Bitter Fruit: African American Women in World War II

By Maureen Honey | Go to book overview

Introduction

Early one morning in 1944, Major Charity Adams, the first African American to be inducted into the Women's Army Corps, stood at attention for fortyfive minutes while her superior officer, a colonel, castigated her for having entered the Fort Des Moines, Iowa, officers club the night before. She had been invited to do so by another officer, a white male colonel, to share a drink. “So you are the Major Adams, the `negra' officer who went into the officers club last night, the colonel charged. “I don't think any colored person has ever been a guest there before. What were you doing there? Who had the nerve to invite you there? I don't believe in race mixing, and I don't intend to be party to it.... Don't let being an officer go to your head; you are still colored and I want you to remember that. You people have to stay in your place. Why, your folks might have been slaves to my people ... and here you are acting like you are the same as white folks.” Bewildered, angry, hurt, Charity Adams never went to the officers club again. 1.

The humiliating treatment WAC Adams endured in this incident represents the racism that fueled African American anger at American society during World War II, a time when segregation not only ruled the armed forces but governed a large part of civilian life. In her 1989 memoir, Charity Adams Earley describes several instances of racial harassment directed at her and other African American WACs by whites who could not tolerate seeing a black woman in uniform, even though she also experienced many examples of white civility and benefited more than she suffered from her military service. Earley's dichotomous wartime experience explains in large part why segregation of the armed forces became the single most volatile issue between African Americans and government leaders while providing the flashpoint for bitter denunciations of racism on the home front. If the country needed its black citizens to win the war, so the reasoning went, they could demand equal treatment in return, especially in a war for democracy.

Charity Adams Earley and others like her witnessed desegregation of the armed forces in 1948 as well as significant inroads into dismantling discriminatory practices in housing, education, jobs, transportation, and media representation after the war, but their wartime challenges to Jim Crow went largely unmentioned in the dominant culture of the 1940s.

____________________
1.
Charity Adams Earley, One Woman's Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC, 108.

-1-

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