A different country

One summer 50 years ago, 16 Bronx teenagers got chilled to the bone when they showed up for army training in the South.

To appreciate the miracle that took place on the steps of the US Capitol Tuesday with the swearing in of America's first African-American president, you need to be 55or older. In the summer of 1959, I was one of a group of sixteen 19-year-olds enrolled in New York University's ROTC (Reserve Officer's Training Corps) program bound for Augusta, Georgia for a six-week summer camp program at nearby Fort Gordon, preparatory to receiving a commission in the US Army. (In those days, ROTC enrollment was mandatory at all land-grant universities.) We arrived in Augusta a day before we were due to report to the post so that we could have a bit of fun overnight before we gave ourselves up to the rigors of army life. Augusta, in those days, particularly in the summer, was a sleepy southern town in a still-segrated US whose main claim to fame was that it was, and still is, the home of the then-segregated Augusta National Golf Club's Master's Tournament as well as of Fort Gordon, the home of the Southeastern Signal School and the army's Military Police School. The 16 of us, half of whom were Jews and the other half blacks, disembarked from the plane and saw things none of us had ever encountered before. We saw three lavatories in the airport marked "men," "women" and "colored," and a prison chain gang working by the side of the road on our way into town - just to cite two examples. We grabbed a taxi and asked the driver take us to the Bel Air Hotel, a stately building on a hill overlooking Broad Street, the main thoroughfare of the community. I remember walking up to the registration desk and asking the clerk if they had rooms available. When he responded in the affirmative, I asked for four rooms. He he gave me a cold stare and stated, very matter-of-factly, "Listen son, they can't come in here. You should know that we don't allow Negroes in this hotel except as part of a maintenance crew." FOR 16 TEENAGERS who grew up in the Bronx that response was as shocking as if we had had ice cold water thrown in our faces. We stared at each other for a moment, realized where we were, called a taxi and went to the local Holiday Inn for the night, since national chains were not segregated. Of course, en route, we passed signs that read "Colored Hotel 2 Miles Ahead" and gas stations that boldly stated "Colored Not Served Here." The following day we gave ourselves over to the US Army which, at the time, was legally integrated. But in practice many of the drill instructors and others were "old army" who still had not realized that change was upon the land and, of course, we were also in the South. The Jewish chaplain on the post, who, like me, now also lives in Jerusalem, was the only ray of light in an otherwise dismal experience for blacks as well as for Jews. Fast forward exactly 50 years to 2009 to Washington, where the progeny of the people who lived through the experience of segregated America now can proudly stand on the mall that spans the area between the White House and the Capitol and watch Barack Obama take the oath as America's first black president in an orderly transfer of power designed 233 years ago by visionaries, many of whom were slave owners. That's the miracle of America. And by the way, the Bel Air Hotel has now been converted into a fully integrated senior citizens residence whose manager is black. The writer is president of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm.