While Joseph Freeman was the first person to break through the racial priesthood barrier in the LDS Church, he has experienced a lot of racism in his life. He describes some of the job discrimination he has faced as a teenager growing up in North Carolina.
Joseph: A lot of the jobs in the city, white workers would be hired first, and then if they needed some other workers, they would hire blacks. But those jobs, you never got promoted. There was never a black supervisor. You were always the lower workers. I worked for Sears and Roebuck for three years on the dock there in Greensboro. I never saw, not one black supervisor. The plant was so big, it would take you almost 15 to 20 minutes to walk from the front door to the back door of the plant. There was not one black supervisor in that whole building.
I worked for Cone Mills for a while, which is a textile [company] before I joined the army. I loved my job, and I loved my supervisor. He was an old white guy. He was kind of shriveled up with age, a skinny guy. I just loved that man. I talked to him one day and I said, “How can I become a supervisor someday.” He looked at me and his mouth opened. His lips began to tremble, and a tear rolled down his cheek and he said, “It can’t happen, Joseph. It just can’t happen.” I didn’t understand it. Because I wasn’t thinking about the racial things going on, institutional racism. I didn’t even know about anything like that. I’m just a kid growing up, trying to find a job, thinking about college, and he’s telling me about something that’s real, that’s happening behind closed doors in the back room of the building. These people know. You’re never going to allow the black people to come up in the company and develop.
When I left for the army, I just didn’t think like that. I didn’t even realize those kind of things were happening. I thought that the doors of life are open to me like they are to anybody. Older people that I grew up with, used to talk about education. They’d say, “You get to get a good education. Nobody can take that from you.” I understood that. But I didn’t understand the idea that, you might have an education, but you’re still not going to get the job. I can remember when I was probably about 16, and I started driving. I drove up to the bank one day, and there was a black teller. She was working the window, that was the first black teller in the whole city of Greensboro. It was just wonderful. Every time I’d go, I mean, it was just like seeing an angel. She’d smile. She understood that the black people were very proud of her being there in that position. That’s not a high position. You’re not making a lot of money, but she had a nice clean job that nobody else had. She was the first black girl to do that. So it was just wonderful.
On our side of town, we had black dentists, black doctors. We never saw a white doctor unless you went to the hospital. Those doctors, of course, had the practices not in white neighborhoods, but in black neighborhoods. People paid cash. They didn’t have insurance. That’s just how it went.
In the schools, they were not integrated with white students or white teachers. But, during my senior year, they actually did change. My senior year, we had white teachers mixed with black teachers. It was hard. It was hard on them and hard on us, because they didn’t want to be there. I can remember one white teacher that I had, that was really nice. She was an English teacher. I can’t remember her name. But she was just very kind, very sweet. But most of the teachers during that time, it was just like a robot teaching you. If you wanted to ask questions after class, they were going home. They didn’t spend time to help you with your problems, if you were struggling with math or something like that.
So, it took a while for people to learn to adjust and love one another. That’s how life feels. That’s what Martin Luther King was fighting for, I should say, marching for. He was trying to bring America to the point of saying, “We must go to school together. We must go to church together. We must live together in order to love one another.” Because you can love somebody that you do not know. You begin to know them. You begin to realize they’re human just like you are. They want the same things that you want, a good job, an education and to take care of the family. [It’s] just that simple, nothing more. That is why continually marching, enduring going to jail, all the things that had to happen in order to bring that about, so that we could learn to love one another. When I joined this church, inside of me, I understood that. It didn’t matter whether we have the priesthood. It matters that we worship the same God together.
What are you thoughts about systemic racism?
If you think racism is no longer a problem, think again. In our final conversation with Joseph Freeman, he outlines continued problems he has personally faced over his life, including an experience with military police in which he came close to losing his life.
Joseph: One thing to share when I was in the military, I went on a marine base, there in Kaneohe. As I drove my car in, they had officers’ parking spots were written on the ground. On our base, they were up on the sign. So, you’d see the sign, you’d know, okay, that’s an officer spot. Don’t park there. I didn’t realize that when I drove on their base, and I just parked my car. I went and bought a hamburger. It was very close. My wife was then my girlfriend. Her and another girl, they were sitting in the car. This MP came up behind us. He wrote a ticket. He didn’t ask us to move the car anything, just wrote the ticket. I think he was giving tickets to everybody that was in that line. There were probably more people than me that had made a mistake and parked in officers’ spot. Anyway, the Provost Marshal came by and he was a major. He’s kind of like the guy that’s the head policeman. He saw me and he said, “Send that guy to my office.” Now I don’t know why he singled me out, but I was the only black guy that I saw out there. I’m not on my base. I’m on a marine base instead of the army base.
Joseph: Well, I then go in to his office, which is still fairly close. He asked me a few questions. “Why did you park there?” I said, “Sir, I didn’t know it was an officer spot.” I don’t know today, if it was a general or colonel or what. But anyway, I shouldn’t have parked there. He says, “That’s what all you guys say,” meaning black guys. I said, “Sir, I’m sorry. But I didn’t know. I didn’t realize it was an officer spot.” He said, “We’re going to impound your car.” I had just bought this car, a little ’66 Mustang.
GT: Wow. That would be worth a lot of money today.
Joseph: Yes, I’m thinking, “You’re not going to take my car. But anyway, he sent me back out. Then he put an MP car in front of mine, and then one behind me to make sure I don’t get out, I don’t run.
GT: Oh, that’s horrible.
Joseph: Then they drove me down to another station, their main office. When they get there, they want my keys. I just said, “No, you’re not taking my car.” I was ready to fight. These guys have got guns on them. If I had fought with them, they would have killed me. But I said, because I was getting pretty upset with him. There were three of them and just one of me, and my wife and the other girl were in the car.
Joseph also shares the racism his children have experienced growing up here in the West. Is racism a regional or national problem? BYU just came out with a report on racism. Is racism a problem there?