African Americans in the World Wars: A Comparative Study

Approximately 350,000 African American soldiers fought for the United States military in World War I. More than one million African American men and women served in the U.S. military and Women’s Army Corps during World War II. African Americans were given their first opportunity to enlist for military service in the United States at the outset of World War I. The military was segregated, African Americans were unable to serve is some positions, they were banned from serving in the U.S. Marines and would only be allowed limited duties in the U.S. Navy. In all of the services, African Americans were limited largely to support roles for the military such as cooking and supply. In World War II, African American soldiers remained segregated from white soldiers, but the opportunities in the military began to expand. African Americans’ roles within the military were expanded, but limits and segregation kept them from many combat roles until late in the war.

            The intent of this research is to use a historiographical study to compare the treatment of African American soldiers in World War I and World War II. In this study, I will use secondary sources from multiple historians to compare how African Americans were treated in both conflicts and the overall reaction to having African Americans among the U.S. military. The words of African American leaders who held influence over the African American population will also be used to discuss the feelings of the larger population of African Americans towards the wars and African American involvement.  By focusing on the two conflicts, a clear understanding of what changes had happened between the two wars, and what problems continued to exist. The study will compare articles in academic journals and texts to view what issues African American service members dealt with in World War I compared to World War II. The intent is when comparing the treatment in both wars, was there a significant improvement in race relations in the inter-war time period, was there no change, or was there regression in that time period.

            In this comparative review, the author will establish what changes occurred for African American service members per military policies and whether the changes truly occurred for the service members. The author will also define the roles of African American service members in their military units and different branches of the military. When reviewing the evidence, the author will identify details of discrimination, intervention and violence against African American service members. This study will also review how African American service members were viewed by United States allies during the war. The study will draw conclusions from the historiographical evidence to answer whether or not there was significant change for African American service members in the various branches of the military.

            W.E.B. Du Bois was a prolific African American writer and activist in the early twentieth century. He wrote extensively about World War I and the African American soldiers who served. “The practice of history for Du Bois required challenging the ‘master narrative’ and creating a counter-memory that revealed black people as ‘the central thread of American history.’”[1] Du Bois wrote editorials, articles, and prose regarding the African American experience during and after World War I. Chad Williams studies Du Bois’ writings in a Cambridge University Modern American History article. “Du Bois’s particular sense of historical imagination was informed by his unique background and positionality as a black historian, by a view of the production of historical knowledge as a form of art with the power to transform both minds and souls, and by a belief that historical facts must address the problems of the contemporary world.”[2] Overall, Du Bois worked to document the history of African Americans in contemporary history, as well as literature. Du Bois was recognized as an African American leader throughout the United States. Du Bois was traumatized by the war, but also fascinated with the war. In an article in the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, in 1914, Du Bois wrote, “Make no mistake, he argued, the war represented “one of the great disasters due to race and color prejudice and it but foreshadows greater disasters in the future.” While most observers pointed to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Du Bois asserted that the real cause lay in “the wild quest for Imperial expansion among colored races between Germany, England and France primarily, and Belgium, Italy, Russia and Austria-Hungary in lesser degree.”[3] Once President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States would be joining the war, Du Bois who had been largely critical of Wilson, saw a chance for African Americans to show their equality more than ever. In a June 1917 editorial in The Crisis, Du Bois poignantly wrote, “Let us, however, never forget that this country belongs to us even more than to those who lynch, disfranchise, and segregate. As our country it rightly demands our whole-hearted defense as well today as when with Crispus Attucks we fought for independence and with 200,000 black soldiers we helped hammer out our own freedom.”[4] Du Bois became a strong supporter of the war effort, He encouraged African American men to join the military, however, Du Bois was critical of continued discrimination. “He continually raised his voice against racial injustice, even as he faced constant surveillance from federal investigators concerned about the potentially subversive content of The Crisis.”[5] Even after threats against some of Du Bois’ writings he remained outspoken on discrimination issues both within the military and on the home front. Du Bois overall was an important voice in support of the war and getting African American men to enlist. He was also an important voice in pointing out the discriminatory issues that continued to exist throughout the war.

While African Americans were given the rights to citizenship status following the Civil War, by 1917 they had not really obtained a status with full rights. Segregation was prevalent in both the north and the south, and attitude had not changed much in the early years of the 20th Century. “Therefore, the passage of the Selective Service Act of May 1917, which did not refuse African Americans the right to be drafted into the United States military, was an important opportunity for African-Americans.”   African American men had the opportunity to show their value to the country which held them as captives for so long. What would happen when they were part of the military? How would they be treated in the U.S. military during World War I and beyond.

            In the book Light in the Darkness author Nina Mjagkij discusses the YMCA and its outreach centers for troops on leave from the front lines in World War I. In her writing, Mjagkij states that one of the major programs that the YMCA was responsible for was education of soldiers who had not had a full education prior to joining or being drafted into the military. “Government officials feared that the large number of foreign-born and illiterate soldiers as well as the poor education among all draftees would hamper military efficiency and pose a threat to the nation’s security…. Illiteracy rates among the African American troops were even higher, since 80 percent of the men were draftees from the South who had been systematically deprived of educational opportunities. Illiteracy rates among these men ranged from 35 percent at some camps to 75 percent at others.”[6] The illiteracy rate among white soldiers was around twenty-five percent. Establishing an education system for all service members in World War I was important for the military leadership. “The army hoped that the YMCA’s programs would help improve the fighting efficiency of the troops and maintain ‘contentment, camp spirit, and camp morale.’”[7]

            Mjagkij begins to point out a significant issue with how the YMCA programs would work for white soldiers versus African American soldiers. “In accordance with its Jim Crow policy, the YMCA maintained segregation in its work among American soldiers throughout the war and the period of demobilization. YMCA services for African American troops “were in almost every case inferior” and suffered from a shortage of personnel.”[8] In her discussion of African American soldiers in Europe, Mjagkij explains that most of the African American soldiers serving there were unable to maintain their education from the YMCA. “Most of them were “detailed to manual labor . . . [and] as a rule, moved more often than white troops.” Moreover, the YMCA’s educational efforts among African American troops were obstructed by a shortage of personnel, facilities, and equipment, as well as by white opposition.”[9] Many officers in Europe did not want African American soldiers to be educated, so they created roadblocks to the educational opportunities offered through the YMCA.

            In the article, African Americans in World War II, historian Andrew Kerstan discusses the growth in employment opportunities prior to U.S. involvement and how they were a boon for growth for American workers and business owners alike, Kerstan shows on caveat to that successful period however. “But not all felt the return of prosperity equally. Some Americans, blacks in particular, were left behind as the economy geared up for war… s American industry converted to war production, African Americans demanded equal treatment in obtaining the new jobs. At first, that was not forthcoming. Less than six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a little over half, 144,583 out of 282,245 prospective war-related job openings were reserved for whites only.”[10] In the build-up to World War II, things had not changed significantly from the industrial build-up for World War I. Discrimination for jobs and education based on race was still a prominent issue in the United States.

            Within the military, there was still a challenge for African American Service members. The Committee for Participation of Negroes in National Defense began to work for African American soldiers before the United States entered World War II. “African Americans took great pride in their past service in American wars and were angry at their exclusion from the military preparedness program. Initially, Rayford W. Logan, black historian, World War I veteran, and leader of the Committee for the Participation of Negroes in National Defense, led the charge to break the racial barriers in the military. The committee’s major success was the inclusion of nondiscrimination language in the 1940 Selective Service Act which required that draftees be taken and trained regardless of race.”[11] Further work included representatives of the NAACP and the National Urban League meeting with President Roosevelt. “League, and A. Philip Randolph met with President Roosevelt. “They brought a list of seven demands: that black officers and men be assigned on the basis of merit, not race; that more black officers be trained; that African Americans be allowed to serve in the Army Air Corps; that blacks be allowed to participate in the selective service process; that black women be permitted to serve as nurses; and that ‘existing units of the army and units to be established should be required to accept and select officers and enlisted personnel without regard to race’. Although Roosevelt seemed receptive to these ideas, he later signed policy statements which reaffirmed segregation in the military and established a racial quota system to limit black participation in the military to nine percent, roughly the African American proportion in the general population.”[12] Roosevelt had no plans to change the segregation that existed in the military despite pleas from the African American community. Roosevelt would continue with Jim Crow restrictions for African American service members. After protests and fear of losing African American support for Democratic candidates, Roosevelt chose to make some concessions to African Americans regarding the military. “Roosevelt made some concessions such as forming an all-black Army Air Corps unit, promoting Colonel Benjamin O. Davies to the rank of general (making him the first African American to hold that rank), and appointing Colonel Campbell C. Johnson as Negro Advisor to the Selective Service Director and William H. Hastie, dean of Howard Law School, as civilian aide to the Secretary of War.”[13] Roosevelt made other changes including the establishment of an Army Air Corps pilot school at the Tuskegee Institute, a traditionally black college.

             It is clear in reviewing these two documents that establishing a solid ground for African American service members in the build-up to both World Wars was problematic. Jim Crow policies stood in the way of African Americans in the wartime economic build up prior to World War I and World War II. Jim Crow policies also maintained discriminatory practices inside the military as well in segregation of troops and the jobs chosen within the military services for white soldiers versus African American soldiers. As the United States entered these wars would a significant change take place, and how were African American soldiers received by our European allies?

            Racial Violence was not something that remained on the home front, in World War I and World War II there was a significant number of violent acts against African Americans in the armed forces. A comparison of acts of racial violence in the two wars will be discussed. The articles reviewed will discuss violence within the military against African Americans, and violence against soldiers when they returned home.

            “When Wilbur Little, an African American soldier, returned to Blakely, Georgia from service in World War I, a group of white men met him at the train station and forced him to strip off his uniform. A few days later he defied their warning not to wear the uniform again in public, and a mob lynched him.”[14] According to many historians, the story of Wilbur Little was not an uncommon occurrence in the south as African Americans returned home from fighting in World War I. Racial violence grew after World War I, and was increasing before the United States entered into World War I. A resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan during the years before the war, and the release and popularity of the silent movie The Birth of a Nation, caused a popularization of the Ku Klux Klan. Wilbur Little was one of many African American war veterans who would be attacked or lynched in the coming years. The violence was no longer limited to the south. “On 28 July 1919 African American war veteran Harry Haywood, only three months removed from service in the United States Army, found himself in the midst of a maelstrom of violence and destruction on par with what he had experienced on the battlefields of France. The previous day, simmering tensions between black and white residents of Chicago reached a boiling point following the stoning and subsequent drowning of young Eugene Williams who had dared to challenge the color-line at Lake Michigan’s 29th Street beach.”[15] Because of the attacks on African Americans after World War I, a secret paramilitary group was formed called the African Blood Brotherhood, the group was largely made up of African American war veterans and the intent was to protect African Americans from continued racial violence. African American veterans had received the same military training as white soldiers, so these men had the skills to defend their people.

            The army in World War I largely assigned African Americans to non-combat roles, loading an unloading ships, digging trenches, laying railroad tracks, cleaning latrines, and burying the dead. With incredible reluctance, the army allowed for two African American combat units, the 92nd Division, made up of draftees, and the 93rd which was made up of African American national guard troops. “Racist white commanders and deliberate neglect from the War Department doomed the performance of the division from the start, while its black officers, Du Bois’s shining examples of “Talented Tenth” manhood and racial leadership, endured humiliation after humiliation. African Americans could point to several notable battlefield triumphs and moments of racial pride. But for most black soldiers, the war for democracy that Du Bois had so enthusiastically championed devolved into a personal hell.”[16] When soldiers in World War I weren’t being tasked with menial labor and given the chance to fight, the victories that African American soldiers obtained were largely ignored by the war department or white units were given credit for the victories. Once African American soldiers were discharged, they faced racial violence at home.

            In an article in the Journal of American History, Harvard Sitkoff discusses racial violence during World War II. Sitkoff notes that a change had begun to occur prior to World War II for African Americans with gains through the court system and the update of some laws, African Americans began to see that they may sometime soon be able to accomplish the American Dream. As the U.S. entered World War II, the calls from African American political leaders such were not like those from W.E.B. Du Bois in World War I. “If we don’t fight for our rights during this war,” said one Harlem leader, “while the government needs us, it will be too late after the war.”[17] A movement started among African American leaders that was intended to not only support the war effort but to fight for the civil rights of African Americans, “the Negro press proclaimed the “time ripe for a new emancipation” and mobilized a “Double V” campaign to fight fascism and racism both abroad and at home.” The African American soldiers who were inducted by joining or being drafted were forced to deal with the same discriminatory struggles they dealt with before the military. “Throughout the South a Negro in uniform symbolized ‘a nigger not knowing his place.’ White bus drivers habitually refused to transport blacks to and from their bases. White military police enforced jim-crow seating restrictions, and off-base bars and restaurants used them to keep blacks out. To avoid friction with the local community, base commanders continuously enjoined blacks to obey the local customs of segregation and some even prohibited blacks from securing leave.”[18] Though it was not outright violence that plagued the African American military communities, they were often subjected to verbal violence and discriminatory practices after they were serving in the military. “Many blacks responded with cynicism and despair, and the war department regularly received reports on the low morale of the Negro soldier and accounts of black suicides, mental “crack-ups,” desertions, and AWOL’s due to discrimination and racist brutality.”[19] African Americans were punished at home for the color of their skin, and once they joined the military they had to deal with just as much bigotry without a way to escape except by suicide, mental breaks and breaking the law, and many chose those escapes rather than dealing with bigotry and violence for one more day.

            Discriminatory practices eventually reached an explosive point inside the military. “Although the war department systematically suppressed most evidence of black revolt and labeled most of the deaths due to race battles as combat fatalities or ‘motor vehicle accidents.’ army statisticians, nevertheless, reported an unusually high number of casualties suffered by white officers of Negro troops and at least fifty black soldiers killed in race riots in the United States.”[20] There was also lynching of African American service members on US military bases.

“In 1941, army authorities found a black private, arms and legs bound, lynched at Fort Benning. Brutality by the military police in Fayetteville, North Carolina, led to a pitched gun battle with black soldiers. Forty-three blacks went AWOL to escape the harassment and terrorization by whites in Prescott, Arizona. Black soldiers at Fort Bragg, Camps Davis, Gibbon, and Jackson Barracks fought white soldiers and police. Although complaints and protests from Negro soldiers, chaplains, NAACP, and National Lawyers Guild poured into the war department and White House, neither would publicly respond.”[21]

            As the number of race riots in American cities and on military bases increased, white military members and white civilians fought to keep African American soldiers in ‘their place’ and pushed a narrative of African American disloyalty to the United States. These riots did not get publicized in the national news. The military and FDR could not afford to have signs of dissent shown in the American Press, for fear it would be used as propaganda by the Axis powers. Race riots continued throughout American cities out of fear of job losses to African American workers due to fairness in labor standards created by the Roosevelt administration.

            In Gary Mormino’s article from the Florida Historical Quarterly, he examines the plight of African American servicemen in Florida during World War II. Mormino’s article points out much like other historians, that African American men were restricted to certain positions within military branches, mainly non-combat positions. Mormino also discusses the violence that occurred in Florida due to African American soldiers being brought to the state for training. “Between 1941 and 1946 racial conflict boiled over on and off Florida military bases. Participants included commissioned and noncommissioned officers, civilians, and prisoners of war, military police and county sheriffs, Northerners and Southerners.”[22] In letters to notable African American Press and the NAACP, African Americans wrote discussing the conditions they were dealing with, in a letter to the NAACP soldiers wrote about their conditions at Mabry Field in Florida, ld.” Writers noted, “Above all, we have Southern White Crackers as officers over us who abuse us, and treat us worse than we would treat the lowest of dogs.” The complaints pointed out that German prisoners of war received more respect and better food than African Americans.[23] Despite the push for change in the U.S. military for African Americans, no significant change would be made for several years after the war was over.

            With all of the racial tension that happened in both World War I and World War II, there were some African Americans who were recognized for their bravery and perseverance in the wars. Lieutenant Charles Jackson, of the 370th, was in a machine gun company, as the platoon leader of four machine gun crews with approximately fifty men. This was one of the most dangerous commands. His platoon would have been attached to infantry. Jackson was the recipient of the Croix de Guerre for bravery in combat near the Belgium town of Lorgny.[24] The Tuskeegee Airmen in World War II who were the first entirely African American fighter squadron flew over 1,500 missions and over 15,000 sorties in the last two years of World War II. The unit was highly decorated, and their example would lead to significant change within the U.S. Military.[25]

            In review of the literature, it is clear that a significant number of racial issues remained within the U.S. military from World War I through World War II. Racial tensions remained high in the interwar period and gained fuel due to the Great Depression. The U.S. Government offered no significant changes to military policy regarding race in between the wars and Jim Crow laws in Southern states compounded by discriminatory practices in Northern states stoked a fire of racial inequities that would grow into explosive incidents during World War II and beyond.

            In the aftermath of World War II, significant changes had to be made for the sake of peace inside the military as it moved from a World War to a Cold War with the Soviet Union and other communist countries. “African Americans increasingly refused to be intimidated by the constraints of a system of segregation rooted in physical threat and force. Their experiences in military service emboldened black veterans to challenge the social hierarchy built on race, making World War II and the civil rights movement inextricably intertwined as two watershed events in the twentieth century American experience.”[26] On July 26, 1948, Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order #9981 stating; “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.”[27] Finally ending segregation within the military, while it would take several more years to completely integrate the military forces, African Americans had shown that they were an important part of the U.S. Military despite the constant challenges of discrimination.

Bibliography:

Davis, David A. “Not Only War Is Hell: World War I and African American Lynching Narratives.” African American Review 43, no. 3/4 (2008): 477–91.

“Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the Armed Forces (1948).” Our Documents – Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the Armed Forces (1948), July 26, 1948. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=84.

German, Kathleen M. Promises of Citizenship: Film Recruitment of African Americans in World War II. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

Kersten, Andrew E. “African Americans and World War II.” OAH Magazine of History 16, no. 3 (2002).

LaRue, Paul. “Unsung African American World War I Soldiers.” Black History Bulletin 80, no. 2 (2017): 16–20. https://doi.org/10.5323/blachistbull.80.2.0016.

Mjagkij, Nina. “Serving African-American Soldiers in World War I.” Essay. In Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946, 86–100. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, n.d.

Mormino, Gary. “GI Joe Meets Jim Crow: Racial Violence and Reform in World War II Florida.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 73, no. 1 (July 1994): 23–42.

Percy, William Alexander. “Jim Crow and Uncle Sam: The Tuskegee Flying Units and the U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe During World War II.” The Journal of Military History 67, no. 3 (2003): 773–810. https://doi.org/10.1353/jmh.2003.0244.

Sitkoff, Harvard. “Racial Militancy and Interracial Violence in the Second World War.” The Journal of American History 58, no. 3 (December 1971): 661–81.

Williams, Chad L. “Vanguards of the New Negro: African American Veterans and Post-World War I Racial Militancy.” The Journal of African American History 92, no. 3 (2007): 347–70. https://doi.org/10.1086/jaahv92n3p347.

Williams, Chad. “World War I in the Historical Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois: Modern American History.” Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press, March 8, 2018. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/modern-american-history/article/world-war-i-in-the-historical-imagination-of-w-e-b-du-bois/6E248883345B4DAB9C7257CFF147D3F2#.


[1] Williams, Chad. “World War I in the Historical Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois: Modern American History.” Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press, March 8, 2018.

[2] Williams, 2018.

[3] Williams, 2018.

[4] Williams, 2018

[5] Williams, 2018

[6] Mjagkij, Nina. “Serving African-American Soldiers in World War I.” Essay. In Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946, Page 86.

[7] Mjakij. Page 87

[8] Mjagkij. Page 87.

[9] Mjagkij. Page 92.

[10] Kersten, Andrew E. “African Americans and World War II.” OAH Magazine of History 16, no. 3 (2002).

[11] Kerstan. Page 15.

[12] Kerstan. Page 15 – 16.

[13] Kerstan. Page 16.

[14] Davis, David A. “Not Only War Is Hell: World War I and African American Lynching Narratives.” African American Review 43, no. 3/4 (2008): Page 477.

[15] Williams, Chad L. “Vanguards of the New Negro: African American Veterans and Post-World War I Racial Militancy.” The Journal of African American History 92, no. 3 (2007): Page 347.

[16] Williams, Chad. “World War I in the Historical Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois: Modern American History.” Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press, March 8, 2018.

[17] Sitkoff, Harvard. “Racial Militancy and Interracial Violence in the Second World War.” The Journal of American History 58, no. 3 (December 1971): Page 662.

[18] Sitkoff, Page 667.

[19] Sitkoff. Page 668

[20] Sitkoff. Page 668

[21] Sitkoff. Page 668

[22] Mormino, Gary. “GI Joe Meets Jim Crow: Racial Violence and Reform in World War II Florida.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 73, no. 1 (July 1994): Page 25

[23] Mormino. Page 27.

[24] LaRue, Paul. “Unsung African American World War I Soldiers.” Black History Bulletin 80, no. 2 (2017): 16–20.

[25] Percy, William Alexander. “Jim Crow and Uncle Sam: The Tuskegee Flying Units and the U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe During World War II.” The Journal of Military History 67, no. 3 (2003): Page 808.

[26] German, Kathleen M. Promises of Citizenship: Film Recruitment of African Americans in World War II. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2017. Page 210.

[27] “Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the Armed Forces (1948).” Our Documents – Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the Armed Forces (1948), July 26, 1948.

Author:

Greetings! I am Shawn MacIntyre, and I grew up with a love of history. When most kids were watching cartoons I was watching documentaries. After a long career in public safety, I chose to return to college to seek a new career path bringing history to the public. In April 2019. I graduated from Point Park University with a Bachelor's Degree in History, Magna Cum Laude. My new path is to make learning history fun, exciting and accessible to everyone. I invite you to join me on my journeys to historic destinations, learn interesting facts about the past, and spark a love for history!

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