Harlem at War: The Black Experience in World War II

Article excerpt

Harlem at War: The Black Experience in World War II.

The title of Nat Brandt's Harlem at War misleads the the reader to expect Brandt to at least deal comprehensively with the effect of World War II on the economic, political and social affairs of Harlem. Furthermore, since by the 1940s, whatever happened in Harlem, the unofficial capital of Black Americans, affected the perceptions and, in many instances, the attitudes of Black people elsewhere, one would expect at least some consideration of this phenomenon. Such material is easily available through the correspondence in the NAACP and Urban League archives. This is not to be found in this book. Rather, Brandt presents through twenty-one chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, a series of vignettes about prominent Blacks during this era.

Beginning with a brief seven page history of Harlem's development from the 17th century to World War II, Brandt skips lightly over Harlem's most glorious epoch, the Harlem Renaissance. This era apparently was not all that grand in Brandt's view, for he chooses only negative quotes in his assessment of the period such as Langston Hughes' famous quip that ordinary Blacks "hadn't heard of the Negro Renaissance."

He then proceeds to the story of A. Phillip Randolph's threatened 1941 March on Washington and the events leading to President Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802 that forbade discrimination in defense industries and in the federal government. Although a well known story, it provides the most informative chapter in the book. Brandt tells the tale with verve and vivid presentations of the people involved, including Mrs. Roosevelt and lesser known players, such as Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox who wrote that "Leadership is not embedded in the Negro race yet and to try to make commissioned officers to lead the men into battle is only to work disaster to both."

The book then veers away from Harlem, dealing with a general overview of the roles of William J. Hastie, special assistant to Secretary Stimson, and Emmett J. Scott, assistant to Newton Baker, also of the War Department. …