What Was Black America’s Double War?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A paper's call for blacks to support the World War II effort had a twist.

The Inkspots promote Double V. (Memorial Hall Museum's American Centuries)
The Inkspots promote Double V. (Memorial Hall Museum's American Centuries)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 33: How was black support enlisted for World War II when the armed services were segregated and racial oppression was rampant at home? 

Last week we read about Robert Smalls, the slave who sailed himself to freedom and then became the first black Navy captain during the American Civil War, five years before the first Memorial Day. Black leaders felt that African Americans could make the strongest case for freedom and citizenship if they demonstrated their heroism and commitment to the country on the battlefield, as they had done since 5,000 black men fought for the Patriot cause in the American Revolution. No one put this more forcefully than Frederick Douglass did in the middle of the Civil War: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”

Yet, by the time the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, memories of Smalls’ heroism and of the 200,000 black men who had served during the Civil War (and those who had served in every other American war since) had been, if you will, lost at sea. 

Despite the gains of the abolition of slavery and the three Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution, Jim Crow segregation had pervaded every aspect of American society since the 1890s. And the military was no exception. When black men volunteered for duty or were drafted following the Japanese sneak attack, they were relegated to segregated divisions and combat support roles, such as cook, quartermaster and grave-digging duty. The military was as segregated as the Deep South.

So it is easy for us to see why it was difficult for African Americans not to see the hypocrisy between conditions at home and the noble war aims President Franklin Roosevelt articulated in his famous “Four Freedoms” speech on Jan. 6, 1941. And because of the gap between the promise and performance of American freedom when it came to race relations, many black people frankly felt alienated from the war effort. 

While A. Philip Randolph’s threat of a massive March on Washington convinced FDR to ban discrimination against blacks in the defense industry in 1941, segregation in the armed forces persisted. Covering the conflict posed a problem for black newspapers: Either give in to the government’s propaganda about racial harmony at home for the sake of the war effort and national unity, or speak the truth and be smeared as co-conspirators with the enemy. American history was replete with cautionary tales of disappointment and betrayal, starting with experiences by Frederick Douglass in the post-Reconstruction period and continuing through one involving W.E.B. Du Bois (pdf) during World War I. What should black journalists and spokespersons do?

Two months to the day after Pearl Harbor (Feb. 7, 1942), the most widely read black newspaper in America, the Pittsburgh Courier, found a way to split the difference — actually, the newspaper cleverly intertwined them into a symbol and a national campaign that urged black people to give their all for the war effort, while at the same time calling on the government to do all it could to make the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and the equal rights amendments to the Constitution real for every citizen, regardless of race. And in honor of the battle against enemies from without and within, they called it “the Double V Campaign.”