Dartmouth history professor Matthew Delmont discussed his upcoming book, Half-American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, at a Zoom event hosted by Newton Free Library and Historic Newton on Feb. 10.
Delmont said that despite the efforts of Black Americans during World War II, much of their history goes undiscussed in modern-day media.
“My goal in writing this book is to enable Americans to reckon with the real history of [World War II] and its present-day consequences,” he said. “As a historian, I’m troubled by the collective amnesia in U.S. politics and media around racism.”
Delmont began the talk by highlighting the story of Doris Miller, a U.S. Navy messman aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia on Dec. 7, 1941—the day Japanese forces attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Miller fought fires and took up arms that day, Delmont said, despite having no training on the ship’s weapons.
“Miller had little time to process the horrible realities of war unfolding before him,” he said. “Miller helped move his mortally wounded captain to a sheltered spot below the navigation bridge. His lieutenant then ordered Miller to quickly follow him to a pair of unmanned 50-caliber aircraft machine guns.”
Delmont also discussed the efforts of Black troops on D-Day. He raised the example of the 582nd Engineer Dump Truck Company, an all-Black troop of engineers that was responsible for safely enabling the arrival of thousands of Allied troops onto Normandy Beach on June 6, 1941, he said.
“Nazi bullets did not discriminate, and Black engineers faced heavy machine gunfire as they prepared the landing zone,” Delmont said. “The engineers enabled thousands of infantry troops to safely reach the beach.”
Despite the bravery of Black troops during World War II, racism, discrimination, and hatred tainted the soldiers’ return home, according to Delmont. He told the story of three young Black men—Edgar Davis, Lewis Grady, and Mitchell Jordan—who attempted to volunteer for military service but were denied because there were not enough all-Black segregated units for them to join.
“Just imagine what this would feel like to volunteer to serve your country after the attack on Pearl Harbor only to be turned away because of the color of your skin,” Delmont said. “It was humiliating and infuriating.”
After World War II, Delmont said Black veterans recognized the importance of continuing their fight for equality.
“While America achieved a military victory over Germany and Japan in 1945, that was not the end of the war for Black Americans,” he said. “An equally important battle against racism continued on the homefront.”
Delmont described a desire for radical change among the Black veteran community to overcome the often brutal social conditions they endured both at home and while enlisted.
“The last thing Black people wanted was a return to a country that treated them as half American,” he said. “For Black Americans, returning to normal meant going back to a system of legalized racial apartheid in the South, where racial hierarchies were enforced through lynching and voter disenfranchisement.”
Despite the challenges Black American veterans faced after World War II, Delmont said many Black veterans continued to fight for civil rights, including Women’s Army Corps veteran Dovey Johnson Roundtree.
After serving in the military, Roundtree attended law school at Howard Univerity and helped ban racial segregation on interstate bus travel as an attorney, according to Delmont.
At the end of the talk, Delmont said that stories about the Black American experience during World War II can help guide conversations on race and racism today.
“If we tell the right stories about the war, we can finally honor the sacrifices of the Black veterans, defense industry workers, and citizens who fought on foreign battlefields and in their own cities and towns, so that no one would ever again be treated as half American,” Delmont said.
Featured Image by Caitlin Clary / Heights Staff