February is Black History Month. Visit our website for information on related resources and virtual events. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO.
The valiant effort of those who fought and sacrificed themselves in the line of duty during World War II is part of our collective history. We hear stories of gallantry, adversity, and triumph over tyrannical governments. Accounts of hard-luck units and tough-as-nails soldiers fill bookshelves, movies, and museums. But not every soldier, sailor, Marine, or pilot shared in the collective glory equally at the time.
Despite the rhetoric of fighting for freedom overseas, African Americans faced prejudices and racial animosity across the United States and in theaters of operation. Despite record numbers of volunteers and having served honorably in every conflict since the American Revolution, Black service members were treated harshly, denied many amenities based solely on race, and relegated to support roles.
World War II exposed many of the disparities and unequal rights in the African American community. Everything from enlistment, defense jobs, and adequate resources for the home were blocked in some capacity. Many criticized the hypocrisy of fighting a war for equality when the U.S. didn’t guarantee those same rights to citizens of all racial backgrounds.
Early in the war, numerous African American newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier advocated for the “Double V Campaign,” calling for more equal treatment of Black soldiers overseas to ensure the same democratic ideals that the U.S. supported in Europe against Nazi tyranny. The campaign highlighted many of the risks that Black soldiers faced and had to do so with inferior equipment, training, and racist White officers. The only jobs they were allowed were cooks, truck drivers, maintenance, clerks, and other noncombat roles.
Many White Army officers like Lesley McNair however, argued that Black units would be effective combat roles and advocated for their rapid deployment. Units such as the 761st Tank Battalion, 92nd Infantry Division, 332nd Fighter Group (Tuskegee Airmen), and 93rd Infantry Division served with distinction in combat, and a handful of men received the Medal of Honor (albeit many years after the war).
Racial tensions endured in training camps and overseas as well. In Europe, where Jim Crow laws didn’t apply, many Black service members still dealt with racial prejudices from White soldiers and officers, despite their welcoming from British and French civilians.
On June 24, 1943, a conflict between members of the 1511th Quartermaster Regiment and the 234th Military Police broke out at Bamber Bridge, England. The English welcomed the African American regiments warmly and allowed equal access to facilities—something they were denied in the United States. While some Black servicemen were drinking at the Ye Olde Hob Inn, white military police tried to arrest them for not wearing the correct uniforms in public.
The situation was temporarily defused, but a fight broke out and shots were fired between the two sides. The fight left one person dead and seven injured, and the Black servicemen were ultimately charged with mutiny. Despite this conviction, many officers blamed the violence on the White military police for racist behavior and slurs, and the incident led to several units in England being integrated to prevent future occurences.
The Double Victory Campaign aimed not only at racial injustice in the Armed Forces but on the home front as well. With the rapid expansion of the Army and Navy, defense jobs provided ample opportunities for everyone who didn’t enlist. Many moved to different cities and towns to work in factories, shipyards, and airfields. Again, not everyone shared the same equal opportunities. Congressmen and Senators from southern states were able to secure lucrative defense contracts, but local Jim Crow laws on segregating the workplace and keeping Black workers out of certain jobs were still practiced.
Racial discrimination in the defense industry was commonplace during World War II, and these tensions sometimes turned into physical altercations. In response to these discriminations, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a slew of executive orders aimed at combating racial prejudices, unequal treatment, and unfair employment practices. Executive Order 8802 prohibited ethnic and racial discrimination in the defense industry and set up the Fair Employment Practice Committee. Despite direction from the federal government, segregation endured in many defense works, but African American civic leaders saw this as a step forward toward integration.
African Americans battled institutional racism as hard as they battled the Axis powers in World War II. The Double V campaign resulted in an upswing of patriotic sentiment among African American communities and service members, but the overarching goal of securing equal treatment and access still fell short.
Years later, the Civil Rights Movement used much of the same doctrine from the Double V campaign in their protests and marches throughout the American South. President Harry S. Truman integrated the Armed Forces in 1948 with Executive Order 9981, and the last all-Black unit was disbanded in 1954. No matter what they faced on the battlefield or on the home front, African Americans proved to their White counterparts that they earned the same freedoms and democratic rights as those they were called to defend in the Second World War.
For more information and a list of resources on segregation in the U.S. military read the Rediscovering Black History post: Remembering Those Who Served: A Tribute to Veterans.