By Lois Carlisle
Atlanta History Center’s Veterans History Project collects, preserves, and makes accessible the stories of all veterans, as well as civilians who supported them in the USO, Red Cross, war industries, and on the home front. Atlanta History Center is a founding partner in the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, established in 2000. Our own collection, however, began in 1995 and contains nearly 800 interviews.
Among them are the stories of Black World War II veterans who returned home from combat to a country shadowed by segregation. This year, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the formal end of the Second World War by exploring the experiences of veterans who fought for a nation that did not fight for them.
Black soldiers have served this country since the Revolutionary War and their stories are vital in creating a more complete, more accurate picture of America’s past. The experiences of each veteran are unique. We are honored to preserve and share their stories and are actively seeking to hear from more veterans of color. As we look back at the past 75 years, we acknowledge the roots of the modern Civil Rights Movement taking hold in the bloodied soil of Europe. With Black soldiers returning home, they brought with them the question: What does it mean to fight for a country in which you yourself are not free?
“Our thinking then, that America would someday change and live up to its promises in the Declaration of Independence and in the Preamble to the Constitution, and so forth, that this is the land of the free and home of the brave. . .where, with liberty and justice for all, and the ability to pursue happiness like anybody else, that someday this nation will live up to those words. . . .So that day is coming, it’s still coming, it’s not there yet. . . .Those are the reasons why I, for one, persisted believing in America.”
- Lt. Colonel Charles Walter Dryden, Tuskegee Airman
Ahead of the First World War, tens of thousands of Black men heeded W.E.B. Du Bois’s call to enlist in the still-segregated armed forces. As had been the case with Black soldiers in the past, these men hoped that by serving their country abroad, African Americans would gain respect back at home. But when these solders returned stateside in 1918, they were met with a reinvigorated wave of racial terrorism. While this wave could be felt across the United States, in the South, Black veterans were targeted and lynched. Riots erupted in more than twenty cities nationwide, including Chicago and Washington D.C., protesting Black men in uniform. Benefits and disability, promised to troops as they enlisted, were not extended to Black veterans after returning home.
Despite all of this, 1.2 million Black soldiers enlisted during the Second World War. While many were eager to enlist, African American soldiers faced the same discrimination in the armed service as they did on the home front. Regiments were still segregated; barracks, hospital wards, recreational facilities, and blood banks were segregated; and Black soldiers faced routine discrimination and humiliation at the hands of their white counterparts and superior officers.
In his Veterans History Project interview, TEC4 Lewis S. Conn remembers entering segregated basic training at Ft. Benning and being met with new frustrations:
“When we got to Fort Benning. . .went to our little segregated place they had for all blacks. Then we found out in another part of Fort Benning, here you had all the white soldiers. . .When we [went] through in order for [medical] examination, then they had a line for the blacks, had a line for the whites. Even when you went to get your uniform, you had a line for the blacks, you had a line for the whites. And that’s when we started talking, say—look, what are we doing, what is all of this about? We’re getting ready now to risk our lives or, they’re recruiting us or go fight for freedom as they say. . .Why shouldn’t it be one for all and all for one? And that’s when it started dawning upon us, we got a little problem here. But we figured least we had to do what we had to do, because I had no other recourse.”
In the face of this continued discrimination, Black solders launched the Double V Campaign, which called for victory over fascism in Europe and victory over racism back home. African American soldiers and civilians threatened to march on Washington in order to ensure they would receive equal wages, equal opportunity for jobs and benefits, as well as an end to the segregation of government departments and the armed forces. The Selective Service Act of 1940 permitted, among other things, the opportunity for white and Black officers to train together, and established aviation training for Black officers. It did not, however, desegregate the military.
TSGT Rudolph Valentine Archer, who served with the Tuskegee Airmen following World War II, remembered his experience entering a segregated army during his Veterans History Project interview:
“I didn’t know anything about. . .the military, about the officer's corps, the enlisted corps, or any of that. That was something that I had to learn. But I very quickly learned that some of our white officers were quite racist in their outlook and their expectations. . . .[I] managed to stay out of serious, serious problems with them. But I fairly quickly became aware of [how to avoid confrontation with the white officers]. It wasn’t just that I was learning this myself, but I was learning it from the other guys who were in the organization, and their attitudes, some of which I adopted, some of which I rejected, and so on. But I managed to keep a perspective over my feelings of individuals that I was involved with, and I met some pretty rotten white officers, and I met some very good officers that I later learned what a good officer was, and how he performed. And I quickly learned the difference, I think.”
His experiences in learning how to come together with other servicemen of color in order to stand peaceably against the verbal and physical abuse of some of the white commanding officers helped sow the seeds of grassroots civil rights activism that would take root once they returned home.
Lt. Colonel Charles Walter Dryden described in his interview the heft of the burden felt by the pioneering Tuskegee Airmen. “We knew we dare(d) not fail.” Dryden and the other airmen set out to prove the ranking members of Congress and the white military officials wrong. “After [the Tuskegee Airmen’s] unmatched record, President Truman, with his no-nonsense attitude, said, ‘This is nonsense. Do away with segregation.’ Well, that led to the Civil Rights Movement, it led to court cases that did away with segregation in public transportation, in education, and so on and so forth.”
With one victory in hand for their country, Black soldiers returned home determined to secure victory for themselves.
As it had done following the First World War, America offered a cold reception to her returning soldiers of color. To white supremacists, Black veterans became targets because they represented hope and possibility in their communities. Such hope threatened the social and political power structures deeply entrenched in American society. Black veterans recognized that they had opened the door for equality; and were determined that they, or the next generation, would walk through it.
One way in which Black troops sought to further the cause of civil and human rights was through higher education. The stories shared with us through our Veterans History Project give us a firsthand account of the unequal distribution of GI Bill benefits. Though the legislation extended benefits to all veterans regardless of race, class, or gender, many recipients never received compensation because of racist policies in local Veterans Administrations—especially in the South.
Black servicemen and women from Georgia found themselves unable to attend college in their home state. TEC4 Lewis S. Conn describes the frustration he felt when encountering this systemic racism.
“I just got through fighting for freedom, and here I came back to Georgia and the United States was still segregated, and the education system and process. And they hit me again. Here I am on the GI Bill. They didn’t have to give me anything. All they had to do, open up the door, let me in. Give me an opportunity to further my education. But I was denied, because I was still what, was a Negro. . . .Denied, because of my race. Here I am, born in Georgia, live in Georgia, fought from Georgia for the United States, but came back, here I had the GI Bill. Still, couldn’t attend the university systems for further education.”
Even if a veteran was able to secure tuition money, many colleges remained segregated. Some institutions that claimed to be integrated continued to deny Black applicants. As a result, many Black veterans moved north to complete their studies.
Many women found an outpouring of opportunity both during and after the war. For many women, wartime jobs were their first opportunity to work outside of the home. For women of color, the wartime boom opened doors for careers outside of domestic work. As with their white counterparts, gender roles fell to the wayside in the wake of opportunity.
Among our Veterans History Project interviews is TEC4 Catherine Wiley’s, who made history as a member of the first group of Black Womens Army Auxiliary Corps officers. She received the GI Bill in order to pursue higher education. “World War II did play [a role in the advancement of Black women] because it gave us an opportunity to really go. . . .[The GI Bill] gave me the opportunity to move up in life. Because if not I’d have been still at home doing just ordinary manual work.”
Wiley enrolled in Morris Brown College in 1943 for her undergraduate degree. The GI Bill also provided for a master's degree. When the University of Georgia dismissed her application because of her race, Wiley applied to Columbia University in New York and was accepted. She earned her master’s in Early Childhood Education. Wiley credits her military service for altering her career path away from domestic work. Because of the GI Bill, Wiley went on to shape thousands of young minds in her classroom over her decades of service as an educator.
While the GI Bill is credited with enlarging the white American middle class, it is also responsible for the uneven distribution of wealth following the war. As the gap between the working and middle classes widened, so did the frustration among Black communities who were shut out of education and career advancement.
Merchant Marine Refrigerating Engineer Samuel Floyd Daniel describes the moment he knew a different fight was waiting for him back on American soil. Daniel’s ship, carrying 500 German prisoners of war, arrived in Norfolk. He, along with a multi-racial group of fellow soldiers, disembarked in Virginia and boarded a ferry. As the group made their way to the top deck, they were approached by two white men:
“This policeman and I guess it was a military guy with him, too. . .told us we had to go down on a lower deck. So when we all started, they said, ‘No, no, no. Not these guys. Just you guys. Talkin about those Black fellas.’ And so one of the guys said, ‘Man. . .we just come back from North Africa. We were fighting against this crap.’ . . .You wonder. You said, ‘Well, what am I fighting for? I can't even stand up here just because I'm of a different color or different hue.’ Little things like that made you think about it, but still didn't make you want to say, ‘Well, I ain't gonna fight no more.’ You said, ‘Well, let's get this fight over and then we'll start this other fight.’”
Our oral history collection also helps us better understand desegregation in its many, unequal forms in later conflicts. When the Department of Defense desegregated the Armed Forces in the early 1950s, Black and white units were slow to integrate. In the early days of the order’s implementation, white servicemen often dramatically outnumbered their Black counterparts.
TSGT Rudolph Valentine Archer, like many of his fellow soldiers, was plunged into a new world following integration. “It occurred to me when I left this all-Black outfit, that was the only kind of military experience that I was aware of. . . .I was moving from an all-Black community that had its own social and political and other kinds of dimensions into an all-white installation where there may have been 2,000 white troops there and three Black troops. The Black troops who were already serving on those installations were in the food service jobs and motor pool and what were considered unskilled jobs at that time.” When Archer received his first assignment at the US Air Force Headquarters, he was told that, regardless of his station as a tech sergeant and level of experience, he wasn’t allowed to supervise any white troops. Because he couldn’t supervise men on the machine shop floor, the Air Force sent him back to tech school, where he studied until being deployed to Korea.
African Americans served with distinction in Vietnam, in numbers roughly proportional to their percentage of the overall population. Nevertheless, they faced significant discrimination, particularly in training, promotions, assignments, and administration of military justice. Civil rights leaders, such as Atlanta’s own Martin Luther King, Jr., condemned the use of Black troops to “guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” Men depended on each other in the field where troops had less motivation to engage in racist practices or political disputes. Vietnam veteran General Colin Powell recalled that, “Our men in the field, trudging through elephant grass under hostile fire, did not have time to be hostile toward each other. But bases. . .were increasingly divided by the same racial polarization that had begun to plague America.”
Oliver Murray, who retired in 1984 from the US Army as a lieutenant colonel, explains, “We looked forward to going into the service because there were very few things that a Black person could do in South Carolina in 1962. . . .As far as [military] jobs were concerned, Black folks still got jobs that were not the ones that you get in order to advance.”
Stories like Murray’s give new depth to the complicated arc of integration. His account is just one of thousands of troops who carved out space for themselves and for their community. “. . .I have as much a stake in America as anyone else,” said Charles Walter Dryden. Documenting and sharing the challenges faced by Black veterans throughout history is critical to understanding our shared past and to building a more equitable future together.
The interviews preserved at the Kenan Research Center are created in partnership with the Veterans History Project, an initiative of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center. The Atlanta History Center is a founding partner and has collected nearly 800 interviews of veterans in Metropolitan Atlanta with the invaluable assistance of the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association and the Atlanta Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Interviews are shared on Album (our visual archives database) and YouTube.
For more information about Veterans History Project or to participate, please call 404.814.4042 or email email@example.com.