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African Americans

Discussion in 'History of America during World War II' started by Jim, Jan 13, 2008.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Negroes, the term used to describe African Americans for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, were the largest racial minority in the United States and suffered from segregation and discrimination during the war just as they had before it. Yet manpower shortages and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s need for black votes combined to temper white intolerance. More important, gains made by blacks during the war set the stage for the civil rights revolution that would follow it.

    Blacks in the Services.​


    Because the leadership of the armed forces was prejudiced against blacks, the mobilization plan of 1940 called for only about half as many blacks as whites to be drafted in proportion to their respective populations. Blacks were to be confined largely to service rather than combat units and be excluded entirely from the Army Air Corps and Marines, and from the Navy except as waiters. However, military discrimination became a political issue in the 1940 election, and to hold the black vote Roosevelt forced the Army to say that it would become 10 percent black, giving roughly the same ratio of blacks to whites as in the general population.
    This did not go far enough for white liberals and black activists, and in response to further pressure the Army announced that it would form a number of black combat units, promote a black colonel to the rank of brigadier general, and appoint black advisors to Secretary of War Henry Stimson and the Selective Service chief, Brigadier General Lewis B. Hershey. These actions kept black voters in the Democratic Party, even though blacks continued to serve in segregated units.
    In 1942 African Americans were still underrepresented in the military, which was not only politically unwise but a waste of manpower. Roosevelt ordered the Navy, much against its will, to enlist blacks for general service. The Army General Staff suggested that racially integrated units be formed. This proved to be too radical a step, even though it was more expensive to build segregated training camps. However, in all the service branches except the Army Air Corps, officer candidate schools were integrated to save money. At the end of 1944 there were more black officers than could be placed, because of the Army’s rule that only whites were to command black units. Another rule was that no black could be ranked higher than the lowest-ranked white in any unit, which meant that few blacks could rise above first lieutenant. This was justified on the grounds that black troops were said to prefer white officers, which was untrue, particularly because so many white officers were southerners with racist attitudes offensive to African-American troops.
    White officers seldom wished to be assigned to black units. If white officers were hard on the troops, charges of discrimination typically resulted, but if they stood up for their men they were often scorned by their peers and accused of being “nigger lovers.”
    To police African-American barracks, and prevent violence directed against black soldiers by whites, white officers often had to take on extra patrol duties because commanders would not entrust black officers with doing this. In the South, white officers of black units were discriminated against socially. Almost everyone believed that they were assigned to command black troops as a punishment.
    In addition, black soldiers were often victims of violence, especially in the South; scores were killed or wounded during the war. Often these cases resulted from fights between black soldiers and white soldiers and civilians, but even minor violations of local racial codes could prove fatal. In March 1942, for example, Sergeant Thomas B. Foster of the black 92nd Engineers Battalion was shot to death by Little Rock, Arkansas, police for questioning the methods being employed by military police in arresting a drunken black soldier.
    Race riots and fights between black and white servicemen broke out all over the world, not just in the South. These hurt the morale of black troops, and the problem was not helped when Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy blamed poor morale on black oversensitivity and a fault-finding Negro press. Since the pressure did not go away, in 1944 he ordered the desegregation of all facilities on military posts, an edict that was widely ignored.
    As late as the spring of 1943, only 79,000 out of a total of 504,000 black soldiers were overseas, because they were not wanted as combat troops. The Army’s solution was to train them as service troops, who were accepted, especially for menial work. Representative Hamilton Fish (Republican–N.Y.), who had commanded black fighting men in World War I, asked Secretary of War Stimson to explain this policy and was told that blacks “have been unable to master efficiently the techniques of modern weapons.” Stimson flatly lied when he said that the War Department was not trying to keep blacks out of combat. Thus, only one black division, the 92nd Infantry, was ever in combat. The Navy assigned blacks to labour units only after it was pressured to stop using them exclusively as waiters. It was not until after riots broke out that the Navy began to integrate a handful of non-combatant ships.
    Small to medium sized black combat outfits in the Army and Army Air Forces were relatively few in number but disproved charges that African Americans could not, or would not, fight. The black 99th Pursuit Squadron, which was a great success, became the core of an entire black fighter group, known as the Redtails because of their aircrafts’ markings, who were much in demand as escorts throughout the 15th Air Force because they never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.
    A number of black ground units also performed well. The 761st Tank Battalion had a brilliant record, while the 969th Field Artillery Battalion won a Distinguished Unit Citation. During the Battle of the Bulge, African Americans in the Army Service Forces were allowed to volunteer for infantry platoons, and after six weeks of training, the 2,500 who were accepted performed well in combat. The tiny Coast Guard, which totalled only 240,000 men compared to the Navy’s millions, gave African Americans a chance to serve; it commissioned 700 black officers to the Navy’s 58. But, on the whole, blacks were neglected by the military in World War II, which, given the manpower shortage, was a blunder as well as an injustice.
    Despite everything, the black war experience had long-term benefits in addition to the fact that African-American veterans took advantage of the GI Bill of Rights. The war gave black veterans a larger view of the world and of their own abilities. Many who were drafted from southern states never returned to the region that had discriminated against them most fiercely. By 1950 more than half of all black veterans were living in a different part of the country from where they had been born, compared to about a third of blacks in the same age group who had not served in the military.
    Studies show that military service benefited veterans after the war. In 1949 each additional year of age added $75 to the annual income of whites nationwide, but only $20 to that of blacks in the South. If they had moved to the North, their income increase was the same as that of whites. For whites each year of military service was worth as much to their later earning power as an additional year of education. But for blacks each year of service was worth up to three years of education. One of the few good things about the war was that the military, which did not want blacks and discriminated against them severely, benefited African Americans just the same.

    On the home front.

    For black civilian workers, World War II opened up a host of new opportunities. This too was unintentional, for, like the armed services, industry had not intended to recruit blacks. In 1940 there were 5,389,000 employed blacks, of whom 3,582,000 were male, almost none of whom had high-paying defence jobs. A survey made by the U.S. Employment Office found that more than half of the responding defence contractors had no intention of hiring blacks.
    This situation outraged Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the only Negro union of any importance, who issued a call for a black march on Washington to protest job discrimination. Randolph was the leading spokesman for black workers because the two most important labour organisations had no black officers. The American Federation of Labour, an older establishment consisting of unions that organized workers by craft, plumbers, mechanics, and carpenters, for example, actively discriminated against blacks. The Congress of Industrial Organisations, which enrolled its members industry-wide, did have black members, but, because it was only a few years old, no prominent black officers. Because the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was large and established, both it and Randolph commanded great respect among African Americans.
    Despite the requests of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York and others not to hurt the defence effort or embarrass President Roosevelt, Randolph went forward with his plans for the march. It was expected that 50,000 African Americans would turn out on July 1, 1941. Four days before the scheduled march, FDR invited a group of leaders, including Randolph and Walter White, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), to meet with him.
    The result was Executive Order 8802, which established what became the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), an agency that worked on behalf of African Americans, Jews, aliens, naturalized citizens, Asians.

    His panics, and Native Americans.

    It would enjoy considerable success, aided greatly by labour shortages that forced employers to lower old barriers. By 1944 blacks held 7.5 percent of all jobs in war industries. This was less than their share of the population but a great improvement over 1940.
    The industries that resisted hiring blacks, or hired them only at the lowest levels, were usually those dominated by racist labour unions. The machinists and boilermakers represented 30 to 40 percent of airframe workers and more than 20 percent of shipyard employees, but the machinists were lily white and the boilermakers segregated blacks in powerless locals. Of the 31 national unions that openly discriminated against blacks, 19 were in the railroad industry. Almost all of them refused to change their practices despite FEPC orders and court rulings. White workers frequently went on strike to protest the hiring or promotion of blacks. When white workers at the Philadelphia Transit Company went on strike to protest the upgrading of eight black porters to drivers, the company had to be taken over by the Army in order to keep the trains and buses running. Job discrimination was bad, but racial violence was even worse. Attacks on blacks were frequent in the South, where lynchings continued throughout the war. They also became common elsewhere. A series of racial clashes occurred in 1943. Fights between white and black gangs in Newark, New Jersey, caused the death of one black. A black soldier was killed during a race riot in Centreville, Mississippi. In El Paso, Texas, a riot among soldiers caused two deaths. At Camp Stewart, Georgia, gunfire was exchanged between black soldiers and military policemen that resulted in five casualties, one fatal. After 12 blacks were promoted at a shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, white workers rioted, seriously injuring 20 blacks. Two blacks were killed and 50 injured during a race riot in Beaumont, Texas. On June 15 and 17, 1943, there were minor race riots in the Detroit area, where black workers had flocked for automotive industry jobs, worsening an already acute housing shortage. Sunday, June 20, was unusually hot, and crowds of people jammed Belle Isle in the Detroit River seeking relief. Many fights broke out and by 11:00 p.m. the fights had turned into mob violence. Downtown, a black mob, inflamed by rumours, seems to have rioted first, after which whites retaliated, hunting down and killing blacks, with police support and approval.
    Federal troops were finally called in to restore order, by which time some 35 people, a majority of them black, were dead, more than 700 wounded, and 1,300 under arrest. Seventeen blacks were shot by the police, all of them supposedly looters. Whites looted and burned, too, but none were shot by policemen.
    In light of the appalling amount of racial violence during the war, some of it caused by blacks to be sure, but most of it a result of white racism, there was no reason to be optimistic about an improved climate for racial relations in the United States. Even so, amid the turmoil, momentous changes were developing. Black voters were gaining strength in 17 northern states with a total of 281 votes out of 531 in the Electoral College. In New York City’s Harlem district, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was already an emerging leader. In 1944 he would be elected to Congress, becoming the first black to represent an urban ghetto. Then, too, rising wages and an increased political awareness were leading blacks to join the NAACP in huge numbers. That organization would multiply tenfold during the war, achieving a dues-paying membership of half a million in 1945.
    During the war there were some 230 black newspapers with 2 million readers (among them one daily, the Atlanta Daily World). There was also a black news service, the Associated Negro Press of Chicago. The black press now played a crucial role, because the white media habitually ignored news of interest to African Americans. Many small changes were taking place locally that together would prove to be important. In Little Rock, after the murder of Sergeant Foster, eight black officers were hired despite local resistance. Later, as the result of a lawsuit, the federal court of appeals ordered Little Rock to pay white and black school teachers equally. These were small steps, but little by little segregation was being eroded.
    Another important element, which people took for granted then but was a source of strength that would be greatly missed in later years, was that a majority of black children were still being raised in two-parent families. Blacks were poor, but they lived in wholesome communities and had a strong family system. These resources, in addition to wartime progress, would make the civil rights revolution possible.


    Source: William O’Neill - World War II: A Student Companion
     

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