During the war. For many African Americans, the war offered an opportunity to get out of the cycle of crushing rural poverty. Blacks joined the military in large numbers, escaping a decade of Depression and tenant farming in the South and Midwest. Yet, like the rest of America in the 1940s, the armed forces were segregated.
The Army accepted black enlistees but created separate black infantry regiments and assigned white commanders to them. The Army Air Corps’ black fighter wing was completely separate, training at an all black university at Tuskegee, Alabama. The Navy segregated Negro units and gave them the most menial jobs on ships. And the Marines, at least initially, didn’t even accept African Americans. At every training base, black and white soldiers were kept apart.
But in the chaos of war, segregation broke down. It’s hard to keep the races apart when both are being attacked.
The breakdown began as early as Pearl Harbor. As the battleship U.S.S. Arizona was sinking and still under attack, a Negro seaman who had been trained as nothing but a mess man rushed to the deck, grabbed an unmanned anti-aircraft machinegun and kept firing until his ammunition ran out. Only then did he abandon ship. For months, the Navy refused to even identify the sailor. Negro newspapers kept the story alive, and the Navy finally identified him as Dorie Miller and awarded him a medal.
The Tuskegee Airmen were assigned to North Africa and later to Italy. They flew 200 bomber escort missions over southern Europe without allowing a single bomber to be shot down by enemy fighters. Their longest mission took them over Berlin where they encountered at least eight of the new, fast jet fighters. They shot down two and damaged the other five. The unit received two Presidential citations, and individual flyers received 150 medals.
Yet discrimination continued at home. Thurman Hoskins left the rural community of York, Nebraska, for basic training in Louisiana. At first, his black unit was issued sticks instead of guns. “We were trained with sticks how to do all of the things that you do,” he says. Later they were issued the same Garand M-1 rifles the white troops had had. “It was kind of nice to have a gun instead of a stick.”
This awareness of racism reached popular culture. Josh White was a blues musician who wrote songs pointing out the discrimination experienced by blacks during the war.
“Uncle Sam Says” is a biting, satiric indictment of discrimination. White took each branch of the service and pointed out that “Uncle Sam says, ‘Keep on your apron, son; / You know I ain’t going to let you shoot my big Navy gun.’ ”
White’s songs came to the attention of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt who invited him perform at the White House. That performance led to a long friendship and other visits.
For at least one serviceman from Wichita, Kansas, the irony of being asked to die for a country that denied him basic civil rights was too much. James Thompson wrote to the black newspaper, the Pittsburg Courier, and asked “Should I sacrifice to live ‘half American?'” The newspaper responded by calling for a “Double V” campaign. The campaign borrowed on the well-known two-finger “V for Victory” salute from Winston Churchill. The paper proclaimed that blacks should work for the victory of democracy both at home and abroad. The Double V campaign caught on.
After the war. When Black, Hispanic, and Native American soldiers returned they found a country that still did not grant them full rights, but a movement for the expansion of civil rights had been born. Some black soldiers who had left farm jobs in the South decided not to return home. Instead, they moved to cities, looking for work that was similar to what they had learned in the armed forces. This movement represented an intensification of the black migration that began around the turn of the century.
Birdie Farr’s husband, John, worked as an airplane mechanic during the war and wanted to work on cars after it. His war work was vital to keeping bombers in the air. Like many black veterans, John had trouble finding similar work when he returned home. John applied for a mechanic’s job at a York, Nebraska, auto dealership. The owner said he wouldn’t hire him as a mechanic, but he’d hire him to clean up the shop. John said, “That isn’t what I went to school for or come out of the service for. I want a real job.” John had to work at odd jobs in the York area. Eventually, he took a job at the auto dealer, running the car wash until he worked his way into a job as a mechanic. John Farr worked as a specialty mechanic for 22 years before he started his own auto business in York.
Birdie credits the war with helping break up discrimination. “The war broke up a lot of that prejudice,” she says. “You were there to do a job. And if you can do it, you’re going to do it not matter what color you are. You work next to the next guy. Your life depended on him regardless of what color they are.”