"I Am Teaching Some of the Boys:" Chaplain Robert Boston Dokes and Army Testing of Black Soldiers in World War II

Article excerpt

African Americans have served in the United States Armed Forces in nearly every conflict in the nation's history. However, the State-through official government policy, ad hoc decisions of military commanders, or statements by prominent civilians-was rarely comfortable with Black military service. Throughout most of American history, the various branches of the military practiced racial segregation against Black troops. Despite the fact that more than one million Blacks served in the military during World War II, the practice of segregation persisted and shunted the overwhelming majority of Black service personnel into non-combat service units. "I Am Teaching Some of the Boys" is based on the experiences of an African American minister-turned Army Chaplain, Reverend Robert Boston Dokes, who defied this tradition.

During World War II, officials relied on the Army General Classification Test (AGCT) to determine which soldiers served in which capacities. The AGCT provided convenient cover for an institution that was determined to find a rationalization for racial discrimination. The AGCT was part of a larger assessment environment that controlled promotions, pay grades, and other benefits of military service. Moreover, the invocation of White privilege through testing, especially in a war with Nazi Germany, seemed as an important means of refuting Black claims to full citizenship rights. This article, based, on multi-archival research, will address the efforts of Chaplain Dokes and other reformers to help Black soldiers overcome these institutional limits. Dokes' experience with several Black battalions underscores the impact of the Army's testing regime on Black troops.

Keywords: racism, military, educational testing, African American history

Sitting in a small office under palm trees and azure skies, a Black minister made a long-distance confession to his spouse. Chaplain Robert Boston Dokes joined the Army in May 1941, months before the patriotic fervor in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor because there were very few Black chaplains serving the spiritual needs of their brothers-in-arms. The shortage of Black chaplains persisted throughout his service and, coupled with racial discrimination against Black service members, Dokes found himself performing tasks that would have been considered extraordinary for many of his peers. On the occasion of his confession, Robert's letter revealed to Carol Esther Dokes that, in addition to preaching, public speaking, and meeting with local townspeople, he was "teaching some of the boys a little English and spelling each Monday" (Dokes to CC. Dokes, March 25, 1943). Although his efforts met with some success, Dokes ended his tour of duty in a military hospital, recovering from exhaustion and hypertension likely caused by the extraordinary commitment he made to Black soldiers, regardless of whether or not they were in the units to which he had been assigned (Dokes, December 29, 1945).

During World War II, military officials relied on the Army General Classification Test (AGCT) to determine which soldiers would serve in specific capacities. The AGCT was a descendant of the intelligence tests used by psychometricians in World War I. The AGCT was part of a larger assessment environment that controlled promotions, pay grades, and other benefits of military service. Although the Army did not explicitly claim that the AGCT was a measure of innate intelligence, this article will show that the Army used the scores from the test in a way that reinforced social stratification and racial privilege. This article also will explain how the AGCT provided a justification for the continued racialized practices in the American Armed Forces. The testing regime, especially in a war with Nazi Germany, was an important means of refuting Black claims to full citizenship rights while extoling the virtues of American democracy. Chaplain Dokes' experience demonstrates an individual's strategy of accepting the Army testing regime while seeking to ameliorate its effects on Black troops. …