A Light in the Darkness (Part 2)

Thurman Mitchell stood outside a train stop in Ottawa, Kansas, in complete shock. Finally standing on US soil after 181 days in Europe, where he and the rest of the “Black Panthers” in the 761st black tank battalion had served heroically under General Patton, tears ran from his eyes. But these were not tears of excitement, though he would soon be with his family once again. They were not tears of relief for being home safe and sound, after seeing many of his closest friends killed in battle. And they certainly were not tears of joy from being welcomed back by fellow Americans and celebrated for the sacrifices he had made for his country.

Thurman’s cheeks were now stained with tears of disbelief. Utter disbelief. The unfolding scene at the train stop in Kansas that day was yet another reminder of the injustices in America for people of color at that time. Despite the freedoms supposedly given to Nancy Mallory and her children after the hundreds of thousands of lives sacrificed during the Civil War. Despite Thurman’s own sacrificial service overseas liberating Europe and saving America from the inevitable Nazi invasion that would no doubt have come to its shores eventually. Did none of that matter? Had nothing changed?

Not at this train stop in Kansas.

Black Indians in America—Another Side to Nineteenth-Century Slavery

Whereas Emmitt Mitchell’s mom’s side of the family dates back to a slave auction block in Tennessee, his dad’s story extends to a lesser-known side of the spectrum of black history in America—that of the black Indians during the slave era.

Both the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations had slaves of their own at this time, having been influenced heavily by the European settlers and the same Thomas Jefferson admonition that had motivated James Mallory to move to Texas and become wealthy with “land and negroes.” Out of a pursuit of wealth and a desire to become more civilized, the Nations were convinced to become slave owners themselves.

It is not known how Buck Franklin joined up with the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations of Oklahoma at the end of the eighteenth century—whether he was traded into the Nation or if he ran away there because of the belief that slaves were treated better by Indian owners than they were by white ones—but during his time there as a slave, he showed himself to be sophisticated enough to make a great impression with the Burney family, who served as the principal chiefs of the Choctaw Nation at the time. In fact, the Burney family would later send Buck’s daughter to school so that she could train as a teacher.

Buck’s son, David Franklin, was raised entirely in the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations and became a wealthy and prominent rancher on the natives’ land, where his own children and grandchildren would also grow up, into the 1900s. While it could be said that David “owned” two ranches on the land of the Choctaws and Chickasaws, no one truly owned land on the Indian territories back then. Land was considered “common” among the Nations. It was simply understood that if you were using the land, it was yours. And you could use it forever, if that was your desire.

On these ranches, where his father before him had come as a slave, David was considered a “head man.” The entire area around him became his land, his town, his people. Emmitt’s grandma, Alice Franklin, would herself be raised on these lands, in the prominent and wealthy home of her father, David, where she dressed as the natives did and even spoke the same Muskogean language. 

Life among the Choctaws and Chickawas was good to Alice. It had provided her with the secure and stable home and family every child needs. As a child, she never had to witness such horrors as Malvinna had only one state to her south in Texas when the driver was dragged by horses and boiled in oil.

For Alice, the heartache would come after meeting and marrying the love of her life, Frank Mitchell.

Tragedies Away from the Indian Nations

Frank and Alice made a point of moving away from the comforts and wealth of Alice’s home with the Choctaws and Chickawas and beginning their young family out on their own. Unfortunately, their new adventure together would take place during one of the more unfortunate times for all Americans—that of the stock market crash of 1929 and the years after known as the Great Depression.

With a wife and family to still support—Emmitt’s father, Thurman, had been born in 1925—Frank set out one day in the early ‘30s looking for work. Anything he and his two hands could do to earn a dollar, a quarter . . . whatever someone might offer that could help put food on his family’s table. But to Alice and Thurman’s great devastation, Frank was never heard from again.

In those days, it was not uncommon for black men to leave home searching for work as Frank did and wind up on old country roads where the county sheriff, if he was so inclined, would pick them up not to give them a ride or a job but to charge them with any number of baseless crimes. With no money, no ID, and no way to contact home, these men would end up on a “chain gang,” forced to work in people’s fields until they died. No accountability. No court system. Many times, they were never heard from again, which became the case for Emmitt’s grandfather, Frank Mitchell.

About his missing grandfather, Emmitt said, “I can remember my daddy, in the ‘60s, as we would drive down the street in Oklahoma City or Dallas, and when he would see a light-skinned black man he would look at him to see if it was his dad, because he never knew what happened to him.”

Young Thurman and his mom, Alice, would persevere and make it through the Depression, even without Frank. Thurmon would even meet and marry Emmit’s mom, Hazel, in the early ‘40s when they were both still teenagers. But just as they and the rest of the world were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief while coming out of one world crisis, another, much more violent and brutal conflict called for Thurman’s help—the Second World War. 

Not long after Thurman became eligible for the draft, the newlywed’s “lucky” number was called and he joined up with the 761st black tank rebellion, known also as the “Black Panthers,” the first black armored battalion ever in the US Army. Of course, segregation was still in place at this time, so the army kept the 761st away on its own, training in Louisiana for two years despite the growing need for more US soldiers every day over in Europe. As Emmitt said, “The myth was that the blacks wouldn’t fight, that they would be cowards in battle.”

How anyone could believe the 761st, or any other black person in America for that matter, could behave cowardly is beyond understanding. After all they had been through as a people since being brought over on ships against their will—through slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow segregation, risking a life on a chain gang in order to earn a quarter for the family—“cowards” should be the last word to describe a battalion of black soldiers ready for battle.

And one key figure in the US Army was challenged to give Thurman’s battalion a chance: General George S. Patton. The general had heard about the 761st and the stories coming out of Louisiana during their training. Believing they would be desperate to show their merit in battle and put those unfounded claims about being “cowards” to rest, he knew these were the very men he needed to help lead the way through the final missions in liberating Europe and ending the German invasion for good. Before they departed on a 181-day mission across Europe—including Hitler’s final major offensive, the famed Battle of the Bulge—Patton said to Thurman and the rest of the 761st:

You men, you’re the first negro tankers to ever fight in the American army. I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I have nothing but the best in my army. I don’t care what color you are, as long as you can go up there and kill those damn Kraut sonsofbitches. Everyone has their eye on you and is expecting great things from you. Don’t let them down, damn you, and don’t let me down.

And let Patton down, these brave men did not. Though it would require a sacrifice of about one-third casualties, after the invasion of Normandy the 761st rolled their tanks through France, over the Rhine River, and all the way into Germany, relieving, rescuing, and liberating many towns. Like Patton, no one in Europe cared what color their saviors were. The great men of the 761st were heroes to all who had spent the last several years in fear of Hitler and the German army. Thurman and the rest of the soldiers—black, white, it didn’t matter—who were risking and sacrificing their lives for countries not their own, were heroes to be praised and celebrated.

The celebration, however, would not leave the shores of the now-liberated Europe. At least not for Thurman and his black brothers of the 761st.

Back in America, Nothing Had Changed

Back home, the realities of twentieth-century Black America came crashing down on Thurman. He had just served his country with honor, having received multiple commendations. Countless black soldiers in both world wars had given their lives for their country, including Percy McMillian, husband of Emmitt’s grandma. Thurman’s mom, grandparents, and great-grandparents had all been respected and esteemed as prominent, wealthy ranchers in Oklahoma, even during days of slavery. Surely his America, after all of this, could treat Thurman with the respect he undoubtedly deserved.

Sadly, that was not the reality Thurman came home to.

He and many other soldiers had taken a troop train from New York to Kansas, reuniting these heroes with their loved ones. Near the end of the line, the train stopped in Ottawa, Kansas, to allow the remaining troops a chance to stretch their legs, go to the bathroom, and grab a quick bite to eat. Like most public places these days, the train stop still had separate bathrooms for blacks, as well as a back door to a smaller, more cramped dining area for Thurmon and the other black soldiers to eat in. Unfortunately, with segregation laws still in place, this was not unexpected to Thurman.

However, what Thurman found absolutely devastating, and what caused him to lose his appetite and stand outside crying in disbelief, was who he saw welcomed into the main dining area and restrooms—the German prisoners who were being transported on his train to a German prison camp in Arizona. 

The same German soldiers who had killed his fellow black soldiers, who had fought against and killed white US soldiers as well, could still eat in the main dining room, while Thurman and the other black soldiers had to hide in the back. 

The country the soldier had been fighting for the last several years is not what mattered in this moment. The uniform he wore was insignificant to the midwestern staff in that restaurant. All that mattered here at this train stop was the color of the skin God had given him at birth.

Could a young black war hero have come home to anything more tragic than what Thurman experienced that day? What had he been fighting for all this time? What had his fellow soldiers given their lives up for?

Not for the sake of their freedoms. That was made clear to Thurman in that train station in Ottawa.

And though he and the others before him had always done whatever they could to live in the light, despite the dark that followed them everywhere they went, Thurman would spend some days ahead in the dark shortly after returning home to his family.

Read part 3 of this 4-part series on the family journey of D. L. Moody Center CEO Emmitt Mitchell.