Howard University: "Capstone of Negro Education" during World War II

By Hunter, Gregory | The Journal of Negro History, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Howard University: "Capstone of Negro Education" during World War II


Hunter, Gregory, The Journal of Negro History


The outbreak of war in Europe on September 1, 1939, marked the beginning of wha t would become the greatest event of the twentieth century. By 1940 the United States had been providing aid to Great Britain. The war, even before the U.S. became militarily involved, had marked the beginning of the country's coming out of the Great Depression. Because the nation's allies overseas were in need of textile, agricultural, and military aid, American industries rebounded themselves with the prospects of an export economy. Thus began what would become a massive effort on the part of government and big business to produce goods at faster rates and greater volumes than they had ever done before. During the first two years of the war the United States had been enjoying the comfort of the export market and its great distance from the European theatre. But on December 7, 1941, all would change. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor marked the immediate entrance of the United States into the world war. Thus, direct military involvement necessitated that the country continue to support its allies and now its own war effort. Every individual and institution would be encouraged to become involved in some facet or another of the war effort. And prominently among them was Howard University, the "Capstone of Negro Education."(1)

History of Howard

Howard University was founded in 1866, immediately after the Civil War, under the direction of General Oliver Otis Howard, who had served in the Union Army. As the new Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedman's Bureau), he was given the task of providing welfare for the exorbitant numbers of newly freed slaves who had migrated to the cities. In the beginning Howard was nothing more than an elementary school and social center for the teaching of reading, writing, and religion. The school had an all-white faculty, and its first diplomas were given to four white girls who were the daughters of faculty members.(2) On March 2, 1867, by an Act of Congress, the school was chartered to perform a dual mission: "the education of 'youth' and of the 'disadvantaged' Negro."(3)

And by August of that year the overwhelming majority of students were black, although most of them were unprepared to study above elementary levels.

The school, a federal institution, depended on the little money which was granted to it each year by Congressional allocations. However, Howard's standards began to rise throughout the late 1800s and its reputation grew so that Congress began to allocate more money until a major contribution of $231,627.39 was given to the school in 1926. That same year marked the beginning of the presidency of Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, the first black president of the institution. Under his direction the university brought in qualified black educators to replace the white faculty, expanded its facilities, received accreditation for all of its schools and colleges, and graduated most of the leading scholars of the race in the fields of medicine, law, engineering, social work, education, and many others.(4)

During World War II Howard University would play an important role as its students worked in many different capacities to further the cause of the United States. Students at Howard were as largely supportive of the war declaration as most other African Americans at the time. The attack on Pearl Harbor was seen as an unwarranted and vicious one which deserved to be answered in full by the U.S. military forces. The university community was also aware, however, that the situation for blacks in this country did not change much with World War I, where blacks had given their unyielding support, and that this war would bring about the same questions and concerns about their status in the nation for which they had once laid down their lives and were sure to do so again, but in greater number, during the great war for democracy.

Howard's position at this time was a peculiar one.

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