Preserving History-Everyone Has a Role: A Personal View

Article excerpt

In 1983 when I began researching the history of black women in the military with an emphasis on the Navy's World War II female reservists, some scholars did not exactly encourage me. They argued that there was probably not enough interest to get an article published or enough records to conduct the research. When I proposed studying black women who served in the war, I heard even more discouraging remarks including, "You know, black veterans don't deposit their records, photos, or other memorabilia." While meant to discourage, this "advice" had the opposite effect. I became more motivated to learn the history of African American women in the armed forces.

We have begun a new century, but it is easy to remember when women's and black history were not taught or emphasized in history textbooks or classrooms. One can recall when women's history was not considered part of American social history, or remember when oral history was not acknowledged as a primary historical source. It was not that long ago when universities refused to teach women's or black studies. Would change have happened if students had not demanded it during the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s? Likewise, why shouldn't I investigate the experiences of black women in the military just because it had not been done? Maybe I would not find much, but possibly I would uncover a wealth of new information.

I trusted my instincts. The more documents I read; photographs I looked at; newspapers I examined; and oral histories I searched and conducted, the more convinced I was that this research could and should be done. The story of African American women in the military was worthy of more attention than some scholars had afforded. I wanted to consider why and how 4,000 black members of the Women's Army Corps (WAC), 500 members of the Army Nurse Corps, 57 members of the Navy's female reservists (WAVES), four members of the Navy's Nurse Corps, and four members of the Coast Guard Female Reserve (SPARS) helped the United States win the war against fascism in Europe and Japanese aggression in the Pacific. Why and how did the WACs admit blacks in 1942 and the WAVES and SPARS in 19447 Why did it take until 1946 for the Women Marines to accept black women? Still, black women made up part of the more than 100,000 WACs and WAVES, 57,000 Army nurses, and 11,000 Navy nurses and SPARS who contributed to the allied victory. As my research progressed, I found myself asking more questions than I was answering. Still, I would not have known to raise those questions had I not investigated the numerous and diverse roles African American women played in the military.

As enriching and stimulating as my research is, it has been an uphill battle filled with mines. I quickly discovered that the first step to learning about black WAVES was to realize that their story had to be investigated in layers. As African American females they bore a double burden because they were victims of the sexism and traditionalism that oppressed all women and the racism and Jim Crowism that limited opportunities and civil rights for black Americans. Thus those layers involved looking at women and blacks in American society, and to some degree, the military as an extension of that society and population from which the government drafts men and recruits women. The primary and secondary published and unpublished sources helped me understand that the various levels of my historical problem were more complicated than I imagined but not impossible to resolve.

I am more convinced than ever that oral history is a primary source available to a myriad of individuals ranging from reporters and police officers to historians and archeologists. Oral history is both a research source and a research tool: a means of gathering historically significant statistics, facts, and other data. Oral interviews preserve "the other part of the story" either excluded from or never intended to be part of the documentary evidence. …