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In 'Half American,' historian tells the story of World War II from Black perspective

World War II; troops in Italy, 1944. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
World War II; troops in Italy, 1944. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

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More than a million Black Americans fought for the United States in World War II.

They fought for a double victory: over fascism and over racism.

But their fight would continue long after the war ended:

“Should I sacrifice my life to live half American? Is the America I know worth defending?”

Today, On Point: World War II from a Black perspective.


Matthew Delmont, professor of history at Dartmouth College. Author of Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad. (@mattdelmont)

Interview Highlights

Why did you write this book?

Matthew Delmont: “I wrote this book because I think this is the history more Americans need to understand. I’m a historian. I’m a professional historian, and I teach history at Dartmouth College. And I’ve taught about this history for more than a decade. But as I was going through archival sources, going through Black newspapers, I kept coming across stories of average Black Americans who were drafted, volunteered to serve in the Army, the Navy and Marines. And these were not famous people. These are just average Americans from Pittsburgh, from Cleveland, from Chicago. And I was blown away by how many of these stories I saw.

“And it really made me pause and take a step. This is about six or seven years ago, when I started working on this project. It made me wonder, What does the war look like from the African American perspective? Once I paused and kind of really got into the research, I was amazed at how much material was there. When you actually take a step back and understand what the more than a million Black Americans who participated in the war effort, what they did and how vital they were to the war effort. It was a story that blew me away. And it’s why I was excited to have a chance to write the book.”

What did Black Americans think about the burgeoning war, before America got involved?

Matthew Delmont: “One of the things that’s different when you look at the war from the African American perspective is that the war really starts before Pearl Harbor. If you look at a Black newspaper from 1933, 1934, 1935, you’d see extensive coverage of what’s going on in Europe. Black Americans are among the first to recognize the really dire threat that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis pose, not just to Europe, not just to Jews, and really to the world. There are editorials and articles already in the early and mid 1930s that call it explicitly, the ways in which Hitler and the Nazis are drawing on American racial policies to justify their treatment of Jews in Europe.

“They’re drawing parallels between the segregation of Jews on train cars, the theft of Jewish property, the violence against Jewish communities in Europe, and how closely that resembles the kind of treatment Black Americans are receiving in the Jim Crow South. And so, these editorials are powerful evidence that Black Americans understood what a dire threat Nazism and fascism posed to the world, and they were ready to take up arms to fight against it.

“The challenge, of course, in the 1930s, for Black Americans, is that the military does almost everything they can to push Black Americans out of the service of their country. And so as Black Americans are recognizing the threat internationally, they also have to fight domestically, just to have a chance to even participate in the military effort.”

On disagreements on whether it was a good idea to go fight in World War II

Matthew Delmont:  “There was disagreement within the Black community. Obviously, the Black community has never been monolithic and that was true with the war, as well. On one hand, most mainstream civil rights leaders and most of the Black newspapers were in favor of Black Americans fighting the war effort. They recognized the real threat that Nazi Germany posed. … They also recognize that service in the military has been one of the core aspects of what it means to be fully American. And so the people who were in favor of Black Americans participating in the war thought that this military service in World War II would help to lay the foundation for equal citizenship after the war.

“But there is a significant chorus of voices who oppose African American involvement in the war, particularly people who are pacifists or who hold more radical political, political opinions, who don’t think the United States during the war is worth fighting for. And in many ways, they have a point. They’re pointing to the fact that the United States racial policies are apartheid- like policies.

“That Black Americans in the South can’t vote. Black Americans across the country are facing racial discrimination in terms of housing, in terms of employment, in terms of schools. And they’re asking pointedly, should we even fight for this country? More broadly, they’re worried about how the United States and its allies in Great Britain are trying to use the war to perpetuate colonial policies. And so there are significant chorus of voices who argue that Black Americans should not participate in the war effort. Ultimately, once the draft happens, Black Americans are compelled to participate in the war effort. And the vast majority of Black Americans take up and take up that draft status and join the military.”

On the job situation for many Black Americans

Matthew Delmont: “In the lead up to the war, so before Pearl Harbor, Black Americans are experiencing discrimination all across the country. It’s most pronounced in the South, where you would see the explicit forms of Jim Crow segregation, the white drinking fountains, the Black drinking fountains, clearly segregated schools. But that discrimination is true across the country as well, whether you’re in New York, in Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles. Black Americans are experiencing discrimination in almost every facet of their life, particularly terms of employment. Black Americans just don’t have the same access to two jobs and even to labor unions as white Americans have.

That is a cause of significant frustration, anger for Black Americans. And so, it’s clear that civil rights activism is already taking place well before the war starts. It only escalates during the war, as the war really heightens the intensity around racial discrimination. After Pearl Harbor, once the U.S. enters the war, more opportunities start to open up. In particular, in terms of employment in these the war industries, because there are so many white American men who are drafted in the service. That leaves a number of potential job openings in the defense industries.

“But even there, it takes consistent town by town, city by city, workplace by workplace activism, by Black Americans, to get their foot in the door, to get a chance to have some of these war jobs. And the kind of steady throughline throughout is that the kind of persistent racial violence Black Americans experience at the hands of white citizens. … World War II is really a fraught racial period. I think for some Americans, they like to look back and think, well, World War II was a simpler time. But the reality is it just was not.”

On racism experienced at home

Matthew Delmont: “If you were actually at war in Germany or in Japan, you knew who the enemy was, and you could defend yourself. On these army bases, whether they were on base or whether they were traveling to these small southern towns, they didn’t feel like they could defend themselves, and they felt like almost any white citizen, whether it was a sheriff, a police officer or even a bus driver who was deputized to behave as though they were a sheriff, was empowered to implement and make sure that the Jim Crow policies of the South, the racism of the South, extended to Black enlisted men, to Black officers.

“And there’s almost a feeling of helplessness at the hands of these white townspeople and the white officers there on the bases, because these troops have been sent to the Army bases, they wanted to do what they could to defend the country. But the sort of daily threats that they experienced were horrific. And I appreciate playing a clip from Tuskegee. Because for a lot of people, they think of the Tuskegee Airmen who are among the most well-known Black Americans to participate in the war effort. They were the trailblazing Black pilots. But when you read their account of being in Tuskegee, Alabama, and listen to their oral histories, what they experience at home was terrifying before they even ever had a chance to go abroad and to fight the Nazis.”

On the GI Bill and life after war for Black Americans

Matthew Delmont: “The GI Bill is perhaps the most important piece of legislation our country has ever passed. It’s what made it possible for a whole generation of white veterans to enter the middle class. Because it provided access to low income, low interest home loans, business loans, college tuition benefits, and a host of other benefits. It’s really what fueled the rise of the middle-class United States, and what made it possible for that generation of white veterans to reenter the country. It was payback for the service they provided to the country.

“Unfortunately, the way that the GI Bill legislation was written, it was distributed at the state and local level, and that was by design. Southern Democrats who wrote large parts of the legislation understood that if it was distributed locally at the state level, that meant that racial discrimination could be part of how it was distributed. And so there are countless stories from the 1940s of Black veterans trying to access their GI Bill benefits being turned away, or being given the runaround. In terms of the VA mortgages, that was true outside the South, as well. The Black veterans just could not access them in the same way that white veterans could.

“Just one example of the 67,000 mortgages that were issued by the VA in New York and northern Jersey in 1947, fewer than 100 went to Black veterans. Nationally, by 1950, white veterans had received nearly 98% of these VA guaranteed home loans. That had a really significant long-term impact in terms of the kind of wealth Black veterans could generate from these benefits. The Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University has done some recent calculations on what the long-term impact of this has been. And what they found is that Black veterans’ GI Bill benefits are worth on average, only about 40% of what white veterans received in over a lifetime. That was about a $100,000 difference.

“And so when we see these what should be upsetting figures about the vast racial wealth gap in our country, a large part of that can be traced back to the GI Bill and the way it was implemented. And I think the last piece I mention here is that there were thousands of Black veterans who were able to access their GI Bill benefits. And I think the story we can take from that is that these veterans went on to do amazing things.

“Dovey Johnson Roundtree was a women’s Army Corps veteran. She established a law firm in Washington, D.C., and helped when really important civil rights cases in the 1950s. And then a guy named Robert Madison was a lieutenant in the Army. He used the GI Bill to earn architectural degrees from Case Western, Harvard. Went on to establish a trailblazing architectural firm. And so this discrimination prevented the country from benefiting from a whole generation of Black professionals.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.