Matthew Delmont on his Epic History of Black Americans' Experience of World War II
tags: military history,African American history,World War 2
Professor Matthew Delmont (Photo by Eli Burakian)
Throughout the war, Black Americans expressed outrage that they were fighting to secure freedom on far-flung battlefields while being denied freedom in their own country. Every day brought new evidence that they were fighting for a country that did not regard them as fully human.
Matthew F. Delmont, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad.
More than a million African American men and women served the United States during World War II. Since then, most mainstream books, newspapers, magazines, and movies about the war have largely ignored or obscured the contributions of Black Americans in the military and on the home front.
Acclaimed Dartmouth Professor Matthew F. Delmont offers a necessary corrective to this largely overlooked history with his lively, meticulously-researched chronicle of the war from the African American perspective, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad (Viking). He urges that the full scope of the war cannot be understood without considering the role of Black Americans.
Professor Delmont vividly illuminates how, as they fought to end fascism abroad, African American troops and civilians—at home and overseas--faced virulent racism, segregation, ostracism, incarceration, brutal violence, and even murder. For its compelling writing and its transformative view of the “Good War” and the so-called “Greatest Generation,” Half American has earned exceptionally high praise from historians and other reviewers.
Black men and women served under shockingly oppressive conditions during the war, as Professor Delmont details. The US military was segregated—and even blood supplies were separated by race. This awkward and wasteful duplicative effort was found necessary at a time of rigid Jim Crow segregation in the South and other discriminatory policies and laws that resulted in second-class citizenship for Black Americans.
The book recounts the full scope of wartime African American military and civilian service. Professor Delmont chronicles the distinguished achievements of Black combat units that are merely a footnote, if mentioned at all, in many histories of the war. He highlights the record of courage and sacrifice of African American units such as the Tuskegee Airmen, the “Black Panther” Tank Battalion, the Montford Point Marine Detachment, and the 92nd Infantry Division’s “Buffalo Soldiers.” And despite exceptional service in action, as Professor Delmont illuminates, Black soldiers and sailors often were subjected to degrading treatment, hostility, and contempt from white officers and the open racism of some high-ranking commanders.
But, as Half American describes, in the segregated armed forces, most Black men and women fulfilled unheralded support roles, often in supply and logistics units, and they were not considered combat troops. Professor Delmont honors the contributions of these soldiers and sailors by detailing their unsung and grueling work as truck drivers, engineers, quartermasters, construction workers, cooks, and other duties. He emphasizes that this work was crucial to Allied victory in the European and Pacific theaters because American military units could not function without food, ammunition, gasoline, medical material, and other supplies.
And these vital African American support troops served under fire in combat and were exposed to the full brutality and lethality of war. They were captured and wounded and killed just as the troops they supported. And Black troops performed Herculean tasks from carrying supplies from besieged and bombed out ports and across perilous war zones to mammoth construction projects such as building the Ledo Road from India to Burma and creating a major highway from the US, through Canadian wilds, and into Alaska. At the same time, Black women served with distinction in the military as nurses and as WACs (Women’s Army Corps) and in other units, including the admired armed forces postal service.
Half American shares also the contributions of African American men and women on the home front, particularly those who worked in the defense industry where they struggled for equal rights as they made products to support the war effort. Professor Delmont documents stunning wartime incidents when devoted Black defense workers faced raw racism and violence from fellow white employees who seemed to value white supremacy and segregation over winning the war.
While Black members of the military and the civilian work force struggled to fulfill their obligations as they contended with degradation and dehumanization, Professor Delmont reminds readers of some heroes for justice such as NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] luminaries Walter White, Ella Baker, and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who investigated deprivations of rights and acts of violence against African Americans as they fought for equal and fair treatment in the courts..
Professor Delmont also describes how life was extremely troubled for Black troops and civilians at home. During the war, Black soldiers, especially those based in the South, were vilified by white supremacists and were jailed and injured and even murdered in local disputes. And heartrending episodes of brutal violence also plagued Black veterans returning home after the war. For a Black person, merely wearing a military uniform could trigger an arrest, a beating, jail time, or worse. Professor Delmont shares haunting, atrocious incidents. For example, in Texas in March 1946, when Navy veteran Kenneth Long refused an order to tuck in his shirt, he was shot and killed by a white highway patrol officer. In August 1946, Army veteran Maceo Snipes was shot and killed by four Ku Klux Klan members after voting in a primary election in Georgia. And, in 1948, Isaiah Nixon was shot and killed by two white men after voting in a Georgia state primary. And the list goes on. To add insult to injury, in another postwar development, most returning Black veterans were denied state-administered GI Bill housing and education benefits as well as access to other helpful programs.
Professor Delmont’s engrossing and comprehensive history of the war from the African American perspective is based on extensive research including study of rare military and government records, diaries, letters, and journals. His careful examination of a trove of publications from the Black press from the days of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and through the post war years was especially fruitful.
Matthew F. Delmont is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and expert on African American history and the history of civil rights. His other books include: Black Quotidian; Why Busing Failed; Making Roots; and The Nicest Kids in Town. His writing also has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post, and several other periodicals and academic journals. Professor Delmont is originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He earned his doctorate in history from Brown University.
Professor Delmont graciously responded to questions about his new book and his work by telephone from his office at Dartmouth.
Robin Lindley: It's an honor to talk with you Professor Delmont about Half American, your new groundbreaking and heartbreaking book on African Americans at home and abroad during World War II. Congratulations on the stellar reviews. Before discussing your book, I wanted ask about your background. What inspired you to become a historian and a professor of history? Does that interest go back to your childhood?
Professor Matthew Delmont: I wish I could claim it goes all the way back to my childhood. I think I was always interested in history as a subject in high school and even through much of college, but I don't think I fully appreciated how interesting and complex history is. I focused too much on names and dates and trying to memorize facts or texts and didn't really understand the messiness of history until I got to graduate school.
So, when I graduated from college, I worked in business for a few years and realized I didn't love that. And I realized I was a lot more passionate about what I was reading, things that were broke in the newspaper or in The Atlantic.
I ended up applying to the Graduate School of Brown University. I was in graduate seminars in African American history and other field history topics, and came to understand how historians actually practice their craft—the process of going into archives and trying to put different pieces of evidence in conversation with each other, and engage with the past work other historians had written, and then put the puzzle pieces together. That's when I really fell in love with history. I came to appreciate the complexity of history and that has captured my interest to this day.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for describing your path to history. What was the focus of your dissertation in graduate school?
Professor Matthew Delmont: My dissertation turned into my first book, which was on the TV show called American Bandstand and how it came out in Philadelphia in the 1950s and how it was part of a larger debate in the struggle over civil rights in the city. So that first book project was called The Nicest Kids in Town, and it tells the story of the development of American Bandstand and rock and roll culture in Philadelphia alongside the story of school segregation in Philadelphia and the fight over residential segregation and civil rights in the city.
Robin Lindley: What a fascinating project. I was in grade school in the fifties, and American Bandstand was a national phenomenon. I ignored it for the most part but girls my age seemed devoted viewers. As I failed at coolness in Spokane, my future wife Betsy was rocking out to the Bandstand tunes at her home in New Jersey. Little did I know. That was probably long before your time.
Professor Matthew Delmont: The later iterations were still on when I was growing up, but the Philadelphia version was before my time, but my mom, who is from Minneapolis, she told me stories about when she was ten or twelve years old and she would turn on American Bandstand and dance in her living room to the show. That was partly the motivation for starting that dissertation project.
Robin Lindley: I’ll look for that book. I must get it for my wife. I read that you attended a military school high school and were one of the few students of color there.
Professor Matthew Delmont: Yes. For high school, I went to St. Thomas Academy, a military academy in Minnesota that has junior ROTC program that all the students participate in. My entire high school experience was wearing a junior ROTC uniform, lining up in formation every morning, saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Our Father, because it was also a Roman Catholic school. We had military classes and leadership classes taught by retired military sergeants and colonels. So, it was a unique high school experience.
In part, that education certainly shaped my later interest in this topic of Half American because the story of World War II was really part of the story of the school. The most important part of each year was the awarding of what they called the Fleming Saber, that was named after a Marine Corps captain who died in the Battle of Midway. These stories were ordered to always figure very prominently in the life of the school during my high school education.
Robin Lindley: So, you became very familiar with military history and protocol as a young person. How were you treated as student of color at this military school? Did you see any difference in your treatment?
Professor Matthew Delmont: I did not see any significant difference. And I should make sure I clarify that it was a high school military academy, and I wasn’t serving in the actual military. All the same, what I appreciated about that experience was that I felt, once all of the Junior ROTC cadets put our uniforms on, there was a certain unifying factor to that. I felt I could be evaluated based on how I did in my schoolwork and how well I polished my shoes and my brass and how well I memorized facts I needed to know for our military inspection. That leveled the playing field in many ways.
I understand now that things were always much more complicated than that. But certainly, going through high school, I felt like I was treated fairly by all the military personnel who ran the school. It was also the case that there were only a handful of Black students at the school, so that did partly shape my experience as one of a very small number of Black students and students of color at a predominantly white school.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing that background. It helps to understand your interest in the history you present in Half American. What inspired the book? Did your past research on prior books influence this book?
Professor Matthew Delmont: Absolutely. I'd say the inspiration came from two pathways. One, it did emerge pretty directly from the last project I worked on: a digital book project for Stanford University Press called Black Quotidian, where I dug deeply in the digitized archives of Black newspapers. One of the things I found in that project that surprised me were all of these images and stories of Black soldiers and sailors from World War II that were featured in the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore African American. These were just everyday folks, not people who went on and became famous. These were stories about how people got drafted or volunteered for the military. There were just little head shots of them, and then little blurbs about what neighborhood they came from.
After seeing first dozens and then hundreds of these articles and all these names and images I'd never seen before made me think differently about the war. I had taught about World War II for more than a decade at that point, but these were all different little snapshots that told different stories about the war. That made me think, what would the war look like from the Black perspective, and was it possible to tell that story more broadly than it had been told before?
The other influence was looking at some of the oral histories that the National World War II Museum in New Orleans had collected. And one really stuck with me. A gentleman named Robert P. Madison who had served in Italy and earned a Purple Heart in combat, went on to earn architectural degrees from Case Western and Harvard and became a really important architect in Cleveland. He designed a number of buildings including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But in his oral history, he described being in his business and going to a bookstore, picking up this big book on World War II and flipping through it and not seeing anything at all about Black soldiers or airmen. He said, “We were a forgotten group of people.” That stuck with me, and that's largely what motivated me to work on the book and to try to make sure that Black veterans and Black civilians who played an important role during the war would become part of the larger story we tell about the war.
Robin Lindley: You’ve done a remarkable job of creating a comprehensive history of African Americans during the war. Your book was eye-opening to me, and I thought I knew this history. How would you describe your research process for this wide-ranging book?
Professor Matthew Delmont: Broadly speaking, the most important sources for the project were historical articles from Black newspapers, archival documents--primarily the papers of the NAACP in the national archives—and from the US military. And then there were a number of oral histories that were collected either by Library of Congress or by the National World War II Museum of Black Veterans.
Focusing just on the Black press, Black newspapers like Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier were extremely influential, particularly in the 1940s. It was kind of like the golden age of the Black Press. And what's important about those as historical sources in the context of World War II are a couple of things. One, they really helped to shape the story. They weren't just reporting on the stories that developed but they helped to shape history. I think the Pittsburgh Courier is the best example of that by helping to launch the Double Victory campaign: victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home. And that really became the rallying cry for Black Americans during the war. I think that's a really good example of a newspaper not just reporting on things that happened, but really taking an active role in shaping the trajectory of how the war would be understood.
And Black papers were instrumental in working with activists to call for the desegregation of defense industries, and later the desegregation of military, and to put pressure on politicians and military officials to make sure that Black Americans were being treated fairly in the military.
The other thing that was important about the Black Press was that they had a number of war correspondents who were embedded with Black units. That provided me with a set of on-the-ground accounts that just tell a very different story about the war than what you would typically find in white newspapers or in a lot of other accounts that focused more on white units. It really shifts the focus of where the war was taking place because, by and large, Black troops were excluded from combat roles. And so, while these war correspondents were embedded with quartermaster units and engineering units that were working behind the scenes on the supply and the logistical work. That's where the majority of Black troops were stationed.
It turns out that that this support work was really important to the Americans and the allies in winning the war. The writing and documented evidence from these war correspondents reveals the vital role that Black Americans played. And these war correspondents brought those stories and the people they reported on to life. For me, these historical newspapers were just a treasure trove of information about the war.
Robin Lindley: And you point out that, even before the war, the Black press and the African American community were very aware of the dangers of fascism and eugenics, and they wrote about the persecution of Jews in Germany. The Black press also had astute reporters such as the legendary poet Langston Hughes who covered the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.
Professor Matthew Delmont: Exactly. That's an important part of telling the history of World War II. For Black Americans especially, World War II didn't start with Pearl Harbor. It started years before that.
By 1933, as soon as a Hitler's regime began rising to power in Germany, Black activists in the Black press recognized what a tremendous danger Nazism and that racial ideology posed to the world because they saw the commonalities between how Jews were being treated in Europe and how Black people were being treated in the American South. And they called out those similarities explicitly. They pointed to policies that required Jews to sit in certain sections of railway cars, that deprived Jews of property, that threatened Jewish lives, and that exacted violence against Jewish communities. The Black press pointed out that the exact same things were happening to Black people in the South and also to the ways that Nazi were drawing explicitly on American racial policies to justify their actions.
And it was important for me to start the book with the Spanish Civil War. More than 80 Black Americans to volunteered to fight for the Spanish government and they were among the first to literally take up arms to try to defeat fascism. They recognized that fascism wasn't just a threat to Europe, but it was a threat to the world. What was important about their service was that they had the opportunity to serve in combat units, but they wouldn't have been able to participate that way in the American military at the time. And these units were integrated, unlike the American military. This service provided a vision for how Black Americans could participate in the military in ways that weren't permitted in the American military. That caught the attention of a lot of Black Americans who read these stories and followed the news through the reporting of people like Langston Hughes in the Baltimore African American.
Robin Lindley: And you recount that Black officers served with other Americans in Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, and you didn't see virtually any Black officers in the American military a few years later during World War II.
Professor Matthew Delmont: Exactly. There are multiple points throughout this history when Black Americans were just deeply upset by the hypocrisy they saw. At the time, the American military truly didn't believe that Black Americans had the intelligence, the leadership capabilities, and the courage to serve in combat or to be officers. The military largely blocked Black people from those opportunities. But at the same time, you have these Black volunteers who are doing exactly those roles in the Spanish Civil War. And those examples highlighted for a lot of Black Americans that the American military didn't appreciate the tremendous capabilities that Black Americans could bring to the war effort.
Robin Lindley: That hypocrisy comes through vividly. You capture the brutality and the unfairness of segregation by the military. It’s stunning that, during the war, even blood supplies were segregated. The unfairness and double standards must seem almost medieval to younger readers with the shocking abuse that Black soldiers and sailors faced. You describe life in training camps in the South, for example, where white citizens would attack Black troops who suffered severe injuries or death—and then Black troops would be blamed for the violence by both military officers and civilian leaders. Weren’t these stories appalling to you? Were you surprised by these repeated incidents of white violence against Black Americans in the military?
Professor Matthew Delmont: Yes. In working on this history, I was surprised by the depth of racism that Black troops encountered. I've taught this history and knew at a broad level what this looked like, but once I dug into the individual stories, it was really shocking. It made me stop and pause and reconsider things that I hadn't really understood or taken the time to fully process.
With the example of the blood supply being segregated meant that Black blood was separate from white blood and they military wouldn’t give “Black blood“ to white soldiers who needed blood transfusions.
It’s one thing that say the military was segregated, but then you actually pause, stop, and think about what that meant and how it made no sense from a military or strategic perspective. In fact, it was the exact opposite. It was more logistically complicated to do everything in duplicate. There was no tactical advantage gained by segregating the military. It took forever to prepare segregated training facilities, and dining facilities, and recreation and living facilities. And the only reason to do it was to appease white racial prejudice. Things like that in the research made me stop and reconsider what I understood but hadn't really appreciated the depth of.
Robin Lindley: It’s a lot to take in. And Black soldiers were actually lynched in the South and elsewhere. By the end of the war, when you consider the Double V campaign, there was a US and Allied victory against fascism but that didn’t lead to a victory against racism in the US.
Professor Matthew Delmont: Yes. The Double Victory campaign is an example that I have taught for years. With victory over fascism as the US defeated Germany, we can say that the military battle was successful. But with the other part of that campaign, victory at home over racism, it was clear that that aspect of the campaign wasn't a victory.
Black troops came home and they were disrespected. In some cases, they were lynched, largely because of their military service, because they were seen as a threat to the status quo. That really forced me to reconsider both what the war was about and the fact that it was only a partial victory.
Black Americans came home and they were still fighting for that other victory. They still were in a country that treated them as half American. They were still second-class citizens. They still had to fight for the freedom and democracy that they had tried to bring to Europe. They had to fight for that at home.
Robin Lindley: That continued struggle stands out in the story. You capture, again, the terrible treatment of African Americans both at home and abroad. What tasks were most African American soldiers were assigned to in the segregated military? Weren’t most Black troops excluded from combat roles?
Professor Matthew Delmont: Black Americans had important roles in combat. The Tuskegee Airmen are perhaps the most famous example. They broke barriers in the Army Air Corps and played important roles in air battles, in the Mediterranean in particular. Later in the war, there was an integrated unit of Black Marines that played important roles in the battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima. And there were some Black infantry and tank units in Europe that saw combat.
But by and large, the, the story of African American troops during the war was that they were largely in supply and logistical units or with the engineers and quartermasters. They served with the Seabees [construction units] and as cooks and messmen in the Navy. They did grueling, unglamorous work. They loaded unloaded ships and trucks. They cleared jungles and built airways. They built ports. They built these tremendous roads through rugged inhospitable terrain such as the Al-Can highway to Alaska and the Ledo Road to Burma. They drove trucks all across Europe to make the supply effort possible as the Allied armies pushed toward Germany. They were really the backbone of the American and Allied supply effort.
One of the things that I came away from the book with that I didn't know at the outset is that World War II wasn't just a battle of strategy and will, but it was about supply. When you take that perspective and understand the important role supply played in this global war, and you understand that Black troops were the backbone of the supply effort, then it's clear that Americans couldn't have won the war without the vital roles that Black Americans played in supply and logistical units.
One of the best examples we can we have of this vital role was after D-Day in Europe. The Allies invasion started on June 6, 1944, but there was still D-Day plus one and D-Day plus two. And the big challenge in those weeks and months after June 6th, 1944 was supplying the thousands of troops who were now pushing from the Normandy beaches through France and into Germany. All those troops required a huge amount of supplies. They had to have ammunition, and boots and clothing, and food, and fuel for the tanks and for the trucks. And all that had to get moved. And by and large, it was Black troops who were doing that moving. And there were Black troops across the Channel who were loading the ships that crossed to Normandy and the port of Cherbourg. There are Black troops unloading those ships there. Black troops driving on the Red Ball Express were truck drivers who moved all these goods to troops. Nothing arrived at the front without passing through the hands of at least one Black soldier.
That's a different story about how the war was won than we typically see. It's not a glamorous story. It doesn't make for a good Hollywood movie necessarily, but it's an honest accounting of what it really took to fight and win this global war. And the same was true in the Pacific theater. For example, the battle of Iwo Jima lasted a lot longer than military planners expected, and they had to supply the troops who were already on the island. And that happened because Black Duck operators drove between ship and shore to make sure supplies reached the beach.
I didn't know that set of stories would be as prominent in the book. I'm really happy to have made those accounts a centerpiece of the book. That’s an important part of the history of World War II that more Americans need to understand.
Robin Lindley: As you note, this important work and the Black troops who made it possible has been ignored in popular histories and in popular media. As you stress in your book, these Black soldiers weren't just handling supplies or driving trucks or toiling at hard labor, but they were doing these unsung jobs under fire as well. People need to understand that they were in combat too. My dad was in New Guinea during the war, and there were many African American troops who supported that bloody but often overlooked campaign as well. I appreciate what you've done to bring out the reality of service in a war. It's also haunting to me still, and it may go back for me to Civil War stories on Black troops who were assigned to bury the dead. After D-Day and other huge campaigns, Black soldiers bore the brunt of burial duties and dug graves for thousands of US troops and other casualties.
Professor Matthew Delmont: Yes. That's another important part of the story that has fallen out of the popular treatment of the war.
Robin Lindley: And these Black troops were serving under fire, either in combat units, as you mentioned, or in these support positions. They were often belittled by their fellow soldiers and many of the commanding officers in the military, even though they were performing this vital service at great peril. And members of Congress and other American leaders at home were labeling them as inferior and inept rather than honoring their service.
Professor Matthew Delmont: Yes. The sense that you could somehow clearly delineate combat roles from non-combat roles obviously fell apart when in war zones. If you're driving a truck through hostile territory and you're being shot at, you might technically not be in a combat role, but you're obviously in combat. The same for messmen in the Navy, the folks like Doris Miller, the Black hero of Pearl Harbor. He was a messman, and his job wasn’t to be in combat. But once the battle starts, you're in combat, whether you like it or not. That's an important part of the story as well.
And then absolutely, some of the most disturbing things to define in terms of historical sources and to write about is the depths of disrespect that Black veterans or that Black troops faced while in the military, and then what Black veterans faced when they came home. We like to think that service in the military is among that the highest forms of patriotism in our country and that everyone would regard it with the respect that it deserves. But the historical record has too many examples otherwise of Black troops being harassed by their officers or fellow enlisted troops, by townspeople, and others, sometimes explicitly because they're wearing a uniform.
In theory, the uniform was the reason they were called GIs. That’s means “general issue” and it was meant to have a unifying impact on their identities. But it was just the opposite in many cases. During World War II, many white Americans were upset by the idea of Black men and women wearing uniforms, and they were harassed even more so because of that.
Robin Lindley: That’s a striking and heartbreaking story that must be recalled. One of the things that surprised me was that we actually had an integrated service, and that was the Merchant Marine. What did you learn about this organization?
Professor Matthew Delmont: Yes. Thank you for asking that.
The Merchant Marine was a great example of how a service could be integrated. The Merchant Marine didn't have the same pattern of segregation policies as the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps. In fact, they would almost appear like United Nations style crews on board ships. You had a range of European ethnicities as well as Filipinos, people from Latin America and Black Americans all working on the same ship. That included ships with Black captains who were in charge of these multiracial crews. The Merchant Marines were not technically combat troops, but they had extremely dangerous missions to transport troops and supplies between the United States and the war zones in the Pacific and European theaters. And the Merchant Marines had casualty rates that outpaced the other branches of the military.
Throughout the book, I was looking for examples that provided counterpoints to what was possible during the war. I think it sometimes it's easy to say that we could not have integrated the military during World War II because that just wasn't possible. No one would have stood for it. But I think the Merchant Marines provide a good example of why that's just not true. Those Americans, whatever their backgrounds, whatever their individual prejudices might have been, banded together to do the work that had to be done, and I think that's what's so powerful about finding historical examples that provide a counterpoint to the segregation that was true in the other branches of the military.
Robin Lindley: A great example of true patriotism. To go back to this idea of leaders and where they stood in terms of African Americans and their service in the war, how do you see President Roosevelt's role?
Professor Matthew Delmont: Roosevelt had such a complex time in office, and particularly during the war. There were so many facets to it.
In terms of the Black experience of the war, Roosevelt recognized he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He was getting a great deal of pressure from Black activists, particularly [union leader] A. Philip Randolph early in the war with the threatened to March on Washington to take more meaningful and dramatic steps to have anti-discrimination provisions for the defense industries and to integrate the military. At the same time, Roosevelt understood that a large portion of the Democratic Party’s base of power was in the segregated South where they were explicitly opposed to any sort of equality for Black Americans. They wanted to maintain their traditions of Jim Crow segregation.
And so, Roosevelt was walking a tightrope with regards to the civil rights policies throughout the war. That came to fruition with efforts like executive order 8802 that he signed in 1941 that put in place anti-discrimination provisions in terms of defense industries and created something called the Federal Employment Practice Commission. At the time, that executive order was initially hailed as the second Emancipation Proclamation. But once reality set in, it turned out that the FEPC didn’t have the manpower to investigate the thousands and thousands of claims of discrimination that were filed.
I think the reality for Roosevelt was a kind of one step forward, two steps back, from the African American perspective throughout much of the war. At the same time, I have to recognize that, with the amount of racism and segregation that existed in the country, it was impossible for a president to overturn that reality from the White House. Roosevelt put in place some policies and measures that were definitely steps forward that opened up some doors that were by no means far enough, but what he was up against politically was a mess.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those thoughts on FDR. You also discuss the plight of Black Americans who worked in the defense industry, thanks to A. Philip Randolph and FDR’s Executive Order 8802. That story is also fraught, however. What did you learn about the treatment of African American employees in the defense industry? And I’d never heard of hate strikes by white workers against their fellow Black workers.
Professor Matthew Delmont: This really important part of the story reveals why it's so important to tell the story of the war front at the same time you're telling the story of the home front. For Black Americans, those are two parts of the same story.
At home during the war, the defense industries were hugely important because they represented a huge number of new jobs and presented new economic possibilities for Black Americans, as well as for a lot of white Americans. There was a lot of competition for Black Americans to get equal access to these jobs. Battles were fought factory by factory and city by city. And there were a lot of the different local workers organizing cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit, Chicago and New York, to achieve meaningful integration and get meaningful jobs in these defense industries.
There was some progress from 1941 through 1943 and 1944, largely because the need for workers was so great. Black Americans were able to finally get their feet in the door. But a few things hindered more equitable treatment in these workplaces. An important problem was that too many white workers either refused to work alongside Black workers, or they refused to permit Black workers to have any sort of promotions or supervisory roles. And the way white workers expressed their animosity to these Black workers was through a series of hate strikes, where they would just stop working. These strikes were not authorized by unions. The strikers would stop work for a period of time to demonstrate that they refused to work with Black workers. What's so striking about these hate strikes was that often only one or two or maybe a dozen Black workers had entered a factory and that prompted a thousand plus white workers to walk off the job. And that could happen if one or a handful of Black workers were promoted to new roles within a factory, and that would prompt a thousand plus white workers to walk off the job.
This racism was dramatized by Black activists and by the Black press at the time by arguing that white workers would rather see the Nazis win the war than work alongside Black Americans. And it's hard to argue with that claim. We would like to think that Americans were putting aside whatever prejudices or biases they had in support of this larger war effort, but the reality was that there were too many white workers for whom their individual racial prejudices were more important than their sense of duty or their patriotism for this larger war cause.
Another thing that came through about these war industries was that it was also often the case that Black workers who had training in specific skills such as electricians or carpenters couldn't get those jobs within the war industries. They were put in lower, entry-level and dirtier jobs, and again, it was just a point of frustration throughout the war that within the military and the defense industries. Black Americans had tremendous skills and capabilities to offer to make the war effort more successful, but too often those skills and capabilities they had to contribute were not taken advantage of.
Robin Lindley: And you highlight role of African American women in the defense industries and in the military. What did you see in terms of their contributions and treatment?
Professor Matthew Delmont: Within the military, there were thousands of Black women who served in the Women's Army Corps, who played really important roles on the home front, who were filling in for roles that had been left by men who been deployed to the service. And then a number of these Women's Army Corps draftees and volunteers deployed to theaters overseas as well.
The most famous and one of the largest female units was the 688th Central Postal Directory Battalion that was under the command of Charity Adams. When these women got to the European theater, their job was to make sure that troops throughout the European theater received mail. This work was really important for morale. Both white soldiers and Black soldiers talked about the importance of receiving letters from home, and this postal battalion helped to make that possible. They developed systems to get the mail to its intended recipients, which was no small task, because units were moving constantly. The soldiers also had very common names like Charles Adams or Joe Smith, and the battalion did really important work to get a mail distribution system throughout the European Theater.
On the home front, Black women played extremely important roles in fueling some of the activism that emerges in the Civil Rights movement after the war. The book highlights Ella Baker, a very important grassroots activist, who really cut her teeth as an activist during the war years. She traveled to local communities throughout the mid-Atlantic, southern and northeastern states working for the NAACP and starting NAACP branches. She presented leadership training classes and recruited more local people for civil rights organizing within their communities.
And what I think is so powerful about Ella Baker’s example is that she had this vision of leadership that you didn't have to be college educated or a lawyer or doctor or a professional to be a leader of your community. She believed that anyone had the capacity to be a leader. That was a profound vision of grassroots leadership that was directly at odds with how the military viewed Black Americans at the time. The military, by and large, didn't think Black people had the capacity to lead, but Ella Baker in the civilian world really proved them wrong. She showed how Black people from the small towns throughout the South had the capabilities to be dynamic and powerful leaders.
Robin Lindley: Wasn't Ella Baker also involved with the NAACP leaders Walter White and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the investigations of violence against Blacks Americans in military and in civilian roles during the war?
Professor Matthew Delmont: Yes. She was director of branches for the NAACP during the war, and she was campaigning in that capacity. She was working alongside Thurgood Marshall, the chief lawyer for the NAACP at the time, who was barnstorming across the country and investigating cases of violence against Black troops, trying to assure that Black troops were being treated equitably on Army bases. At the same time, he was laying the groundwork for voting rights cases legislation that would come later. And so Thurgood Marshall and Ella Baker and the people they were in contact with brought the home front aspect of the Double Victory Campaign to life.
Robin Lindley: I only learned of the tragic Port Chicago disaster a couple of years ago. As you describe in your book, in July 1944, there was this tremendous explosion in Port Chicago, California, near San Francisco. The explosion resulted in the deaths of 320 people, including 202 Black sailors. And then there was a court martial after this horrible incident, and many African Americans were prosecuted for mutiny. What did you learn about this tragedy and the subsequent trial?
Professor Matthew Delmont: The incident at Port Chicago was the largest home front loss of life during the war. Some of the things that came out after the explosion, were that these Black troops were handling very dangerous ammunition and explosives and they hadn't received the appropriate training to do this work. And, they were being challenged by their officers to go as fast as they could. In some cases. the officers were racing units against each other while they were trying to load ships and load trains with extremely explosive materials. So the workplace dynamic was very bad with a lack of training and supervisors pushing people past their limits and past their expertise.
The explosion killed more than 200 Black sailors. Those who survived were deeply traumatized. They had seen their friends killed. Some who had witnessed the horrific explosion and had lost friends, were ordered to go back and do the exact same work knowing that it was still just as dangerous. And, knowing that they still don't have the appropriate training to do it, they met and decided that a number of them were not going to return to do that work. They refused the orders from their white commanders. Some 50 African American leaders were charged with mutiny for disobeying orders. They were court martialed and found guilty of mutiny and they were held in military jail through the remainder of the war.
Thurgood Marshall became involved with the case because the NAACP recognized that, as the case unfolded, Black troops were not being accorded a fair chance of justice as they were being rushed into the legal proceedings. Even the question of whether what they had done could be considered mutinous conduct was questionable. Thurgood Marshall worked with others in the NAACP to help with the case, and they were able to get the sailors’ sentences initially reduced, and then, after the war, the sentences were shortened, and then the sailors were released sooner than expected. But it was a harrowing experience for those who lived, and it was obviously a devastating experience for everyone who witnessed or was injured in the explosion.
Robin Lindley: The disaster scene was just horrific, as you vividly describe in your book. I didn’t know about the World War II service of Medgar Evers, the legendary civil rights activist. What did you learn his wartime days and how that influenced his later work as an activist for equal rights that led to his assassination?
Professor Matthew Delmont: When Black veterans came back from the war, a huge number of them went on to directly fight for civil rights at home. Medgar Evers is a great example of this. He was part of the Red Ball Express. He loaded trucks and unloaded trucks and drove supplies across France day after day.
He came home and, on his 21st birthday in 1946, Medgar Evers led a group of other veterans and citizens to try to register to vote in Decatur, Mississippi, only to be turned away by a white mob with guns. For him, part of his service in World War II was that he saw other futures were possible. He described his experience meeting people in France as being the first time he ever felt that he was treated as fully human by a white person. That kind of treatment in France was entirely different than how he had been treated in Mississippi and throughout the Jim Crow South. That steeled his resolved to fight for equality in the US.
Evers continued the fight for voting rights throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s. He took on increasingly important roles in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, including becoming a leader of the branch of the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi. Throughout that period, Evers and others in leadership positions were targeted. The kind of equality and democracy that he and other veterans tried to bring to Mississippi was dangerous. It was not wanted by a lot of white citizens of segregated states.
Ultimately, Evers was assassinated in 1963, and it's important to note he was assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith, a white veteran whose fingerprints from when he registered for the Marines helped provide proof that he was the shooter.
Medgar Evers’s trajectory was from Normandy and serving proudly in the military, and then coming home and immediately fighting for voting rights, and then risking his life in the battle for civil rights at home. His story illuminates what was true for that generation of Black veterans. They knew it wasn't enough to win the battle militarily. They then had to also secure democracy at home.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for sharing the experience of Black Americans who returned from the war to face continued segregation and racism. You also stress how most African Americans were denied GI Bill benefits for housing and education. And you describe the terrible toll of African American veterans who were either severely injured or killed after the war.
Professor Matthew Delmont: Yes. The homecoming chapter was one of the most difficult to write. The depth of disrespect that was shown to Black veterans when they returned to this country is hard to fathom and it's still hard to write about now.
I share in the book more than a dozen examples of Black veterans who were murdered or severely beaten after the war. Those stories are horrific, but as troubling as they are, they need to be part of the story that we talk about World War II.
In terms of the GI Bill benefits thing, there was policy violence against Black veterans and a large number of Black veterans weren't able to access the GI Bill benefits that helped propel so many white veterans into the middle class. That’s because the legislation was set up so that benefits were distributed at the state and local level. That meant that discrimination could still take place, particularly in the South. There were numerous instances of Black veterans trying to access the employment benefits and the education benefits, and being turned away or being diverted to less beneficial programs.
And the mortgage industry still condoned racism throughout the country, which meant that VA-backed mortgages that were freely available to white veterans weren't as easily accessed by Black veterans. Some recent studies show that lack of access to the GI Bill had a significant impact in terms of fueling the racial wealth gap that has emerged in the country.
But I also do know that thousands of Black Americans were able to take advantage of the GI Bill and they went on to do tremendous things. They were able to use those benefits to pursue educations that helped them become doctors and lawyers and engineers and architects. But there was a real opportunity cost to the country based on discrimination because GI benefits were not distributed equally to all veterans. We could have had a whole generation of Black doctors and engineers and scientists and professors that we didn't have because of discrimination.
Robin Lindley: That’s another disheartening aspect of the postwar story. And you describe surprising postwar efforts to ignore or erase this history and to obscure or disparage any efforts or contributions by Black Americans either in the military or in civilian life. How did most historians and other writers ignore or miss this entire story that's so compelling and important and heartrending?
Professor Matthew Delmont: One thing that's interesting for me is that, when you look back at the war period, there's substantial evidence about the important role that Black troops played during the war. Obviously, the Black press covered it. Obviously, civil rights activists called attention to it. But even in a number of mainstream publications, such as the New York Times, Time Magazine, and Life Magazine, ran articles during the war that spoke to the important role Black troops played. Even military leaders spoke to those important roles as well.
Unfortunately, after the war the examples of the service and the courage and bravery of Black troops were whitewashed from the history. After the war, Life and Colliers published these large, handsome volumes of pictures of World War II, but there are almost no pictures of Black servicemen and women. They were almost completely written out of that history.
And, after the war, you had politicians like Senator James O. Eastland who openly disparaged the service of Black troops. And you had academics in different fields downplaying and doing whatever they could to disparage and or ignore the important roles that Black troops played. Black historians at that time understood what was going on. They saw that the story was being written in such a way that Black troops were being left out of it, and they understood that this would have a negative impact on the civil rights potential for Black Americans after the war. Part of the disparaging of Black troop service during the war was saying that they weren't fully American, that they didn't deserve to be equal parts of this nation.
Unfortunately, that erasure influenced how the popular history of the war was written and how movies about war were presented. Books and movies often focused on the white experience of the war without any real attention to Black experience of the war. But I would definitely say that there are a number of good books on specific Black units that served in the war.
I hope that my book tells a fuller story, both of the military aspect and of the home front aspect, and helps readers think about what the war looked like from the African American perspective.
Robin Lindley: I think you do a superb job, Professor Delmont. I just wanted to finally ask if you had anything to add or, after digging into this troubled history, I wondered where you find hope now because we still face many of these issues.
Professor Matthew Delmont: That’s a challenging question. I think where I find hope in this story is that I'm inspired by the, the resolve of Black veterans and Black citizens of that generation who fought for their country. I mean that every sense of the word: to fight militarily for the country, but also to come home and fight for the country to actually live up its professed ideals.
It's a very strange time to be a historian now and, obviously, there's lot of debate about how American history should be taught and discussed and written. The history is important because it gives us a clear example of how patriotism and defense have almost always gone hand in hand for Black Americans, and I find that inspiring. I think hopefully readers will be inspired in the same way.
Robin Lindley: Thanks so much for bearing with me, Professor Delmont, and for your thoughtful comments. It's been an honor to talk with you. I hope your revelatory new book reaches a wide audience. And congratulations again on the outstanding reviews.
Professor Matthew Delmont: Thank you. I really appreciate that and I really appreciate all your questions. I'm hoping that the book will reach as many people as possible because I'm obviously passionate about this history.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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