African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Search

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era
| WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

The Depression, The New Deal, and World War II

Part 1: World War II, Segregation Abroad and at Home
Part 2

The stock market crash of 1929 caused soup lines to become the order of the day for the skilled and unskilled alike in urban areas across the nation. African Americans in both cities and rural areas, many already living in poverty, suffered greatly from the economic depression. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he promised a "new deal" for all Americans that would provide them with security from "the cradle to the grave." Although there were many inequities in the New Deal housing, agricultural and economic programs, blacks had opportunities to obtain employment, some in areas previously closed to them. Black writers, for example, participated in the New Deal's writing projects, while other black Americans interviewed former slaves for the Works Project Administration (WPA). These New Deal programs generated numerous documents that found their way to the Library's collections.

The New Deal programs did not end the Depression. It was the growing storm clouds in Europe, American aid to the Allies, and ultimately, U.S. entry into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that revitalized the nation's economy. Remembering their experiences in World War I, African American soldiers and civilians were increasingly unwilling to quietly accept a segregated army or the discriminatory conditions they had previously endured. Northern black troops sent to the South for training often had violent encounters with white citizens there. Black-owned newspapers protested segregation, mistreatment, and discrimination. Labor leader A. Philip Randolph threatened a march on Washington, D.C. by hundreds of thousands of blacks in 1941 to protest job discrimination in defense industries and the military. To avoid this protest, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, reaffirming the "policy of full participation in the defense program by all persons, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin."

World War II, Segregation Abroad and at Home

In the Grip of Segregation

Shot near the beginning of World War II, this photograph documents segregation in the United States. Although it was universal in the South, de facto and de jure segregation also existed in other parts of the U.S. Efforts to erode segregation by organizations such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were slow and laborious.

Image: Caption follows

Marion Post Wolcott.
Negro Man Entering Movie Theatre by "Colored" Entrance.
Belzoni, Mississippi, in the delta area.
October 1939.
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-12888 (8-3)

Traveling Jim Crow
John Vachon.
[Segregated facilities].
Manchester, Georgia, 1938.
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USF33-001172-M4 (8-4)

"Jim Crow" laws mandated that blacks have separate facilities for travel, lodging, eating and drinking, schooling, worship, housing, and other aspects of social and economic life. This railroad station sign in Manchester, Georgia, indicates the location of the restroom for black men. Failure to obey such signs could lead to arrest and imprisonment.

Non-White Households in Birmingham, Alabama, 1940

This atlas of Birmingham, Alabama, analyzes housing statistics from the 1940 census. It is part of a series of atlases entitled Housing: Analytical Maps that were produced by the New York City office of the Works Project Administration in conjunction with the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Based on block statistics, these atlases document cities with populations over 50,000 and cover such topics as average rent, major repairs, bathing equipment, persons per room, owner occupancy, and mortgage status, as well as percentage of non-white households per block. On these maps, showing non-white households for two sections of Birmingham, Alabama, the segregated residential pattern is readily apparent; the two darkest patterns represent the areas with over fifty percent non-white households.

Image: Caption follows

Birmingham, Alabama, Block Statistics.
Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940.
Washington, 1943.
Geography and Map Division. (8-15)

A Naval Hero
"Above and Beyond the Call of Duty."
Dorie Miller with his Navy Cross at Pearl Harbor, May 27, 1942.
Color-offset poster.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-2328 (8-10)

On December 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Mess Attendant Doris "Dorie" Miller came to the aid of his shipmates on the U.S.S. West Virginia, helping to move the injured out of harm's way, including the mortally wounded captain. Though untrained in its use, Miller also manned an antiaircraft machine gun, downing several Japanese planes before being ordered to abandon the sinking ship. Miller's courage and devotion to duty at Pearl Harbor earned him the Navy Cross, the first ever awarded to an African American sailor. This honor is even greater in light of the fact African Americans were only allowed to serve in the messman's branch of the Navy at the time. Though later killed in action in 1943, Miller's legacy of bravery in the face of great danger and discrimination lives on.

Murder of African American Veterans
Charles White.
The Return of the Soldier, 1946.
Pen and ink on illustration board.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4886 (8-19)

African American veterans returning to the South after military service in World Wars I and II were often unwilling to be subjected to the humiliation and degradation of segregation and discrimination in the land for which they served and shed blood. Some whites, especially in the South, felt that these veterans needed to be terrorized into submission, whether they wore the nation's uniform or not. Charles White's drawing indicates the collusion between some law enforcement officers and the Ku Klux Klan.

African American Nurses Abroad

Even though an extreme shortage of nurses in World War II forced the federal government to seriously consider drafting white nurses, defense officials remained reluctant to recruit black nurses throughout the war. Allowing black nurses to care for whites was considered a violation of social norms. Nevertheless, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, led by Mabel Staupers, and rights groups like the NAACP, loudly protested racial policies in the Army Nurse Corps and the military in general. These groups achieved some success. This photograph documents the arrival of the first African American nurses in England.

Image: Caption follows

European Theater of Operations, Nurses in England, 1944.
NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USC4-6175/LC-USZ62-119985 (8-5)
Courtesy of the NAACP

Tuskegee Airmen with Lena Horne

Airmen with Lena Horne and Noel Parrish.
Silver gelatin print.
Noel Parrish Collection. Manuscript Division. (8-7)

General Noel Parrish, seated next to a youthful Lena Horne, stated in his memoirs that he often mediated between the Army officials, whites near Tuskegee who felt that the airmen were uppity, and the aviation trainees themselves. The third president of Tuskegee Institute, Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson, wrote to Parrish on September 14, 1944: "In my opinion, all who have had anything to do with the development and direction of the Tuskegee Army Air Field and the Army flying training program for Negroes in this area have just cause to be proud. . . . The development had to take place in a period of emergency and interracial confusion."

Tuskegee Airmen--Breaking Flight Barriers

During World War II civil rights groups and black professional organizations pressed the government to provide training for black pilots on an equal basis with whites. Their efforts were partially successful. African American fighter pilots were trained as a part of the Army Air Force, but only at a segregated base located in Tuskegee, Alabama. Hundreds of airmen were trained and many saw action.

Toni Frissell became the first professional photographer permitted to photograph the all-black 332nd Fighter Pilot Squadron in a combat situation. She traveled to their air base in southern Italy, from where the "Tuskegee Airmen" flew sorties into southern Europe and North Africa. Best known of those Frissell photographed was Col. Benjamin O. Davis,Jr., the son of the first African American general, pictured on the left, and first Lieutenant Lee Rayford.

Image: Caption follows

Toni Frissell.
Tuskegee Airmen, 1945.
Silver gelatin print.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-F9-02-4503-330-5 (8-6)

A Threatened March on Washington--1941
"Why Should We March?" March on Washington fliers, 1941. A. Philip Randolph Papers, Manuscript Division (8-8)
Courtesy of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Washington, D.C..

The papers of A. Philip Randolph document his protests against segregation, particularly in the armed forces and defense industries during the war. Randolph led a successful movement during World War II to end segregation in defense industries by threatening to bring thousands of blacks to protest in Washington, D. C., in 1941.

The threatened March on Washington in 1941 prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, stating that there should be "no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin." The Committee on Fair Employment Practices was established to handle discrimination complaints.

The Depression, The New Deal, and World War II:   Part 1 | Part 2

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War
| The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Search