Why Four Black Women Stood Up to the U.S. Army During World War II

The 6888 women were notified earlier this year.ThThe Postal Battalion Directory is now closer to receiving the recognition it deserves. The Senate passed legislation to award the only all-Black Women’s Army Corps (WACs) deployed overseas during World War II the Congressional Gold Medal. The “Six Triple Eight” self-contained postal unit completed the seemingly impossible task of tackling the mail backlog during the final months of the war. Activists are urging the House to pass legislation that will officially recognize the service.

The spotlight on the “Six Triple Eight” has sparked increased interest in the African American female military experience during World War II. However, the success of this unit is only one part of a larger story. It was only 855 of the 6,500 Black women who served with the U.S. WACs between 1942 and 1945 that this battalion represented.
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When they went back to civilian life, the American public rarely, or never, recognized Black WACs for their military service. We could only rely on newspapers from the time to conclude that Black women soldiers made no meaningful contribution to the war effort. Thank goodness we have the Chicago Archives DefenderPittsburgh CourierOther Black media outlets which regularly reported on their accomplishments.

Most of the 5,600 Black female soldiers who served in World War II did not leave the United States. They were promised nursing or medical tech training and signed up to do so in great numbers. “Urgent! More nurses needed now – All women can help!” read varying headlines in the St. Louis Post-DispatchCharlotte ObserverNew York Daily News. The accompanying articles promised that enlisting in a WAC Hospital unit would lead to “valuable technical and on-the-job training” even if the women did not have any previous related experience or education.

Continue reading: How an All-Black WAC Unit Overcame a Difficult WWII Mission

While the Six Triple Eight broke records in England with their mail distribution system, there was discontent back home. A group of African American WACs, reassigned from Fort Des Moines in Iowa to Fort Devens in Massachusetts, found themselves doing janitorial and orderly tasks—not the nursing and medical technician roles that had been promised.

Even Black WACs without prior surgery training had to be assigned orders. They almost always performed the hated job of kitchen patrol (KP). All white WACs received more desirable positions like surgical technie and medical technician. The hard labor, the failed promises and the discrimination caused anger among Black WACs. Private Alice Young would later testify that she overheard Colonel Walter Crandall, the hospital’s commanding officer, saying he did not want “colored [WACs] as medical technicians,” according to historian Sandra M. Bolzenius, author of They are the glory of God. Young also testified that Crandall went on to say that the Black women under his command were sent there to “scrub and wash floors, wash dishes and do all the dirty work.” Private Beulah SIMS attempted suicide when the conditions became so dire. (She was just one of many Black WACs from Fort Devens who tried to commit suicide before and after the strike.

On March 9, 1945, 54 of the 100 Black women stationed at Fort Devens refused to show up to work—effectively going on strike—to protest against their treatment and working conditions. Instead of going to their hospital wards for treatment, the women gathered at their barracks room to tell their commanders about all of the discrimination that they had experienced. Their refusal to work continued the following day. They refused to work again the next day after General Sherman Miles (commander of the First Service Command) read them the war articles and directed them to resume their duties.

This direct order put striking women in a corner. Refusing to comply could be considered mutiny—with the most severe punishment being death. Nearly all the women went back to work. But four—Privates Mary Green, Anna Morrison, Johnnie Murphy and Alice Young—continued to hold out. “I would take death before I would go back to work,” Murphy declared.

Court martialed the four women. The women were sentenced initially to hard labor for one year and discharged dishonorably. They rallied to the support of Black America. Local NAACP members hired their lawyer. Thurgood Marshall (the future Supreme Court Justice) was interviewed. With headlines like, ”4 Negro Wacs Convicted, Disobedience” (The Indiana Gazette, Indiana, Pa.) and “Four Negro Wacs Sentenced to Year at Hard Labor” (The Daily Herald, Biloxi, Miss.Their story was featured in the Black Press National mainstream newspapers. The offices of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were flooded with letters of support from black and white Americans. According to Bolzenius, this particular disciplinary hearing was “the most open and well-documented of all Wac courts-martial” as military brass wanted to use the event to showcase the absence of racism in their courts while the women used their testimonies to document its everyday presence.

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To avoid any negative publicity that might have been caused by the allegations against the four privates, they were eventually dropped. Colonel Crandall took a convenient “planned” leave of absence after an internal investigation after the trial concluded that the Black WAC detachment’s complaints had been justified. For the Black women of Fort Devens their jobs were changed to no longer require them to wash dishes, clean bathrooms, or scrub trash cans. All of them were still efficient and they received all KP assignments, while white WACs did not. Even with all the fuss and hysteria caused by the strike, there was not much that had changed.

One thing that I’ve learned from the experiences of World War II-era Black women is that very little in the Black female work experience has changed from then to now. I have personally experienced being told I was “too good” at my job to be promoted while the white women who came in after me were supported in their efforts to build their careers (and increase their pay). I’ve also received a reprimand for speaking out about unjust work practices. Her book Memo, Minda Harts talks about the attempts by “the powers that be” to stonewall her own career advancement and successes not dissimilar to what these Black female soldiers experienced over 75 years ago. Black women in the military can still look back at how others have impacted their career opportunities and created uncomfortable workplaces. This impeded our ability to earn a living and was a lesson for us all.

I grew up surrounded by Black women from The Greatest Generation – my grandmothers, their female relatives, and their friends – who were spunky, feisty, opinionated and tough. They did not take —shall we say “stuff”—from anyone. They are no longer physically present in my life so I have to speculate as to why they were that way. My research on Black women in World War II is so important because of this.

Black women today can learn from the bravery of four Black WAC Privates during World War II. You can learn from their experiences, build your resilience, and continue to conquer the mountains that lie ahead. If nothing else, we should know that we don’t have to put up with anyone’s stuff. Because they sure didn’t.

Kaia Alderson is author of SISTERS IN ARMSWilliam Morrow published ‘The Second City in August 2021. Her writing credits include the Hurston-Wright Foundation and Voices of Our Nation, Callaloo, The Second City, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our Nation, Voices of Our City, The Second City


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