Give African American Veterans of WWII their Due: A Step toward Economic Justice

Claudia Stack

"These drivers of the 666th Quartermaster Truck Company, 82nd Airborne Division, who chalked up 20,000 miles each without an accident, since arriving in the European Theater of Operations." Left to right: T/5 Sherman Hughes, T/5 Hudson Murphy, Pfc. Zacariah Gibbs. Ca. May 1945. 208-AA-32P-3, Picture: National Archives, Identifier: 535533.

A 2017 Veterans Affairs report noted that “Over 900,000 African American soldiers served and at the height of the African American participation, nearly 9 percent of the Army was African American. Approximately, 167,000 African Americans served in the Navy (or about 4 percent of the Navy) and 17,000 served in the Marine Corps (or about 2 percent of the Marines).” --Source: Minority Veterans Report: Military Service History and VA Benefit Utilization Statistics. Data Governance and Analytics, Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC. March 2017 accessed 5/31/20

This report is well worth the time to read, and highlights a few of the many distinguished African American service members’ contributions to every major American conflict since the Revolutionary War. What it doesn’t mention is that at the end of WW II, as many as 40% of African American veterans were given either dishonorable discharges or “blue discharges” (neither honorable nor dishonorable). They were given these types of discharges at much higher rates than their European American counterparts. These discharges carried a stigma, and also meant that the veterans who received could not access GI Bill benefits. For example, Nelson Henry of Philadelphia, PA received a blue discharge after serving in WW II.

As a 2019 press release from Legal Aid explains, “ Technically neither honorable nor dishonorable, the blue discharge excluded Mr. Henry from many jobs. It cut off his GI benefits. And it resulted in him driving a cab for 13 years instead of enrolling in dental school, where he had already been granted a conditional acceptance before he had enlisted. Mr. Henry was not alone: 47,000 soldiers got blue discharges from the Army. African Americans, like Mr. Henry, got about 10,000 of them—or 22.2%—even though black soldiers made up only about 6.5% of the Army. “Homosexuals”—the term used at the time—also got a disproportionate share: about 5,000.

Although Mr. Henry was finally awarded an honorable discharge some 75 years after his military service, he was only able to enjoy this moral victory for less than a year before dying of COVID-19. His obituary notes that “The Army board said that it found no evidence of misconduct by Mr. Henry, that Mr. Henry had been targeted by his superiors, and “that there may have been an environment of racial discrimination” that led to his separation from the Army.”

Rothenberg notes in the book Race, Class and Gender in the United States “Between August and November 1946, for example, 21 percent of white soldiers and 39 percent of black soldiers were dishonorably discharged.” Nor did the discrimination end there. Even when they received honorable discharges, African American veterans faced a gamut of challenges in using their GI benefits, which effectively denied their families much of the prosperity that European Americans have built on the twin foundations of college education and home ownership.

A 2019 article on, “How the GI Bill’s Promise was Denied to a Million Black Veterans, “ explains why African American veterans were not able to access nearly as many home loans as European American veterans: A combination of redlining (legally mandated discrimination in real estate) and the fact that “Though the GI Bill guaranteed low-interest mortgages and other loans, they were not administered by the VA itself. Thus, the VA could cosign, but not actually guarantee the loans. This gave white-run financial institutions free reign to refuse mortgages and loans to black people.”

Outright denials of GI benefits, combined with discriminatory practices in administering GI benefits after WW II, resulted in a lost opportunities of staggering proportions. While European American veterans built home equity in newly created suburbs, African Americans were largely confined to urban areas that were rapidly losing investment.

In addition, limited space at segregated institutions of higher learning meant that there weren’t enough spaces at southern colleges to accommodate all the African Americans who did have GI Bill education benefits. A 2002 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “for those black veterans likely to be limited to the South in their educational choices, the G.I. Bill had little effect on collegiate outcomes, resulting in the exacerbation of the educational differences between black and white men from southern states.”

While a May, 2020 estimate published by Pew Research indicates there are only about 300,000 WW II veterans of all backgrounds still alive today, there are still things we can do as a nation to correct some of injustices committed against African American WW II veterans. If they had been allowed to access GI benefits at a rate comparable to their European American peers, African American families would have more generational wealth, be more financially resilient in times of crisis such as the Coronavirus pandemic, and would be partaking more fully in the American dream. Let us seriously take up the issue of how we can compensate African American WW II veterans who are still with us, or their families if they have already passed on. What is the average equity today of a suburban home purchased in 1946 using a VA loan? Distributing that amount to all African American veterans who served in WW II or their surviving families would be a starting point for justice.

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.


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