History professor Matthew Delmont discusses Black Americans’ role in WWII

The event, “Black Americans During World War II,” highlighted the often overlooked contribution of Black Americans to the Allied war effort.

by Varun Swaminathan | 1/13/23 5:00am

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by Varun Swaminathan / The Dartmouth

On Jan. 9, the Political Economy Project and the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy hosted history professor Matthew Delmont in an event called “Black Americans During World War II.” Around 40 professors, students and community members gathered to hear Delmont discuss his new book, “Half-American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad.” 

In the talk, Delmont provided context for his book, laid out a broad history of Black military service and shared specific stories of heroism from Black men and women who supported the war effort. His presentation was followed by a Q&A session with the audience. 

Delmont opened the talk by explaining his inspiration for the book. His last publication was “Black Quotidian,” a digital project published by Stanford University that uses articles from Black-run newspapers to view everyday history from a new perspective. While examining these papers, Delmont repeatedly came across images of Black servicemen in World War II. Eager to explore their stories further, Delmont said that he began to dig deeper to uncover their motivations and service stories.

“I was blown away by seeing these kinds of images . . . hundreds and hundreds of small pictures and profiles of average Black men and women from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, who served the country during World War II,” Delmont said.

In an interview after the event, Delmont went over the several sources he used for the book. These included Black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender, as well as the United States National Archives and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.

Tulio Huggins ’23 said that  he learned “the importance of knowing history to know the present” in a history class taught by Delmont. Huggins criticized the “idealized version of history” often taught in classrooms, in which he said racism is not discussed from a “systemic lens.” 

Delmont said the book’s title comes from a letter written by 26-year-old James Thompson, a Black man from Kansas who was wrestling with an internal conflict about serving. After the Dec., 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Thompson wrote, “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American? Is the America I know worth defending?” 

Eventually, Delmont said that Thompson chose to join the military, as did more than one million other Black Americans during the second World War. Delmont argued that their collective motivation was larger than their service to the U.S. but was also inspired by an obligation to defeat the Nazi regime.

According to Delmont, many Black Americans compared Nazism to the Jim Crow South and quickly recognized the danger it posed to minorities everywhere. Black newspapers also extensively covered the Italian takeover of Ethiopia — the only independent nation in Africa prior to Mussolini’s invasion besides Liberia.

Delmont pointed out that these international concerns arose as early as 1935, when more than 80 Black Americans volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, fighting against General Francisco Franco’s fascist forces. Black writers such as Langston Hughes covered the events in Spain and reported the heroism and bravery shown by the volunteers. 

Delmont shared anecdotes from World War II that highlighted Black Americans’ role in the Allied victory. During the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a Black cook named Doris Miller grabbed an anti-aircraft gun and began firing at the Japanese aircraft overhead. Despite not being allowed to take a combat assignment, Miller answered his country’s call and galvanized Black America, Delmont said. 

On the European front during D-Day, Black troops manned balloons with mines attached that floated above the beaches in Normandy. Delmont said these balloons prevented German planes from flying straight through the Allied lines. 

“Black Americans were the backbone of the Allies’ supply,” Delmont said. “Without Black Americans, the Allies could not have won the war.”

With 5,000 Black infantry soldiers and many other all-Black battalions, countless other stories of Black heroism naturally exist and were uncovered in Delmont’s research. Although it took several years, seven Black soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their bravery in World War II. 

The Black Americans who helped win the war were not exclusively men. Delmont shed light on the 600,000 Black women who worked on the supply side of the war effort to make the industrial goods necessary for the Allied victory. Black women even served in Europe: One such unit, the 688th Central Postal Directory Battalion, was deployed to England in 1944 to distribute mail across the European theater. 

Despite all of these accomplishments, Delmont said that Black veterans were still treated as second-class citizens upon their return to America. Delmont offered the story of veteran Medgar Evers, who was prevented from voting by a “white mob with guns” in Mississippi. Reverend Hosea Williams, a Purple Heart recipient who served under General George Patton in Europe, was killed for drinking out of an all-white water fountain in Savannah, Georgia after the war. 

Though the talk focused mainly on Black Americans who decided to serve despite their treatment in America, Delmont said there were many Black Americans who elected not to serve, both in World War II and later during the Vietnam War. 

“I think the majority who served, for them, patriotism meant fighting to make America a country worth fighting for,” Delmont said. “I think for those who didn’t serve, that was powerful as well, because they were among the minority and they used that experience to help fight for a different version of America.”

Arne Grette ’25 said that he attended the talk to learn more about the “under-told stories” of Black World War II veterans. He added that he could not recall learning about Black Americans’ role in American wars in high school history classes. 

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