Dartmouth historian Delmont’s Half American (Viking, Oct.) unearths the contributions African Americans made to WWII, and how their experiences of racial discrimination helped spark the civil rights movement.
Explain the importance of the Black press to this story.
Black newspapers profiled average soldiers and sailors from Cleveland, Chicago, and Pittsburgh who were going off to fight in the war. I’m a historian, I teach about African American history, but the details in these stories were things I’ve never seen before. The other thing that I didn’t know at the start of the project was the extent to which Black reporters were embedded with these different Black units. Folks like Ollie Stewart recognized in ’43, ’44, and ’45 that the U.S. and Allies could not have won the war without the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work that Black troops were doing.
Like in the D-Day invasion.
Black troops were critical to D-Day, both the invasion on June 6, 1944, and in the weeks and months afterwards. The invasion of Normandy and the push across France and into Germany took months. And it was a supply effort. Whether it was food, gasoline, supplies, ammunition, clothes for the troops... almost all of that passed through the hands of at least one Black soldier.
How did Black veterans contribute to the civil rights movement?
Black veterans returned home and kept fighting. A lot of them credited their civil rights leadership and activism to their military training. Someone like Medgar Evers, he comes home and he’s only 21 at the time. Going to Europe and being in France was the first time he ever felt like he was treated as an equal or as a human by a white person. It opens his eyes to the possibility that things can be different in the U.S., so he returns and wants to fight for that before ultimately being assassinated by a white veteran, which is a very telling detail.
What do we get wrong about WWII?
People like to think that WWII was a simpler, more unified time in our nation. It absolutely was not. In 1943, there were more than 240 racial clashes in cities and towns across the country, as well as on army bases and military posts. And when we see the recent resurgence of white nationalism, white supremacy, the Confederate flag, these really overt symbols of racism, there’s historical precedence for those. One example: the use of the Confederate flag in Charlottesville and during the insurgency at the Capitol building on January 6. When I looked at the records from WWII, in many cases white troops from the South brought the Confederate flag with them to Europe and the Pacific and actually ran up that flag either alongside or instead of the Stars and Stripes to celebrate American victories. It’s those kinds of details that make your mind boggle.