Black Americans Who Served in WWII Faced Segregation and Second-Class Roles
When the Selective Training and Service Act became the country’s first peacetime bill in September 1940, civil rights leaders pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow black men to register and serve in integrated regiments.
Although African Americans had been involved in every conflict since the War of Independence, they had done so in isolation, and Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, appointed by FDR, was not interested in changing the status quo. Faced with the need to bolster the U.S. armed forces as the war escalated in Europe, the FDR decided that black men could enter the draft, but they would remain separate and the military would determine the proportion of blacks inducted into the draft. service.
The compromise represented the paradoxical experience that befell the 1.2 million African-American men who served in World War II: they fought for democracy abroad while being treated as second-class citizens. area by their own country.
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Discrimination in the military
Despite the eagerness of African American soldiers to fight in World War II, the same Jim Crow discrimination in society was practiced in all branches of the military. Many bases and training facilities were located in the south, in addition to the largest military facility for black soldiers, Fort Huachuca, located in Arizona. Regardless of the region, all bases had separate blood banks, hospitals or wards, medical personnel, barracks, and recreational facilities for black soldiers. And white soldiers and local white residents insulted and harassed them regularly.
“The experience was very disheartening for many black soldiers,” says Matthew Delmont, professor of history at Dartmouth College and author of Black Daily: Daily Story in African American Newspapers. “The kind of treatment they received from white officers at army bases in the United States was horrible. They described being in conditions of slavery and being treated like animals. They were called racial epithets quite regularly and they just weren’t respected as soldiers or human beings. “
Because the military did not believe that African Americans were suitable for combat or leadership positions, they were mostly relegated to work and service units. Working as cooks and mechanics, building roads and ditches, and unloading supplies from trucks and planes were common tasks for black soldiers. And for the few who got the rank of officer, they could only lead other black men.
As Christopher Paul Moore wrote in his book, Fighting for America: Black Soldiers – Unsung Heroes of World War II, “Black Americans bearing arms, whether as infantry, tank corps or as pilots, were simply an unthinkable notion … More acceptable to Southern politicians and much of the military command was the use of black soldiers in support positions, as non-combatants or workers. “
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Fighting the war on two fronts
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African-American soldiers regularly reported their abuse to the black press and the NAACP, advocating for the right to fight on the front lines alongside white soldiers.
“The black press was very successful in defending black soldiers during World War II,” Delmont says. “They point to the hypocrisy of waging a war that was theoretically a matter of democracy, while having a racially segregated army.”
In 1942, the Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier—in response to a letter to the editor of James G. Thompson, a 26-year-old black soldier, in which he wrote: “Do I have to sacrifice my life to live half American?” – launched the Double V campaign. The slogan, which represented a victory for democracy abroad and a victory against racism in America, was touted by journalists and black activists to rally support for equality for African Americans. The campaign shed light on soldiers’ contributions to the war effort and denounced the discrimination soldiers endured fighting for freedoms that African Americans themselves did not have.
The 761st Tank Battalion and Tuskegee Airmen
As casualties increased among white soldiers towards the last year of the war, the military had to use African Americans as infantrymen, officers, tankers, and pilots, in addition to remaining invaluable in supply divisions.
From August 1944 to November 1944, the Red Ball Express, a unit made up primarily of black conductors, delivered gasoline, ammunition, food, mechanical parts and medical supplies to General George Patton’s Third Army in France, traveling up to 400 miles on narrow roads in the dead. at night without headlights to avoid detection by the Germans.
The 761 Tank Battalion, became the first black division to witness ground combat in Europe, joining Patton’s Third Army in France in November 1944. The men helped liberate 30 cities from Nazi control and spent 183 days in combat , including in the Battle of the Bulge. . Airmen from Tuskegee, the group of all-black fighter pilots trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, escorted bombers over Italy and Sicily, carrying out 1,600 combat missions and destroying 237 German aircraft on the ground and 37 in the air.
“Without these crucial roles that black soldiers played, the US military would not have been the same fighting force it was,” Delmont said. “It was a prospect you didn’t see much in the white press.”
READ MORE: Battle of the Bulge: How American Grit stopped Hitler’s last ditch strike
After the war, a continuous struggle for civil rights
After the official end of World War II on September 2, 1945, black soldiers returned to their homes in the United States, faced with violent white crowds of those who resented the African Americans in uniform and perceived them as a threat to the social order of Jim Crow.
In addition to racial violence, black soldiers were often denied benefits guaranteed by the GI Bill, sweeping legislation that provided for tuition assistance, placement, and home and business loans to veterans.
As civil rights activists continued to point out the hypocrisy of America as a democratic nation with a Jim Crow army, and politicians in the South firmly opposed full racial equality for blacks, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which desegregated the US armed forces in July 1948. Full integration, however, would not occur until the Korean War.
READ MORE: How the GI Bill’s promise was denied to black WWII veterans