would affect my retirement was that I would have moved up in the post office because of my train experience. But I don’t think I would have moved up in the post office anyway, unless I sued the post office, because the only black clerk that was in the post office at my time was Fred Nevels, and Fred had to sue the post office to get to be supervisor. And he was ahead of me. He had more education than I did and all the other stuff but they still didn’t want him as a supervisor. 

Lela: If you hadn’t been a veteran do you think you would have been hired in the first place? 

Hugh: I don’t think so. I got five points. 

Lela: What would you say the main differences are between your experiences in Mississippi and in Nebraska, specifically, Lincoln, if you feel there are differences? 

Hugh: There were differences because of the employment opportunities, and in Mississippi there were signs to say where you could go and where you dare not to go. In Lincoln, Nebraska there were very few signs if any. But it was the same system that you still was not wanted or accepted. And many of the opportunities in employment… the people that worked, the other employees would make the job tough as they could to eliminate you. I went out on the train for the second time from Lincoln to Alliance. And there was nine small towns that I was supposed to put a sack of mail off in a certain place in each town. And I missed five of those towns because I didn’t know how to get the mail to those towns. And each little town that I missed, they give you five demerits for each one of those towns that you missed. And if you got 50 demerits, they eliminated you from the post office. It didn’t make any difference, your position was over if you had 50 demerits if they wanted to. So the men I worked with were trying to eliminate me by not helping me with the mail for those towns. 

Lela: You were to drop the mail off at a certain point in the towns? 

Hugh: Yes, at some place, for all of those little towns. And nobody would tell me or help me. 

Lela: Wasn’t there anybody you could go to? Did you feel helpless or how did you feel? 

Hugh: Oh yes, you felt helpless, believe me, because that’s when you were carrying your lunch and not sleeping because you didn’t have any place to eat or stay on some of those routes so you had to carry a lunch and lose some sleep. 

Lela: And would they let you sleep on the train? 

Hugh: Yeah, they let me sleep on the train or in the train station many times, in many places. Lela: Could you lie down on the train? Hugh: Oh, yeah. The train crew found out when I was thrown out at Hyannis that I didn’t have any place to stay, so when they got to Hyannis they would fix two car seats so I could lie down and sleep for that hour that I needed to get to Alliance. The only reason I made the whole thing… the only way I survived is that I had several people that was different from the other group. And that’s how I made it. But those that were different wouldn’t report the other guys. 

I almost had a nervous breakdown — after I was on the train here the second time. It was hard work on the train. And then the stress, and like I said many times, I didn’t have any place to stay and all of the other things. So I had bells ringing in my ears. And I got sick, so I went to this old doctor in the Lincoln Terminal Building on 10th and ‘O’ Street and never seen him before in my life. And he talked to me and examined me a little, and finally he said, “Son” — never seen him before in my life — he said, “Son, you can’t make it; you’d better find another job.” But I couldn’t find another job. I didn’t have no place to go. And I went back on the train, and after a few days’ rest and continued. 

At that time I had filed for several other jobs in Lincoln. One was Ben Simon’s department store, and I had been a part-time salesman for Stonefield Corporation in Chicago. And I put that on my record when I made my application for Ben Simon’s as a shoe salesman; and I went up to the supervisor over the shoe department, and he told me after quite a conversation that he could hire me, but I probably couldn’t make it because the white men would not want me to put my hands on the white ladies’ legs. 

Then I went to Western Electric, filled out an application and signed up. They wanted 300 inexperienced wiremen and since they didn’t know who I was, they called me in for an interview, and the personnel person sat down and talked to me for better than an hour, and I felt that it was time for him to make some decision. So I asked him about making a decision, and he looked at my hands and said your fingers are too large to be a wireman. And I had just left St. Paul, Minnesota and got out of Northwestern Institute of Technology, and I had a radio restricted operations license. And I told him at that time, I said, “I can check the wiring, I don’t have to wire.” And he said, “I could send you up and put you to work, but the guys up on the job don’t have to work with you and, you couldn’t make it.” 

Lela: They were always passing the buck. 

Hugh: And they had one black person that was both an elevator operator and a janitor and so they had their one. So they didn’t discriminate, since they had one guy. 

So I stayed in the post office… and because I had all the experience on the train, they had me training new post office people. The train people had much more experience than the post office folk. I trained all the new ones at that time, and one particular new one that I trained was this postmaster that just retired. Doug Emery. And I still got shorted. They still was after me until I left. I worked a total of 34 years for the U. S. Postal Service.  

Lela: Did you ever get a promotion? 

Hugh: No, not hardly. I could have had a promotion, but the one promotion I could have had was at the state house, and then I would have been ahead of all the other guys, and they wouldn’t work with you, and I knew it, so I turned it down. But I could have had that promotion. It would have been just a little promotion. 

Lela: You would have received a little more? 

Hugh: Yeah, and I would have added to retirement, too by the way. And in the post office, even these guys I trained would ask me, “Why do you need as much money as we do?” That’s just some of the questions they would ask. They asked me, “If Russia would come over and take over, how would you feel?” And I said, “I wouldn’t feel any different, because Russians would treat me just like you guys treat me, so I’d be treated the same.” They asked me if I would like to change colors, and I would tell them that I was perfectly satisfied with who I am. In fact I like who I am, except I don’t like how they treated me. That would be my answer I would tell them. 

And I always seem to have an answer every time they asked me some of those stupid ones. I’m not a quick thinker, but all of those things I guess I thought about them before they come up. When they asked me, instead of getting mad, that’s what I would tell them. When they asked me about the money I told them, I said, “I want to send my daughter to college just like you guys, and I want a new car, and I want my wife to be in a house just like Mrs. Eisenhower, just like anybody else.”

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