Many rural communities near military bases experienced major social changes when, for the first time, large groups of African-Americans or Native-Americans moved in to work at the new plants.
In its early history, the plains around Hastings were home to the earth lodges of the Pawnee tribe, but they were moved to reservations in Oklahoma in 1874-75. By 1940, Hastings as overwhelmingly white.
In November 1942, the construction company moved about 100 Sioux and Chippewa Indians into Hastings to work on the depot. The next month, the Navy announced that 400 “colored” sailors would be stationed in Hastings with an unknown number of black civilian workers. Within a week, the Hastings city council was discussing what to do with the Indians and Negroes.
The biggest official issues were housing and recreational opportunities. The Native Americans were provided only tents at the base, and the depot apparently provided no recreational facilities for them. Some residents recall that the Indians hung around the post office where they felt safe amongst other “federal people.” They had good reason to feel alienated from the general community. The newspaper article announcing their arrival had described them as “braves … on the warpath.”
The black soldiers were a different problem. There were more of them and they were going to in Hastings “for the duration.” So, the city of Hastings supported segregated housing and recreation facilities for them. Two new housing developments were built on the outskirts of the town. Still, nearby residents wrote in to the newspaper saying, “We … don’t care about housing Negroes.”
Despite long hours at the plant, Hastings was still concerned about what black workers would do with their free time in the evenings and on weekends. Implicitly, the city fathers didn’t want the workers in the same bars and recreation facilities as ordinary residents. So, at first, the Navy bought farm cattle trucks and trailers, put in some benches and every Friday loaded up black workers to take them to Omaha for the weekend. Omaha was 160 miles away, but it had the largest black community in the state. Later, the plant opened up a USO club on the base, and the city used money from a federal grant to open a recreation facility downtown specifically for black workers. Activities and dances were scheduled, but the area quickly got a reputation for “rowdiness.”
Across America throughout the war, military bases in rural areas created profound changes, both good and bad.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.