When the Selective Training and Service Act became the nation’s first peacetime draft law in September 1940, civil rights leaders pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow Black men the opportunity to register and serve in integrated regiments.
Although African Americans had participated in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, they had done so segregated, and FDR appointee Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, was not interested in changing the status quo. With a need to shore up the U.S. Armed Forces as war intensified in Europe, FDR decided that Black men could register for the draft, but they would remain segregated and the military would determine the proportion of Blacks inducted into the 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 overseas while being treated like second-class citizens by their own country.
WATCH: 'The Story of Us: World War II' on HISTORY Vault
Discrimination in the Military
Despite African American soldiers' eagerness to fight in World War II, the same Jim Crow discrimination in society was practiced in every branch of the armed forces. Many of the bases and training facilities were located in the South, in addition to the largest military installation for Black soldiers, Fort Huachuca, located in Arizona. Regardless of the region, at all the bases there were separate blood banks, hospitals or wards, medical staff, barracks and recreational facilities for Black soldiers. And white soldiers and local white residents routinely slurred and harassed them.
“The experience was very dispiriting for a lot of Black soldiers,” says Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College and author of Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African American Newspapers. “The kind of treatment they received by white officers in army bases in the United States was horrendous. They described being in slave-like conditions and being treated like animals. They were called racial epithets quite regularly and just not afforded respect either as soldiers or human beings.”
Because the military didn’t think African Americans were fit for combat or leadership positions, they were mostly relegated to labor and service units. Working as cooks and mechanics, building roads and ditches, and unloading supplies from trucks and airplanes were common tasks for Black soldiers. And for the few who did make officer rank, they could only lead other Black men.
As Christopher Paul Moore wrote in his book, Fighting for America: Black Soldiers—The Unsung Heroes of World War II, “Black Americans carrying weapons, either as infantry, tank corps, or as pilots, was 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 noncombatants or laborers.”
READ MORE: When Black Nurses Were Relegated to Care for German POWs
Fighting War on Two Fronts
WATCH: How the NAACP Fights Racial Discrimination
African American soldiers regularly reported their mistreatment to the Black press and to the NAACP, pleading for the right to fight on the front lines alongside white soldiers.
“The Black press was quite successful in terms of advocating for Blacks soldiers in World War II,” says Delmont. “They point out the hypocrisy of fighting a war that was theoretically about democracy, at the same time having a racially segregated army.”
In 1942, the Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier—in response to a letter to the editor by James G. Thompson, a 26-year-old Black soldier, in which he wrote, “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?"—launched the Double V Campaign. The slogan, which stood for a victory for democracy overseas and a victory against racism in America, was touted by Black journalists and activists to rally support for equality for African Americans. The campaign highlighted the contributions the soldiers made in the war effort and exposed the discrimination that Black soldiers endured while fighting for liberties that African Americans themselves didn’t have.
The 761st Tank Battalion and the Tuskegee Airmen
As casualties mounted among white soldiers toward the final year of the war, the military had to utilize 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 of mostly Black drivers delivered gasoline, ammunition, food, mechanical parts and medical supplies to General George Patton’s Third Army in France, driving up to 400 miles on narrow roads in the dead of night without headlights to avoid detection by the Germans.
The 761 Tank Battalion, became the first Black division to see ground combat in Europe, joining Patton’s Third Army in France in November 1944. The men helped liberate 30 towns under Nazi control and spent 183 days in combat, including in the Battle of the Bulge. The Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black fighter pilot group trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, escorted bombers over Italy and Sicily, flying 1600 combat missions and destroying 237 German aircraft on ground and 37 in air.
“Without these crucial roles that Blacks soldiers were playing, the American military wouldn’t have been the same fighting force it was,” says Delmont. “That was a perspective you didn’t see much in the white press.”
READ MORE: Battle of the Bulge: How American Grit Halted Hitler's Last-Ditch Strike
After the War, a Continued Fight for Civil Rights
After World War II officially ended on September 2, 1945, Black soldiers returned home to the United States facing violent white mobs of those who resented 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 under the G.I. Bill, the sweeping legislation that provided tuition assistance, job placement, and home and business loans to veterans.
As civil rights activists continued to emphasize America’s hypocrisy as a democratic nation with a Jim Crow army, and Southern politicians stood firmly against full racial equality for Blacks, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 that desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces in July 1948. Full integration, however, would not occur until the Korean War.
READ MORE: How the G.I. Bill's Promise Was Denied to Black WWII Veterans
African American Soldiers during World War II
During World War II, African American and white soldiers who were bonded on the battlefield were divided at home. The US 12th Armored Division was one of only ten US divisions during World War II that had integrated combat companies.
Despite the overarching segregation in the military at the time, more than one million African Americans fought for the US Armed Forces on the homefront, in Europe, and in the Pacific.
After battling for freedom and defending democracy worldwide, African American soldiers returned home after the war only to find themselves faced with the existing prejudice and “Jim Crow” laws, which imposed “separate, but equal” segregation.
An African-American soldier with the 12th Armored Division
During World War II, African American and white soldiers who were bonded on the battlefield were divided at home. The US 12th Armored Division was one of only ten US divisions during World War II that had integrated combat companies.
Military photographer William Scott
African Americans were among the liberators of the Buchenwald concentration camp. William Scott, seen here during training, was a military photographer and helped document Nazi crimes in the camp. Alabama, United States, March 1943.
African American soldier Warren Capers
African American soldier Warren Capers was recommended for a Silver Star for his actions during the Allied invasion of France. He and his medical detachment aided more than 330 soldiers. France, August 18, 1944.
Sergeant Leon Bass
Portrait of Sergeant Leon Bass during World War II. As an 18-year-old, he volunteered to join the US Army in 1943. Bass and other members of the all African-American 183rd unit witnessed Buchenwald several days after liberation. After the war, he became a teacher and was active in the civil rights movement.
American troops, including African American soldiers from the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion
American troops, including African American soldiers from the Headquarters and Service Company of the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, 8th Corps, US 3rd Army, view corpses stacked behind the crematorium during an inspection tour of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Among those pictured is Leon Bass (the soldier third from left). Buchenwald, Germany, April 17, 1945.
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The Double V Campaign
For the Allied Powers, &ldquoV&rdquo was the WWII symbol that unified their war effort to achieve victory for democracy over the tyranny of the Axis powers. But in the United States, &ldquoJim Crow&rdquo laws and practices continued to deny African Americans their full citizenship rights, including equal opportunities for work, and equal access to housing, schools, and public facilities.
A month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on January 31, 1942, an African American resident of Wichita, Kansas, Mr. James G. Thompson, wrote a letter to The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation&rsquos leading African American newspapers, suggesting &ldquothat while we keep defense and victory in the forefront that we don&rsquot lose sight of our fight for true democracy at home.&rdquo In response, the Courier, supported by other African American newspapers, created the insignia which featured two Vs and described as double victory for &ldquoDemocracy at Home and Abroad,&rdquo launching the Double V Campaign in 1942 in support of the nation&rsquos war effort. Posters, emblems, and various displays featured two Vs. The Double V slogan was adopted by many African American communities who used it to mobilize volunteers from their churches, organizations, and schools to engage in the War&rsquos mass civilian efforts and support African Americans in the United States Armed Forces.
This World War II oral history project is sponsored in part by the Sandra Gautt KU Endowment Fund, which Professor Emerita Gautt established to honor her father, Sgt. Thaddeus A. Whayne, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen unit. It is part of the ongoing efforts of the African American Experience Collections to document life in the Kansas region.
Returning From War, Returning to Racism
After fighting overseas, Black soldiers faced violence and segregation at home. Many, like Lewis W. Matthews, were forced to take menial jobs. Although he managed to push through racism, that wasn’t an option for most.
The latest article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series by The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war, focuses on the racism and segregation that Black soldiers faced upon their return.
His trip back home in May 1946 was much like the one going — 30 days of sailing between the South Pacific and Oakland, mostly spent below deck in a separate area for Black soldiers.
After guarding the gasoline supply for Army vehicles and planes and taking fire while on patrol in the Philippines, Lewis W. Matthews, then a corporal in an all-Black unit, was no better off socially after World War II than he’d been before joining the service. The Army was still segregated, and so was much of the United States.
“I thought there would be a big change in that,” said Matthews, now 93.
After the formal Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, Matthews disembarked in Oakland and headed home to New York City to start a new chapter in life as a veteran with an honorable discharge. But he, along with the 1.2 million African-Americans who served, would discover that another battle, the one for equality in the United States, raged on.
Black soldiers returning from the war found the same socioeconomic ills and racist violence that they faced before. Despite their sacrifices overseas, they still struggled to get hired for well-paying jobs, encountered segregation and endured targeted brutality, especially while wearing their military uniforms. Black veterans realized that being treated as equals was still a matter society hadn’t resolved.
“At the heart of it was a kind of nervousness and fear that many whites had that returning Black veterans would upset the racial status quo,” said Charissa Threat, a history professor at Chapman University, who has written extensively on civilian-military relationships and race. “They saw images of Black soldiers coming from abroad from places like Germany and England, where Black soldiers were intermingling with whites and had a lot more freedom.”
To quell any expectation of social equality held by African-American servicemen, mobs of whites engaged in unspeakable violence toward them. A case from February 1946 involved Isaac Woodard, a Black veteran who served in the Pacific theater. After getting into an argument with a bus driver while traveling from Georgia to South Carolina, Woodard, in his uniform, was ordered off the bus in a town now known as Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., and beaten so badly with a billy club by the local police chief that he was permanently blinded.
In August of the same year, John C. Jones, a Black veteran, was lynched in Minden, La., after he was accused of looking at a young white woman through a window of her family’s house. Two other Black veterans, Richard Gordon and Alonza Brooks, were murdered in Marshall, Texas, after a labor dispute with their employers.
The violence became so pervasive and brutal that civil rights activists formed the National Emergency Committee Against Mob Violence in 1946. A delegation representing the group met with President Harry S. Truman, arguing for a federal anti-lynching law, but Southern Democrats shut down Truman’s attempt.
Hope came in the form of the G.I. Bill of Rights, a substantial piece of social legislation that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law in 1944 to avert mass unemployment among returning veterans and a postwar depression. Promoted as race-neutral, the G.I. Bill offered veterans unemployment insurance, tuition assistance, job placement and guaranteed loans for homes, farms or businesses.
On the face of it, the bill was transformative. During the war, the N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights groups encouraged Blacks to enlist in the military so they could receive G.I. benefits. After the war, however, the bill failed to propel Black servicemen into the middle class in the numbers it did for white veterans. Discrimination toward African-Americans found its way through loopholes in the legislation, just as it did in everyday life.
“So much of the G.I. Bill involved deference to state and local authorities,” said Steven White, a political-science professor at Syracuse University and the author of “World War II and American Racial Politics: Public Opinion, the Presidency and Civil Rights Advocacy.” “Black southerners, even if they got benefits, they couldn’t go to the same colleges and universities. They couldn’t get the same jobs.”
Despite coming out of the military fully trained as mechanics, carpenters, welders or electricians, Black veterans encountered white job counselors at local employment offices who refused to refer them for skilled and semiskilled jobs.
“State employment agencies all across the country honored employer requests for whites only for many jobs,” said Richard Rothstein, author of “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”
Representative John Rankin, an openly racist Mississippi Democrat who helped draft the G.I. Bill, made sure states controlled the distribution of veteran benefits. According to the historian David H. Onkst in his article “First a Negro … Incidentally a Veteran,” in October 1946, for example, out of the 6,583 nonagricultural jobs filled in Mississippi by G.I. Bill job counselors, 86 percent of the professional, skilled and semiskilled positions went to whites, while 92 percent of the unskilled and service-sector jobs went to Blacks.
When Lewis Matthews returned home to his mother’s apartment in the Bronx, he made deliveries for an art supply store and juggled other menial jobs. But, needing to earn a better living, he used his G.I. tuition benefit to enroll in a training program in Newark that taught him how to make denture molds. He then found a job for a denture manufacturing business near Times Square.
“All they told me to do was mix plaster,” said Matthews, who had been trained to do more technical work with the molds, which would have paid better. “I said to hell with this damn job, and I left and went back to the G.I. people,” he said. “I told them: ‘Hey, look, I can’t make it out here. They aren’t paying me any money in that jive job.’”
Matthews, who had dropped out of high school to earn money for his family before joining the service at 16, decided to get his high school diploma and then enrolled at New York University, where he studied business administration for the remaining three years on his G.I. education benefit. “I couldn’t afford to pay for the rest of N.Y.U., but I read everything I could get my hands on concerning everything I wanted to learn,” he said.
Unlike Matthews, many Black veterans were denied access to a college education, largely relegated to vocational programs. According to the journalist and historian Edward Humes, in his article “How the G.I. Bill Shunted Blacks Into Vocational Training,” 28 percent of white veterans went to college on the G.I. Bill, compared with 12 percent of Blacks. Of that number, upward of 90 percent of Black veterans attended historically Black colleges and universities — institutions mainly in the South that were already underfunded with limited resources. In his book “When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America,” Ira Katznelson wrote that the enrollment of veterans at historically Black colleges and universities was 29,000 in 1940 and 73,000 in 1947. And 20,000 to 50,000 were turned away because of limited capacity, Humes wrote.
After studying at N.Y.U. and working more menial jobs, Matthews heard a radio announcement about selling life insurance. He became a general agent for a number of years, but was denied a small-business loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs when he wanted to open his own insurance office. “I know Black veterans who couldn’t get loans and had real problems,” he said.
African-Americans were routinely denied mortgages, and Black veterans were no exception. During the summer of 1947, Ebony magazine surveyed 13 cities in Mississippi and discovered that of the 3,229 V.A. home loans given to veterans, two went to African-Americans. According to Humes, in the postwar years, two out of three whites owned a home, whereas Black homeownership stayed around 40 percent. And it wasn’t just in the South.
“There were planned communities like Levittown in Long Island that didn’t allow Blacks,” said Jeffrey Sammons, a history professor at N.Y.U., whose research focuses on African-Americans in the military and sports. Many of these communities were developed specifically for white veterans.
“By even owning a house, you create equity, and that creates wealth for the next generation,” Threat said. “African-Americans did not have the opportunity to create a future generation of economic security.”
Rothstein put it more bluntly: “The wealth gap was created by these unconstitutional policies.”
Civil rights groups, frustrated by the lack of progress, continued to press Truman on legislation for racial equality. Knowing that civil rights legislation would stall in Congress, and with the reputation of the United States as a great democratic nation being questioned as racism continued to flourish during a nascent Cold War, on July 26, 1948, Truman signed two Executive Orders, 9980 and 9981, desegregating the federal work force and armed services — practices that would take years to be fully carried out.
Matthews bought his first house in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn with a V.A. mortgage. Matthews, a father of eight who has since lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn for decades with his second wife, Dovie Ree Matthews, said he had no regrets about his service, despite any racism he endured. He credits the G.I. Bill for his success.
“I’m so glad that I was a soldier,” he said. “I knew that I was Black, and I knew that they discriminated against me. But I tried to make the best of my situation.”
Alexis Clark is an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School and author of “Enemies in Love: A German POW, a Black Nurse and an Unlikely Romance.”
African Americans Fought for Freedom at Home and Abroad during World War II
In the face of racism and segregation, black men and women served in every branch of the armed services during World War II.
More than one million African American men and women served in every branch of the US armed forces during World War II. In addition to battling the forces of Fascism abroad, these Americans also battled racism in the United States and in the US military. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all segregated African Americans into separate units because of the belief that they were not as capable as white service members. Adding to this indignity, the Army frequently assigned white officers from the American South to command black infantrymen.
In spite of these dispiriting obstacles, African Americans fought with distinction in every theater of the war. Some of the more famous black units included the 332nd Fighter Group, which shot down 112 enemy planes during the course of 179 bomber escort missions over Europe, and the 761st Tank Battalion, which served in General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Major General Willard S. Paul, of the 26th Division, singled out the 761st for special praise after its first action in France by writing, “I consider the 761st Tank Battalion to have entered combat with such conspicuous courage and success as to warrant special commendation.” African Americans also served in equally vital positions throughout the Army as nurses, engineers, truck drivers, gunners, and paratroopers.
Lesser-known units include the African American 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions, which fought in the European and the Pacific theaters respectively. The 25th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division took part in the Bougainville campaign in April and May of 1944. One member of the regiment, Corporal Alex Hamilton, wrote home.
“The [Japanese] are very clever fighters. Our boys are learning them, but they have taken the lives of several of my friends. Life is cheap and death is common but we’re slowly growing used to it.”
This willingness on the part of African American soldiers to sacrifice their lives for a country that treated them as second-class citizens is remarkable. Various accounts relate how German prisoners of war could enter facilities reserved for white Americans that black servicemen could not patronize.
When the US Marine Corps began recruiting a contingent of black Marines in June 1942, men from across the country flocked to enlist. These Marines trained at Montford Point, North Carolina. Although the “Montford Point Marines” excelled at gunnery and drill, they too faced the same segregation and hostility as men and women in the other branches. The Marine Corps Commandant, Major General Thomas Holcomb, resented being forced to accept African Americans into the Corps, and unlike the Army, the Marine Corps did not permit any black men to become officers until November 1945. In May 1943, Private R. J. Wood was even arrested for impersonating a Marine when he traveled home on leave to Cleveland, Ohio. The police officers did not know African American Marines existed. In North Carolina, a policeman slapped Edgar Cole‘s official orders out of his hand and told Cole that he was not allowed to wait on the street corner for a Marine driver to pick him up and take him to Montford Point. Despite the racism black Marines encountered, they distinguished themselves in the battles of Peleliu, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. By 1944, more than 18,000 Marines had trained at Montford Point and 12,000 were stationed overseas.
Fighter pilots of the 15th Air Force confer in the shadow of one of their P-51 Mustangs in August 1944 in Italy. Left to right: Lt. Dempsey W. Morgan, Jr., Lt. Carroll S. Woods, Lt. Robert H. Nelson, Jr., Capt. Andrew D. Turner, and Lt. Clarence P. Lester. Photo Courtesy of the National Archives.
African Americans Marines move through trenches on Peleliu Island on September 15, 1944. Photo Courtesy of the National Archives.
African American soldiers man a 40mm anti-aircraft cannon during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Photo Courtesy of the United States Library of Congress.
Even when African Americans were denied the opportunity to serve in combat roles, they still found ways to distinguish themselves. Doris “Dorie” Miller was a steward aboard the USS West Virginia during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although he had never been trained on the ship’s weapons, he manned a machine gun during the attack and carried wounded sailors to safety. For his actions, Miller became the first African American to receive the Navy Cross. Following Dorie’s actions and lobbying from civil rights groups, the US Navy increasingly sent black sailors to sea in combat roles. On March 20, 1944, the Navy commissioned the destroyer escort USS Mason, the first ship to have a predominantly black crew.
Other African Americans serving in Construction Battalions behind the lines volunteered for extremely hazardous duty as stretcher bearers in several Pacific campaigns. Back in the United States, African American men and women worked in defense plants that built the ships and planes of the most powerful Navy and Air Force in the world.
The achievements of African Americans during the war provided valuable evidence that civil rights activists used in their demands for equality. Though President Harry S. Truman ordered the US military to desegregate entirely in 1948, African Americans’ fight for equal civil rights was far from over.
Tyler Bamford was the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum from 2019-2021. He obtained his PhD in history from Temple University and his BA in history from Lafayette College.
America’s oldest living WWII veteran faced hostility abroad—and at home
At 110 years old, Louisiana native Lawrence Brooks is proud of his service and says he would do it again.
The memories are more than 75 years old now: Cooking red beans and rice halfway around the world from the place in Louisiana that first made the recipe. Cleaning uniforms and shining shoes for three officers. Hopping in foxholes when his trained ear could tell the approaching warplanes were not American but Japanese.
The man who keeps these memories is older still. At 110, Lawrence Brooks is the oldest known U.S. veteran of World War II. This month marks the 75 th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Of the 16 million U.S. veterans who served, about 300,000 are still alive today, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (Hear from the last living voices of WWII.)
Brooks is proud of his military service, even though his memories of it are complicated. Black soldiers fighting in the war could not escape the racism, discrimination, and hostility at home.
When Brooks was stationed with the U.S. Army in Australia, he was an African-American man in a time well before the Civil Rights Movement would at least codify something like equality in his home country.
“I was treated so much better in Australia than I was by my own white people,” Brooks says. “I wondered about that. That’s what worried me so much. Why?”
Rob Citino, Senior Historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, says the U.S. military then had “racist characterizations” of African-American soldiers during the war.
“You couldn’t put a gun in their hands,” he says of the then-prevalent attitude. “They could do simple menial tasks. That was the lot of the African-American soldier, sailor, airman, you name it.”
The jobs open to African-American troops depended on the branch of service and changed as the need for manpower increased throughout the long years of war.
I think they were fighting for the promise of America rather than the reality of America.
“We went to war with Hitler, the world’s most horrible racist, and we did so with a segregated army because, despite guarantees of equal treatment, this was still Jim Crow America,” Citino says. “African Americans were still subject to all kinds of limitations and discrimination based on the color of their skin. I think they were fighting for the promise of America rather than the reality of America.”
Of the 16 million Americans who donned a military uniform, 1.2 million were African Americans who were “often being treated as second-class citizens at home,” Citino says.
To put that into perspective, Citino says, consider that German prisoners of war could have been served at restaurants while en route to or from their quarters at Camp Hearne in Texas, but the African-American soldiers who transported them would have been denied service.
Brooks says he never discussed these inequalities with his fellow African-American service members. “Every time I think about it, I’d get angry, so the best thing I’d do is just leave it go,” he says.
The military was not formally desegregated until President Harry Truman forced it with a 1948 executive order. For Brooks, who served in the Army between 1940 and 1945, that order would come too late.
A reluctant soldier, it didn’t sit right with him that he might be required to take another person’s life.
“My mother and father always raised me to love people, and I don’t care what kind of people they are,” he says. “And you mean to tell me, I get up on these people and I got to go kill them? Oh, no, I don’t know how that’s going to work out.” (See maps of nine key moments from WWII.)
Raised in Norwood, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, Brooks came from a big family of 15 children. He drew on another lesson from his mother—cooking—in his Army job, which had him assisting a few white officers, doing their cleaning and cooking. Part of the 91 st Engineers Battalion in the Pacific Theater, whose responsibility was to build military infrastructure, Brooks’ unit often didn’t stay anywhere long. He’d occasionally drive the officers he served to nights out on the town when they could get away for an adventure or two. But even that job didn’t keep him from carrying a rifle everywhere he went.
“I had to keep it with me,” he says. “And I was glad I did. I didn’t want to be out there shooting at people because they’d be shooting at me, and they might have got lucky and hit.”
Brooks says he was treated “better” by white Americans when he returned from the war, but it would take nearly two decades before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
The father of five children, 13 grandchildren, and 22 great grandchildren, Brooks worked for many years as a forklift operator before retiring in his seventies. For years he avoided discussing his experiences in the war, sharing little of his story with his children as they grew up.
His daughter, Vanessa Brooks, who cares for him, says the first time she started hearing his stories was about five years ago when the World War II Museum began hosting annual birthday parties for him in New Orleans, where he now lives. But he still shies away from his family’s questions about his war years.
“I had some good times and I had some bad times,” Brooks says. “I just tried to put all the good ones and the bad ones together and tried to forget about all of them.”
Brooks says his military years taught him to straighten up, so he did his best to eat right and stay healthy. He never enjoyed the taste of alcohol and the way liquor burned his throat. “I don't like hurting my body,” he says. (These are the foods to live by for a long life.)
In 2005, Brooks lost his wife, Leona, to Hurricane Katrina. She died shortly after the couple was evacuated by helicopter from their home. “Hurricane Katrina took everything I owned, washed away everything,” he said last year.
Still, Brooks is upbeat. He enjoys spending warm days on his daughter’s front porch in Central City, a neighborhood at the heart of New Orleans. It’s not uncommon to hear Mardi Gras Indians singing, or watch a brass band-led second-line parade go by on Sundays.
Brooks uses his walker to head out of his bedroom—bedecked in the black and gold colors of the New Orleans Saints—to chat with the children at the daycare next door. At 110, he says, his key to a good life is straightforward: “Serve God, and be nice to people.”
Discrimination in the Military
Despite African American soldiers’ eagerness to fight in World War II, the same Jim Crow discrimination in society was practiced in every branch of the armed forces. Many of the bases and training facilities were located in the South, in addition to the largest military installation for Black soldiers, Fort Huachuca, located in Arizona. Regardless of the region, at all the bases there were separate blood banks, hospitals or wards, medical staff, barracks and recreational facilities for Black soldiers. And white soldiers and local white residents routinely slurred and harassed them.
“The experience was very dispiriting for a lot of Black soldiers,” says Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College and author of Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African American Newspapers. “The kind of treatment they received by white officers in army bases in the United States was horrendous. They described being in slave-like conditions and being treated like animals. They were called racial epithets quite regularly and just not afforded respect either as soldiers or human …read more
Experiencing History Holocaust Sources in Context
This collection illustrates the inequalities faced by African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, and examines the ways in which African Americans participated in World War II. These primary sources demonstrate how responses to racial discrimination and violence at home shaped the fight against fascism and hatred abroad.
American citizens responded to the threats posed by the Third Reich in two main ways. First, they served as volunteers, workers, and members of the armed forces to support US participation in World War II. Second, both individuals and organizations attempted to rescue European Jews and other persecuted peoples. This collection of primary sources explores the ways in which African Americans took part in and influenced these responses.
Like most Americans, many African Americans viewed the rise of fascism as a threat to democracy. However, like other US citizens who faced racial inequality at home, they also understood the era through the lens of their own experiences. In some cases, this meant a greater commitment to fighting racism and tyranny abroad. But it also encouraged a recognition of their own position in a political system that marginalized and discriminated against them.
African Americans organized against the Nazi threat in a variety of ways. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) sponsored refugee Jewish professors, helping them escape from Nazi-occupied Europe and facilitating their entry into the United States. 1 Though the US armed forces remained segregated until 1948, African Americans served and saw combat in large numbers. 2 Over 4,000 students and faculty at Howard University, a prominent HBCU in Washington, DC, volunteered to serve in the US armed forces, 3 some becoming proud members of the Tuskegee Airmen. 4 Tens of thousands of African Americans enthusiastically entered the war industries, helping to produce the weapons and supplies sent to the battlefields of Europe and Asia. Others, like US army sergeant Leon Bass, even helped to liberate concentration camps in Europe. In an oral history featured here, Bass recalls his desire to join the war and describes the scenes he encountered after arriving in a Nazi concentration camp in the spring of 1945.
Like Bass, many Black soldiers drew parallels between Nazi racism and the discrimination they faced at home in the United States. For some African American communities, the war produced a hope that Jim Crow segregation could be defeated. 5 Many thought participation in the war effort would finally lead to expanded civil rights and economic opportunities. Indeed, the threat of fascism abroad helped push the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) 6 to campaign for the passage of anti-lynching legislation in US Congress. 7 Some Jews living in the United States also recognized the commonalities between Nazi persecution and the brutality facing African Americans. Abel Meeropol, a young American Jew whose parents had fled pogroms in Russia, composed the lyrics to "Strange Fruit," 8 a haunting song about lynching made famous by the jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Many African Americans determined that the war years required a dual struggle. Expressed in the so-called "Double-V" sign, they found themselves fighting for both victory over fascism abroad and victory over segregation at home in the United States. Voices from the African American press, including that featured in the article "Should I Sacrifice to Live 'Half-American?'", show that many African Americans tied their calls for justice and equality "to the ideology of the war"&mdashthe fight for democracy&mdashin order "to prick the conscience of white America." 9 Also featured here is Langston Hughes's poem, "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943," angrily denouncing an American war for liberation abroad in era of oppression at home.
German propaganda worked to highlight the evils of racial segregation in American society with leaflets that targeted African American servicemen. These messages falsely claimed that Black soldiers would enjoy better treatment by the German military. Nevertheless, inequality in the ranks inspired new protests within the military and beyond. 10 Membership in the NAACP grew rapidly during the war, and new campaigns like the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) emerged. 11 Activists and political leaders often focused on integrating the armed services and the war industries. However, as illustrated in the featured Executive Order 8802, they saw only limited success.
A more just society did not come quickly or easily. However, the years 1933 to 1945 saw the US inch closer to ending Jim Crow segregation. African American communities gained greater access to justice under the law, education, employment, housing, and political representation. African Americans' activism during this period represents a critical moment in American society more broadly. Sociologist Franklin Frazier wrote that World War II marked the point at which African Americans were "no longer willing to accept discrimination without protest." 12 In his 1944 study of American race relations, another scholar predicted that there would be "a redefinition" of the status of African Americans as a result of the war. 13
These sources highlight how World War II in some ways proved a pivotal moment in African Americans' struggle to gain equitable integration in American society. The experience of the war became an important milestone for the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. During World War II, African Americans were called to join a global fight against bigotry and injustice even as they were forced to endure discrimination at home and abroad.
For more on Jewish refugees in the United States, see the Experiencing History collections on Displaced Persons and Postwar America.
Kenneth S. Stern, Liberators: A Background Report (New York: American Jewish committee, 1993).
African Americans had also been among the first to respond to the growing threat of fascism by fighting in the Spanish Civil War. See "Robeson Calls for Aid to Negroes Defending Democracy in Spain" and "The Artist Must Take Sides," in Philip S. Foner, Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918&ndash1974 (New York: Kensington, 2002), 118&ndash119.
Lynn M. Homan and Thomas Reilly, Black Knights: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2001).
"Jim Crow" refers to a system designed to create and sustain a racial hierarchy in the United States in the late nineteenth century. For more, see the Jim Crow Museum. For more on the "Double-V Campaign," see "What Was Black America&rsquos Double War?" by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Foner, Paul Robeson Speaks, 99.
As noted in the item NAACP Anti-Lynching Leaflet, this effort failed. US Congress has never passed comprehensive anti-lynching legislation.
Richard M. Dalfiume, "The 'Forgotten Years' of the Negro Revolution," Journal of American History, vol. 55, no. 1 (June 1968), 96.
For struggles with the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, see: John B. Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980).
See also David Lucander, "It's a New Kind of Militancy: The March on Washington Movement, 1941&ndash1946" (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2010).
Edward Franklin Frazier, The Negro in the United States, revised edition (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 682.
Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Carnegie Foundation, 1944), 997.
Black Americans in military service
Like other minorities in America, black Americans hoped that the nation's war needs might improve
race relations on the home front. The United States needed people to help fight the war, and blacks hoped that serving in the military would bring them fair treatment, both in the service and at home. However, a great deal of racial prejudice was ingrained in the military, from top officers to lower ranks. As a result, at the beginning of the war the military draft favored whites over blacks. Blacks who enlisted in the military were assigned to service positions on the home front rather than to overseas combat units.
The army, the air force, and the marines excluded blacks totally at the beginning of the war. In the navy, blacks served only as waiters. Faced with pressure on the home front to change its policy, the army formed several all-black combat units and promoted a black officer, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis (1877 – 1970), to the rank of brigadier general in October 1940. He was previously a colonel, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945 served 1933 – 45) was under pressure during the 1940 election campaign from black voters because of the continued racially segregated military. However, the black units could only be led by white officers Secretary of War Henry Stimson (1867 – 1950) believed blacks were mentally unfit to be battlefield officers. Many of the white officers assigned to lead black units also had strong racial prejudices and, thus, did not believe blacks could acquire sufficient technical skills for certain tasks or provide leadership. Proposals to integrate combat units drew a negative response from these officers. General George C. Marshall (1880 – 1959), for example, said that integration would be bad for morale. Even blood donated for medical needs was segregated. Following the guidance of the American Red Cross, the army also kept the blood plasma of blacks and whites separate.
Most black servicemen were assigned to home front service units, where they unloaded supplies, maintained vehicles and equipment, and built barracks and other facilities. Discrimination on the home front against black soldiers was common and widespread. In Kansas a restaurant served German prisoners of war being transported to prisoner camps but not their accompanying black American soldiers.
Progress was made despite these major social hurdles. Black representation in the army rose from less than 98,000 in November 1941 to almost 468,000 in December 1942. The navy began recruiting blacks in 1942, and by late 1944 there were five hundred black sailors. The U.S. Marine Corps also began recruiting blacks. Among the 504,000 U.S. troops serving overseas in the spring of 1943, 79,000 were black. The only black army division to see combat was the Ninety-Second Infantry. In the air force the all-black Ninety-Ninth Pursuit Squadron out of Tuskegee, Alabama, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, excelled in providing protection to bomber squadrons. Bomber squadrons were eager to have the Ninety-Ninth assigned to protect them. Overall, more than a million black Americans would serve in the armed forces throughout the war. Blacks who served abroad returned to the home front with an expanded view of the world and a better appreciation of their abilities. Black Americans were treated more fairly in foreign countries than in the United States and in the military they were given opportunities to develop skills and show their abilities these opportunities were generally not provided on the home front.
Black Soldiers: Fighting America’s Enemies Abroad and Racism at Home
After visiting Fort Hood Army base in Texas, the journalist Ray Suarez observed that as much as it represented a separate military culture, with distinct rules and protocols, it was also a microcosm of the nation. “One of the most attractive aspects of the people I met at Fort Hood was their very ordinariness,” Mr. Suarez wrote in 2010. “They are tall, short, men, women, rural, urban, skinny, buffed, chubby, provincial, worldly, with accents and life experience from every corner of the country.”
And for much of its existence, the U.S. military mirrored the nation in another, less auspicious way: its sanctioning of racial segregation. 𠇍ouble Exposure: Fighting for Freedom,” published by D Giles Limited in association with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, documents the complex history of black soldiers, illuminating their triumphs and challenges.
A continuing exploration of the relationship of race to photographic portrayals of race by the professor and curator Maurice Berger.
The fifth volume in the museum’s Double Exposure series, 𠇏ighting for Freedom” presents more than 50 works from its photography collection that exemplify the bravery, patriotism and dignity of African-American men and women in uniform. While black participation in the military dates back to the Revolutionary War, the book spans the history of African-American service from the Civil War to Iraq. In addition to the short texts that accompany many photographs, the book includes essays by the museum’s director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the retired Marine Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. and the journalist Gail Lumet Buckley.
“The images in this volume offer an insightful view into the long history of African Americans who served our country through the military,” Mr. Bolden wrote. “They demonstrate the willingness of a people to stand up and be counted, even when they were not fully recognized in the legal and social systems of their day. They give us a window from which to see a small sample of the hard work and sacrifice that African Americans continue to pour into the greater life of the United States.”
The book documents a proud — but contradictory — history: a cabinet card of the Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. William Carney holding an American flag during the Civil War a stereograph from the 1870s of the headstones of black troops at Arlington National Cemetery a panoramic group portrait of an all-black unit recently returned from World War I an elegant photograph of a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, the first black servicemen to become military aviators Leonard Freed’s contemplative image of a black soldier in Berlin in 1962 and a photograph of a racially diverse group of officers discussing troop progress in East Bagdad, Iraq, in 2007.
Desegregating the armed forces in the last century was slow. While the U.S. military was the largest minority employer during World War II, it remained segregated. Black enlistees were assigned to racially separate units and were typically relegated to combat support roles, like gravediggers, truck drivers, cooks and quartermasters. The few that made it into combat served with distinction, though in largely segregated platoons under the command of white lieutenants.
When African-American soldiers returned home, they encountered more racism and segregation. Rather than honor veterans who risked their lives protecting freedom and democracy, an ungrateful nation often rejected and ostracized them. Returning soldiers were routinely blocked from white neighborhoods, not only in the Jim Crow South but in sprawling northern developments like Levittown on Long Island. They encountered similar discrimination at universities and professional schools. In the end, black soldiers were fighting a double war — against America’s external enemies and the enemy within.
A 1948 executive order by President Harry S. Truman began the process of desegregation, establishing 𠇎quality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” Because of considerable resistance from white military personnel, it took many years to meet the order’s objectives.
The last all-black unit was eliminated in September 1954. Nine years later, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara issued a directive instructing commanders to protect military personnel and their dependents by opposing discriminatory practices and fostering equal opportunity in the communities that surrounded bases. While the Vietnam War was the first U.S. war to gin with blacks and whites serving as equals under the American flag,” as Ms. Buckley noted, it was marked by racial tensions and demands by African-American soldiers to use controversial Black Power symbols, like the Dignity and Pride handshake and soul power fist, to express cultural pride and solidarity.
Ultimately, the portraits of African-American heroes in 𠇏ighting for Freedom” speak to an evolving military, one that has reflected society’s racial limitations as well as its capacity to change. From the celebration of black heroes in the 18th and 19th centuries to the abject segregation of the 20th century, the U.S. military has revealed much about the state of race relations in the United States.
“Wartime creates some of the most trying circumstances a human being can endure and its crucible strips away all but the true essence of those who endure the heat of battle,” Mr. Bolden wrote. “Perhaps in the greater scheme of things, that experience of men and women of all races fighting side by side, suffering injury and loss and also achieving great things, has advanced the necessary cause of racial equality so essential to our future and the outcomes of the battles that lie ahead.”
Maurice Berger is a research professor and the chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.