African Americans have served in the military throughout United States history. However, their role changed significantly during World War II. Before World War II, African Americans rarely served overseas in combat roles. African Americans, including the famous Tuskegee Airmen, served in combat during World War II. Black Americans in World War II were fighting against fascism and for democracy. However, when they returned home, they often faced racist treatment from their fellow citizens and from the government. Black American men and women who served their country during World War II realized that they were fighting for freedom for others while they were not fully free at home. Yet, they also believed that fighting in the war was their patriotic duty, and a way to help gain equality.
Before World War II
African Americans have fought in military battles in the United States since the time of its founding. Crispus Attucks was killed by British troops during the 1770 Boston Massacre. He is considered to be the first person killed in the American Revolution. Several thousand Black soldiers fought for the United States during the Revolutionary War, and later, during the War of 1812. The Union formed a number of Black troops during the Civil War.
Black soldiers could serve only in all-Black groups during World War I. They also were not given the same opportunities as white service members. The racial discrimination they faced in the military was similar to the discrimination they faced throughout society. Black Americans continued to volunteer for military service, even though they were not given the same rights as white service members. Many white military leaders held the racist belief that Black service members were not as qualified as white service members.
Fighting Segregation and the Enemy
World War II began in Europe in the late 1930s. By 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that the United States could be drawn into the conflict. The Selective Training and Service Act was passed in 1940. It was the first peacetime draft law passed in the country. Civil rights leaders asked Roosevelt to include African Americans in the draft. They also asked him to integrate the military. Roosevelt decided to allow African American men to be drafted, but he did not integrate the military.
Many African American men enlisted in the military or were drafted and began training. The military had separate facilities for Black service members. These included hospitals, barracks, and recreation facilities. The men also faced racist treatment by white enlisted members and officers. African Americans faced such harsh treatment in the military that they often spoke out so other Americans would understand the situation. The Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper, started the Double V Campaign. The campaign was meant to show that Black Americans were fighting for a victory in the war and a victory against racism in the United States.
At first, the military did not allow African Americans to serve in combat in the war. Some white military leaders claimed that Black Americans were not as qualified as white Americans to fight in combat. As a result, African Americans mainly served in supporting roles. Although they did not see combat, many of them played important and courageous parts in supporting the war effort. However, causalities among American forces increased as the war dragged on. Roosevelt finally decided to allow African Americans to serve in combat.
African Americans began to serve as officers, pilots, tankers, and infantrymen. The 761 Tank Battalion was the first Black division to see ground combat. It helped liberate towns that had been under Nazi control. The Tuskegee Airmen also served as pilots during the war. They served in combat missions and earned many honors for bravery. About 1,700 African Americans were part of the D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944. D-Day was the largest military invasion in history and turned the tide of the war in the Allies’ favor.
After the War
American forces, including more than 1.2 million Black Americans, helped the Allies win World War II. However, when African American service members returned home, they were often met with even stronger racism than before they left. Some white Americans resented African Americans in uniforms. Many white Americans in southern states felt that recognizing the efforts of Black Americans would change the strict racial order in that part of the country. Many Black service members were denied benefits guaranteed to them under government programs, such as the G.I. bill. Civil rights activists continued to point out the unfair treatment African Americans who had sacrificed for their country faced at home.
Although the social order in the United States did not change immediately after the war, the military did. President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in July 1948. The order integrated the US Armed Forces. Integration meant that Black service members would have access to the same facilities and training as white service members. However, the armed services were not fully integrated until the Korean War began in 1950.