A Writer Writes "The Good Old Days"

Roger Landrum was a PCV in Nigeria, 1961-63.  He taught at the new University of Nigeria at Nsukka in Nigeria’s first year of independence and his experience was the subject of a Peace Corps documentary film called “Give Me A Riddle.”  Landrum was one of the first RPCVs to join the PC/W staff.

Landrum devoted most of his subsequent career to expanding youth service opportunities in the US. He founded and directed The Teachers Inc. which provided Peace Corps-like programming for American inner-city schools. Landrum co-authored Youth and the Needs of the Nation with Harris Wofford, a policy blueprint for a large-scale national service initiative.  In 1986 Landrum launched Youth Service America (YSA) which led efforts to expand and mobilize a national youth service infrastructure that culminated in the National and Community Service Acts of 1990 and 1993 and creation of the federal Corporation for National Service along with AmeriCorps.

As president of RPCV/W, the largest local organization of RPCVs in the country, Landrum led the Peace Corps alumni coalition which initiated and organized the famous 25th Peace Corps Anniversary Conference in Washington in 1986.  The conference brought new momentum and funding to the NPCA which Landrum later served as board chair.

In recent years Landrum has become an award-winning international photographer.  His work was recently featured by the International Photographic Society of the IMF/World Bank, and can be viewed at RogerLandrum.com.

Here, however, is Roger’s chilling tale of what America was like back in the 1960s in the South. And it is rather amazing, given  Roger’s story of a weekend trip in Georgia, that today, nearly fifty years later, we have not only a Peace Corps Director who is an African-American, but also a President. Maybe there is hope for America.

The Good Old Days

by Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961-63)

THE YEAR WAS 1965. The Peace Corps was at full throttle under Sargent Shriver’s direction. The famed recruiting blitzes developed by Robert Gale were still underway at college and university campuses. After serving as a PCV for two years in Nigeria, I was a training officer at Washington headquarters. Peace Corps training was still being conducted by institutions of higher education as more or less an academic exercise, with physical training and the notorious “de-selection process” supervised by psychiatrists thrown in. Like other training officers, my job was to contract and oversee training programs for groups of recruits for several months in collaboration with such institutions.

This particular story began when I was assigned to a recruiting blitz at the Atlanta University Center in Georgia (Morehouse and Spelman colleges along with the associated graduate schools). Our team spread out to speak about the Peace Corps in classes and make our pitch to students at tables around the campuses, with the goal of signing up more African-Americans for Peace Corps service. This was exciting stuff. African-American PCVs were few and far between. The residues of America’s racial caste system remained potent. Racial tensions still permeated the country, especially in the Deep South. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum. Here was the Peace Corp with its foot in the middle of black Atlanta. For somebody who had just lived in Nigeria for two years the sense of distance and awkwardness between black and white Americans was odd — greater than anything experienced in Nigeria.

The evening of the last day of recruiting, a banquet was held with high officials of the Atlanta University Center, faculty and student leaders, and the Peace Corps team. Dr. Benjamin Mays, the great president of Morehouse College, rose to speak. Mays was a man of awesome stature. He had mentored Martin Luther King while King was an undergraduate at Morehouse and was still close to King. Morehouse, he pointed out, has some of the finest African studies programming in the United States. Why is it the Peace  Corps has never utilized us for training PCVs being assigned to African countries?

Franklin Williams, who had helped Shriver pull the Peace Corps together and directed its Africa region programming, stood up to reply. Williams was at this time U.S ambassador to UNESCO and would soon be the American ambassador to Ghana. He had been a legal aide to Thurgood Marshall and a top attorney at the NAACP prosecuting early civil rights cases. I don’t know the answer, he replied to President Mays, but we will find out for you. There is a young training officer here who will get back to you promptly. That would be me.

I didn’t know Franklin Williams, but that’s how the Peace Corps operated in those years, Shriver and the people around him.  Challenges were thrown around like footballs. Particular relish was taken in throwing them to the first RPCVs who had joined the headquarters staff.

Back at the Maiatico Building across Lafayette Square from the White House, I reported my unexpected assignment to the director of the training division. He laughed and said he would find out at a senior staff meeting why Morehouse had never been contracted for Volunteer training. As it turned out, a Shriver policy barred training at locations where African-American trainees might face discrimination, which ruled out Atlanta and much of the Deep South. But Dr. Mays request was taken seriously. I was instructed to negotiate a training contract with Morehouse with one large red flag: the training program should not stir up political trouble for the Peace Corps back in Washington. Mostly this meant avoiding any problems with U.S. Senator Richard Russell (D-Georgia), a powerful force in the U.S. Senate on the Appropriations Committee and an avowed segregationist opposing the civil right movement. Seemed simple enough.

And so we began pulling together Africa training programs at Morehouse in 1965 and 1966.  Dr. Mays appointed a talented young political scientist, Tobe Johnson, as program director. Morehouse proved to be an able and flexible partner for hosting a contingent of Peace Corps trainees and the standard training curriculum of that time. Practice teaching was arranged in nearby high schools. Africa area studies staff were drawn from Morehouse and Spelman faculty and universities across the country, and included a contingent of outstanding RPCVs from Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. Language training was directed by Dr. Sabestian Mezu, a Nigerian linguist, who assembled and trained a staff of instructors made up entirely of African graduate students from across the U.S. Among other notables, the training faculty include Dr. Jean Herskovitz, then and now one of this country’s leading experts on Nigeria. A lot of detailed work was involved in undertaking Volunteer training at a new site, but much of the training at Morehouse operated fairly smoothly.

The sudden location of a contingent of mostly young white trainees bound for West Africa at a historically black college in a segregated black community of Atlanta, Georgia generated a great deal of excitement and some interesting tensions. Merely eating in groups at Pascals, the famed soul food restaurant near Morehouse, caused a stir. Trainees roamed black communities near Morehouse such as Vine City and Buttermilk Bottom. Tobe Johnson had his hands full with adjustments on all sides. The Africans on staff found the adjustments as challenging as anyone else. Mezu joked that in the North local muggers say, “your money or your life. Here they say, your money AND your life.” The selection staff discussed varied interracial sexual escapades with raised eyebrows. On one memorable occasion, some staff and trainees squeezed into Ebenezer Baptist Church for a visiting sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. An RPCV on the training staff recently wrote me that “it was arguably the best place to be in America at the time to begin to understand the significance of the civil rights movement.”

During the summer of 1966, I visited Morehouse to see how training was going and to participate in trainee selection deliberations. Over one weekend a contingent of staff and trainees decided to drive to the Georgia coast. We wanted to see the Atlantic Ocean and Jekell Island. Ten of us — 5 program staff, 4 trainees, and myself; black and white; male and female — piled into a new Plymouth station wagon in high spirits and headed out on Highway 341 driving south. Mark Hill, an undergraduate at Morehouse and popular program assistant to Tobe Johnson, drove the Morehouse station wagon. Just outside the small town of Roberta, Georgia in the late afternoon we drove into a Gulf gas station to fill up the tank. It was a hot Georgia day. Everyone got out to stretch their legs and buy soft drinks or ice cream sandwiches. It soon became apparent the guys operating the gas station were bristling with hostility at our integrated group. They fumed when Anastasia Megwa, a Nigerian staff member, shared her ice cream sandwich with whites in the group. The black members of our group were instructed to use paper cups at a drinking fountain, the whites were not. We quickly paid the bill and drove away.

A couple miles out of town a police car with blinking lights pulled us over. The officer took Mark Hill aside, told him he was being charged with speeding, and instructed him to follow the police car, which pulled off the highway into a dirt road. This was roughly two years after Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Cheney had been detained by police in rural Mississippi, then killed and buried in a dirt dam. The associations were not lost on us. We were led slowly back into town and stopped outside the Roberta city jail. Mark Hill was again singled out and taken inside the station. Efforts to show my Peace Corps credentials as a federal officer were turned aside. Mark returned, clearly shaken, and asked for $35 to pay the speeding fine (going 50 in a supposedly 25 MPH zone). Photos later proved the speed limit where we were stopped was 50 MPH.

About this time the Roberta sheriff arrived and the tension escalated. Our station wagon was searched. The six men were lined up and frisked. The sheriff announced that we were all intoxicated and the males being jailed to “sober up” (nobody had been drinking and there was no alcohol in the station wagon). We were not put in the main jail but inside two cells of a filthy, roach-infested concrete shed out back. We asked to make a phone call. The sheriff mumbled we could make “one” but proceeded to throw a chain around the cell door and lock the padlock. Somebody knocked out the props which held the windows to our cells open.  The female staff and trainees were left outside. Cars began to drive by jeering at them. They requested protection and were refused. A hot Georgia evening got hotter.

What seemed obvious initially, that we had been confused with civil rights workers, faded into uncertainty and fear about what was really up. Mark Hill, who had been singled out for the most intense harassment, was close to unraveling, saying “they are going to let you white guys go and nobody is every going to hear about me again.”

Several hours passed in darkness. After awhile, the women came to a window to report they had found a pay phone and wanted to know who they should call.  They were given the number of the after hours duty officer at Peace Corps and told to also call Morehouse and the Nigerian Embassy to report what had happened and to get us the hell out of Roberta. The situation would have seemed absurd if it had not been so menacingly real. The false charges, shake-down and posturing of the Roberta police had a practiced quality.

The women were able to complete the phone calls from the pay phone. The Nigerian Embassy called the sheriff directly, insisting that he release their citizen with her party so we could all return to Atlanta safely. So far as we know, the Peace Corps did nothing. Morehouse swung into action through their Congressman. We were soon asked by the sheriff if we could post bond ($275). We couldn’t. Arrangements were made for Tobe Johnson to drive to Roberta, post bond, and escort us back to Morehouse. Dr. Johnson arrived around 2 AM. As we drove cautiously out of town on HIghway 341 in the dark, other autos trailed us for several miles. Dr. Johnson cryptically remarked that we might be in more danger now than we were before, but nothing more happened.

We still faced a date for a hearing and possible trial back in Roberta. Morehouse assembled a legal team of top civil rights attorneys to defend us and petition for removal of the case from the City Court of Roberta to a U.S. district court. Individual accounts of what happened were gathered from each trainee and staff member involved and attached to the petition.  I still have a copy. It had the unfortunate title of “City of Roberta v. Landrum, et. al.”  Reading through it brings back all the chilling details:

Petitioners’ arrest and prosecution are attempts by governmental authorities, under color of state criminal process, to punish, coerce, harass, and intimidate the petitioners because of their usage of public accommodations in an integrated group . . . as well as an attempt to coerce, threaten, harass, and intimidate other Negro citizens of Roberta, Georgia, and those who travel through Roberta, Georgia . . .

We discussed and debated what to do next with our lawyers and Dr. Johnson. Basically, the hearing and possible trial in Roberta were dropped in exchange for not contesting the behavior of the Roberta police. The money extorted with the trumped-up charges was not returned. There were no consequences for the corrupt police of Roberta.

The training program resumed, the trainees eventually sworn in as PCVs and flown to their assignments in West Africa. I was grateful that nobody at PC headquarters ever said much about the episode.  Two years later Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. The civil war in Nigeria interrupted the service of the PCVs.

Roberta, Georgia in 1966 was a lot more primitive than my PCV site in Nigeria. When people try to wax nostalgic about the “good old days” of an earlier America, recall for them what Mark Hill, Tobe Johnson, Dr. Mays and other black Americans had to put up with for so long.

March 2012


Leave a comment
  • Growing up in a thoroughly segregated southern city, Washington DC, I have a graphic knowledge of the “good old days.” Thank God almighty we are all “Free at last.”

  • Well, Roger, damn, never heard that story. Reminds me that a headline today read, “U.S. terrorist groups on the rise.”

    “The same populist anger that has led to political victories nationwide in recent years has also fueled an incredible rise of anti-government fanaticism, one of the leading watchdogs of American extremism said on Thursday. Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said his organization tracked an “astronomical” growth in the number of anti-government militia and so-called patriot groups last year. “There’s a lot of populist rage out there,” Potok told TPM. “Demonizing propaganda…”

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