Fighting in the Jim Crow Army by Morehouse

Fighting in the Jim Crow Army by Maggie Morehouse

Maggie Morehouse (2007) opines early in Fighting in the Jim Crow Army that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, wherein America codified “separate-but-equal,” was still in effect by the time of WWII. The effects of the Supreme Court decision would impact the lives of black Americans for the next half century — especially in the armed forces, which were segregated until 1947. Morehouse goes on to detail the trials and complications for black soldiers in the segregated Army, as remembered by the black men and women who lived through those times. This paper will examine the most significant aspects of Morehouse’s work, and provide a detailed look at the stories therein that shaped the people and the structure of the 92nd and 93rd all-black active divisions.

Morehouse asserts right away that the policy of segregation “failed to produce military efficiency,” (p. 4). Not only was it demoralizing, but it added an economic burden to the military system as well when separate buildings and facilities had to be constructed — such as those at Ft. Huachuca. However, when Rep. Hamilton Fish introduced a bill in 1940 that “allowed the president to assign men — white or black — to various units within the army,” Secretary of War Harry Woodring objected that such a measure would demoralize troops and weaken the military infrastructure (p. 4). While Congress stalled to let blacks serve alongside whites, the number of blacks who saw active duty was significantly less than the ratio of blacks to whites among the general population.

Despite the fact that blacks had difficulty simply being able to fight for the United States, Morehouse notes that many of them remained loyal and patriotic. Famous boxer Joe Louis exemplified such characteristics when he said, “There may be a whole lot wrong with America, but there’s nothing that Hitler can fix” (p. 8). Such an attitude was not uncommon to find among the black population. Even in 1941 the War Department had issued this statement: “Negroes have been notably a loyal and patriotic group. One of their outstanding characteristics is the single-mindedness of their patriotism” (p. 8). Yet, many critics wondered why blacks should serve in a “segregated army” to defend a racist government.

Indeed, not all blacks were keen to serve. Morehouse cites Lawrence Johnson as one such example. “Lawrence Johnson said he ‘did not want to go into the military, period…It wasn’t my choice to go in, and when they called me, I didn’t expect to be any hero” (p. 17). Johnson was later even nominated for Officer Candidate School, but refused to go. Others, like Conrad Lynn, “reported for duty, but sued” over segregation: “I am ready to serve in any unit of the armed forces of my country which is not segregated by race. Unless I am assured that I can serve in a mixed regiment…I will refuse to report for induction” (p. 18). However, Lynn’s case was not victorious.

Not only was the Army segregated, but also it failed to represent the racial diversity of the American population: “In the 1940s, black Americans constituted approximately 10% of the overall population — 13 million people out of 130 million total. In the military — predominantly the army — blacks represented only 5.8% of the total number of servicemen” (p. 27). Black soldiers like Private Charles F. Wilson even wrote directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to convey their dislike of the “undemocratic Jim Crow segregation.” However, Roosevelt did nothing to desegregate the Army.

Despite opposition, the sustained pressure of rights groups and black protest led to the activation of two black infantry divisions. No longer only serving in mess halls, black soldiers would finally get a chance to fight. One of these was the 93rd Infantry Division. The other was the 92nd.

Morehouse gives some insightful details on the hierarchy of the military at this time. “One black officer in the 93rd commented that the ‘so-called southern aristocracy’ ran the army” (p. 28). Likewise, Bill Perry noted how little authority black officers were given over whites: “It appeared as if the army never let a black man outrank a white man in any kind of working relationship” (p. 28). Morehouse then observes that Perry was not incorrect: such was “official policy.” In the segregated army, blacks could command only blacks.

Plessy v. Ferguson came back to haunt Nelson Peery when MP officers tried in vain to urge him to the segregated cars of a train. Peery, who had a first class ticket courtesy of the government, said he would be happy to — if his first class seat was available in the segregated section. It was not — and instead Peery was put in his own deluxe suite, if only to keep him apart from the other white officers (p. 43). The 92nd and 93rd all-black Infantry Divisions were segregated both from whites and, in training, from civilization all together. Their reservation was in the Arizona desert, and Hank Williams described it without fondness.

One thing the reservation at Ft. Huachuca did have, however, was no shortage of prostitution. The rate of venereal disease among soldiers at Ft. Huachuca was near to 40% in 1943. As the army took more direct intervention in the spread of disease, this rate dropped to around 15% by 1944 (p. 79). The efforts at moderating prostitution at the Fort became almost surreal, when, as Morehouse states, one “strict first sergeant nicknamed ‘Little Hitler’…would say: ‘Tell me who you’ve been with, I’ll tell you what you’ve got'” (p. 80). Famed prosecutor Eliot Ness even tried to clean up the prostitution rings that plagued the military. The whore house was deemed “off-limits.” But the problem did not go away.

In fact, there were other problems. Bill Perry describes the “drinkers and gamblers” who made up part of the infantry. Joe Stephenson relates, “One of our guys, Blondie, was from Chicago, and Al Capone was his role model” (p. 81). However, one of the reasons cited by Morehouse for the troubles at Ft. Huachuca was that there simply was not enough for the soldiers to do:

One soldier was murdered around the post bowling alley, apparently by a man wielding a bowling pin. A local civilian was murdered with an ax when a soldier suspected the man of having an affair with his wife. Many other similar tales can be found in the Huachuca archives. On weekends, the guardhouse on post and the jails in the surrounding towns would fill with soldiers who had little else to do but get into trouble (p. 81).

While troubles of the sort certainly had an effect on the soldiers of the 92nd and 93rd all-black infantry divisions, Morehouse goes on to show how the two divisions fared differently once they were sent into their campaigns in the war.

While the 93rd Division was sent to the Pacific to fight the Japanese in mop-up exercises, the 92nd Division was shipped to Europe where it had to fight in Italy. Morehouse depicts the racial bias of the white commanders in the case of the 92nd Division. By showing, for example, how Gen. Ned Almond was responsible for the poor leadership decisions that led to the 92nd’s overall lackluster performance, Morehouse places some of the blame on the societal misgivings the segregated army still held towards black soldiers in active combat. And while, as Morehouse notes, race relations were a cause for concern back in America, many white officers did not think black soldiers could be trusted to perform at the front lines. Instead, the black soldiers were put in the rear.

Finally, however, Harry. S. Truman began the process of desegregation of the armed forces in 1947. But by then the war was over. Disappointing to many, the 92nd Division was viewed as having underperformed in its active role in the European campaign. However, because of the rules, regulations, and racist mentality of the leaders of the segregated army, Morehouse makes plain that the reason the 92nd did not live up to expectations was because so little was expected from them.

Throughout, Fighting in the Jim Crow Army illustrates many examples of the trials and labors of the black American soldiers fighting in the segregated army of WWII. From the earliest stages of training at Ft. Huachuca to the combat points of Moratai, Mindanao, and Biak, and of Italy, Morehouse shows just how black soldiers fared in jobs and duties, which they were given to perform. Even though they had been trained for combat, the soldiers were viewed as lacking that which white soldiers possessed — a certain respectability, for example. Yet, the reason for such a viewpoint was based in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896. Truman finally took steps to remove this viewpoint in 1947, but by then black soldiers had already returned from WWII and had not really been given an opportunity to prove themselves in battle.

Reference List

Morehouse, M. (2007). Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: Black Men and Women

Remember World War II. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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