Recovering the Experiences of the Black Greatest Generation

Historians have overlooked the way black veterans of the greatest generation recalled their service during World War II. I argue the problem is that historians are too preoccupied with finding the origins of the civil rights movement in the wartime experiences of African American troops. This has led some historians to start with the assumption that most, if not all, black soldiers understood that they were on the front lines of the struggle for racial equality. This assumption has shaped the research questions civil rights historians have asked, both of archival sources and of veterans themselves. Some historians have been surprised, then, to learn that not all African-American World War II veterans had the struggle for civil rights on their minds when they served. To make my point, I will examine several oral histories of black World War II veterans conducted by Dr. Neil McMillen for the Center for Oral History at the University of Southern Mississippi.

McMillen is a distinguished historian, whose book, Dark Journey: Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In his interviews, he focused his questioning of black veterans on civil rights issues such as the Double V Campaign, an effort by the black-owned newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, to encourage African Americans to fight for victory over the Axis powers and for victory over racial discrimination in the United States. By doing so, he was assuming that all black veterans understood at the time that their World War II experiences were part of the "long civil rights struggle."[i]

The veterans’ answers to McMillen’s questions clearly surprised him. When he asked Dr. John Berry, the first black professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, if he had heard of the Double V Campaign, Berry said, “Not during the war, no I did not hear about that.”  McMillen seemed perplexed because all he said in response was, “Okay.” Berry explained his answer by saying, “I went into the service when I was eighteen years old.” Another veteran that McMillen interviewed was James Boykin, who was the first African American elected to the Forrest County, Mississippi, Board of Supervisors. McMillen prefaced his question about the Double V Campaign by explaining that it had been launched by the Pittsburg Courier during the war. Boykin said, “I don’t remember that.” Boykin went on to explain that he was familiar with the Pittsburg Courier since he had a part-time job at the newspaper when he was a graduate student, but he did not recall anyone in his hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, reading the newspaper. McMillen had asked Berry, Boykin, and several other veterans about the Double V Campaign because it set an important precedent for later achievements in the civil rights movement. Yet, none of them were familiar with it during the war. It did not consciously shape how they understood their identity as African American soldiers. 

It is McMillen's more general questions about the war that begin to reveal what World War II meant to black veterans. First, he asked why they served. James Jones, who was the president of the Jones County, Mississippi, chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., had served with the famous 761st Tank Battalion that fought at the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate three concentration camps. Jones said, “we did it because we were Americans . . . we felt, although we’re being used as second-class citizens, we felt it was our duty, and we had pride in America . . . we always felt that someday the shackles that held us down would be broken. We had faith in this country. This is the only country we had.” The other black veterans also said they served in the military out of patriotism. 

McMillen also asked the veterans what they got out of the war, and the major theme that emerged from their answers was how they were transformed by spending time in other countries. Lamar Lenoir had served with the Fifteenth Air Force in North Africa and in Italy, and he remembered being treated with respect. He said, “Color wasn’t a factor when you were in the army. Because we found that the color was these citizens left back here.” What Lenoir meant was that white Mississippians were the ones preoccupied with skin color. John Berry also had fond memories of his time in Europe. When he got together with other World War II veterans, he said they always talked about Paris. He explained why, saying that “I feel like we were more accepted in France.” Similar comments about the experience of serving overseas in the interviews demonstrates that the war let black GIs imagine better, more equal lives. They did not necessarily see themselves as part of a broader civil rights struggle, but they did begin to think about the possibilities of equality because of their experiences in other countries.

Although historians of the black greatest generation have the best of intentions, their focus on the origins of the civil rights movement has obscured the experience of black GIs in World War II. Neil McMillen followed the conventional wisdom, asking black veterans questions about the wartime initiatives of civil rights leaders and the Roosevelt administration only to learn that African American soldiers did not necessarily connect politics with their wartime service. However, when McMillen asked black veterans why they served and how the war changed them, their answers provided a glimpse of what the war was like for them. 

In some ways, they sounded like white veterans. They were ill-informed about wartime politics. Surveys conducted by the Army during World War II found that only 13% of GIs could name three of the four freedoms America was fighting for, while 33% knew none.[ii]  In other ways, the black veterans sounded very different. Their chance to play a role in the defense of their country and to travel overseas led them to question the narrow opportunities available to them as black men in Mississippi. Their later success as civil rights leaders, college professors, and politicians suggest that World War II changed their lives for the better. The story of how they were transformed by military service can be overlooked when the experience of black GIs is viewed only from the perspective of the long civil rights struggle. 

However, when viewed from the perspective of the experiences of black GIs, the story of the black greatest generation emerges. More than one million African Americans served in the US military during World War II. Their experience was epic. The war gathered them together from around the country on segregated military bases in the South and West. Urban hipsters from Chicago bunked with their country cousins from the Mississippi Delta. They formed a band of brothers as they drew together to respond to racial discrimination or outright violence. Then, starting at the end of 1943, the war sent them across the globe. Like their white counterparts, the black greatest generation answered the call of duty, made sacrifices, faced danger, and danced whenever they could. And they remembered Paris.

 

Dr. Bristol has written about the black greatest generation in Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation since World War II, which he co-edited with Dale Center Fellow Dr. Heather Stur.

 

[i] McMillen discusses his surprises conducting the oral history interviews in a chapter for the anthology he edited, Remaking Dixie: The Impact of World War II on the American South (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997).

[ii] Michael C.C. Adams, The Best War Ever: America and World War II, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press), 64.