In August 1944, just two months after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (a.k.a. the GI Bill of Rights), Harry McAlpin, Washington correspondent for the National Negro Publishers Association, warned that the new law, though race-neutral on its face, would exclude Black veterans. The GI Bill included funding for housing, college, and job training, along with business loans and unemployment insurance, which fueled social mobility for millions of veterans and their descendants. It also included “innumerable loopholes for states to ‘rob’ returning Negro veterans of the rights and privileges they have earned by risking their lives and limbs for the preservation (?) of democracy,” McAlpin wrote.
This discrimination was by design. Southern Democrats including House Veterans Committee Chairman John Rankin—who a quarter century earlier had penned an editorial ridiculing the notion that military service might somehow elevate a Black man to become the “peer of the white man”—took pains to ensure that the bill’s benefits would be administered at the state level, where white officials served as gatekeepers.
Sure enough, at their local United States Employment Service job centers, Black veterans encountered white counselors who routinely shunted them into unskilled jobs, even if they had military training as carpenters, electricians, mechanics, or welders. In Mississippi, white veterans received 86 percent of the skilled and semiskilled positions, while Black vets filled 92 percent of unskilled and service-oriented jobs. In Birmingham, Alabama, a USES counselor told Willie May, who had maintained communication lines in the Army Signal Corps, that there were no suitable positions available, even though the counselors had placed several white Signal Corps vets with the Birmingham Power Company. May settled for work as a Pullman porter, which paid far less.
This was an extension of the second-class treatment Black Americans endured as servicemembers, confirming the dreadful suspicion that the freedoms they labored to protect overseas would not be forthcoming at home. As I document in my new book, Half American: The Epic Story of AfricanAmericans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, from which this essay is adapted, Black volunteers and draftees formed the backbone of a supply effort critical to the Allied victory, and fought courageously in combat when given the opportunity—but were often assigned positions of grunt labor and servitude, building roads and infrastructure or cooking and cleaning for white officers and enlisted men. Black troops nevertheless risked their lives for a segregated military that regarded them with such contempt that, after the Nazis surrendered, US officers let released German POWs socialize and dine alongside white soldiers in areas still off-limits to Blacks.
Adding insult to injury, Black veterans returned to a nation less than thankful for their service. White officers and publications belittled or simply ignored Black contributions to the war effort. In the South, Black vets were targeted—and sometimes lynched—by white mobs eager to remind them of their place in the pecking order. Black newspapers printed weekly accounts of violence against vets, many of whom were attacked while in uniform.
Yet perhaps even more pernicious were the discriminatory policies of the state, whose ill effects on the Black community spanned generations. Black veterans, like their white comrades, sought out low-interest mortgages and loans, guaranteed by the Veterans Administration, to buy homes and start businesses. Some succeeded, but the vast majority were turned away by the nation’s banks, whose racist lending practices were unfettered by the GI Bill. “Loans to Negro veterans are almost out of the question,” the National Urban League observed.