1 Lift Every Voice for Victory, Claudia Jones, 1942 JuneWorld War II vertical file “How ridiculous to call this a ‘white man’s war,’ and how dangerous! This is our war. Joe’s war. Your war and mine. It is a people’s war to preserve the integrity and independence of our nation; to preserve the opportunity and the chance we have to fight for a better life; a war for freedom of all man-kind so that men can once again think and breathe freely the whole world war.” – Claudia Jones, “Lift Every Voice for Victory”
Lift Every Voice for Victory
Jones, Claudia
1942 June
World War II vertical file

Context of War

Many African Americans felt a similar sentiment when joining the military. They saw the fate of United States intertwined with the fate of African American people. Featured on the front of the pamphlet, Joe Louis represents an image of the African American solider. He states, “There’s a lot of things wrong with America, but Hitler won’t fix it.” Conversely, others felt separated from these wartime issues and expressed frustration at the repression of opportunities. As seen in the flyer printed by the National Black Student Association (NBSA), Blacks saw themselves as the people dying for the country in these wars, but receiving no benefits for doing so. Many asked why join the war when their problems were at home, as showcased in the flyer, “Read the Truth.”


Other leaflets published at this time questioned the drafting of African Americans in the wars, such as “The Story of Winfred Lynn,” and critiqued the struggle for equality, as seen in the pamphlet, “The War’s Greatest Scandal: The Story of Jim Crow in Uniform.” These items show that the story of African Americans in war is a complex story of segregation, oppression, and dreams of equality.

"The Draft: are YOU willing to DIE for this country?"
Morehouse College (Atlanta, Ga.)
Morehouse Vertical File
Read the Truth, Daily Worker (New York)undatedWorld War II Vertical File
Read the Truth
Daily Worker (New York)
World War II Vertical File
The Story of Winfred Lynn, circa 1944-1945World War II Vertical File
The Story of Winfred Lynn
circa 1944-1945
World War II Vertical File
"The war's greatest scandal! The story of Jim Crow in uniform"
Macdonald, Dwight
World War II vertical file

Click on the image to read the brochure fullscreen.

"The war's greatest scandal! The story of Jim Crow in uniform"
Macdonald, Dwight
World War II vertical file
The War’s Greatest Scandal

The Little OG, Jessica Bailey, 2014

What is the history of African Americans in the armed forces?
For more research questions and additional sources, check out our LibGuide!



Though African Americans have served in every American war since the American Revolution, during the majority of that time they served in segregated troops. Every branch of the military adopted a policy of racial exclusion following the War of Independence, with the exception of the United States Navy, primarily because the work aboard ships was so unattractive to the general population that the Navy was not in the position to turn away willing recruits. Though the Navy permitted African Americans aboard, following the Civil War they were typically relegated to menial positions as custodians and in the mess hall.

Photo of White and African-American Soldiers, George Alexander Sewell, circa 1967-1969, George A. Sewell papers
Photo of White and African-American Soldiers
Sewell, George Alexander
circa 1967-1969
George A. Sewell papers

African Americans long saw the correlation between military service and the quest for equal rights, and as World War I began in Europe, many prominent African American authors and publications affirmed their loyalty to the United States and demanded that African Americans be allowed to serve in the United States Army. Morehouse president John Hope believed that “black social progress rested on the ability of African Americans to continuously demonstrate their patriotism through unqualified support of the war” (Cox, 2013).

8 Photograph of Lt. Edward Swain Hope of US Navy, The Maroon Tiger, Volume 4, No. 1, Morehouse College (Atlanta, Ga.), 1944, Morehouse College printed and published materials
Photograph of Lt. Edward Swain Hope of US Navy
The Maroon Tiger, Volume 4, No. 1
Morehouse College (Atlanta, Ga.)
Morehouse College printed and published materials

To that end, Morehouse sponsored numerous activities including the purchase of war bonds, promoting campaigns to support enlisted men, and using African American support for the war to advance the fight for equality at home. The passage of the Selective Service Act in 1917 decreed that every able-bodied man between the ages of 21 and 31 was required to register for the draft. The law made no mention of race, giving hope to African Americans that they would no longer be relegated to lowly, unskilled positions in the armed forces. Southern legislators vehemently opposed the law, and race-based selectivity was common among draft boards throughout the South, drafting African American men into the military in higher proportion to white men.


Click on the image to read the brochure fullscreen.

Negroes at War

The Little OG, Jessica Bailey, 2014

What were some of the main reasons why African Americans were opposed to military service during the early conflicts of the 20th Century?
For additional research questions and sources, check out our LibGuide!


Click on the image to read the brochure fullscreen.

Negroes and the National War Effort
Photograph of soldier against a car, undatedAsh Family Photographs
Photograph of soldier against a car,
Ash Family Photographs

Much to their dismay, in the early days of the war it became clear that the army planned to employ nearly all African American recruits as laborers and not in combat positions, disrespected by both white soldiers in Europe and white civilians stateside. The small number of black infantry regiments in the army formed the United States 93rd Combat Division, which General John Pershing assigned to serve with the French Army. Desperate for manpower, the French welcomed the 93rd with open arms. The French disregarded General Pershing’s directive to treat these new black soldiers as the men were treated in America: to never salute them or shake their hands.


Despite the heroism the men who served with the French Army displayed, as World War I came to an end they soon discovered that their situation at home remained as fraught as before the war. In contrast to the respect shown to these soldiers by their French counterparts, African American soldiers were barred by the United States from marching in the 1919 French Bastille Day victory parade in Paris, the only allied country’s soldiers forbidden from doing so. African American veterans were enraged by this directive, but they would return home to the states only to confront even deadlier bigotry from civilians when eleven black veterans were lynched by white mobs in the year following the conclusion of the war.


After restrictions on African Americans enlisting in the army following World War I were put in place, it soon became evident that the U.S. would need to reinstate the draft to muster up the manpower needed to fight World War II. A new Selective Service Act was passed in September 1940, this time prohibiting racial discrimination; however, the language of the law was vague enough that segregation was still widely practiced by the military.

This letter, from the Robert E. Penn collection,
illustrates the frustration African Americans serving
in the Army during World War II felt over their mistreatment.

This time, on the other hand, African Americans had garnered more political power in northern states as a result of the Great Migration, and, facing reelection pressures, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered that the numbers of African Americans serving in the army corresponded to their percentage of the general population and that they would be eligible to serve in all branches of the military and have opportunities for officer training. The next year Roosevelt would sign Executive Order 8802 prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry, but the order didn’t include a ban on discrimination in state defense training programs, and, with support from Roosevelt, U.S. armed forces remained segregated throughout World War II. Many saw the parallels between the Nazi campaign against Jews in Germany and the struggle for equal rights for African Americans in the States.


As African Americans grew increasingly weary of the War Department’s adherence to segregation, the Pittsburgh Courier declared the beginning of the Double V campaign in February 1942, signifying a need for victory both against American enemies abroad as well as the scourge of racism and white supremacy in America. Despite the explosive growth in the number of African American men and women enlisted in the armed forces during World War II, the majority were still relegated to labor and service units. Despite the promises that service in other units and officer training would be open to African Americans, the insistence of the United States Armed Forces in maintaining segregated units meant that even those who served in combat units rarely were afforded the opportunities for promotion. This blatant disregard of democratic principles prompted leaders from twenty-five African American organizations to draft a letter to the Democratic and Republican national parties in June 1944 warning, “No injustice embitters Negroes more than continued segregation and discrimination in the armed forces” (James, 2013).


Click on the image to read the brochure fullscreen.

“Look Him in the Eye”

19 Mixed Units No Longer an Oddity in Korea War, Johnson Publishing Company1950 September 23Johnson Publishing Company clipping files collection
Mixed Units No Longer an Oddity in Korea War
Johnson Publishing Company
1950 September 23
Johnson Publishing Company clipping files collection

Though the Navy instituted an official desegregation policy before the war’s end, the U.S. War Department would maintain its segregation policies throughout, deferring the dreams of the Double V campaign. Following the Allied victory in June 1945, African American servicemen and women not only returned home to bleak and biased employment prospects during the post-war economic wind down, but again to the violence that faced them throughout the South after their return from World War I. This time, though, advocates for a desegregated military had both the turning tide of public opinion on the matter, as well as an occupant in the Oval Office more receptive to their concerns.


Facing both the moral quandary that segregation posed to a supposedly democratic nation as well as a changing political landscape in a reelection year, President Harry Truman quietly signed Executive Order 9981 July 26, 1948. Vaguely worded, the order was initially ignored by segregationists in Congress and met with skepticism by the African American community. Clearing up any confusion, President Truman clarified that the primary objective of Executive Order 9981 was integration of the military and soon formed the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services to oversee the successful integration of the United States Armed Forces, brought to fruition during the Korean War.

"Mixed Negro, White Units Praised For Gallantry in Korea Fighting"
Kalischer, Peter
1950 December 19
Johnson Publishing Company clipping files collection, 1940-2020

Perspectives on War and Integration

While many in the African-American community felt that the struggle to integrate the American armed forces was intertwined with their struggle for civil rights at home. Many pamplets published during the World War II era sought to expose the hypocrisy of a military fighting the Nazis while segregating its own troops. Others, like J.R. Johnson of the Socialist Workers Party in their pamphlet, “Why Negroes Should Oppose the War”, raised questions about motivations to go to war and the use of African Americans as “cannon-fodder” for a country that refuses to recognize their rights.


Women at War

World War II also brought about opportunities for women to serve in the Armed Forces with the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942, later converted to active duty status as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) the following year. The WAAC followed the Army’s regular policies, and the initial class of officer recruits of 440 women included only 40 African American women, in accordance with the 1940 Selective Service Act’s quotas on African American enlistment as a proportion of the population as a whole. Upon arrival at Fort Des Moines for training, African American recruits discovered that, just like the Army, facilities and training would be segregated along racial lines.


Despite what these women endured, the WAAC members gained skills in administrative duties, cooking and baking, and motor transportation and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps continued to draw African American recruits. In addition to the sexism that all members of WAAC faced, with many commanding officers in the military hesitant to request WAAC assignments, assuming women could not handle the work of military personnel, African American WAACs often found that when they were assigned to a base, commanding officers would assign them to positions in the laundry, mess halls, or salvage and reclamation shops in spite of the specialized training these women had received.


This informational pamphlet describes the qualifications and application process for women to join the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.

Click on the image to read the brochure fullscreen.

Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps


Along with the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942, the Navy formed the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services, or WAVES. Initially open to white women only, it was announced the following year that the WAVES corps would begin to accept African American women, but, as there were no African American officers in the navy, there would be no chance for African American WAVES to be commissioned as officers either.

Report of Mrs. L.E. Hope, Lugenia Burns Hope, 1918 July 13, Neighborhood Union Collection
During World War I, many women served in Hostess Houses on army bases to provide soldiers with domestic comforts. This report by Lugenia Hope, from the Neighborhood Union collection, describes her experience at Camp Upton in Long Island, NY.

This announcement was immediately protested by Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest and largest African American sorority, with the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Even with Eleanor Roosevelt’s support, it took another year for President Roosevelt to issue an order requiring the Navy to admit African American WAVES, with the first two African American WAVES officers, Harriet Ida Pikens and Frances Wills, sworn in on December 22, 1944.


Though women have historically served as nurses throughout American wartime history, the United States Army Nurse Corps wasn’t established until 1901, and, like all branches of the military, was segregated and didn’t admit African American nurses until World War I. A nurse shortage in World War II prompted military officials to consider a draft of nurses, and public outcry against the possibility of drafting women into military service led the way to the integration of the Army Nurse Corps.

Captain Sarah E. Murphy, circa 1939-1945World War II vertical file
Captain Sarah E. Murphy, Women's Army Corps, from "Service Men's Center, Second Anniversary" pamphlet.
Spelman Alumnae and the War
Spelman students served in the Women's Army Corps in a variety of roles, including as librarians and USO hostesses.

This correspondence to and from the office of Dr. Rufus E. Clement, sixth president of Atlanta University, illustrates the efficacy with which schools of the Atlanta University Center participated in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.

Click on the letter to open the gallery.

Letter to Dr. Rufus E. Clement from John H. Heil

761st Tank Battalion

The segregated 761st Tank Battalion, sometimes referred to as “Black Panthers” or “Patton’s Panthers,” proved to be one of the most effective tank battalions to fight in World War II. True to their motto, “come out fighting,” the 761st served in combat operations for over 180 days straight in Europe and is credited with inflicting over 130,000 casualties. Shortly following the war, the 761st was immortalized in unit member Trezzvant W. Anderson’s history book, “Come Out Fighting: The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion, 1942-1945.” The 761st Tank Battalion maintained a tight-knit brotherhood after war’s end, as seen in the reunion invitation from 1960 and the greeting card from 1962.


Click on the image to open the gallery.


Students and the AUC Response to War

A Corner of the War Information Library
A Corner of the War Information Library, undated

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