Returning From War, Returning to RacismHistorians in the News
tags: veterans, racism, African American history, World War 2
The latest article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series by The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war, focuses on the racism and segregation that Black soldiers faced upon their return.
His trip back home in May 1946 was much like the one going — 30 days of sailing between the South Pacific and Oakland, mostly spent below deck in a separate area for Black soldiers.
After guarding the gasoline supply for Army vehicles and planes and taking fire while on patrol in the Philippines, Lewis W. Matthews, then a corporal in an all-Black unit, was no better off socially after World War II than he’d been before joining the service. The Army was still segregated, and so was much of the United States.
“I thought there would be a big change in that,” said Matthews, now 93.
After the formal Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, Matthews disembarked in Oakland and headed home to New York City to start a new chapter in life as a veteran with an honorable discharge. But he, along with the 1.2 million African-Americans who served, would discover that another battle, the one for equality in the United States, raged on.
Black soldiers returning from the war found the same socioeconomic ills and racist violence that they faced before. Despite their sacrifices overseas, they still struggled to get hired for well-paying jobs, encountered segregation and endured targeted brutality, especially while wearing their military uniforms. Black veterans realized that being treated as equals was still a matter society hadn’t resolved.
“At the heart of it was a kind of nervousness and fear that many whites had that returning Black veterans would upset the racial status quo,” said Charissa Threat, a history professor at Chapman University, who has written extensively on civilian-military relationships and race. “They saw images of Black soldiers coming from abroad from places like Germany and England, where Black soldiers were intermingling with whites and had a lot more freedom.”
To quell any expectation of social equality held by African-American servicemen, mobs of whites engaged in unspeakable violence toward them. A case from February 1946 involved Isaac Woodard, a Black veteran who served in the Pacific theater. After getting into an argument with a bus driver while traveling from Georgia to South Carolina, Woodard, in his uniform, was ordered off the bus in a town now known as Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., and beaten so badly with a billy club by the local police chief that he was permanently blinded.
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