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From the American Revolution to the present, African Americans have played an important role in the American armed forces. An excellent essay by Chad Williams in ProQuest’s Black Studies Center recounts the contribution of African Americans to the American military.
In the process of describing the military service of African Americans, Williams also points out how this service impacted the civil rights struggle, particularly in the 20th century. 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most significant triumphs for the civil rights movement.
2014 also marks the 70th anniversary of many important World War II battles. In recognition of these two anniversaries, we are looking back at how service in the nation’s military during World War II impacted the Black Freedom Struggle.
During World War II, approximately one million African Americans served in the U.S. armed forces in segregated units. The Tuskegee Airmen became one of the most famous groups of African American servicemen in World War II. During the course of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen compiled an amazing combat record, flying more than 10,000 combat missions, and shooting down 111 enemy aircraft.
The HistoryMakers, available as a standalone database and as a module of Black Studies Center, includes the life story, in video, of former Tuskegee Airman John Rogers, Sr. The two-hour interview covers Rogers’s childhood and education, his enlistment and training as a Tuskegee Airman, and his further work in the Air Force, flying more than 100 combat missions, as well as his later career as a juvenile court judge in Illinois for 21 years.
ProQuest History Vault includes original archival records on the Tuskegee Airmen from the National Archives. Below is an example of one of the “narrative mission reports” from the Tuskegee Airmen. This report describes a combat mission from June 1944, when Tuskegee Airmen sank a German destroyer in the harbor of Trieste, Italy.
The report reads: “Unable to find troops on road as briefed, a strafing sweep was made of the eastern shoreline and harbor of Gulf of Venezia–Gulf of Trieste, secondary target as briefed, with the following results: 1 destroyer bearing German Cross on smokestacks was attacked by 8 P-47’s at deck level. The destroyer was seen to first smoke, then explode and sink off at Pirano at 45 degrees 31 min” (from ProQuest History Vault, Records of the Tuskegee Airmen, Accession ID 100544-003-0001)
The Tuskegee Airmen records in History Vault also include reports and correspondence regarding the segregated conditions faced by African American soldiers at military bases inside the United States. At the Carlsbad Army Air Field in Carlsbad, New Mexico, for example, African American soldiers complained that they were forced to sit in a segregated section of the base’s movie theater, not served food in the post exchange, and required to occupy the rear seats on a bus that transported them out of the base. In 1944 in Camp Hood, Texas, Jackie Robinson, who three years later would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, was arrested after he did not move from his seat on a bus.
The first and fourth page of Robinson’s letter regarding this incident are shown here: (from NAACP Papers, ProQuest History Vault, Accession ID 001537-022-0310)
In response to incidents like these, civil rights organizations mounted a determined campaign against racial discrimination, with a particular focus on the defense effort. The NAACP and the Black press were key players in efforts to fight discrimination on the home front and within the U.S. armed forces.
In 1942, the Pittsburgh Courier called for a campaign that they labeled the “Double V” for victory against fascism abroad and racial discrimination at home. A search on “Double V campaign” or “Double V” in the Pittsburgh Courier leads to thousands of results, while the other newspapers in ProQuest Historical Black Newspapers include other extensive coverage of World War II events.
In addition, the NAACP Papers collection in ProQuest History Vault includes the NAACP records for 1941-1945, which covered the NAACP’s efforts to fight discrimination in the military as well as in defense industries.
These are just a few examples of the many ProQuest resources that can be used to study the fight for civil rights, in the armed forces and on the home front, during World War II. To learn more about ProQuest History Vault, ProQuest Black Studies Center, and ProQuest Historical Newspapers, visit our Black History collections website.