African Americans in World War II

Photo Essay

World War II was the most destructive military conflict the world has ever seen, causing the deaths of tens of millions of people and terrible devastation across Europe, the Pacific, and parts of Asia. The "Greatest Generation" of Americans who served their country at this pivotal time came from both genders, many races, and virtually every conceivable walk of life. As in previous wars, African Americans faced white resistance and segregated conditions both within the military and on the home front. Yet, the war years also witnessed a number of firsts, advancements, and breakthroughs for the black community. In the military, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. became the first African American general, the Army Air Force organized its first all-black squadron of pilots—the famous Tuskegee Airmen—and black women were accepted into the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps. While African Americans still made up only a small percentage of combat forces and fought in segregated units, the foundation was laid for the integration of the armed services by order of President Truman in 1948.

At home, the war effort fueled the migration of blacks out of the South to the industrial cities of the North. This demographic shift often resulted in racial tension and riots, as in Detroit in 1943. However, it also made possible the inclusion of African Americans into labor organizations such as the United Automobile Workers or the United Steelworkers, and encouraged the growth of a relatively prosperous black middle class. Under pressure from civil rights advocates such as A. Philip Randolph, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, banning racial discrimination in defense industry and federal government hiring. The NAACP launched the "Double-V campaign" in the belief that the war offered an opportunity to "persuade, embarrass, compel, and shame our government and our nation into a more enlightened attitude toward a tenth of its people." In many ways, the destruction of World War II brought momentous changes to American life and was the catalyst for the early civil rights movement.

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Featured Articles

The following articles have been selected to help guide readers who want to learn more about the African American men and women who contributed to the war effort, either through military service in Europe or the Pacific, or through their work on the home front. (Access to the following articles is available only to subscribers.)

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