A step towards economic justice: Right the wrongs done to African American veterans of WW II

Claudia Stack
May 31, 2020 · 5 min read
These drivers of the 666th Quartermaster Truck Company, 82nd Airborne Division, who chalked up 20,000 miles each without an accident, since arriving in the European Theater of Operations. National Archives Identifier: 535533

As protests continue over the murder of George Floyd, I think about the deep-rooted institutional racism that has brought us to this point. Yes, we must do something, sentiments are not enough. But what can we do to begin to make up for 400 years of oppression and exploitation? Here is one thought: Start to rectify the injustices committed against the one million African American veterans of WW II, who were denied full participation in the greatest wealth-building program in American history: The GI Bill.

A 2017 Veterans Affairs report noted that “Over 900,000 African American soldiers served and at the height of the African American participation, nearly 9 percent of the Army was African American. Approximately, 167,000 African Americans served in the Navy (or about 4 percent of the Navy) and 17,000 served in the Marine Corps (or about 2 percent of the Marines).” Source: Minority Veterans Report: Military Service History and VA Benefit Utilization Statistics. Data Governance and Analytics, Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC. March 2017 accessed 5/31/20

This report is well worth the time to read, and highlights a few of the many distinguished African American service members’ contributions to every major American conflict since the Revolutionary War. What it doesn’t mention is that at the end of WW II, as many as 40% of African American veterans were given either dishonorable discharges or “blue discharges” (neither honorable nor dishonorable). They were given these types of discharges at much higher rates than their European American counterparts. These discharges carried a stigma, and also meant that many African American veterans could not access GI Bill benefits. For example, Nelson Henry of Philadelphia, PA received a blue discharge after serving in WW II.

As a 2019 press release from Legal Aid explains, “ Technically neither honorable nor dishonorable, the blue discharge excluded Mr. Henry from many jobs. It cut off his GI benefits. And it resulted in him driving a cab for 13 years instead of enrolling in dental school, where he had already been granted a conditional acceptance before he had enlisted. Mr. Henry was not alone: 47,000 soldiers got blue discharges from the Army. African Americans, like Mr. Henry, got about 10,000 of them — or 22.2% — even though black soldiers made up only about 6.5% of the Army. “Homosexuals” — the term used at the time — also got a disproportionate share: about 5,000.

Although Mr. Henry was finally awarded an honorable discharge some 75 years after his military service, he was only able to enjoy this moral victory for less than a year before dying of COVID-19. His obituary notes that “The Army board said that it found no evidence of misconduct by Mr. Henry, that Mr. Henry had been targeted by his superiors, and “that there may have been an environment of racial discrimination” that led to his separation from the Army.”

In a previous article “To Answer Trump’s Question…”, I looked at a few of the reasons why, due to a whole constellation of effects caused by institutionalized racism, African Americans are at a higher risk of dying from Coronavirus.

Rothenberg notes in the book Race, Class and Gender in the United StatesBetween August and November 1946, for example, 21 percent of white soldiers and 39 percent of black soldiers were dishonorably discharged.” Nor did the discrimination end there. Even when they received honorable discharges, African American veterans faced a gamut of challenges in using their GI benefits that effectively denied their families much of the prosperity that European Americans built on the twin foundations of college education and home ownership in the decades after WW II.

A 2019 article on History.com, “How the GI Bill’s Promise was Denied to a Million Black Veterans, “ explains why African American veterans were not able to access nearly as many home loans as European American veterans: A combination of redlining, and the fact that “Though the GI Bill guaranteed low-interest mortgages and other loans, they were not administered by the VA itself. Thus, the VA could cosign, but not actually guarantee the loans. This gave white-run financial institutions free reign to refuse mortgages and loans to black people.”

As Pete Daniel documented in his 2013 book Dispossession, similar tactics of local administration of federal programs allowed county offices to discriminate in the administration of USDA loans. This resulted in a precipitous loss of African American owned farms. In 1910, African Americans owned 14% of farms in the United States, but by 2012 that figure had dropped to about 1%, further eroding African American wealth. (For oral history relating experiences of sharecroppers and African American farmers please see my documentary Sharecrop)

The combined effect of outright denials of GI benefits, and discriminatory practices in administering GI benefits, resulted in lost opportunities of staggering proportions. While European American veterans built home equity in newly created suburbs, African Americans were largely confined to poor rural areas, or to urban areas that were rapidly losing investment. Limited space at segregated institutions of higher learning meant that there weren’t enough spaces at colleges to accommodate all the African Americans who wanted to use their GI Bill education benefits. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research states that “However, for those black veterans more likely to be limited to the South in their collegiate choices, the G.I. Bill exacerbated rather than narrowed the economic and educational differences between blacks and whites.”

While a May, 2020 estimate published by Pew Research indicates there are only about 300,000 WW II veterans of all backgrounds still alive today, there are still things we can do as a nation to correct some of injustices committed against African American veterans of WW II. If they had been allowed to access GI benefits at a rate comparable to their European American peers, African American families would have more generational wealth, be more financially resilient in times of crisis (such as the Coronavirus pandemic), and would be partaking more fully in the American dream.

Let us seriously take up the issue of how we can rectify the injustices done to African American veterans of WW II and their families. What is the average equity growth of a suburban home purchased using a VA loan in 1946 to the present day? Distributing that amount to all African American WW II veterans/ their families (regardless of discharge status) who did not get a home loan from the VA, would be a starting point for justice.

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Claudia Stack

Written by

I am an educator/filmmaker. See stackstories.com to link to docs. Subscribe: http://stackstories.com/subscribe-to-get-emails-with-new-articles-and-film-info/

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Listen to our podcast at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

Claudia Stack

Written by

I am an educator/filmmaker. See stackstories.com to link to docs. Subscribe: http://stackstories.com/subscribe-to-get-emails-with-new-articles-and-film-info/

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Listen to our podcast at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

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