African American Women in the Armed Forces, Part 3: World War II
World War II began in 1939, but America did not enter the war until December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. At the time, African American female soldiers were still officially segregated in basic training, dining as well as living arrangements.
Racial discrimination was finally abolished in the armed forces by Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, by President Harry S. Truman. The following year, he proposed the Fair Employment Practices Act, which outlawed social and religious discrimination in hiring, as well as providing health insurance for all. Congress passed the Fair Employment Act, but rejected the plans for health insurance for all. The debate continues in 2017.
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp or WAAC was formed in 1942 with Public Law (PL) 77-554. The bill was introduced by Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican from Massachusetts. The Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps would soon follow the Army’s lead, admitting women into their ranks throughout 1942-1943.
In January 1943, Congresswoman Rogers and WAAC Director Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby drafted a bill to make the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp an actual part of the Army – not a supplemental or ancillary group. Their bill was signed into law July 1, 1943. When the law that created WAAC expired in September 1943, WAACs were offered the choice of joining the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Over 75 percent of the auxiliary troops chose to join WAC.
Black women enlisted in the WAAC at its formation, but their ranks were limited. These recruits were referred to as the ten percenters, because the Army was restricted to accepting only ten percent of the total enlistments. Between 1942 and 1943, there were four hundred (400) white WACs and only forty (40) African American WACs. African American women would not serve oversees until 1945 when the first contingent of African American WACs landed in Birmingham, England, in February of that year. The enlisted women were assigned to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. The battalion ran a United States Postal Unit for the entire European operation. The battalion was stationed in Birmingham, England before moving to Rouen, France, then to Paris. Outside of smaller units of nurses serving in Africa, Australia, and England, the 6888th was the only Black female unit to serve oversees during WWII.
During World War II, over 6,500 African American women served in the WAC.
African American Women were barred from the WAVES (the Navy equivalent to WAC) until October 19, 1944, when Dr. Mary MClod Bethune helped the Secretary of the Navy push through the admittance of the first two African American WAVES, Ida Pikens, and Frances Wills. These two trailblazers were sworn in on December 22, 1944. Of the 80,000 WAVES who served in the war, only 72 were African American.
Affirmative Action, and changing racial policies opened new doors for Black Women in the military, and during the Korean and the Vietnam wars, black women took their places in the war zone. In 2015, there were 167,000 women enlisted in the military, and 31% were black. Black women outpaced all other races, according to the New York Times, in terms of enlistment, and the data collected by the Defense Department confirmed that black women are a crucial source of new recruits for the armed forces, especially in the army.
SUBMITTED BY: Sharon Smith-Knight
Administrator. “African American Army Nurse Corps Officers.” Army Medical Department, no date. U.S. Army. Web. Retrieved 18 Jul. 2017.
Dao, James. “Black Women Enlisting at Higher Rates in U.S. Military. New York Times, 23 Dec. 2011, A14.
Fargey, Kathleen. “6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (Women’s Army Corps).” African Americans in the U.S. Army, Feb. 2014. U.S. Army Center of Military History. Web. Retrieved 17 Jul. 2017.
Jones, Jae. “Black Nurses Serving in the Military During World War II.” Blackthen.com, 24 Apr. 2017. Web. Retrieved 18 Jul. 2017.
Sheldon, Kathryn. “Brief History of Black Women in the Military.” Womensmemorial.org, no date. The Women’s Memorial. Web. Retrieved 18 Jul. 2017.
SUBJECTS: Military; Women soldiers; Women’s history; World War II
*Photograph of Major Charity Adams reviewing her troops, the first African American WACS to go overseas during WWII. Imaged linked to web article, “Women and World War II.” ic.galegroup.com, 2005. Accessed 8/20/2017.