The war years were transformative for people of African descent, particularly in the United States. About 10 percent of the population, or 13 million people out of 130 million Americans, were of African descent in the war years. More African Americans than in previous times were engaged in military operations and defense industry work, and larger numbers were represented in the federal government’s operations. African Americans migrated in larger numbers to different regions for work or military service, they experienced a transformation into a more urban community, and many became foot-soldiers agitating for equality and civil rights. African Americans who experienced the war years either stateside or on the international stage were profoundly affected by their experiences, including the horrors of combat warfare and the opportunities of a booming wartime economy. Having survived the bleakness of the 1930s-era economic depression, World War II America offered more opportunities for employment, better living conditions and life choices, and advancement through military participation. However, all of these opportunities were hampered by the anti-black racism that greatly reduced equality within the military, the government, and defense industries. Two million African American men and women found new employment in war industry jobs. The army’s governing policy called “segregation without discrimination” meant mostly white officers commanding black troops, which limited the opportunities of black soldiers. Still, 2.5 million African American men and women volunteered for military service, with about 1.5 million ultimately selected to serve. Over six thousand African American women formed into segregated units of the Women’s Auxiliary Corps. Two army infantry divisions of black soldiers fought in the war: the 92nd Buffalo Soldier Division in Italy, and the 93rd Blue Helmets Division in the Pacific Islands. While most of the “Greatest (Black) Generation” served in service and support units, some fifty thousand black soldiers served in combat units. Other specialized units included the Tuskegee Airmen, the “Triple Nickle” Parachute Unit, the 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion, and the “Red Ball Express” Trucking companies. Black soldiers helped to liberate Nazi concentration camps, they came ashore in the D-Day operations, and they volunteered in the brutal Battle of the Bulge campaign, among many other distinctive operations. Black medical professionals ran international healthcare operations. Specialized service personnel performed engineering feats through difficult terrain. America’s defense industries employed more black workers from ship building to parachute construction, from Victory gardens to government appointments, and in the production of guns and butter. In spite of the prejudicial treatment that constrained their participation, many African Americans resisted segregation and discrimination by engaging in the “Double V” campaign: Victory against America’s enemies abroad, and Victory against racism at home. Because the war years brought about more transformations than before, this is a significant time in African American history.
General Overview: Military Experiences
The following works focus on African American participation in the armed forces. Buckley 2001 and Foner 1974 take the long view analyzing government and military policies aimed at setting the context of African Americans in the armed forces over time. MacGregor and Nalty 1977 also examines discriminatory race policies through a collection of primary source document reprints. Bielakowski 2007 and Morehouse 2000 focus on the World War II period using archival documents and oral histories. The original full-length study comes from documents that Lee 1994 used from the author’s Office of Military History. All of these texts fit into the historiographic trend of the new military history where social elements of soldiers’ lives and military institutional policies are investigated. Earlier modes of historical interpretation focused on military leaders and tactical strategies of war.
Bielakowski, Alexander. African American Troops in World War II. Oxford: Osprey Press, 2007.
This comprehensive work written by a military historian begins with the racial policies affecting black soldiers in World War II, specifically their segregation and subsequent under-employment. Utilizing presidential records and military archives, Bielakowski undertakes an extensive profile of many combat units in the army, navy, and Marine Corps including the Tuskegee Airmen, Buffalo Soldiers, Triple Nickel Battalion, 761st Tank Battalion, and more.
Buckley, Gail Lumet. American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm. New York: Random House, 2001.
Richly researched war stories of black soldiers in all of America’s military engagements. Buckley is the daughter of Hollywood royalty Lena Horne. During World War II Lena Horne entertained the troops at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, the military base where black soldiers were training. Buckley discovered stories about her uncle who fought in the segregated army. She spent fourteen years crafting this military history that focuses on black soldiers and society.
Converse, Elliott V., III, Daniel K. Gibran, John A. Cash, Robert K. Griffith, Jr., and Richard H. Kohn. The Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II: The Study Commissioned by the United States Army to Investigate Racial Bias in the Awarding of the Nation’s Highest Military Decoration. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1997.
In the 1990s, the military command noted that no World War II–era black soldiers had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The army selected several historians to investigate the records to discover if there had been discrimination and racism in the practices. Mostly white commanders neglected or refused to recommend the heroic actions of black soldiers for the medal. Based on this study, President Clinton awarded seven Congressional Medals of Honor in 1997.
Foner, Jack D. Blacks and the Military in American History: A New Perspective. New York: Praeger, 1974.
A rarely studied topic in 1974, Foner focused on the contributions of black soldiers in all of America’s military engagements. His analysis of the World War II era showed that military planners underutilized black soldiers and crafted policies to hamper their full employment. Yet, black soldiers continued to participate in the war effort and sign up in record numbers because many believed that postwar America would provide better opportunities.
Lee, Ulysses. The Employment of Negro Troops. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1994.
World War II 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition. Originally published in 1963, this is the seminal monograph that addresses the use of black men and women in the armed forces. Lee served in the army as an Education Officer and crafted a policy pamphlet titled “Leadership and the Negro Soldier.” After the war, Lee worked in the Office of Military History where he wrote this full-length study. He references race policies affecting black soldiers and includes numerous examples of protest actions.
MacGregor, Morris J., and Bernard Nalty, ed. Blacks in the United States Armed Forces: Basic Documents. 13 vols. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1977.
This thirteen-volume collection of primary source documents is captioned and annotated to illustrate the extant racial policies affecting black soldiers through all of American history. Volumes 6 and 7 deal specifically with black soldiers in the World War II era.
Morehouse, Maggi M. Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: Black Men and Women Remember World War II. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
Using government and military records to contextualize the racial policies that affected black soldiers, Morehouse then gives voice to over fifty men and women who participated in the war effort. Oral histories collected across the nation undergird the historical narrative provided from official archives. While the military employed their so-called called segregation-without-discrimination policies, Morehouse demonstrates the injustice and inefficiencies. Numerous instances of resistance to these policies are referenced in this work.
Moye, Todd. Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Oxford Oral History Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Professor and historian Todd Moye used oral histories, newspaper accounts, official documents, and other primary source material to relate the history of the Army Air Corps all-black military aviation unit. Trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, over one thousand pilots prepared for war overseas. Many distinguished themselves in service. Moye managed the National Park’s oral history project and used many of their eight hundred first-hand accounts in his monograph.
Weir, William. The Encyclopedia of African American Military History. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press, 2004.
This extensive reference is meant to correct the deficiencies in military encyclopedias that neglect the contributions of black soldiers in all of America’s battles and peacetime eras. Arranged alphabetically, this reference includes entries for significant peoples and events and details the segregation policies of America’s armed forces. Particularly detailed with World War II entries.
Wynn, Neil A. The African American Experience during World War II. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.
This updated monograph covers the historiography of black military participation since the 1975 publication of Wynn’s The Afro-American in the Second World War. Based on primary sources and deep archival research, Wynn specifically carries the black soldiers of the war into the battles for civil rights and equality. He demonstrates the many ways that black soldiers resisted discrimination.
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