Trouble at Bragg

Night of Terror

Early in the morning of 6 August 1941, 500 Black soldiers lay on the ground of the prison yard at Fort Bragg. For five hours they were guarded by white Military Police who ordered them not to talk, move, or sleep. Those who violated these directives were kicked or hit by the MP’s.

One non-commissioned officer, only known as Sergeant B, recounted that he and his fellow soldiers were stopped in a cab on the way to Bragg by Military Police “armed with sawed-off shotguns and automatics.” The MP’s “opened the doors and pointed their guns at us. We began to ask what the trouble was. Without answering us, one of the MP’s blurted out: ‘All right, you god damned niggers, keep quiet or we’ll blow your god damned brains out!'” (Prattis).

Sergeant B and his comrades lay on the ground until one of the officers from their company came for them at 0630. At least two soldiers who protested this treatment had been taken into guardhouses and beaten.

In what the Pittsburgh Courier termed a “night of terror”, every “colored” soldier at Fort Bragg had been, as another newspaper put it, “rounded up” by Military Police. After sunrise, as Black soldiers began to return to their units, word spread that leave was cancelled for colored soldiers until further notice.

Word also spread that earlier that morning, at around 0100, there had been a “gun battle” aboard a bus in downtown Fayetteville (“Two Killed in Fight”). It was this incident that led to the “night of terror” though there was a much longer pattern of abuse and racism that preceded it.

Jim Crow Joins the Army

A little less than a year before, the United States had instituted a peacetime draft and Fort Bragg expanded rapidly. Though the nation was not at war, it was becoming increasingly clear that the conflict in Europe and the Pacific would soon involve the United States.

The Pittsburgh Courier described pre-draft Fayetteville as a small town of “17,000, one-third of whom were Negroes.” The defense buildup brought the civilian population of Fayetteville to 40,000 in less than a year while bringing Bragg to 60,000 troops.

In November 1940, preparation for an influx of troops who may have been unaccustomed to Jim Crow, Fayetteville’s city council directed the city attorney to draft an ordnance which would require all restaurants to have “two entrances, front and back” and to prohibit “serving to both white and colored people” (Lutz 74). Black troops from other parts of the country would be expected to adapt themselves to the racial etiquette of Bragg’s host city. Fayetteville, which in the interwar period had been quiet enough, was transformed into a crowded hive of military activity almost overnight.

The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most prominent Black newspapers in the United States at the time, published an in-depth exploration of Fort Bragg and Fayetteville as a result of the killings. Reporter James M. Reid specifically identified three factors that made Fayetteville a “regular hell” for its 6,500 “race soldiers.”

  1. the physical limitations of Fayetteville itself in regard to overcrowding, and the burdens imposed on Black soldiers by segregation
  2. the prejudiced attitude of white civilians
  3. the persistent abuse and mistreatment of Black soldiers by white officers

“Little Harlem”

The lack of recreational facilities on base forced Black soldiers to visit “Little Harlem.”

“Little Harlem”, according to the Courier, “abounds in dope joints, vice dens and prostitutes. Police call it the toughest section in the South.” For those familiar with Fayetteville, “Little Harlem” covered the much of the area that the US Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum covers now. White soldiers were given the freedom to frequent the main downtown thoroughfare of Hay Street.

In fact, much of what was once Little Harlem is now dedicated to military memory, with the North Carolina Veterans Park just adjacent to the Airborne Museum. Farther to the north along Hillsboro Street, what residential zoning remains is still roughly 90% Black, according to census data, and residents average some of the lowest income in the city (Justice Map).

For the Pittsburgh Courier and Carolina Times, both prominent Black newspapers, it was this mixture of racial prejudice and poor conditions that led to the incident on the morning of 6 August.

With only five of fifty buses serving the “colored area” of the city, and the drivers of those buses often prone to use “vile racial names”, what happened did not come as a shock to the Black soldiers of Fort Bragg.


According to the Inspector General’s Office at the War Department:

August 5, 1941, was pay day for a portion of the colored troops at Fort Bragg. The customary off-duty pilgrimage to Fayetteville, ten miles distant, for spending and recreational indulgences occurred. Late-hour returns to the post created a peak load demand for bus transportation and consequent large gatherings at a bus stop adjacent to a notorious colored section of town known as “Little Harlem” (Lutz 69).

Early Associated Press reports on 6 August quoted the Assistant Police Chief of Fayetteville, N.A. Weatherington. Weatherington reported that he’d been told that “the Nergroes began an argument over the bus fare and that one of them kicked a military policeman in the face. The negro…grabbed the military officer’s pistol and in a few seconds a series of shots sounded” (“Two Killed…”).

According to those reports, two men were killed and at least three, a white MP and two Black soldiers, were wounded.

The two dead servicemen were Private Ned Turman (27) of Bamberg, South Carolina, and Sergeant E.L. Hargrove (20) of Corsicana, Texas. All early reports indicated Turman being “a negro” while Hargrove’s race (white) needed no mentioning.

The bus was stopped at the intersection of Hay and Hillsboro Streets, at the entrance to “Little Harlem.” Military Police were no strangers to being called to these buses when Black soldiers vocally objected to their treatment by drivers.

Most of the white newspapers in the US detailed a story that appealed to white sensibilities: a bus full of drunken Black soldiers had become too out of control for the driver. Unarmed Black MP’s had failed to quell the rowdy troops and so white MP’s were called. Several white MP’s arrived and Sgt. Hargraves entered the bus and was attacked by Private Turman who then took Hargraves’ gun and shot him through the heart. Turman then began firing at the other Military Policemen and, after running out of ammunition, was shot dead from behind by MP Sergeant Russell Owens, who had entered from the rear of the bus.

A courtmartial of Sgt. Owens was held and by 15 August, Owens was freed after it was found that he acted correctly. Col. C.B. Elliott, commandant of Fort Bragg, approved of the findings of the courtmartial — though Black newspapers protested Elliott’s role since he was known to freely use the word “n—–” and approved extensive Jim Crow segregation in post facilities (“Findings Approved”).

The NAACP, among other organizations and voices, accused the Army of “whitewashing” the facts, as many Black soldiers admitted that they had been lead during questioning, and not permitted to speak except in terms of “yes” or “no.”

The in-depth reporting of the Pittsburgh Courier following the courtmartial led to the War Department opening its own investigation and finding that the murderer of both Hargraves and Turman was unknown, despite the fact that Sgt. Owens admitted to shooting Turman.

Prior to the release of the War Department’s report, Col. Elliott was transferred to an all-white posting, as he’d brought unwanted attention to the case by his use of racial slurs and been found unfit for commanding Black soldiers (Lutz).

Hay and Hillsboro

So, what really happened on the bus at the corner of Hay and Hillsboro on 6 August, 1941? What chain of events led to the imprisonment of Black soldiers on Fort Bragg?

The Pittsburgh Courier printed its own findings after talking to eyewitnesses who had been too afraid to contradict the findings of the Army.

According to those witnesses, the bus driver wanted an armed white MP to accompany the bus back to Fort Bragg and would not leave without one. The Black soldiers protested, saying that they didn’t want a white MP. The bus driver exited the bus and returned with seven to eight white MP’s.

Mack Poole, a Black soldier with an all-night pass and standing outside the bus, was approached by the MP’s and told to board. He refused, presenting his pass. He was physically forced onto the bus and continued to protest and then was struck over the head by one of the MP’s wielding a nightstick. Staggering and bleeding from the head, Poole begged to be let off the bus and finally managed to kick the door open, falling onto the pavement.

It was at this point that Private Turman spoke up, telling the driver to hurry and return the bus to Fort Bragg before more soldiers were beaten. Two MP’s approached Turman and he put up his hands before being struck by their nightsticks. A third MP joined in the beating. Witnesses say that this is when Turman broke free. He was holding a gun and backing away from the approaching MP’s, and then he began firing.

The Usual Manner

As far as the War Department was concerned, the killer of Hargraves and Turman was unknown. When the report was released in late November 1941, The Carolina Times remarked that the case had been closed “in the usual manner” (Lutz). The attack on Pearl Harbor followed just weeks after and the incident was completely crushed out of the news cycle by the war.

Fort Bragg and Fayetteville would grow tremendously during the war, and that growth only increased with the Cold War. Fayetteville became the epicenter of American foreign policy and home to the accompanying violence. The integration of the Army meant that by the time of the Vietnam War, Black and white soldiers could enjoy “notorious” Hay Street together, and Fayetteville earned a reputation that it still works desperately to outrun.

For Hargraves and Turman, World War II never happened. Their service ended early that morning on a bus idling at the entrance to an upaved and sandy road that wound north through Fayetteville’s impoverished Black community.

The last news item to mention the incident was a poem published in January 1942 on page six of the Pittsburgh Courier.

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