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African Americans in World War II

Explore profiles, oral histories, photographs, and artifacts honoring African American contributions to World War II from the Museum's collection.  

Timeline

Below are important moments during World War II that were crucial to African American contributions in the Armed Forces.

THE DRAFT
President Roosevelt signs the Selective Service Training and Service Act on Sept. 16, 1940. US Government Archives.

 

The first peacetime draft in United States' history was instituted on September 16, 1940. The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 required all men between the ages of 21 and 35 to register for the draft. An amendment by Senator Robert Wagner and Representative Hamilton Fish of New York stated: 

Section 3 (a) "Within the limits of the quota determined...any person, regardless of race or color,...shall be afforded opportunity to volunteer for induction..." And in Section 4 (a) "In the selection and training of men under this Act, and in the interpretation and execution of the provisions of this Act, there shall be no discrimination against any person on account of race and color."

 

 

EXECUTIVE ORDER 8802
Document for June 25th: Executive Order 8802: Prohibition of Discrimination in the Defense Industry. National Archives Photo.

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in the defense industry on June 25, 1941. This order banned discrimination in the defense industry, and set up the Fair Employment Practice Committee in response to the March on Washington Movement threatening to protest. The march was suspended after Executive Order 8802 was issued. 

 

FIRST NATIONAL HERO OF WORLD WAR II
Dorie Miller wearing his Navy Cross. US Navy Photo.

 

Doris "Dorie" Miller emerged as the first national hero of World War II and became the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross. He was a crewman aboard the West Virginia in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Read more about Dorie Miller here, and listen to him featured in Minisode 134 on the Museum's Service On Celluloid podcast. 

Dorie Miller Navy Cross Citation: "While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge." 

 

DOUBLE V CAMPAIGN
James G. Thompson, “Should I Sacrifice to Live ‘Half-American?’” Pittsburgh Courier, January 31, 1942.

 

African American newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier launched the Double V campaign with a letter by 26-year-old James G. Thompson, stating: 

"Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?’ Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow? ‘Would it be de- manding too much to demand full citizenship rights in ex- change for the sacrificing of my life? Is the kind of America I know worth defending? Will America be a true and pure democracy after this war? Will Colored Americans suffer still the indignities that have been heaped upon them in the past? These and other questions need answering; I want to know, and I believe every colored American, who is thinking, wants to know." January, 1942

Read more about the Double V campaign here

 

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN IN WOMEN'S ARMY AUXILIARY CORPS
WAAC Capt. Charity Adams nd the first of her group to receive a commission. Photo Courtesy of the National Archives.

 

Major Charity Adams was the first African American women to be commissioned into the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps after graduating from the first WAAC officer candidate class in 1942. Mary McLeod Bethune, member of President Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet," along with the First Lady, established a 10 percent quota for the WAAC. 

 

TUSKEGEE AIRMEN

In April 1943, the Tuskegee-trained 99th Pursuit Squadron became the first African American flying squadron to see combat. 

 

Read Roscoe Brown's full story here

 

AMENDMENT TO NURSE TRAINING BILL
First African American Nurses in Europe, 1944. Courtesy of the NAACP, LC-USC4-6175/LC-USZ62-119985 (8-5).

 

In June 1943, Ohio Congresswoman, Frances Payne Bolton, introduced an amendment to the Nurse Training Bill to bar racial bias. This amendment came after Mabel Staupers, executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, lobbied for a change in discriminatory policies of the Army Nurse Corps. However, the Army capped the total number of African American nurses accepted to 56, and would not lift this cap until 1944.

 

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN TANK UNIT TO SEE COMBAT
761st Tank Battalion, stand by awaiting call to clean out scattered Nazi machine gun nests in Coburg, Germany. US Army photo.

 

In late 1944, the 761st Tank Battalion, better known as the "Black Panthers," was assigned to General Patton's US Third Army and attached to the 26th Infantry Division. The battalion was the first African American tanker unit to see combat in Europe. General Patton stated: 

"Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all your race is looking forward to your success. Don't let them down and damn you, don't let me down! They say it is patriotic to die for your country." 

 

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Service On Celluloid

Episode 138: The War Department’s production of The Negro Soldier was culturally significant in 1944, but what is missing from this film? Listen as we discuss the US government’s first acknowledgment of African American contributions to war in this Frank Capra documentary.

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Documentary Screening of "The Six Triple Eight"

Join us for a documentary screening of The Six Triple Eight, a film that explores the history and service of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-black female battalion to serve in Europe during World War II.

February 12 5:00 PM - 7:30 PM

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United but Unequal: I Am an American

A highlight from the permanent exhibit The Arsenal of Democracy: The Herman and George R. Brown Salute to the Home Front at The National WWII Museum.

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