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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lyman Johnson, July 12, 1990. Interview A-0351. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Black neighborhood arms itself against state troops

Black residents of Columbia had to defend themselves against state police in the wake of a violent encounter between a black soldier and a white store owner. The store owner verbally abused his mother, so the soldier threw him through a window and left town.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lyman Johnson, July 12, 1990. Interview A-0351. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JOHN EGERTON:
I'm not sure exactly where's the best place to start, but let me start perhaps by talking about Columbia. I read your account of your early years in Columbia, and also the fascinating story you told about getting on the train or the bus up here, I forget which, and going to Columbia in 1946 when you heard about all the trouble there. That has been called a race riot.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Sometimes it's called a race riot, and then sometimes a race disturbance. It wasn't exactly a riot.
JOHN EGERTON:
It was an invasion, it looked to me like.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Well, when you call it an invasion, then that was the state invading the town.
JOHN EGERTON:
Exactly. And more specifically, invading the black neighborhood.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Black neighborhood. It wasn't a riot-a race disturbance, but not a riot. I take a riot to mean somebody is rising up and trying to rebel against the status quo. Well, these Negroes were not rebelling. They were trying to protect.
JOHN EGERTON:
They were defending themselves.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Defending themselves. Here was a Negro, the one Negro who started the thing was a young soldier who had just come back from World War II. Is this thing on?
JOHN EGERTON:
Yes sir.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
He had just come back from World War II, and he came back to see his dear old mother. Well now, they came from a poor, downtrodden, black community. They hadn't had anything to amount to anything of this world's goods. The old lady was still kind of down and out, but here the young man came back. He had just put in maybe three or four years in the service, and he'd fought against the Japanese over there in Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and all around over in that section of the world. And he had been sold, three years, a bill of goods that all of this was for American democracy, and for a finer way of life than the rest of the world was having. And the kind of stuff that Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini were dishing out wasn't a high life, but the American way was good. So he comes back and goes back to visit his mother. She had gone up to a little repair shop, maybe two weeks before he came, to get her little radio repaired. Now, are you interested in all that story?
JOHN EGERTON:
Well, I read all that in here, so I've got that account.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
So you don't need to. . . .
JOHN EGERTON:
No. I don't really.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
The main point is that when the man was abusing his mother, "Oh, woman, go somewhere, go hide. Get out of here."
JOHN EGERTON:
Did he call her a "nigger?"
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Yeah, he called her all sorts, "Nigger woman, get the hell out of here." And this man was up there at the front of the store, and she was back there begging the man, "Oh, go ahead, mister, and fix my radio. It wouldn't cost much." But he was working on the point that the damn thing was so bashed up and beat out, and so cheap to begin with, that it would cost him more to fix it than to sell her a new one. He could sell her a new one for the price it'd take to fix it. So he said, "Go get you another one. That old thing isn't no good." But she couldn't understand that. She just thought maybe all you had to do was like put in a light bulb. It was ruined. So he got peeved with the old lady, and then started cursing her. So this young man was up there at the front of the store just beginning to boil. "Get out of here or I'll throw you out." And the woman started backing up towards the front door, and when she got up there where her son was, her son grabbed him and said, "Look man, do you know that's my mama?"
JOHN EGERTON:
And they had at it, right?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Now, when he manhandled the guy, he said to the rest of the Negroes in the front of the store, "Well, hell, that's what the government taught me, how to handle the Japanese. Man to man, hell, I was able to protect myself. So when I grabbed that man, I just threw him." That was an attack on the white establishment for a black man, at that time.
JOHN EGERTON:
Threw him through a plate glass window?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Yeah. "Oh, what the hell are these damn niggers up to?" And that is where, if there's any riot, that was all it was to it. They were going to put down the riot right there. That wasn't any riot. That was just one man's situation.
JOHN EGERTON:
And the guy got out of town, didn't he?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Yeah. When he looked around, all his boyhood days came back to life. He remembered, "My god, this is the place where they lynch Negroes for doing things like this.
JOHN EGERTON:
I'm in trouble now, huh?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Yeah. "What can I do?" So he ran one block down the street and made a turn, and when you turn in at that block, that is one block of Negro businesses, little Negro businesses, little joints. And so he went back down there, and of course, Negroes down there were shooting pool and cursing and swearing and gambling and fighting and fussing and cussing and carrying on, as usual, and he began to tell two or three of the people down there, the owners of some of those places, what had happened. They all got together and said, "Well, look man, we've got to get you out of town right now."
JOHN EGERTON:
They did get him out. Did he come back?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Hell, we don't know what became of the man.