Black Americans Who Served in WWII Faced Segregation and Second-Class RolesHistorians in the News
tags: veterans, racism, military history, African American history, World War 2
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.
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.”