Harlem at War: The Black Experience in WWII

Harlem at War: The Black Experience in WWII

Harlem at War: The Black Experience in WWII

Harlem at War: The Black Experience in WWII

Synopsis

By the spring of 1943 more than a half million blacks were in the U.S. Army, but only 79,000 of them were overseas. Most were repeating the experience of their fathers in World War I - serving chiefly in labor battalions. Domestically, clashes between blacks and whites vying for the same jobs in boomtown defense-plant cities and the wretched treatment of northern black draftees in the South - where Jim Crow discrimination was prevalent - were all too common. In Harlem at War, Nat Brandt vividly recreates the desolation of black communities during World War II and examines the nation-wide conditions that led up to the Harlem riot of 1943. Wherever black troops were trained or stationed, Brandt explains, "rage surfaced frequently, was suppressed, but was not extinguished". Using eyewitness accounts, he describes the rage Harlemites felt, the discrimination and humiliation they shared with blacks across the country. The collective anger erupted one day in Harlem when a young black soldier was shot by a white police officer. The riot, in which six blacks were killed, seven hundred injured, and six arrested, became a turning point in America's race relations and a precursor to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

Excerpt

I was a youngster, living in Brooklyn, when the United States entered World War II. I remember how committed my family, my friends, and my neighbors were to the struggle against the Germans and the Japanese. Everyone who had a son serving in the armed forces proudly displayed a little American flag in his or her parlor window. We had two: one for my brother who served in the navy, the other for my brother who was a marine. My mother and her sister, my aunt, joined the Volunteer Ambulance Corps. The money I earned for doing household chores was paid in twenty-five-cent Victory stamps, and when I amassed seventy-five of them in a little booklet, I went to a local bank and exchanged them for a twenty-five dollar war bond. The movies my friends and I went to on Saturday afternoons extolled the commitment and unity of purpose all Americans felt about the war.

It never dawned on me that anyone felt otherwise. I was totally unaware that there were several million Americans who did. Not that they weren't patriotic. If anything, they wanted to serve their country on the same terms as other Americans. But except for a few combat units, they were relegated to play a secondary role, and even then they were treated--to use their words--as "second-class citizens."

The experience of blacks during World War II was visually confirmed during the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994. One saw only white faces in the film documentaries of the invasion of France or of the wartime assembly lines in airplane, tank, and ship plants. The black troops that participated in the Normandy invasion were supply troops and labor battalions who landed after the beaches were taken. They were never shown. The black men and women who worked in . . .

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