Interview with Ossie Davis
Ossie Davis was born in 1917 in Codgell, Georgia. Against the advice of his mentor, the pivotal Harlem Renaissance figure Alain Locke, Davis dropped out of Howard University in 1939 to pursue acting. But his fledgling career was interrupted by World War II, where he served in Liberia, in the medical corps, for nearly three years. In addition to garnering acclaim as an actor, writer, and director, Davis is also a well-known civil rights activist.
Filmmaker Nancee Oku Bright spoke with Davis about his wartime experiences in Liberia, the impact of the West African nation on the African American troops, and theirs on Liberia.
The 25th Station Hospital
Bright: How did you wind up [in Liberia]?
Davis: I was chosen to help establish a station hospital [during the second world war]. When I became a soldier I was in the medical corps, and the Army decided to create an African American station hospital, which I think had never been done before, I was chosen to be one of the members of the staff of that hospital, before I knew what was happening. Because I had been to college...I was one of those that they chose, because of my background, to be among a group of...about 25 or 30 young African American males.
We were sent to the Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and we were trained in the various disciplines affecting the running of a hospital. I was assigned and became proficient as a scrub nurse. That meant that I could work in the operating room and assist doctors in operations...under military and Army conditions....
We arrived in Liberia of June of 1942, and I, of course, was fascinated and happy; I couldn't have chosen a better place to go had the Army given me that choice.... I think I stayed in Liberia 32 months. That was somewhat unusual. The period normally set aside for soldiers to remain in tropical warfare was 14 months, but for some reason I and maybe one or two others stayed on beyond the 14 months. I stayed 32 months in Liberia, and spent the bulk of my war period in Liberia.
...I knew of [Liberia's] strategic importance to the Army's plans, because Rommel was the German general who was to be in control of North Africa, and the Americans had not yet met him in battle. And I knew that militarily, our job was to establish a station hospital so that when Eisenhower met Rommel in North Africa, whatever casualties might be sustained in the battle would be stabilized on the battlefield, then sent down to the station hospital, where we would further stabilize them and put them, if necessary, on planes, hospital planes, fly them from Monrovia, Liberia, over to Natal, South Africa, where they could be flown back home [to America]....
The war did not play out as it was feared it would. So in the 25th Station Hospital, we never received a single solider that was wounded in battle. One or two soldiers, you know, [shot] each other up, and we had to tend to them. But the military situation in North Africa quickly developed into a holding action for us, because Rommel was defeated, and the invasion of Sicily in Italy took place after that.
So our assignment was changed. The 25th Station Hospital's job became, number one, to practice tropical medicine and come to the aid of the people of Liberia and to help to control...malaria...[and] other tropical diseases that were prevalent, and to stay there, because the root of supply called for us to be of service. When the cargo, the military cargo, was created in the United States, it was then flown to Natal, and across the ocean from Natal to Liberia. Then in Liberia, it was flown to the China/Burma/India theater. Our job, you know, was to maintain the airport at Robertsfield in Liberia so that that constant flow of supply could be maintained....
A sort of homecoming
Bright: Did African Americans feel a linkage with Liberia at the time? What did it represent?
Davis: I'm not sure that the total African American community knew what Liberia was or where it was, but I had just spent three years or four years at Howard University [in Washington, D.C.], where there was concern among the student body, because some of our students were African. And we watched in horror, you know, the things that were happening in Europe...with the rise of Hitler, and Mussolini going into Ethiopia. And the whole question of
Africa was one we hotly debated on the campus. So I knew in a very heightened sense what Liberia was. I knew what it meant to us as Black folks....
Bright: Tell me your first impressions of what the country was like when you arrived.
Davis: My first impressions of Liberia were ones of welcome and semi-homecoming, because the minute I saw the people, you know, I could see my own uncle Joe, my aunt Effie, people [who] looked so much like the people I had just left in the States -- which, of course, was to be expected, since a lot of them had come generations ago from the States over [to Liberia]. They were very glad to see us, and we were very glad to see them. And they went out of their way to make us welcome.... The warm, untrammeled or un-self-conscious welcome that Africans give was made available to us; there was open-armed acceptance of us, and we were made to feel more than right at home.... Here I was, finally back on the Mother Continent, the African country, the continent from which my family had been taken all those many years ago. And without knowing that that's where I was going, here I was, back home....
Of course, there was the additional opportunity to be in the 25th Station Hospital, the very first one authorized by the American Army, to be operated, in total, by Blacks. We were proud of that, too. I became head of a surgical ward, and I had patients, and the daily routine of running the surgical ward was mine, and the responsibility. But in the evenings, when we were free, there were the open receptions provided by visits to various villages and towns where the people went all out to express their enthusiasm, their warm welcome to us.... There was a place for me in the culture, you know, and I found that place and could fit into it....
A segregated army fights for the freedom of others
Bright: [What was the feeling among the troops of fighting for the freedom of others while being part of a segregated army?]
Davis: ...Some of the Liberians who worked on the post with us, they would often ask: "You're fighting against Hitler, but look how you're treated here. How could this be different?" -- which was the same question we ourselves were concerned with. So the bone of contention for us was that I ran the surgical ward, and another friend of mine was head of the medical board, and when our [Black] soldiers were wounded or ill, they came and were admitted to these wards for the enlisted men. However, if a white soldier was sick, or if he was wounded, and we treated him, we didn't keep him on our ward. Though he was an enlisted man, he was sent to the officers' ward on the basis purely that he was white. And this rankled, and we were concerned that here we were, fighting against racism, and all these other things [were going on].
And incidents happened.... [On] one occasion, one of my patients, a Big John Williams from Baltimore, was mistreated, and something happened, and he was put in the stockade. And while in the stockade...I think the cook insulted him, or some altercation blew out of proportion, and so...he escaped, and he took an Army half-track, which was a vehicle that was half truck and half tractor, with a .50 caliber machine gun on it. He went by the stockade, the prison, and he shot up the prison with the machine gun, and one of the fellows that he shot was [an innocent] soldier who was just being released.
Well, when he shot up that soldier, the soldier ultimately was brought to the hospital for us to take care of. But by that time, Big John had gone to various other places, done some more shooting. And finally, as night began to fall -- this was on Sunday -- his commanding officer [who was white and from the South] came to the hospital looking for Big John....
And so he came to one of the wards, and it was dark, and he was calling, "Big John, Big John Williams?" And Big John heard him and said, "Is that you, Captain Porterfield?" And Porterfield said, "Yes, yes, god damn it, it's me. And if you don't..." But before he could get further, you know, Big John said, "Well, I've been waiting for you." So he shot him right in his chest. And then Big John turned the gun on himself, killed himself.
Well, we were in the operating room, operating on the guy that Big John had shot first, who was [now] dead. And then there was a soldier from the British [army air force], who had crashed and cracked his legs, so we were trying to deal with him [and with] some of the other people Big John had shot. And we finally found out that Big John had killed himself, so we brought Big John in. He was dead, but Captain Porterfield was still alive. And we gave Captain Porterfield the Levine tubes down his nose, because he was shot and we wanted him to have a medical procedure, you know, to get the fluids and food out of his stomach. And we wanted to keep that in him all night, and...we gave him drugs, but he wasn't completely out. During the night ... he kept pulling the tubes out of his nose. And we had a Black -- well, naturally he was Black -- we had an attendant who kept trying to put the tubes back into his nose.
And so the officer cursed [the Black attendant], and there was so much to do that the soldier ultimately gave up and just let the tubes out. So Porterfield died, too. But essentially he died because he didn't want Black hands touching him. You know, we tried to save him, but we couldn't. It ultimately wound up there were about five or six people killed, and Big John killed most of them. But the Army decided to change its policies, and segregated practices were abandoned, and things did get better.
But that was a part of the darkness of the Liberian experience. That was the painful part, you know, that hurt.
African Americans and Liberians: The relationship sours
Bright: What was the impact of the presence of Black troops for the Liberians?
Davis: The impact, I suppose, since we were there for such a long time, was universal in that every aspect of Liberian life, I think, was affected by the presence of the American soldiers.
When we were there, most of the workers, Liberian workers, were...[employees of] the Firestone rubber plantation, and I think they worked for maybe a shilling a day or something like that. And when we hired them...the Army wanted to give them more than the shilling a day. But there was difficulty, because the Firestone people and the Liberian government along with them [and] said, "This is the economic pattern, and if you upset it, everything will be affected."
Well, I think we insisted, and we got them [higher pay]. That was the good side of it. But our being there, and our attitude toward the Liberian people, even though they were our kinsmen, ultimately I think our relationships were corrupted, because I know that there were African American soldiers who really looked down on the Liberians who worked on the compound, just as white folks looked down on us. It was a sad situation, and certainly not one that was universal. But it was also part of our experience, and an unpleasant part of it.
When we first went there, the situation was such that we gave our word to people, and people expected that the word would be honored. Well, American soldiers out to get whiskey or food or have access to ladies or whatnot, that kind of "word," you know, was freely given. And it was not unusual to see some village chief with his daughter or somebody coming to the commanding officer, demanding that such-and-such a soldier give to his daughter the money that he had promised to give her, and not being satisfied until that had happened.
So ultimately those bad things about soldiering, those bad things about Americans, the bad things about those of us who had too much, and oftentimes in contrary distinction to the Liberians who might not have as much as we have, all of those things came into play. And the innocence of the relationship that sustained us for the first six, seven, or eight months gradually became hardnosed, hard bargain, you know -- I'm out to get you, you're out to get me, and you know, protect yourself. It eventually came to be that.
And Americans, because we had money and because we liked to show off, and because we like to take advantage of whoever is in our neighborhood, some nasty incidents ultimately arose. And we were not as popular at the end of our stay there as we were when we first came. We came in as liberators and were welcomed as such. But at the end, you know, some of us began to act like we were occupiers, and we were resisted. That, too, was a part of the experience.
Class divisions in Liberian society
Bright: You talked about...class differences in Liberia. Talk more about that.
Davis: Yeah, I suppose the thing that I found most difficult to deal with when I came to Liberia was my full expectation that the country itself had fully absorbed the Americans who had come a generation ago, 100 years earlier, who had been slaves, who had been bought and set free and sent over to Liberia. I was surprised to see that those who had come from America had formed, in some instances, their own class structure, and that they were at the top of the ladder. And their behavior, to some degree, and the relationship between the
as they were called, and the other groupings, some coming from the various tribes that were there, [was such] that the Americo-Liberians behaved toward them as the whites in America had behaved toward the Blacks.
I wasn't prepared for that. I thought that slavery and racism were things that were strictly American, and I'd expected that in Africa we all would be open and equal and brethren. It was a naive expectation, and it was greatly disabused, because I did find that Americo-Liberians were there, and they had the best of everything. Their relationship to Firestone was sort of tight, and they had the franchise, and they had control, and the other groups who were certainly more
to the country than they were left out and [only had the] leftovers. There was social tension between the Americo-Liberians and those that they considered beneath them. I was very early aware of that and felt that one day, it would create major problems for the country. And I think maybe subsequently it did.
Loyalty to Liberia under changing circumstances
Bright: You said you weren't sure whether or not to "keep quiet" about Liberia, and that when [Sergeant Samuel K.] Doe came to power [in the 1980 coup], that changed somewhat. Tell me about that progression.
Davis: Well, when we see ourselves reflected in ancestral relationships, and we know what the history of Africa has been, I certainly knew that Africa had been raided and despoiled and slaves [had been] taken by the millions -- people who, had they remained in Africa, would have helped move the continent upward and [forward] with all the other countries that were coming along. But Africa paid a heavy burden by being despoiled of its people.
And then on top of that, at the [1884 Berlin] Conference, the European powers sat down and said, "Not only have we taken the slaves out, but we're going to take the rest of the countries," and they divided among themselves all that was left of Africa, so that at the time I was in Liberia, as I said before, only two free African countries remained -- Ethiopia on one side and Liberia on the other. All the rest of Africa was somebody's colony, somebody white -- England, France, Germany, and whatnot.
So I knew that there were many things from my African experience that were negative, but I didn't want to talk about those negative things, because I understood first labor, and second colonization, [had despoiled the country], and to me that...explained and excused a lot of the things that I thought negative about the African experience. So it didn't seem to me to make sense, and certainly was not loyal, to go [announcing] to the world, "These are the negative things happening in Africa," when there were many more major, criminal things happening in the world outside, in the white world, which could explain what was happening in Africa, and also explain what was happening to me.
So if I had any quarreling to do, I didn't feel that I should publicly quarrel with Africa. If I had a suggestion, make it to the African, not to the rest of the world, [which] was already convinced that the Africans were inferior and [that they were] the "benighted people," the ignorant people, and all of that. It was a form of disloyalty to overtly criticize things that were happening in Africa, even in Liberia. So I was prepared to accept Liberia, to accept whatever the faults I thought, you know, the class situation.
Still, it was Liberia -- it was free, and it was my mother country. I had to embrace my mother, although in some instances I would disagree with what she was doing. I kept [silent] when we went there to Liberia in '42. The president was President Barclay.... And...I remember being a guard of honor at [President William V.S. Tubman's] inauguration [in 1944].... I knew them, people I had met personally. And I said, "The Liberians, [considering] the problems they have with segregation, with the history, you know, they're doing very well," and for the services rendered to the Americans and to the Allied cause during World War II, I thought they deserved much more help. Just as the Europeans got the
I thought that the Africans deserved something, too; that Liberia would be high on the list of those who were helped.... I think then after President Tubman, President Tolbert came, and I think I remember having met him previously.
Then, of course, the situation changed. Sergeant Samuel Doe took over the government [in a military coup in 1980], and I thought that he was as dictatorial as any other dictator, and whatever special allegiance I might have to Liberia did not extend to him or to his practices. And so I pulled away from my loyalty to Liberia and have not been happy about circumstances which have taken place in that country, that unfortunate country, I would say, even up to this day.
I know that there is peace now in the sense that there was not, that maybe things are settling down, and I hope that they are, and that the Liberians, who are very progressive and forward-thinking, are very gifted people, [and] maybe now they'll have a chance to stabilize themselves and begin to express and give to the world their own unique contribution. I fully expect that to happen.... The whole continent of Africa is undergoing realignments and shifts and implosions, and we're not at the end of it yet. What will happen, you know, to the countries on the continent, some of whom are already caught up in chaos and war and
and things like that, we do not yet know. My hope would have been that Liberia could have helped lead the way, because it would have had special access to America, which had power and [wealth], historical roots, etc., etc., etc., but that turned out to be a bit of a daydream.
We don't know what the future's going to be, but all will not be bad. Out of all of this is bound to come something that is good, something that is particularly African, that is constructive. And I expect that Africa will play a major role in the future, and I think Liberia will be one of those countries that will make the turn for the better early on. That's my dream and my expectation.
Davis's Liberian experience: From idealism to isolation
Bright: Did being in a country governed by Blacks change you at the core of [believing] what was possible?
Davis: It didn't change me at the core. Theoretically I was prepared for African liberation, because I had read [Karl] Marx; I had listened to [Paul] Robeson; I had known Africanists, W.E.B. DuBois long before I got to Africa. And I knew from them the strategic importance of Africa to the rest of the world....
Bright: [All in all, what did your Liberian experience mean to you?]
Davis: ...Liberia happened to me just at the point where I was leaving boyhood forever and on the verge of manhood and identity. It also was an example of how the systems of
and exploitation and
operated, and how racism was a tool used by power to achieve its ends. I saw...in Firestone [and its exploitation of Liberians] an example of American colonial power. You know, we expected Britain's colonial presence, and France's and Germany's. They were colonies, openly so. America never said it was a colonialist power, [yet] through the instrumentality of Firestone, it exercised colonial influence. If somebody of importance died, where did you get the coffin from? Firestone people. If the government had some problem that it couldn't really resolve, you know, where did it turn? To Firestone.
We were aware of the over-weaning presence of Firestone in Liberia. It was so certain and so sure, it didn't have to exert itself. It didn't have to wear uniforms; it didn't have to spell out its domain. It was just quietly there, and you knew that -- who owned it, who controlled it, who spoke for it. Firestone -- we knew that. And I was interested in listening to those people, particularly the young people, Liberians, who knew that, too, and who were very interested in coming to another state of affairs and [changing] the relationship to the colonial powers that were there....
I think my stay in Liberia ultimately led me to a feeling of being isolated and being left out, of wanting to go home. And in 1945, I think in February of '45, I finally got out, was put on a plane, and came back to America. I brought with me an elephant's foot, some camphor wood, and some flecks of gold. I don't know what happened to my treasures, because I wasn't a happy traveler at that time.
The whole war eventually had begun to turn sour to me, and I began to sense that that feeling of freedom which inspired us at the very beginning of the war, that that wasn't going to happen. You know, Hitler and the armies might be defeated, but the way the world was organized -- and you know, Britain's hold on India was sort of key to that -- that [that way of organizing things] wasn't about to change.
And I wanted to go home, because I thought I had made my contribution. I had done what I was supposed to do, and I had been there 32 months. And so finally, I said good-bye to Liberia.
I've had the chance to be twice in the country since that time, but only stopping at the airport. And on one occasion, because the flight couldn't proceed, they put us up at a hotel in Monrovia, and then the next day we went and caught the plane. I've had two glimpses of Liberia since those days, but I've always had a special place in my heart for it, and for the people, and for the promised acres of rubber trees.... I think that they said, "If you don't go home, if you stay and work over here, we'll give you seven acres of rubber trees." But nobody wanted rubber that badly. We all left our heritage in Liberia.
But I remember, the boys had their dances, and the girls, and they were so beautiful and statuesque, and so innocent, and so straightforward, particularly when we first came there, in how they treated us before we ultimately corrupted those relationships. In the beginning, it was really homecoming. Back in heaven again. Wonderful.