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tv   Oral Histories Vietnam War Veteran David Taylor  CSPAN  April 11, 2021 2:01pm-3:23pm EDT

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in one hour and $.20 -- -- vietnam war veteran david vassar taylor describes the racial discrimination he experienced while serving as a u.s. army clerk in this interview conducted by the atlanta history center's kenan research center for the veterans history project. in two hours on real america, three programs to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the space shuttle. >> i was born in st. paul minnesota. july 13, 1945 at 6:13 p.m. >> that's an important time. and who are your parents and what are their occupations? >> i've got several parents. my mother was married three times. my biological father was clarence ellis taylor. he was originally from fort wayne, indiana. my mother was eula teresa vassar
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originally from birmingham alabama. -- from coming ham, alabama. my second stepfather was washington from minnesota. my third parent was john e murphy from st. paul, minnesota. they were married already five years. i consider him -- they were married 35 years. i consider him my father. my mother was a housewife. back in those days, he was the provider and he would provide for my mother and raised us as a housewife. mike stepfather worked for the
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postal -- my stepfather worked for the postal system. >> and you have siblings? who were they? >> re-siblings. my older -- oldest brother is deceased, clarence born in 1940. i was born in 1945 at the close of the war. my younger brother vance was born in 1950. my stepbrother edgar was born in 1948. >> any of them serve in the military? >> my oldest brother served in the military, stationed in japan. >> in the army? >> in the army. >> what were you doing before you entered the service? >> i was in graduate school. i had completed my bachelor it
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degree -- degree major in history minor in humanities. i was going to pursue my study of german history. i was a teaching assistant. at that point, it was iffy if i were good to go into the military. at some point the government decided and although i was working during the summer full-time with the housing and development authority and although my job was specialized
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and they needed the expertise i brought, there were two other persons in my category. two white males. they were given the deferment. i was not. that made it necessary for me to go into the military. i was drafted. i did not enlist. >> how did you find out that they got the deferment and you did not? >> we got it. it was office talk. i accepted. i had reservations about going in. in fact, during a trip to canada i had for vacation purposes i contemplated moving to canada to protest my disappointment.
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thought, well this is not appropriate because all that i know, all that i am, my family is here. i have no intentions on dodging the law and running back and forth across the border just to prove a point. so on the appointed day in february, i showed up. interestingly, i did not drop out of school. i decided i would hang in working on my masters until the last hour. i commuted from st. paul, minnesota tough omaha abrupt -- minnesota to omaha, nebraska and come back because i did not have a place to stay there. when i went into the military, during basic training while the troops were sleeping at night i was up reading the rest of my
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textbooks and went to the office of the company and would type up all of my papers and mail them in. by the time i finished and went to vietnam, i had completed all of my coursework. i figured, you know, i worked hard to get to the master's degree level and to die after all of this effort. i'm going to finish this degree. [laughter] >> you're about complete and what you started. >> yeah. >> how did -- i heard you mention german history. how did that come about. >> i've always been fascinated with history as a child.
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i read constantly. when i was in high school, i had my american history teacher take me aside and said mr. taylor, you are the brightest history student i've had in 35 years of teaching at central high school. you should go to the university of minnesota and get a phd in history. and i thought who is this lady? my brother was there. i didn't realize that she saw the man and the boy -- the man in the boy. i ended up at the university of minnesota. i had majored in european history. i understood that completely. i speak german. i was going to take those courses.
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at the point that i was about to graduate, one of the teaching assistant -- one of the teaching assistants wanted to know whether or not i was going to go on for an advanced degree and i said probably not. i will end up in vietnam. i will be dead so what's the point. he says no, why don't you go to the university of nebraska, omaha where i am teaching and i will make it possible for you to get teaching assistant. little did i know, by going there i would become the first black student in their graduate history program in the history of that university. >> we will get back to that. it makes me think of, i heard you mention your mother was from birmingham. did you travel south or were you
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able to -- >> know its closure to the south save stories from the family. parents had migrated to minnesota in 1919. the first branch of the family to migrate in minnesota in 1898. there was a large family of them and they were called the vassars. they were biracial people. by the time they got to minnesota, they married white and passed for white. i was raised in a family where education was paramount. my mother and sisters, nearly all of them went to college and finished. as children we were all admonished to be in college.
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>> let's transition to your early days of service. if you will share with us which branch of the military you served. >> i received my papers and i had to report back to minnesota on february 27, 1969. it was an interesting time in the country's history, with the assassination. bobby kennedy. i went in not totally convinced this is where i wanted to be but this was what i would do. i was more mature than most because i had been in graduate school, been with the best and
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brightest. i had decided that although i did not believe in the war, i would not slack. i would do what i needed to do as long as people gave me space to do it. i was better educated than most of the recruits that were brought in so i did not need to be told twice. i totally understood what i needed to do. the first observation i had when i went to basic training was oh my goodness. is this the cross-section of america because i was meeting people from walls of light -- walks of life and i was convinced that if if we lost education the country was going to sink into some kind of darkness. i was not use to people who were
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not educated. i was undereducated and most of the officers and i think most -- i did not want to go into officers training. i wanted to see what the cross-section was like if i had to go into the military. so that's what i did. i got a on both. people i would hang with, officers. >> it was almost like a research project. >> yes, it was. >> you were drafted. tell us where you ended up going to basic camp. >> the draft i went to fort
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campbell, kentucky for basic training. no, fort lee for basic travel. fort campbell for my military occupational skill. i became an accounting clerk. i was a person that used the computer such as they were then to trace supplies from the point through the warehouse where i would be stationed out into the fields where the supplies would go. after completing my training and fort campbell, kentucky, and looking at my orders, i began to realize that there was something
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funny going on. i began to talk with other persons who received their orders. it appeared as if anyone and everyone who had a college education ended up going to vietnam. those with high school education went to europe. we were trying to figure out what was that about. maybe because we were probably at the top of our class, our expertise and ability to handle might have been -- might have facilitated that. i just thought it was strange. the other thing i thought was strange, and as i looked at the iq test they gave you, i thought well -- i thought whoa. i need to map this one. this would be the difference between me being a canon or being a position -- i tested
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high on the iq and they immediately shifted me into areas where that kind of ability . >> there was the mental exercise. what about the physical, having to do the basic training? >> no problem. i was a small, wiry and could do most -- do more than most men bigger than i. >> any officers that you remember? >> during training, there wasn't anyone that stood out. i was impressed with the discipline and what they needed to do with the young men that were brought in. as i explained, i had discipline
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so it was not like you had to coach or to me what to do. i knew what to do. my training, people responded to my personality and knew that i was a quick study. i did not have any problems with my soldiers or the officers. >> how were race relations? >> it was interesting. there really wasn't a problem per se starting off because everyone was in the same mix. they brought you in like a herd of cattle, shaved your head, took away every sense of identity that you had and you were in the army. and this was going to be the experience. they will tell you what to do, when to do it how to do it and assign you to a task appropriate
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to what their needs would be. you didn't have to think. all you had to do was react. the differentiation in terms of racial identity and attention really arose in my mind more out of the vietnam experience than the training experience. >> you said you did receive specialized training. >> yeah, i was the stock controller accounting specialist and i don't know whether there were dearth of them and they needed people to keep the supply train going. i was one that was sent over to get -- over to do that. interestingly, after i got to vietnam i found out that in the unit that i was assigned to halfway between militarized zone
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and saigon, they were having a problem with soldiers stationed there going awol. many of them wouldn't go down to the village, get high on drugs and would not report back. which meant that it was an embarrassment for the government because the troops they had assigned were not on task, on duty. laying up in the village high on drugs protesting the war. they had to recruit and bring in more to do the job that others ought to have been doing. and so i sensed that was why we were being forced because supplies were very important commodity at the time and had to be developed as delivered to the
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people out in the field. >> so what was your sense of the war in wartime? >> it was an interesting experience. once one has accommodated oneself to the climate and to the idea that you were in vietnam and you were working near rice patties where walter cronkite was reporting nightly, this was the real world. at night, -- once you begin to realize that this was your lot, everything had to fall in line to the extent you could. what i was not prepared for was the kind of segregation that began to take place. after 5:00, black troops went
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back to the barracks. -- to the barracks and hung out together and listened to soul music and talk. white troops went back to the barracks, back to their groups and taught -- and talked. we might share a drink in the mess hall, a place where we were able to do that. there was a sense that there was unequal treatment and resentment directed at the leadership for fostering or not dispelling them the dissonance that was developing. and i think what was occurring was that black soldiers were being reprimanded and reduced in
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rank and given dishonorable discharges for infractions of military law disproportional and white troops could do the same thing and get a hand slap. and so, i'm going to smoke. i'm going to hang out. this is not my war. these people don't care about me. they are not feeding my ego at also we had two different perspectives on the war. black troops, not all black troops, but those that had the greatest number of social problems themselves shutting down.
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necessitated them -- >> and i experienced that myself. at one point, the gentleman who was the company clerk, he was jewish in fact. bright individual, a lot of skills. unfortunately got caught up in the black market and was found to be profiting as others were. but he was made an example of. he ran everything. when date shipped him back to the states they asked him is there anyone in this unit that could possibly do what you're doing? he was indispensable. he says there's this black guy
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down in accounting stop control. he's the only one i think could handle any of this. >> talking about you. >> right. so i was invited by the captain to his office and he said i understand that you have exceptional abilities to do this so this gentleman is being shipped back to the states and i would like for you to become the clerk. >> i said all the respect i declined. i don't want to do it. and he said young man, when an officer invites you it's an order. you have no choice. i thought [laughter] [laughter] oh. so i went to the office and became company clerk. which meant literally any we were attacked, i had tanks
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surrounding me and troops because i was important to the communications and function. they gave me -- that gave me a greater insight to the discrepancies that were occurring. i would see people, i would have to type up the reprimands are what have you. finally got to the point where i went in to talk to the captain and i said with all due respect we have a problem here. i have a problem as a black male doing this because i can see the disparities. if you don't do something about it, it's going to be problematic. for voicing my opinion and trying to help him work through a very difficult time. i found that when i went up for promotion, i was faced with the same thing. i scored the highest. i had the best reputation for getting things done.
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and they were advancing people who didn't have half the scores i did. and so i confronted them on that and finally wrote a letter to the commanding general and said we've got a problem here. and you need to look into this. as a result, i was promoted posthaste and we got righteous about what was going on. in some ways, i think we slow down the amount of article 14's and other reprimands that came across my desk. >> and you said we. so you were not doing this alone. were there some other? >> i had to coach the captain. we had officers who had no combat experience coming from stateside who had cushy jobs. who do not know how to lead. once they got into the field and found out this was very
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difficult dance to do. some of them shut down, stayed in their office, did was -- did what was required to make the unit run but were not very visible. it was noted. in the office, i was the prop behind the leadership. in fact, i got so cocky -- so how did that -- >> so how did that help or hurt the tension? >> well, once opinions are formed they are hard to dispel. i don't think any of the black troops felt any differently now
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that the roost was exposed. many of them did get promoted, but it was after the fact and they really understood that it would out of happened if someone had not blown the whistle and called the attentional of that is the attention of higher authorities. -- the attention of higher authorities. at least other excuses for doing it were mitigated, the day could get promoted. >> when was this? >> 1970. >> were you able to foster friendships and camaraderie's? >> everyone saw me as approachable. one of the things that worked in
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my favor across the dynamic is i was raised in minnesota. early on, we had to come to an agreement in terms of race relations so i never >> you questions about whether the prone position is it safe to land her stomach. >> yes. >> are you familiar with whether or not laying in the prone position automatically brings about a reduction in the oxygen reserves somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% to 24%? >> i am not aware of that but i would defer to a clinician. >> brexit pulmonologist? >> that would be the best, yes. >> i think you were in fact asked questions about laying by the pool in my stomach in florida. >> yes.
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>> george floyd was not laying by the pool on his stomach in florida was he? >> no.
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>> sounding like that same in vietnam was basically taking -- >> being able to speak the language but you have a
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different perspective. >> and we know there are politics. >> that was a difficult sell for me because i had to sit through meetings where, even as an administrator, i was being dismissed and i am certain you have heard it before. no matter how logical it was, and it might have been appropriate at that point, half-hour later in the same meeting my colleagues would bring that back to the table and it was like, duh. [laughter] >> that is a grand idea. >> i had to accept that and learn how to work through frustration and be persistent and logical in my presentation to the point where they couldn't nor and they had to legitimize
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my authenticity for putting that on the table. that required a lot of training. >> where did your wife -- >> we met in graduate school. she's actually a spellman graduate and -- >> her name? >> josephine reid. she was born in the black belt of alabama. her grandfather's farm as it were and her mother, as a single parent, left the farm, moved to atlanta and married and then
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josie was the only child. she attended washington high school in atlanta and was going to go to -- was at amherst? no, new york university and at the time she was to leave atlanta there was a lot of protest movement occurring in new york and her mother says, you're not going there. you are going to spellman as she graduated from spellman. went to the university of minnesota because they had the best psychology program in the nation. i met her as she began her masters degree. i was returning from nebraska to begin my doctorate.
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unbeknownst to the two of us she was in washington, d.c. the year before for the pan-african rally in malcolm x park. i had driven my little corvette across the united states to new york and was at the rally. the next year it was the african liberation day rally, that's what was called. the next year we had the african liberation day rally in st. paul. she was in graduate school, i was in graduate school. she was carrying a sign behind me. i turned around and said who is the sister with the angela davis fro?
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i asked my friend to check her out because i didn't want to be obvious. he said, that is worth checking out. later that week we were in a meeting and i sat next to her and began to talk and a couple of days later went to another meeting and that was it. we talked and talked and talked. >> and now how many years have you been talking? >> 42 years. [laughter] >> wonderful, wonderful. seeing some of your afflictions, i would love to know -- reflections, how does your wartime experience affect your life. >> first of all, it solidifies my belief that education was the way out.
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i saw poor whites and poor blacks struggling. it was heart-wrenching to know that so many lives were affected that would never be right again one because they have no support system and no one to really sit down and work with them to get them to a reality that they are valuable. they come from a long line of good people. i figured if i could get into the classroom with that message, and put it in historical context so they could understand who they are, where they are in history and they could make some decisions based -- going forward , but if you didn't understand the past and had no clue about the present, how are you going
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to make anything of yourself? you are just bothering people with the same old stuff. that became my mission, working through black studies programs i found to be empowering and i resonated to that message at the time. there were a lot of us experiencing the same thing. secondly, i didn't realize that as a black male, i was in a crisis mode. i did not realize until i left home that what i took for granted in terms of family life and support and sense of purpose and being and attitude that you could become anything you want to become, i didn't realize that was -- until i got to college. i didn't realize that moynahan had written this report and that i was a sociological data fact.
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the data they were recording did not reflect my community, so i figured we'd have to do something about this. i -- my nos corrective. i am going to teach what i know to whom will listen to me. that meant working with -- as will because they were just as i can rent as blacks of the black experience. if i could turn some heads and minds around and get people to understand that in this country, this dynamic was important to wrestle with because it has always been with us and it showed its ugly head in vietnam and europe and everywhere we have gone, so let's get on with this conversation and we are going to be part of it. >> wonderful >> fortunately, history afforded me a lot of
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opportunities. i was the -- i was going to be the first black dean of the college of charlston and a 200 year history. it was a friend of mine who knew my background, who knew i could talk across racial barriers, asked me if i would come and help desegregate the college of charleston. and i did that. i didn't realize when i applied for the deanship at the university of minnesota, my complexion would make me the first black dean the university of minnesota had hired in 150 years. [laughter] i have had a lot of firsts,
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which i found remarkable at the time. again, i would not have come to that conclusion had i not been exposed to these anomalies in vietnam, as it were. it solidified my intend to go back and work harder at something i knew needed to be done. >> you may have already answered this, but what are some of the life lessons you learned from military service? >> not that i needed any more discipline, but discipline is important to make any progress towards life goals. i have learned that to be taken as a credible person, you had to be able to deliver and do what
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you were trained to do when you are trained to do it in a timely fashion. i learned not to mince words necessarily. but be forthright and candid, because that is the only way you can get an agreement on what an issue is. talking with people to get them to understand what needs to be done in a way that respects their dignity, but also reinforces my determination to accomplish the mission i was out
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to achieve. i found myself being able to talk to people, no matter how difficult the conversation, with sense of authenticity they understand it. that propelled me forward. particularly with whites, who were not used to someone who, after being insulted, would not get militant, but say, did i hear you say something? did i understand you to say this? let's have this conversation one more time because i am not certain you meant what you said. if you did mean what you said, here is my response. that was helpful to move conversations forward in a way that people were not accustomed to. >> -- to be defensive and
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militant to the point of, i can't talk about it anymore. you don't move anywhere. >> that was an option. whatever was on the table had to be discussed. i think that's what made it easy for me as an administrator to work with people from different backgrounds. articulate goals, opportunities and directions, appropriate behaviors, measured outcomes, reward behaviors. it was not about favoritism, it was about, did you produce? how did you produce? what were the consequences of your engagement? reward effort. bring me a problem, i will give you a solution. when i move through my vice president sees, vice presidency,
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that is when people respect it. i would assess and deliver this oath. >> you were provost? >> several times. >> at morehouse? >> at morehouse, diller, yeah. >> wonderful >> so how has your military service impacted your feelings about war and military? >> i was thoroughly disappointed in what i saw coming out of the vietnam war effort. the logic that the country used in the sense of the war -- in defense of the war, the logic that was used to sustain the war
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effort cost us the best of our generation. no consequences for the people who lead us into that conflict. and then coming out of that war, the psychological damage it caused both in terms of people experiencing combat, war, casualties, and an inability to adjust themselves to a peacetime economy, was difficult. it led me to believe that we need education, we need more education rather than less, and we need to be able to create a class of people who are able to think clearly and distinctly --
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sisson clay -- who had decision-making skills because they should never find themselves in a situation like that again. her black america, it was devastating. i saw such disparities in terms of being recruited and being cannon fodder. the only reason i was not cannon fodder is because i fought my way through. i became too valuable a resource to be placed on the frontline. they knew it, i knew get -- i knew it, i miss -- i manipulated the system. that was unfortunate for many black troops whose trust in the government was e*trade. my goal was to get back into
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higher education and the vehicle of education, begin to transform the country inside out. we hold these truths to be self-evident and i will speak the truth. i'm going to research and teach people to accept what we have sex -- what we have accepted before. anyone who then came under my administration as an administrator, homie doesn't play anymore, this isn't real life -- this is real life. these are the skill sets you're going to need to compete in the united states. let's get that game on now and be honest with what we are attempting to do. that became my mantra in higher education. because the games are played
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with me, i was coming up the track and i recognized the game. not everyone has that ability. not everyone rn places of legitimate authority to control those sorts of behaviors. that became my lesson after the war, get back in the academy, create leaders. >> i am sure you did. what message would you leave behind for future generations? >> you are the captain of your ship. although there are external forces that will battle you, in the long term run of things, you have to believe that you are in control of your life.
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there are a lot of forces that will align themselves against you, but they can be reckoned and reasoned with. but you are in control. when you give that control to someone else and say, it is beyond me, then anything can happen. i was taught as a child always to question -- never be disrespectful, but never accept anything on face value. always ask in a way that is informative and make a decision on pond which you think it is important for from a social logical background. always treat people fairly and give people the benefit of the doubt. that has always been a hallmark of my stature in education. that is how i taught when i was
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in the classroom. education is important and transformative, but you have to understand it and make it work for you. at the same time, be able to articulate what you understand then what you need to understand in order to become better at what you intend to do. never put people down. always use your position to build people up here everyone comes from different resources intellectually, respect that. but, respect yourself and take the talents that you have and maximize them, without excuse. my parents taught me that and that's what i was attempting to teach my children, as it were. it means sometimes you have to
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compromise, but not on the things that you value. i have had a good life in that respect, very productive life. i have had my opportunities to become a college president. i decided i was not going to do that. i had contributed enough to the country and to higher education. i reached that point that for now it is for me, i am going to enjoy my life. >> we appreciate you being the vice president for programs for the new atlanta branch. this summer, you've got an opportunity to drive in the veterans parade for juneteenth. i didn't get a chance to ask you with hidden your military service and interactions with women, certainly you've got to
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drive kernels in the parade, so were there any comments or thoughts about women in the military? >> i did not encounter any women in the military when i was in vietnam beyond those that were serving in support positions. i do not know the reasons for that other than the army was sexist at the time. for that matter, i did serve under one black commanding officer in my unit. apart from that, i did not come in contact with any other ranking black officers. for that matter, sergeants. it was a very segregated structured military.
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it was not a military that reflected my interests or the interests of people of color. we have come a long ways from what i have discerned, but truly that experience -- people of color more more or less fodder for the war machine. when he found someone in leadership positions, you gave them their due. on the other hand, we tend to dismiss officers that were not authentic in our estimation. >> any comment that you would like to -- >> this has been very informative. it has allowed me to, as a historian, reflect upon my experiences and hopefully in a
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unbiased way. personal bias is what i experienced external to my experiences. >> you mentioned that you had done -- you had been part of an oral history project. what was that? where does that fall? >> as an historian out of minnesota, i was tapped for a minnesota oral history project among blacks in minnesota. i did the first bibliographic guide to blacks in minnesota, which is still used as a reference point today. i headed up a research team of six black history majors out of
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the phd program that i had graduated from and i was interviewing black families and in the city of in a soda. we brought that back and compiled it in another bibliography, as it were. i also took crew of cameramen on the road with us and it filming, as it were. in the state of minnesota, i am fairly well known as a research historian. >> one last question, you brought up the dvd. >> history is in my blood. any opportunity i have to
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chronicle or capture, i do. when i was in vietnam, i had an eight millimeter camera. i was going to videotape my experiences. that is what i did. so, i had part of that film transposed onto a dvd. i still have the other half on these little -- >> the original media? >> yes. i decided to capture ordinary every life in the fifth maintenance battalion in an attempt to explain to my family what i was going through. i would mail these back, they had a projector and they would see me and i was chronicling history. i have it on dvd now and someone
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had contacted me recently who is developing an archive of film shot by soldiers who experienced the vietnam war. i'm not sure i'll number of black soldiers had done this, i just happen to be at the right place at the right time. >> wonderful. announcer: american history tv on c-span3. every weekend documenting america's story. funding for american history tv come from these companies who support c-span3 as a public service. ♪ announcer: art buchwald was a satirist. his pulitzer prize-winning category was syndicated in 500 newspapers. up next, mike -- michael hill
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tells the story of ellen all's history. the university of mary provided the video. >> michael hill received his ba in political science from kent state university, and subsequently a jd degree from that same university. he later earned a -- from the kennedy school of government and is currently a freelance author based here in fredericksburg. as a historic researcher, he has assisted such authors as john meacham, sebastian younger, nathaniel filby, john mccain and michael best los. that is an all-star lineup of writers. he won an emmy on theen


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