The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
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Jim Crow Stories

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U.S. In World War II (1941-1945)
Black soldiers on a boat

Most of the black soldiers who enlisted in the armed services during World War II knew that they would serve in segregated units. The Marines and the Army Air Corps (the predecessor to the Air Force) refused to accept blacks until later in the war. The navy accepted them only as mess men. Most men in the army were used in non-combat military jobs. But some did get a chance to serve at the front lines. The Tuskegee Airmen won glory for providing fighter escorts for bombers over Germany. They never lost a single plane they protected. The 761st tank battalion saw action in Europe. For other soldiers, the war enabled them, through military service or employment, to discover the large cities of the North. Many encountered unimagined experiences for the first time. Roscoe Pickett recalled that by serving in the army, he learned an important fact about himself. "I knew then that I wasn't going to go back on the farm. I knew that I was going to go to college somewhere. That's the thing that changed my life. I knew that a black man could do things other than mess around plowing with an ox, messing around cutting cross ties. That's the thing that changed me." For James Jones, who served in the 761st Tank Battalion and One Veteran was warned by his father that any black soldier who "had a picture of a white woman in his wallet, they'd kill him." He returned home dressed as a sharecropper. saw action in Europe, it was the French who made a profound difference in his life. "The French had a certain kind of openness and warmth that they exhibited towards minorities that was just unexplainable. You wouldn't know you were black when you were in their company." Relationships between black and white soldiers were mixed. Some white outfits were openly hostile towards black soldiers. The hostility would sometimes break into violence and white soldiers would attack, beat, and even kill blacks. Some black and white soldiers formed friendships when serving together -- especially men who fought together on the front lines. But when they returned home, the color line once again reappeared.

When blacks came home after the war, whites were prepared to "put them back in their place." Henry Murphy said that when he returned to the states and called his father in Mississippi, his father warned him not to come home with his uniform on. "He said that the police was beating black
Media Feature - Listen to the Audio
Former soldiers discuss
the impact of fighting in World War II on their sense of self.

soldiers and searching them. If they had a picture of a white woman in his wallet, they'd kill him." Murphy returned home dressed as a sharecropper in a overalls and a jumper. Dabney Hammer, who came back to Mississippi wearing his war medals, encountered a white man in his home town of Clarksdale, Mississippi. "Oweee, look at them spangles on your chest. Glad you back. Let me tell you one thing don't you forget ... you're still a nigger." But the war had changed their attitudes about Jim Crow. Luella Newsome, who served as a WAC (Women's Army Corps), said, "It had to change, because we're not going to have it this way anymore." Some veterans came back with a militant attitude ready to fight. They realized that Jim Crow was not inevitable and the South didn't have to be that way. "We thought it was the way it was supposed to be, "one soldier remarked. "We was dumb to the facts and didn't know." But when they were treated as human beings by Europeans and Australians and other whites in different countries, "It opened up my eyes to the racial problems." Many of the leaders of black voter registration drives in 1946 were black veterans.

-- Richard Wormser

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Did you Know ...

One million, two hundred thousand African Americans fought in World War II.
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