Minorities and Women During World War II

Text taken from A Democracy at War. O'Neil, William L.

The Homefront. Harris et al.

Negroes, by far the largest racial minority, were as segregated and discriminated against during the war as before it. But manpower shortages and the President's need for black votes combined to make the picture somewhat brighter than it might have been. The mobilization plan of 1940 called for proportionately half as many blacks as whites to be drafted, and those were to be confined largely to service rather than combat units, excluded entirely from the Army Air Corps and Marines, and from the Navy except as messmen.

Military discrimination became a political issue in that election year, and to hold the Negro vote Roosevelt forced the Army to say that it would become 10 percent black, giving roughly the same ratio of Negroes to whites that obtained among civilians. This did not go far enough, and in response to further pressure the Army announced that it would form a number of black combat units, promote a Negro Colonel to the rank of Brigadier General, and appoint Negro advisors to Secretary Stimson and Selective Service Chief Brigadier General Lewis B. Hershey. These actions kept black voters in line, even though Negroes continued to serve in segregated units.

In 1942 they were still underrepresented in the military; a situation not only politically unwise but a waste of manpower. Consequently, Roosevelt ordered the Navy, much against its will, to enlist Negroes for general service. The Army General Staff suggested that racially integrated units be formed. This proved to be too radical a step, despite the added difficulty involved in building segregated training camps. However, except by the Air Force, officer candidate schools were integrated as an economy measure. At the end of 1944 there were more Negro officers than could be placed because of the Army's insistence that only whites command Negro units. Another rule was that no black could be ranked higher than the lowest rated white in any unit, which meant in most cases that Negroes could not rise above first lieutenant. This was justified on the ground that black troops preferred white officers, which was untrue, particularly as so many white officers were Southerners with racist attitudes offensive to Negro troops.

By the same token, white officers seldom wished to be assigned to Negro units. If they were hard on the troops, charges of discrimination resulted; but if they stood up for their men they were often scorned by peers and accused of being "nigger lovers." Commanding Negro soldiers was onerous, too, as 70 percent to 90 percent scored in the lowest Army classification test categories, compared to only 20 percent to 40 percent of whites, so training them took longer and required more patience. To prevent outbreaks of violence by or against them, commissioned whites often had to patrol black housing areas and undertake other duties in addition to their own that commanders would not trust to Negro officers. In the South, white officers of black units were discriminated against socially. Everywhere it was believed that they were made to command black troops as some kind of punishment. Understandably, white officers hated being assigned to Negro units and schemed constantly for transfers.

In addition to suffering from reluctant commanders, segregation, and discrimination, Negro soldiers often were victims of violence, especially in the South, scores being killed or wounded during the war. Often these casualties resulted from fights between black soldiers and white soldiers and civilians, but even minor violations of local racial codes were punishable by death. In March 1942 Sergeant Thomas B. Foster of the black 92nd Engineers Battalion was shot five times and killed by Little Rock, Arkansas police for questioning the methods being employed by MPs in arresting a drunken Negro soldier. There were race riots and fights between black and white servicemen all over the world. The resulting low morale among black troops was attributed by John McCloy to Negro oversensitivity and the fault-finding Negro press. As the pressure did not go away, in 1944 he ordered the desegregation of all facilities on military posts-an edict that was seldom observed or enforced.

As late as the spring of 1943 only 79,000 out of a total of 504,000 Negro soldiers were overseas because commanders did not want black combat units. The Army solution was to begin converting them to service troops, who were accepted -- the more menial the work the better. When Representative Hamilton Fish (R-NY), who had commanded black soldiers in World War I, asked Stimson to explain this policy, he was told that Negroes "have been unable to master efficiently the techniques of modern weapons." Stimson also denied that the War Department was trying to keep blacks out of combat, though in fact it was. Thus, only one black division was ever committed to battle, the 92nd Infantry. It did poorly on the Italian front owing to acute morale problems, which the Army's own investigator told the press had been caused by segregation. The Navy; for its part, assigned blacks to labor units after being ordered to expand their role beyond that of messmen. Only after riots broke out did it begin to integrate a handful of auxiliary ships.

The Homefront. Harris et al.

There were minor exceptions to the rule that Negroes were seldom allowed to fight, and even more rarely given the means to do so effectively. The black 99th Pursuit Squadron was a great success, as were a small number of black combat units in the Ground Forces. During the Battle of the Bulge Negroes in the Army Service Forces were allowed to volunteer for infantry platoons. Thousands did so and performed well in combat--although many were rushed to the front with little or no training. The tiny Coast Guard, which totaled only 240,000 men compared to the Navy's four million, was outstanding, commissioning 700 Negro officers to the Navy's 58. But, on the whole, blacks were underutilized by the military in World War Il -- a blunder, given the manpower shortage, as well as an injustice.

Despite everything, the black experience of war had long term benefits beyond their eligibility for the GI Bill of Rights. A recent study suggests that Negro veterans gained a larger view of the world and of their own capabilities. The most obvious evidence of this is that so many did not return to the South, whose caste-like social system closed off most opportunities for advancement. By 1950 more than half of all black veterans were living in a different region from where they had been born, compared to about a third of Negroes in the same age group who had not served in the military. This was important because in 1949 each additional year of age added $75 to the annual income of whites, but only $20 to that of blacks -- unless the latter had moved to the North, in which case their rate of increase was the same as for whites. For whites, each year of military service was worth as much to their later earning power as an additional year of education, but for blacks each year of service was worth up to three years of education. It is one of the few happy ironies of the war that the military, which did not want blacks in the first place and did everything possible to make them feel inferior, benefited them all the same.

For black workers World War II opened up opportunities that had never before existed. This too was inadvertent, for, like the armed services, industry had no plans to utilize Negroes. In 1940 there were 5,389,000 employed blacks, of whom 3,582,000 were male, almost none working at well-paid defense jobs. Further, in a survey made by the U.S. Employment Office, more than half of responding defense contractors said they would not hire Negroes in future. This situation outraged A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the only black union of any consequence, who called for a Negro march on Washington to protest against job discrimination. As the old AFL unions were for whites only and the CIO unions too new to have many black officers, Randolph was the ranking Negro trade unionist in America and commanded great respect. His call was supported by Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading civil rights organization.

Despite the pleas of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York and others not to impair the defense effort or embarrass the President, Randolph went forward with his plans and it was expected that 50,000 Negroes would turn out on July 1, 1941. Four days before the scheduled march, FDR invited a group of leaders -- including Randolph and White -- to meet with him, and the result was Executive Order 8802. It established what became a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) that would also work on behalf of Jews, aliens, naturalized citizens, Asians, Hispanics, and American Indians. It would enjoy considerable success, aided greatly by labor shortages that forced employers to lower old barriers. By 1944 blacks held 7.5 percent of all jobs in war industries, which was less than their share of the population but still a major improvement.

The industries that resisted hiring blacks, or did so only at the lowest levels, were frequently those dominated by racist labor unions. The Machinists and Boilermakers between them represented 30 percent to 40 percent of airframe workers and over a fifth of shipyard employees, but the Machinists were lily white and the Boilermakers restricted blacks to segregated and voteless locals. Of the 31 national unions that openly discriminated against blacks, 19 were in the railroad industry, most refusing to change their practices despite FEPC orders and court rulings. White workers frequently Went on strike to protest the hiring or promotion of Negroes. When the Philadelphia Transit Company was struck to protest the upgrading of eight Negro porters to drivers, it had to be taken over by the Army.

Bad as job discrimination was, it paled alongside racial violence. Attacks on blacks were everyday occurrences in the South, where lynchings continued throughout the war, but they now become common elsewhere. The year 1943 opened with a series of racial clashes. Fights between white and black gangs in Newark, New Jersey resulted in the death of one Negro. A black soldier was killed in a race riot in Centreville, Mississippi. A riot among soldiers in El Paso, Texas caused two deaths, and at Camp Stewart, Georgia a gun fight between Negro soldiers and military policemen resulted in five casualties -- one fatal. When 12 blacks were promoted at a shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, white workers ran wild, seriously injuring 20 Negroes. A race riot in Beaumont, Texas left two blacks dead and 50 injured. Not all the attacks were against Negroes. In California, riot victims were usually Mexican-American youths known as "zooters" or "zoot suiters" because of their colorful apparel, the zoot-suit having a very long jacket, heavily padded shoulders, and balloon trousers with tight cuffs. In June mobs of servicemen, egged on by civilians, began beating zoot suiters and continued doing so until the zoot-suit was no longer seen in public.

Life Magazine, 7/5/43.

On June 15 and 17 there were minor race riots in the Detroit area, where an influx of blacks had worsened an already acute housing shortage. June 20, a Sunday, was unusually warm, with temperatures reaching 90 degrees, leading thousands of people to jam Belle Isle in the Detroit River seeking relief. Fights broke out all day and by 11:00 PM. had degenerated into mob violence. Downtown a black mob, inflamed by rumors, seems to have rioted first, after which whites retaliated, with police support and approval hunting down and killing blacks. After several days of mob violence, federal troops were called in to restore order -- by which time some 35 people, a majority of them black, were dead, over 700 were wounded, and 1,300 were under arrest. Seventeen blacks were shot by the police, who reported in every instance that the victim had been looting. Although whites looted and burned too, none was shot by policemen.

Given the appalling amount of racial violence during the war, some of it to be sure instigated by blacks but more often provoked against them, there was no reason to be optimistic. Yet amid the turmoil momentous changes were developing. In his aptly titled book New World A-Coming, one black journalist pointed out some that were already visible in 1943. 12 Negro voters had become politically significant in 17 Northern states with a total of 281 votes out of 531 in the Electoral College. In Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was already a rising star. He would be elected to Congress in 1944, becoming the first Negro to represent an inner city district. Rising wages and an increased political awareness were leading blacks to join the NAACP in unprecedented numbers. It would multiply tenfold during the war; achieving a dues-paying membership of half a million by 1945.

There were some 230 black newspapers with 2 million readers -- among them one daily, the influential Atlanta Daily World -- which were served by the Associated Negro Press of Chicago. The black press was now able to make up for the white media's habit of ignoring news of interest to Negroes. Many small changes were taking place locally that in the aggregate would prove to be important. In Little Rock, after the murder of Sergeant Foster, and despite the opposition of the Policeman's Association, eight Negro officers were hired. Later the Federal Court of Appeals, in an unrelated case, ordered Little Rock to equalize the salaries of white and black school teachers. Small steps, to be sure, but inch by inch the rock of segregation was being chipped away.

Another important element, taken for granted at the time but for Negroes a source of strength that would be greatly missed later, was that a majority of black children were still being raised in two-parent families. Negroes were poor, but they lived in viable communities and had a working family system. These resources, together with wartime gains, did much to make possible the civil rights revolution of the fifties and sixties.

Because a handful of German Jews did reach the United States, and Japanese-Americans and Negroes improved their position later, does not change the shameful record just discussed, which had practical as well as moral implications. Though American production astounded the world, there were barely enough people to do the job and also meet military requirements. Had German Jews been admitted earlier, and Japanese-Americans and blacks fully utilized the war effort would have benefited proportionately. There is no way of calculating how much prejudice cost the nation in lost workers and soldiers but it had to be very great.

Above and beyond the physical harm was the moral cost to the nation. America represented itself to the world as the land of the free and the home of the brave, but this was only a half-truth. Bravery was commonplace in the war, fairness to minorities infrequent. American democracy, which boasted of providing equal justice to all, failed to make good on its pledge in the one area above all others by which democracy is tested. Later generations would have to redeem the promise of American life.

Though less brutally treated than minorities, working women also suffered from discrimination, a fact which remains astonishing for, in most war plants, however well or badly run, the key problem was the manpower shortage to which women were the solution. A few figures make this clear. Of the 9 million additional persons who entered the labor force during World War II, some 3.3 million represented natural increase, the balance coming from people who would not otherwise have been employed. Boys and girls left school early to work in factories, or at least to replace those who had moved up to better paying jobs. Old men came out of retirement to fill in for youths who had been drafted. The most numerous new adult workers were married women, despite the prejudice against them. In 1936 a Gallup poll had disclosed that 82 percent of male, and three quarters of the female respondents believed that wives with employed husbands should not work. War did not change these attitudes as much as might be supposed, because American democracy had not yet reached the point where gender was seen as irrelevant to the full exercise of personal rights and capacities.

Fortunately for the war effort, married women joined the labor force anyway. Between 1940 and 1944, the number of employed women rose by half, reaching a high of 19 million, and, for the first time in American history, married women outnumbered singles. This was not a matter of choice but of need. When the supply of white males and single white females was exhausted, employers had no alternative but to hire married women and blacks. However, unlike today, and despite the fact that the basic allotment for a serviceman's wife was only $50 a month (worth perhaps $500 today), young mothers remained at home. The number of women workers under the age of 35 increased just half a percent more than if there had been no war. The Women's Bureau found that only 32 percent of the married, widowed, or divorced women in the work force had any children under the age of 1 -- in half of these cases only one.

Women over 35 years of age accounted for 60 percent of the increase. There were several reasons for this. The government did not want young mothers to work, Chairman Paul McNutt of the War Manpower Commission issuing a directive saying "No women responsible for the care of young children should be encouraged or compelled to seek employment which deprives their children of essential care until all other sources of supply are exhausted."13 Few efforts were made to assist employed mothers of young children. Though some department stores, led by Bloomingdale's of New York, set up defense plant branches, most stores kept the same hours as in peacetime, leaving women coming off the day shift with little or no time to shop for food and other necessities.

Only 130,000 children were served by the Lanham Act, which provided federal subsidies for child care. Part of the reason was that mothers mistrusted, often rightly so, the quality of jury-rigged facilities. In other cases, nursery fees were so high that working women could not afford them. Notable exceptions were the Kaiser Corporation's shipyard care centers, open 24 hours a day and staffed by child development experts. The excellence of these centers and their success in persuading young mothers to use them was, for the most part, an example that persuaded few employers.

Great Britain, where the labor crunch was more severe, showed how much more could have been done. Britain conscripted women between the ages of 19 and 30, offering them a choice between the armed services and essential war work, and, although this was not rigorously enforced, expected most women under the age of 60 to contribute in some way to the war effort. Child care support was provided on a much larger scale than in the United States, stores were required to remain open late, and in others ways the state did a good deal to make motherhood and employment compatible. As a result, it was estimated that eight married women out of 10 between the ages of 18 and 40 were in either the armed services or industry.

Though American support was never this good, the work force changed. In 1940 about half of the 11 million working women held poorly paid clerical, sales, and service jobs. The one-fifth engaged in manufacturing were concentrated at the low end, mostly in textile and clothing factories. Four years later.

Officially, the American view was that married women were only working for the duration and would return home when it was over. There were many exceptions to this rule even in 1940, when 15 percent of married women held outside jobs. After that the proportion of married women who joined the labor force increased to one in four in 1950 and then to over half in 1980. The proportion who were active mothers rose as well, so that by 1980 three out of five married women with children aged 6 to 17 were in the work force, and two out of five with children under the age of 6. By June 1987 more than half of all women, 51 percent, to be exact, who had given birth during the previous year were gainfully employed. Thus, while the prominent role played by married women in wartime was seen as a temporary expedient, it marked an historic change from a relatively small female work force dominated by young singles, to an immense force comprised for the most part of older, married, or formerly married women.

The experience of women in the auto industry typified how this transition was effected. As conversion to defense work picked up, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union, though among the most progressive in the country, shared the common concern over getting unemployed men back to work. Its annual convention in August 1941 resolved to oppose "any attempt to train women to take the place of men on skilled jobs until such time as all the unemployed men have been put back to work."

However, to keep wage rates up in case worse came to worse, the delegates also declared that women should receive equal pay with men if they held identical jobs. That the UAW meant to protect men anyway became clear in October, when it filed a strike notice against the Kelsey Hayes Wheel Company in Detroit, demanding "the removal of all girl employees from machine work" -- which was, in the union's view, "a man's job." When two more women were hired, male workers staged a walkout, forcing the company to remove women workers from skilled jobs and limiting them to 25 percent of the local work force.

So long as men remained unemployed, the UAW was determined to keep women out of its plants. It was also determined in practice, as at Kelsey Hayes, to see that men earned more than women for doing the same work. Because employers seldom wished to fight the union on this issue, most new hires were male. Thus, the female proportion of the auto industry's work force steadily declined between 1939 and 1941. When the auto industry began to convert to war production after Pearl Harbor, there were massive temporary layoffs. As employment began to rise again, men were rehired at a much greater rate than women.

When the supply of unemployed men disappeared prejudice had to weaken. By November 1943, when their numbers peaked, there were 203,300 women in auto factories, constituting 26 percent of the labor force. In some plants the rise was far more dramatic, rising from zero women in Ford's River Rouge complex in 1942 to 5,000 one year later. Wage rates, however, remained unequal, the UAW, contrary to its prewar stand, insisting on differential wages for what were defined as "male" and "female" jobs. Seeds of change were planted just the same. Even before V-J Day, the UAW International Executive Board recommended eliminating job classifications by sex. When women were laid off at the end of the war in favor of inexperienced men, they did not go quietly. At Ford's Highland Park plant, 200 women picketed the employmenf office, bearing signs reading "Stop Discrimination Because of Sex" and "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle Can Build Tractors, Too." In the short run they lost -- but today women do work on assembly lines, just as they did during World War II.

For American industry as a whole, practices varied widely. In Boeing's facilities in Seattle they made up 47 percent of the work force. In Seattle women held 1.8 percent of the jobs at one shipyard, 21 percent at another. Despite regional differences, the total number of women in war industries soared, in Detroit alone the figure rising from 46,800 to a high of 215,000 female industrial workers. Apart from patriotism, the chief reason why women poured into factories -- dirt, noise, and danger notwithstanding -- was money. Even without wage parity, women earned more as factory workers than in their previous jobs. By 1945 at Willow Run, one-third of the women workers had experienced pay raises of 100 percent since the war began, compared to one-ninth of the men.

Though the prejudice against working women declined, or rather was suspended for the duration, one thing that did not change was the refusal to take full advantage of women's potential. Black women were discriminated against in war plants even more than white women, not only by employers but by workers. During one two-week period in Detroit there were live "hate" strikes occasioned by the employment of black women. Yet black women were more eager than whites to work. While the participation rate of all women in the Detroit work force rose from 29.5 percent in 1940 to 39.7 percent in 1944, the rate for nonwhite women went from 31.6 percent to 48.8 percent. By 1945 the percentage of employed black women who were in private household service had declined from 60 to 45. As a woman later said: "Hitler was the one that got us out of the white folks' kitchen." They would not go back.

Even when labor was in shortest supply, little was done to relieve women of domestic duties that impaired their job effectiveness. In Seattle's war industries during 1943 women workers were more than twice as likely to be absent from work as men. The War Manpower Commission believed that 100,000 worker hours were lost per month in Detroit because women took days off to do their laundry. In Baltimore the quit rate for women workers was 6.16 percent, compared to 4.78 for men. If shopping and laundry services, hot takeout meals, and more and better nurseries had been more widely available, all these losses could have been cut. It would probably have made some difference too if women workers had been promoted and paid equally with men. In 1944 the average wage for working women was $31.21 per week compared to $54.65 for men. Even the high degree of unionization during wartime had no effect, union leaders developing little interest in the special problems of women.

When efforts were made to deal with women's entry into the industrial work force too often their quality was poor. Some factories hired female counselors, but in the absence of supporting services what they could do was painfully limited. Susan Laughlin, a counselor who had no special qualifications for the job except a sympathetic personality, recalled that she once arranged an abortion for a married woman who had been raped after passing out at an office party. More often she was called upon to deal with such problems as when "a girl had come in a bare midriff, and all the men were hitting themselves with hammers." Mostly, however, counselors or "plant matrons" were expected to prevent women from having sex on company time.

On the other hand, there was some concern for safety problems peculiar to women workers -- at least on the publicity level. In 1943 the War Production Board asked Veronica Lake, a popular movie star whose trademark long blonde hair fell over part of her face, to adopt a more conservative style. The problem, officialdom reported, was that 20,000 Lake imitators in defense plants were at risk of being caught by the hair in machinery. Miss Lake was cooperative, saying that she wore her hair up most of the time anyway, to keep it out of electric fans, the buttons of friendly men, revolving doors, and other hazards. "This request from the Government is not only a pleasure, it's a relief," she insisted patriotically.

Given the stereotyping and the misogyny, and the mass media's habit of trivializing what they did, what is remarkable is that so many women did find jobs in defense plants. They were essential to the war effort -- yet, like minorities, they could have contributed even more but for the prejudices against them. Here as well, American democracy had far to go and much to learn.