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Black Americans have long fought in America's wars, very often fighting for a country that doesn't always fight for them. Today we'll learn about the experience of Black Americans in World War II. We'll look at the ways Black men and women served in the armed services during the war, and look at life on the homefront.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Chateauvart, Melinda, Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1998)
Todd Moye, Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Sandra M. Bolzenius, Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took On the Army During World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018).
Yvonne Latty, Voices of African American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq (New York: Harper-Collins, 2004) 9-11.

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Sources and References
Chateauvart, Melinda, Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1998)
Todd Moye, Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Sandra M. Bolzenius, Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took On the Army During World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018).
Yvonne Latty, Voices of African American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq (New York: Harper-Collins, 2004) 9-11.

#crashcourse #history #WWII

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Hi, I'm Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course: Black American History. The number of Black Americans that served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II was unprecedented, and yet, the patriotism that so many Black people demonstrated through their service didn't protect them from racism. The Armed Forces remained segregated in World War II, and Black soldiers and their women's auxiliary units were regularly disregarded and mistreated.

It is a cruel and tragic irony that, while the United States was ostensibly fighting a war to end fascism, they continued to treat Black Americans, even those willing to die for their country, as second-class citizens. Still, Black Americans were an essential part of the war effort, and it's important to remember how they contributed to the cause both at home and abroad. Let's start the show.

(theme music)

In 1940, there were less than 10,000 Black members of the U.S. Armed Forces, but by the end of the war, that figure had risen to 1.2 million and over 2.5 million had registered for the draft. Still, despite this rapid growth, segregation limited the nature of the duties Black soldiers were assigned to and restricted the possibility for upward mobility. Despite all that they had done for the American military in previous wars, many still considered Black soldiers to be too cowardly to fight, too inept to execute, and too unfit to lead others.

Black and white military personnel had been divided into separate units since the Civil War, and during World War II, they continued to be kept in separate facilities. There were segregated sleeping quarters, transportation, canteens, and even church services.

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Black women also experienced segregation and discrimination in the auxiliary care units that were designed for women who wished to serve as nurses and cooks during the war. World War II arrived in an era when gender roles were finally beginning to change. Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, many women entered the workforce, because they needed more money to provide for themselves and their families, and the call to join the war effort brought even more women into the labor force, and they were welcome.

Well, at least, the white women were. Wartime may have necessitated that America change its mind on some issues, but racism wasn't really one of them, so while Black women were able to join the civilian corps, it didn't mean that they would be treated well once they were a part of it.

There were organizations designed for each branch of the military that promised career opportunities for women who joined the war effort, including the Women's Army Corps, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services, and Women's Airforce Service Pilots. While many white women could expect to receive medical training, earn leadership roles, or, in the case of the Air Force, even operate aircrafts, Black women who joined were largely relegated to menial labor. For example, at Fort Devens, a military base in Boston, Massachusetts, Black women who were part of the Army Corps were promised training as medical technicians but were instead relegated to positions as hospital orderlies.

Despite these limitations, Black women distinguished themselves in service. Prior to an intervention by Eleanor Roosevelt, Black women in the Women's Army Corps, or WACs, were not stationed overseas. The first group of Black WACs arrived in Europe in February 1945. This was the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.

The first huge assignment given to those 855 women, you ask?

 (04:00) to (06:00)

The mailroom. When these WACs arrived, they found a system backlogged, and a building stacked to the ceiling with mail. There was also a room filled with gifts, food, and rodents. Charity Adams, one of only two Black women promoted to major during World War II, was commander of the unit. By dividing women into three eight-hour shifts and sorting more than 65,000 pieces of mail during each shift, the unit was able to clear these rooms in less than three months.

Over the course of the war effort, Black American women suffered mistreatment from all kinds of people - white, Black, men, and women. Such was the case for Lieutenant Gertrude Margarite Ivory-Bertram, a Black member of the Army Nurse Corps who served as a nurse at Fort Bragg and the West African Theatre during World War II. She recorded several accounts of her experience that give us insight into the expectations versus the realities of Black women who joined the fight. Let's go to the Thought Bubble.

 Thought Bubble (5:06)

So there was Bertram, minding her business at a train station with a first class ticket to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. At the time, Fort Bragg was one of few bases that accepted Black nurses. She was traveling under government orders and was legitimately excited about her first class trip until a Black Pullman porter started causing a scene. A Pullman porter was sort of like a flight attendant but for trains.

See, when she booked the ticket, no one asked her what her race was. Then, when she arrived and produced her ticket, it immediately became a problem. The porter told her that she was causing trouble and said to her face, "Girl, you are out of your place." But at this time, survival for Black people meant compliance, even if it meant preventing other Black people from trying to exercise their rights.

 (06:00) to (08:00)

After going back and forth with Gertrude, he put her in a drawing room on the train and wouldn't let her into the dining room car or even the restroom.

She arrived at Fort Bragg to find it segregated, as well. She later recounted a moment in which she collapsed trying to make it up the hill one night when it was too dark to see. Two white nurses grabbed her on each side to pull her up, but when they reached the top of the hill and the moonlight revealed her skin color, they dropped her back on the ground.

 Thought Bubble Ends (6:30)

Thanks, Thought Bubble. It was initially difficult for Bertram to wrap her head around these early experiences. She struggled to reconcile the dignity and respect she'd earned during nursing school and the humiliation she experienced when she joined the war effort. She understood that the white women who helped her could have been ostracized by others for helping her, and she also understood that the Pullman porter could have lost his job for allowing her to sit in first class. But who was there to have empathy for her?

Bertram's experiences highlight only a fraction of what Black men and women went through during the war. Still, they offer a picture of how truly extraordinary it was for those who were able to excel amid incessant discrimination. All-Black or predominantly Black units, like the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion or the 761st Tank Battalion, became shining emblems of Black resilience and triumph. These battalions bulldozed their way through the hate in Europe from both their adversaries and their allies and emerged as formidable and honorable soldiers.

The only all-Black divisions to fight in both World War I and World War II were the 92nd Infantry Division and the 370th Infantry Regiment. The 92nd Infantry Division, referred to as "The Black Unit," was comprised of approximately 15,000 men and commanding officers.

 (08:00) to (10:00)

The 370th Infantry Regiment was called "The Black Devils" and had the coveted distinction of being the only Black regiment to have all Black officers.

And then there was the Tuskegee Airmen, affectionately known as "The Red Tails." They got their nickname when they became members of the 332nd Fighter Group. These pilots flew P-51 Mustangs to escort bomber pilots into enemy territory. The airmen's highly lauded performances stood out and contributed to a growing sense that Black people should be fully integrated members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

This group was formed in 1941, and it was based in Tuskegee, Alabama. After extensive training on the local army airfield, college students who matriculated through this program became the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, which would later become the Air Force. Besides pilots, the program also produced navigators, bombardiers, aircraft mechanics, and more. During their time of service, these men flew more than 15,000 missions in Europe and North Africa during World War II. By the war's end, they'd earned more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

While these remarkable Black contributions on the war front were an important to post-war military integration, there was still a lot more work to be done on the home front. Seasoned labor organizer and socialist A. Philip Randolph proposed a march on Washington in 1941 that would change the entire trajectory of treatment of African Americans.

No, I'm not talking about the March on Washington pulled off by Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Dr. Martin Luther King over 20 years later. This march on Washington was more of a movement, because, in the end, the march itself didn't actually have to happen. Well, not yet, anyway. The March on Washington Movement was the most militant Black political operation in the early 1940s.

 (10:00) to (12:00)

It was created to call out segregation in the Armed Forces and demand President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration treat Black soldiers fairly. We'll learn more about this in an upcoming episode, but through his rallying and petitioning, Randolph made his plans to march on the Capitol public knowledge.

As plans for the march raised concerns for race relations, it caught President Roosevelt's attention. On June 25th, 1941, he signed Executive Order 8802, which prohibited "discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin." The Roosevelt administration also brought the Fair Employment Practices Commission to address workplace discrimination.

Another crusade Black people took up during the 1940s was the Double V campaign led by James G. Thompson. This newspaper marketing campaign was meant to remind Americans that, while their was fighting against fascism going on abroad, there was a lot of work to do in the fight against racism here at home.

From being stuffed in mailrooms to do menial work to facing Jim Crow thousands of miles from home, Black men and women faced ongoing discrimination and mistreatment while continuing to exceed the expectations of their compatriots over and over again. Take the Tuskegee Airmen, for example. When stationed in Sicily in 1944, they were forced to operate secondhand P-40 airplanes that were much slower than their German counterparts, but when moved to Italy and given the opportunity, they shot down 12 German bombers in two days in those exact same secondhand planes.

As has been the case in wars throughout American history, without the contributions of Black soldiers and civilians, the outcome of the war may have looked very different. It's important that we always take the time to acknowledge the ways Black folks have always

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fought for a country that doesn't always fight for them and the way they did it with bravery, dignity, and respect. Thanks for watching; I'll see you next time.

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