BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - As you start to read this... please note that this man's interview is so fascinating, I have included the entire raw interview clip with this story. If you have time, hear about the old Baton Rouge neighborhood where J.W. Vaughn grew up. It's history for your ears from the person who lived it.
"I stayed in the Navy for 2 years, 2 months and 18 days," J.W. Vaughn recited it with precision
Spoken like a man who was drafted in his youth and perhaps wanted to be home. Vaughn, now in his 80s, sits in his cozy home with memories all around him. On the wall were displayed smiling faces of loved ones and the serious countenances of ancestors from when photography was considered a serious pursuit and not the occasion for grins.
On a ridge in the wall near the ceiling is a line of wooden plaques with brass inscribed plates screwed to them and crystal picture frames around parchment certificates. Vaughn is a man who's been a leader his whole life, he was even a drill instructor/sergeant in high school.
Vaughn's father Roger W. Vaughn had served in World War I, and would tell his son that blacks were kept segregated and out of the action. They were the janitors, the mechanics in the aircraft hangers, all among other African-Americans and never in leadership positions. America's military was racist.
"He never became angry," Vaughn said. "He taught us not to be angry about anything of the times that were. We were a forgiving family."
J.W. Vaughn was 18 when Uncle Sam drafted him and two brothers. Each was sent to a different military service, J.W. was Navy, but stateside. Early in World War II, blacks still were kept segregated from white American troops, just like they were back home.
"I was stationed in Chicago, the Great Lakes. And I saw one black officer during the whole time I was there," Vaughn says.
Later in World War II, some barriers came down for blacks. In combat, America needed more bodies on the field, and eventually added them. But stateside, J.W. couldn't understand why, after repeated tries, he never passed the test for the rank of officer. He had a white officer he respected, a Lieutenant Kirk. He told Kirk of his problem, and Kirk said, "I'll go with you next time".
When they arrived to take the test, Lt. Kirk insisted on staying with Vaughn every step of the way. He watched what the white officer giving the test did, watched his every move.
"I knew the test backward, sideways, and everything," Vaughn said. "And he said, the fella said 'Well we'll let you know tomorrow, and he said, 'No you're not gonna let me know tomorrow, you're gonna grade it right now, in front of me.' He graded it, and Boom! I passed!"
With the help of white Lt. Kirk, Vaughn would take the test two more times and would sport three stripes on his officer's jacket. He was now an officer, but still garnered no respect among white sailors.
"We'd go to the cafeteria to eat, and we would sit at a table and the white sailors would get up and go to another table, and wouldn't sit with us. So I'm a pretty good leader. So I called all the blacks together and said 'OK what we're gonna do, we're gonna go in together and two of us will sit at every table.' One day Harry Truman came to visit and sat at my table. And when Harry Truman came, it all ended."
Vaughn's tour of duty ended, and in 1946, he went back to civilian life in West Baton Rouge where he would find his calling. After going to college, Vaughn spent 35 years in education. He was a teacher, a principal and a school system supervisor. He loved working with kids.
He walked with me on the site where the Old Cohn School first stood. It was the black school during desegregation and was closed to ship all students to a combined school during desegregation. Last year, the building needed so many repairs, it was too expensive. Efforts by the alumni to raise money to save the place failed and the building was torn down. The field that lies where Cohn High once stood is vivid green and Vaughn sees potential when he surveys it.
"They should put a park here or something. It's a great spot," he said.
Crape myrtles and oaks line the front of the property and continue on over in front of Cohn Elementary, which still stands.
"I planted all these trees. Well some were here already," he said pointing to the big oak trees.
"What lesson would you want to impress on every single student, every young person?" I asked.
"You really can't hate anyone," Vaughn said. "What you have to do is to educate yourself. That's freedom in itself, because education is a powerful force."