World War II: Black Soldiers and Veterans Workshop

The Civil Rights & Restorative Justice Project met for their spring workshop World War II: Black Soldiers and Veterans on May 17, 2023.

During the workshop, students and staff heard from Matthew Delmont, author of the recently published book Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, along with Richard Brookshire, executive director of the Black Veterans Project and a U.S. Army veteran.

Together, they discussed the “two-front battle” that Black soldiers fought during World War II, as well as veterans’ fight for recognition and benefits that continues to this day.

Delmont became interested in Black Americans’ contributions during World War II while working on another project about Black newspapers. When perusing issues of Black papers like the Chicago Defender, he said, he discovered stories of the more than one million Black Americans who served in World War II.

“I was surprised,” he said, to find so many stories in the newspapers. “I hadn’t come across this many examples.”

As Delmont demonstrated, for Black Americans the story of World War II started long before Pearl Harbor, as Black newspapers covered the rise of fascism in Germany, and compared the treatment of Jews in Europe to the treatment of Black people in the Jim Crow South.

After Pearl Harbor, Black servicemen and women fought under a contradiction: while they were fighting for democracy and an end to Nazism, they did so in a segregated military. They were treated poorly on military bases; some even felt that they would be safer once they were deployed to the front lines.

James G. Thompson of Wichita, Kansas pointed out this irony in a 1941 letter to the Pittsburgh Courier. “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?” he wrote. “Is the kind of America I know worth defending?”

This letter led to a campaign calling for a Double Victory in a “two-front battle”—the battles against Nazism abroad and racism at home.

“There really were two parallel battles going on during the war,” Delmont explained. “Black Americans were committed to helping to win the war militarily, but they recognized that it didn’t do much good to win a war against Nazism if you still had lynchings taking place in the United States.”

Once they returned home, Black veterans received little recognition for their military achievements, and the fight against Jim Crow policies continued, Delmont said. No medals of honor were awarded to Black troops during the war, though, he said, “we can’t tell the story of World War II without talking about the contributions of Black Americans.”

As Brookshire also noted, Black veterans did not receive the same benefits as their white counterparts following the war.

Brookshire served in the military for seven years. When he returned home from Afghanistan, he struggled with mental health issues but had trouble receiving assistance from the Veterans Administration.

During that time, he read about the GI Bill of Rights, which was signed into law in 1944, and learned how Black World War II veterans were denied benefits due to them. Later, he met other Black veterans like himself, some of whom had been incarcerated or experienced homelessness. 

“I felt called on a mission,” he said. Brookshire started the non-profit Black Veterans Project to relate the challenges faced by Black veterans, past and present.

Disparities in benefits today can be traced back to the American Civil War, including the GI Bill of Rights, which was crafted to help World War II veterans reintegrate into American society. The bill helped veterans access college and homeownership, but many states denied Black veterans access to these benefits.

This disparity is felt to this day. Black veterans and their families were deprived of social safety nets that allowed other veterans to build wealth. Today, Black veterans still face disparities in disability compensation and are twice as likely to be dishonorably discharged and thereby denied benefits.

Brookshire’s organization has compiled two decades’ worth of data on these inequities, research that has informed federal policies aimed at correcting disparities in veterans’ benefits.

His work calls for repairing the racial disparities that have kept Black veterans from succeeding. Delmont, meanwhile, reminded the audience of the importance of continuing to tell the stories of Black servicemen and women. “The stories we choose to tell about the past matter,” Delmont said.

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