2-287 Editorial Note on African Americans and the Army

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Editorial Note on African Americans and the Army

June-October 1940

By 1940 most black leaders shared the goal of integrating the armed services as an important step toward full participation by their race in society. Racial segregation in the military was established by law and tradition and reinforced in the army after the World War by the conviction among many white officers that black troops had not performed well in the A.E.F. By June 1940 there were only about 4,000 black enlisted men in the Regular Army—1.5 percent of the total; another 3,000 were in various National Guard units. The Selective Service Act of 1940, which would present the army with thousands of black draftees, specifically stated that in selection and training of men there was to be “no discrimination against any person on account of race or color.” Separate facilities on a racial basis were not considered discriminatory if the facilities provided were equivalent. During the summer and autumn of 1940, political pressure by black spokesmen increased on the Roosevelt administration and on the army to enforce the no-discrimination policy. (Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965, a volume in the Defense Studies Series [Washing ton: GPO, 1981], pp. 5-15. See Marshall to McCormick, August 28, 1940, Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #2-250 [2: 297-98], and Memorandum for General Shedd, September 14, 1940, Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #2-260 [2: 306].)

The official army policy regarding blacks was spelled out in a September 27, 1940, letter from Marshall to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. The letter was drafted by Major Walter B. Smith, the General Staff officer at the time chiefly concerned with this problem. “It is the policy of the War Department not to intermingle colored and white enlisted personnel in the same regimental organization. The condition which has made this policy necessary is not the responsibility of the Department, but to ignore it would produce situations destructive of morale and therefore definitely detrimental to the preparations for national defense in this emergency.

“The War Department has been deeply concerned by unmistakable evidence of an extensive campaign being conducted at the present time to force a change in this policy. The present exceedingly difficult period of building up a respectable and dependable military force for the protection of this country is not the time for critical experiments, which would inevitably have a highly destructive effect on morale—meaning military efficiency.

“The existing policy has been proven satisfactory over a long period of years. It provides for a full percentage of colored personnel and a wide variety of military units. Our colored regiments have splendid morale, and their high percentage of reenlistments is evidence of the wisdom of the present system.” (Marshall to Lodge, September 27, 1940, GCMRL/G. C. Marshall Papers [Pentagon Office, Selected].)

On the day that this letter was sent, President Roosevelt met with Walter F. White, T. Arnold Hill, and A. Philip Randolph, who insisted that the president take steps toward ending racial segregation in the armed forces. On October 9, the White House released to the press a War Department statement which briefly summarized the reasons for continuing segregation given in Marshall’s letter to Senator Lodge, but which asserted that “the services of Negroes will be utilized on a fair and equitable basis.“ The army would accept blacks in numbers approximating their proportion to the total population (i.e., about 10 percent). Negro organizations were to be established in all branches, including the Air Corps. Blacks would be given the opportunity to attend officer candidate schools, but as officers they would be assigned to black units only. Qualified civilians were to be “accorded equal opportunity for employment” at army posts and arsenals. A week later this statement was distributed to all army commanders. (MacGregor, Integration of the Armed Forces, p. 15; Ulysses Lee, The Employment of Negro Troops, a volume in the United States Army in World War II [Washington: GPO, 1966], pp. 75-76; The Adjutant General to Commanding Generals of all Armies, Corps Areas and Departments, and Chiefs of Arms and Services, “War Department policy in regard to negroes,” October 16, 1940, NA/RG 407 [General, 291.[2]1 (10-9-40) M-A-M].)

Black leaders strongly objected to this implied White House approval of segregation, and President Roosevelt acted to soften the blow. On October 23 a War Department press release announced that Judge William H. Hastie, dean of the Howard University Law School, was to be appointed the secretary of war’s civilian aide on Negro affairs. On October 25, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., was nominated for promotion to brigadier general, the first time that a black had advanced to that rank in the United States Army. (Lee, Employment of Negro Troops, pp. 76-79.) The two following documents by Marshall reflect the president’s concern over black protests (Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #2-288 and #2-289 [2: 337-39]).

Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland, Sharon Ritenour Stevens, and Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr. (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2, “We Cannot Delay,” July 1, 1939-December 6, 1941 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 336-337.

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