Maggie Morehouse (2007) opines early in Fighting in the Jim Crow Army that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, wherein America codified "separate-but-equal," was still in effect by the time of WWII. The effects of the Supreme Court decision would impact the lives of black Americans for the next half century -- especially in the armed forces, which were segregated until 1947. Morehouse goes on to detail the trials and complications for black soldiers in the segregated Army, as remembered by the black men and women who lived through those times. This paper will examine the most significant aspects of Morehouse's work, and provide a detailed look at the stories therein that shaped the people and the structure of the 92nd and 93rd all-black active divisions.
Morehouse asserts right away that the policy of segregation "failed to produce military efficiency," (p. 4). Not only was it demoralizing, but it added an economic burden to the military system as well when separate buildings and facilities had to be constructed -- such as those at Ft. Huachuca. However, when Rep. Hamilton Fish introduced a bill in 1940 that "allowed the president to assign men -- white or black -- to various units within the army," Secretary of War Harry Woodring objected that such a measure would demoralize troops and weaken the military infrastructure (p. 4). While Congress stalled to let blacks serve alongside whites, the number of blacks who saw active duty was significantly less than the ratio of blacks to whites among the general population.
Despite the fact that blacks had difficulty simply being able to fight for the United States, Morehouse notes that many of them remained loyal and patriotic. Famous boxer Joe Louis exemplified such characteristics when he said, "There may be a whole lot wrong with America, but there's nothing that Hitler can fix" (p. 8). Such an attitude was not uncommon to find among the black population. Even in 1941 the War Department had issued this statement: "Negroes have been notably a loyal and patriotic group. One of their outstanding characteristics is the single-mindedness of their patriotism" (p. 8). Yet, many critics wondered why blacks should serve in a "segregated army" to defend a racist government.
Indeed, not all blacks were keen to serve. Morehouse cites Lawrence Johnson as one such example. "Lawrence Johnson said he 'did not want to go into the military, period…It wasn't my choice to go in, and when they called me, I didn't expect to be any hero" (p. 17). Johnson was later even nominated for Officer Candidate School, but refused to go. Others, like Conrad Lynn, "reported for duty, but sued" over segregation: "I am ready to serve in any unit of the armed forces of my country which is not segregated by race. Unless I am assured that I can serve in a mixed regiment…I will refuse to report for induction" (p. 18). However, Lynn's case was not victorious.
Not only was the Army segregated, but also it failed to represent the racial diversity of the American population: "In the 1940s, black Americans constituted approximately 10% of the overall population -- 13 million people out of 130 million total. In the military -- predominantly the army -- blacks represented only 5.8% of the total number of servicemen" (p. 27). Black soldiers like Private Charles F. Wilson even wrote directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to convey their dislike of the "undemocratic Jim Crow segregation." However, Roosevelt did nothing to desegregate the Army.
Despite opposition, the sustained pressure of rights groups and black protest led to the activation of two black infantry divisions. No longer only serving in mess halls, black soldiers would finally get a chance to fight. One of these was the 93rd Infantry Division. The other was the 92nd.
Morehouse gives some insightful details on the hierarchy of the military at this time. "One black officer in the 93rd commented that the 'so-called southern aristocracy' ran the army" (p. 28). Likewise, Bill Perry noted how little authority black officers were given over whites: "It appeared as if the army never let a black man outrank a white man in any kind of working relationship" (p. 28). Morehouse then observes that Perry was not incorrect: such was "official policy." In the segregated army, blacks could command only blacks.
Plessy v. Ferguson came back to haunt Nelson Peery when MP officers tried in vain to urge him…