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First Person > Juanita Nelson

Juanita Nelson - 1943-1946: Juanita meets Wally Nelson

"World War II, Civilian Public Service camps and a commitment to nonviolence"



Partly for financial reasons, Juanita left school after two years at Howard University and returned home. Back in Cleveland, Ohio, in the midst of World War II, Juanita was hired to write for a weekly newspaper. “The best thing that ever happened to me being a reporter,” she remembers, “that’s where I met Wally—how I met Wally—who became my life partner. He was in prison, in jail at the time, in the Cuyahoga County Jail because he was a conscientious objector; that is, he would not go to war...”

Learn more about Juanita Nelson: View a timeline of her life and listen to her full interview.



file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/nelson1943_couple, alt: Wally and Juanita in the 1940s

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Juanita and Wally appear here in the late 1940s, shortly after Wally was released from prison. Wally had been in jail because he had walked out of a Civilian Public Service camp where he had been serving alternative duty during World War II. Wally was one of 37,000 American conscientious objectors who, at that time, refused to go to war and instead performed various duties at Civilian Public Service camps. Conscientious Objector Tedford Lewis remembers Wally from the time that they spent together at the Civilian Public Service camp in Coshocton, Ohio. Lewis surmises that notions of race did not mean all that much to Wally:

I would guess that Wally Nelson's position was one that he was just concerned for people. I am sure that Wally Nelson saw color in other people in an entirely different way than I did on that walk into town. [at which time Lewis worried that the colors of their skin might put them in danger.] He saw the color in another person's eyes, and the sparkle in the other person's eyes, and he looked right on through and saw what was inside and what happened to be the wrapping just didn't make any difference to Wally. This would be my feeling about it.

Photograph Courtesy of Juanita Nelson.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/nelson1943_activists, alt: group of nine civil right activists

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Wally Nelson is the second person on the left-hand side of this group of civil rights activists who participated in the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. This was the first interracial "Freedom Ride" ever to take place in the United States. The trip was organized by CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The Supreme Court had declared segregation on interstate transportation to be unconstitutional, and the "Freedom Ride" was meant to test how that decision would be complied with in the South. Like Juanita, Wally was consistent in his convictions. Tedford Lewis recalls a story that Wally related about being asked to sign a petition:

...he[Wally] had been sitting in a bar, and during those days it was rather common for the whites to go slumming...this was to go down into the black neighborhood, one or two couples, sit in a black bar, have a drink, and "watch the natives." Well, this was a perfectly safe operation. It was considered quite a game for people. Well, so, Wally was sitting at this particular bar, and four white people came in. Someone at his table drew up a petition and passed it around his table to be signed. There were a dozen people or so, as I recall, at his table. He was the last one to see the petition, and it was a petition to prohibit whites from coming into that particular bar. He laid it on the table and said, "I'm sorry, I can't sign this." And the rest of them at the table said, "What do you mean...you can't sign it?" He said, "Don't we want to be welcomed into white society? If we want to be welcomed into white society, then we have to welcome white society into our society. We can't ask for one-way discrimination." And he said, "As long as I want our country to operate on a basis of no discrimination, I cannot share in any discriminatory act."

Photograph Courtesy of the War Resisters League.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/nelson1943_oldercouple, alt: Wally and Juanita in the winter of 1986

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Wally and Juanita Nelson stand before their Deerfield, Massachusetts home in February of 1986. Wally Nelson maintained his commitment to nonviolence throughout his life. He and Juanita joined Peacemakers, a national organization dedicated to active nonviolence. They also became, and Juanita still remains, an active war tax resister. Juanita recalls that she "became a pacifist for sure" after she met Wally. She remembers asking him the question, "Well, what would you do if...you were sure someone was trying to kill you." His reply was, "I would try to protect myself by putting my hands over my head maybe, that sort of thing, but in the end I couldn't decide that my life was worth more than somebody else's." Juanita says of his response, "...I guess I was ready for it, and that really moved me. And that was a very life-changing thing for me."

Photograph Courtesy of Juanita Nelson.

Story Clip #1:

"Well, what would you do if...?": Juanita meets pacifist Wally Nelson

Wait for each file to download, then click the arrow to play the audio.

Audio also available in MP3 format

The best thing that ever happened to me being a reporter: that's where I met Wally—how I met Wally—who became my life partner. He was in prison, in jail at the time, in the Cuyahoga County Jail because he was a conscientious objector; that is, he would not go to war. And he signed up as a conscientious objector and was put in one of the camps, CO camps, called "civilian public service," although he called it "civilian public slavery." But he realized, soon after he got there that he should never have registered, period. And he was there for about a year, and he, with five cohorts, walked out of CPS and went to Detroit and they started a service in a poor community and all that, but of course they were finally picked up. The reason I met him was that the sheriff asked our paper to send a reporter down. Well, two of us went down, and Wally and his friend who were there saw us pass through, escorted by the sheriff, and decided that, "Oh, they must be pretty important." So they had outside contacts, mostly Friends, Quakers, and they found out who we were. So they asked me to come down, and so I started visiting them. And I became a pacifist for sure. I was never not a pacifist; I wasn't a warmonger or anything like that, but I just hadn't thought about it. And I shall never forget that, asking him, "Well, what would you do if? " as people are always asking, "...if you were pretty sure someone was trying to kill you?" And he said, "I would try to protect myself by putting my hands over my head maybe, that sort of thing, but in the end I couldn't decide that my life was worth more than somebody else's." And that really...I guess I was ready for it, and that really moved me.

Story Clip #2:

"Until I am on the other side of these walls...": Wally Nelson goes on a hunger strike while in prison

Audio also available in MP3 format

Well Wally and his friend were in jail, by the way, because they had been offered the opportunity, in quotes, to go to federal prison while their case was on appeal. But they said, "We don't choose to serve." And you see, you have to sign something..."I choose to serve." They said "We are not choosing to serve," so they were there for a year, which time would not have counted on the five year sentence they finally got, that was upheld. But he was sent to prison, first to Milan, Michigan, and then to the prison in Connecticut, which is...now a women's prison, which is interesting. I corresponded with him; although interestingly enough I wrote to his friend because they could receive only seven letters a week each and they knew pretty much the same people. And I drew his friend Joe, and so we kept up a correspondence. And then when he was released after a total of 33 months, including the county jail and the federal prisons, he was on a hunger strike after a while. He said, "You've got me in jail; you're responsible for this, and I am not going to eat until I am on the other side of these walls." Well for 18 days he didn't have any food, and then they started force–feeding him. I can't ever remember quite...I think altogether it was a total of at least 87 days, and that he...didn't eat for 18 days, and then was force–fed once a day, 'cause they wouldn't submit to any more of the—that's a long story so I won't go into that. The first time they tried to feed them they held them down 'cause they...deliberately put tubes too big; it went through his nose down into stomach, esophagus, or whatever, however it is. And, so he lost a lot of weight, and then went to St. Paul to recuperate with [his OR a] brother, who was a minister, and then came to Cleveland. And then, that's when we really got to know each other; you know, you don't know somebody when they're in prison, you know I mean [chuckle] how can you know them really? And I didn't even visit them, at that time either.

But anyway, then in 1948 ... he was released in '46, I think it was, '46, '47 ... and in '48 we decided that we would join our fates and so, we became ... what do they say these days, "an item"? [laugh]

Story Clip #3:

Juanita sets the course for her life

Audio also available in MP3 format

And then, I finally quit the newspaper. I had nothing I wanted to do with it anyway. And by that time I had decided I didn't want to be professional ever, and I haven't been either; that I would do whatever seemed a job to keep body and soul together, that was good work, or at least not bad work, let's put it that way; at least wasn't bad work. And that I would just live my life and do the things that I believe in.



Related Resources

About Civilian Public Service camps

About Freedom Rides

About Conscientious Objector Tedford Lewis

 

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