I Too Serve America: African American Women War Workers in Chicago, 1940-1945

By Kimble, Lionel | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

I Too Serve America: African American Women War Workers in Chicago, 1940-1945


Kimble, Lionel, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Negroes,

Denounced and Deprived of Democracy

Insulted and inveighed in Industry,

Shunned and Shamed in Society,

Murdered and mangled,

On the very land for which they must fight!

They shall have some of it!

- Rhonda Walker

"I believe in Democracy So Much"1

Throughout the course of United States history, African Americans have used their labor in civilian life and the military as justification for gaining equal citizenship, dating back as early as the colonial era when African American men and women made demands for equal justice through demonstrations of patriotism. This was indeed the case during World War II, as the status of African Americans, the ability of the American military to wage war, and the idea of freedom became inexplicably linked. The changing power relationship between African Americans, business, and the federal government that occurred during World War II set the tone for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The historian Richard Dalfuime called the 1940s the "forgotten years of the Civil Rights Revolution 112 in which African Americans began in earnest to cement their views that their participation in the war effort would lead to equal protection under the law. In reaction, many white Americans resisted the increased participation of African Americans in the military and the workplace. Active racial discrimination perpetrated by white Americans supplied "a rationale for denying this group its full rights of citizenship."3

African American women responded to the increased discrimination by invoking the language of work and patriotic duty. The history of black women has constantly been defined by hard work, and "black women shared with black men a desire for economic improvements and security."4 As a result, black women as well as men began to view themselves as vital cogs in the United States war machine, bringing rising levels of black working class militancy. During the 1940s African Americans seriously questioned the relationship between the state and the individual, and how this relationship shaped race relations. In addition, the Second World War also helped change prevailing gender roles for African American women. As we shall see, black women often invoked the rhetoric of their men's military service as justification for inclusion into the army of homefront production.

This essay examines the manner in which African American women realized the Second World War would present opportunities for developing new strategies to obtain civil rights. Black women drew upon the idea of basic protection of civil rights outlined in the constitution and reiterated in the Four Freedoms by the federal government as a way of defining their citizenship. By examining the intersection between race and gender in the shadow of the changing economic and social conditions that blacks faced on Chicago's South Side during the war, one can discern the ways in which African American women reshaped the existing ideas of civil right. Nowhere was this strategy more revealing than in the fight for employment and housing that occurred in Bronzeville during the Second World War.

Recently scholars have begun to examine the connections between citizenship rights for women and the obligations citizens have to the state. Through these studies we see that by denying women the claim that they were obliged to serve the state they could be denied citizenship rights.5 But scholars have yet to fully examine the racial dimension of this theory adequately during the 1940s.6 This essay examines the employment and housing conditions in Bronzeville during World War II when black women looked to their participation in the war effort as a means of claiming their citizenship rights.'

Three issues make Chicago a valuable case study during this period. Chicago experienced the largest influx of black migrants during the Great Migration and the subsequent wartime expansion during the 1940s resulted in one of the largest African American populations in the United States. …

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