Profile of a Grand Lodge Officer: Clarence Plant
The Worcester Telegram published an article about Grand Lodge Officer Clarence Plant.
The following is the article, in it’s entirety, as written by Paula J. Owen and published in the Worcester Telegram on March 18th, 2018.
WORCESTER – Vietnam veteran Clarence Plant grew up in the South in the 1940s and 1950s at a time when whites and blacks were separate and never equal, he said, and joined the U.S. Army after fleeing from likely persecution, and possibly getting murdered, when a cotton farmer’s white daughter who lived next door was spotted giving him a hug.
“It was either go in the Army or go to jail,” Mr. Plant, 79, said in a sitting area in his Worcester home.
The oldest of six boys, he said he lived in the deep South with his father, who raised corn and other crops on his 23-acre farm, and mother, a homemaker. He would walk 5 miles to school each day through the valley that was full of vines, he said, though he was always afraid of the snakes.
“There were mean snakes. They would chase you,” he said.
Every Friday his father would go to the market to buy mullet – a “cheap fish,” he said, and every Sunday morning the family would go to church, whether they wanted to or not. Mr. Plant was responsible for “ringing the neck” of the chicken his mother would cook each Sunday for dinner after church.
“We would call it the ‘gospel bird,’” Mr. Plant explained. “We always had enough to eat.”
Mr. Plant said he would pick cotton for the farmer next door.
“The guy who lived next to us had the largest Caucasian farm in the state of Georgia,” Mr. Plant said, speaking with a slight Southern accent. “He used to hire a lot of African Americans and he had the cutest daughters. One daughter to a liking to me, but it was a ‘no go.’ You didn’t mess around with Caucasian girls. One day I was milking the cow and the guy’s wife was peeking out the window and the girl came over to hug me. Her father told my father I had to leave town immediately.”
He was only 18 when he boarded a train for Detroit, Mich., where he lived with one of his aunts for about a year. When he found out the girl who hugged him back home, Emily Murph, moved to Alabama, Mr. Plant decided to go back home, working several jobs helping out on the family farm, working with a plumber and picking cotton for the same neighbor who told him to leave town.
“It was a mistake to go back,” he said. “You always had to watch your back. A lot of people died because of those sort of things (hugging a white girl). Those things just didn’t pan out. If you wanted to do something like that you go to major cities like New York. You didn’t do that kind of thing down in Mississippi or Georgia.”
He began taking college courses, until June, 1960, he said he had the opportunity to join the Army Reserves at Fort Valley, Georgia, because he “needed something to do on weekends.” “But, I wasn’t dedicated,” he said. “I had no intention of going to meetings, so they forced me to go on active duty. It was the greatest decision that happened to me that someone else made. It got me out of that environment. A lot of black people got killed and they got away with it. They would shoot people and stab people and they got away with that s*** and not spend one night in jail.”
He was in his early 20s when he was sent to Fort Jackson, S.C.
“The military was segregated, regardless of what they say,” he said. “When I got there, training was not what it was supposed to be, but I was in good shape and would always listen and never really got into trouble. I was put in the engineers.”
During roll call for Fort Benning, Georgia, one morning, the soldier who was supposed to go didn’t show up. Mr. Plant was sent in his place, he said.
“I was there four days and went out on patrol,” he said. “I was carrying a .60 caliber machinegun and took a break to sit on a log. I heard a rattlesnake, jumped up and left my gun.”
His family only lived 40 miles away, he said.
“I left the Army and went home,” he said. “The Lord looked after me. Normally, you’d go to jail, but the MPs brought me back. They wouldn’t put me in the brig because I made the commitment I wouldn’t leave again, but I didn’t want to be infantry.”
He said his commanding officers agreed to that and sent him to school for engineering.
“I was very polite. They were all white,” he said. “It was an all African American unit we were in – 175 African Americans. They separated us.”
He was later sent to Germany to an engineer battalion with about 1,800 people with only about 12 African Americans, he said, spread out over different companies.
“We had a guy, Hopkins, from Jackson, Miss., who couldn’t read his own name,” he said. “He was a white platoon sergeant and he wanted me to be his driver because he liked that I was polite, saying ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir.’ He had two beautiful daughters that he didn’t want any white guys dating, so he would invite me to his house because he knew the white soldiers wouldn’t come and he knew I wasn’t going to talk to his daughters.”
Mr. Plant boxed and played football in the military and was sent to German schools (though he didn’t speak German) when the inspectors came around. He said he was treated good by some and bad by others in the battalion. He and other black soldiers would go into town, he said, and catch the train back to the barracks to make curfew.
“People thought black men had tails, so a lot of times, girls wanted to see our tails,” he said, about going into town. “I had three friends and we’d catch the train to go to Offenbach near Hanau to see the girls. We had to make curfew, but I had a good relationship with the sergeant and we used to pay them to cover for us. Sometimes when we’d get off the train to go back to the barracks, if the taxi was not there, we had to fight. Caucasian soldiers used to beat us up. I was beat up a couple of times, but I beat up a lot of people, too. People don’t like to talk about that.”
He said he learned a lot about life during his time serving in the Army in Germany before was discharged.
When he went back home, he said he realized how prejudice it was.
“It was really, really bad,” he said. “Most African Americans lived on Caucasian farms and people threw a shack up for them to stay in. Being away from it and going back to that environment, I knew it wasn’t a good future for me. A lot of people were in jail who shouldn’t be.”
He said he went back into the Army after three months at home and “never looked back.”
He was given the “right jobs and assignments” and was drafted into military intelligence.
“They said I couldn’t get security clearance, but I did it,” he said. “I went from E1 to E5 because of boxing and aligned myself with good people. I was still getting beat up, but it was good for me. I realized I wasn’t the only one who could box and get an a** whipping, too. Not many people came from where I did and went from private E1 to E9. I was promoted below the zone and I went all the way to the top. My record was one of the cleanest. I used to get very bitter about being African American, but what I learned is that I can work with anybody.”
While serving during the Vietnam War in a combat engineer battalion that supported an infantry unit building roads and other infrastructure from 1965-1966, Mr. Plant said he was wounded twice – when he came under fire on a mission and was ran over by a road grader, and when he slipped on a log. He later returned to Vietnam during the war working in intelligence.
He and former wife of 33 years, Mary A. Plant, have two sons who also served in the military.
In 1985, Mr. Plant took a position at Worcester Polytechnic Institute as Sgt. Major of the New England brigade of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) where he retired from in 1990. He still serves as an adviser to WPI’s Black Student Union. He is CEO at the Odd Fellows Home where he was instrumental in getting a contract for the agency to also take care of military veterans and has served on numerous local boards and committees.
You can also read the article here.