The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black women pushed the U.S. Army to become more inclusive and equal

On Oct. 20, 1978, women were fully integrated into the Army. It was Black women during World War II who paved the way.

Members of the 6888th battalion stand in formation in Birmingham, England, in 1945. The Women’s Army Corps battalion, which made history as the only all-female Black unit to serve in Europe during World War II, is set to be honored by Congress. (U.S. Army Women’s Museum/AP)

Oct. 20, 1978, heralded two landmark victories for women: the end of the gender-segregated Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and the full integration of its members in the U.S. Army. On that day and for the first time in the 36-year history of women in the U.S. military, the Army entitled its female troops the same rights as their male counterparts in all fields, save combat. It was a momentous occasion made possible by the women who had forged this road for more equitable treatment.

But it was a rocky road for WACs, especially those battling both gender and racial discrimination in the military. A generation earlier, Black WACs had put their careers and even their freedom on the line to demand their rights to serve as military personnel. Asserting their equal status, these women helped set the course that led to the Army’s 1978 acceptance of women as fully legitimate soldiers.

The Army first enlisted women in 1942 during the tremendous mobilization for World War II. Historically opposed to women in the military, it created the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, a separate and distinct unit. The women’s roles were so limited that, within a year, the Army replaced the Auxiliary with the WAC to employ them more efficiently. Though tied more closely to Army operations and directives, including equal pay and same-rank designations, the WAC remained a separate, subordinate and temporary corps scheduled to dissolve after the war. It also remained racially segregated.

Committed to racial segregation, the War Department roundly rejected civil rights leaders’ demands to racially integrate its troops. However, in need of African American support, it offered compromises. In 1940, the War Department mandated the equal treatment of troops regardless of race and, in 1942, allowed Black women to enlist in the WAC. The Army was the first service to open its new female corps to Black women.

The 1940 directive and the nation’s wartime zeal for democracy assured some Black women that they would be able to serve as equals. Others saw the WAC as an opportunity to escape their traditional employment as menial laborers, and signed on.

Ultimately, 6,500 Black women enlisted, which still equaled less than 5 percent of the total WAC force. They sought to help the war effort, and they were also drawn to the promises of skills training and advancing their social and economic status. Black women had long desired an equal fighting chance, and that was precisely what the WAC was offering.

Many Black WACs did not get what they were promised, however.

In October 1944, the Army transferred 100 Black WACs to Fort Devens, Mass., where a White colonel assigned them to cleaning duties. Assuming these menial tasks were temporary, the women worked hard while inquiring about training for the skilled assignments that White WACs at Fort Devens received and that they had enlisted to do. Two months after their arrival, the colonel halted all speculation when blurting out that Black WACs were there to do the “dirty work.”

Morale plummeted among Black WACs, but they did not end their pursuit of the equal treatment that was due to them. Like White WACs, they had answered the nation’s urgent call to replace men in essential military jobs. Like Black men, they were committed to the war for freedom abroad but also for freedom at home. They rallied behind the popular “Double V” campaign, in which African Americans fought for dual victories, one against tyranny overseas and another against the tyranny in the United States that so viciously targeted them.

Additionally, as Black women, these servicewomen felt the sting of their “Jane Crow” status, a term yet to be coined by African American intellectual Pauli Murray yet codified in military policies that segmented them by gender and by race. Nonetheless, the WAC was also a formidable new platform for Black women to protest their multiple-subordinate status. As early as 1942, during basic training, Black WACs were demanding the same treatment as other WACs — and with some success. They established desegregation days in the mess hall, prevented further attempts at segregation and honed strategies for collective actions to take other posts.

Six months after their arrival at Fort Devens and after numerous failed appeals to their officers to address their concerns about being relegated to “dirty work,” Black WACs refused to report to work. Their strike ended with the arrests of privates Alice Young, Anna Morrison, Mary Green and Johnnie Murphy. Each had opted for a court-martial over returning to cleaning duties, with Murphy adding that she would rather take death.

Though a mutiny in military terms, Army officials only charged them with disobeying orders to avoid the attention that an unusual court-martial of female soldiers might bring. But the Army had not considered the reach of the Black press, which helped make the strike and the trial that followed one of the most publicized military incidents of the war.

During the trial, the defendants’ accounts of their attempts to serve as soldiers galvanized widespread support. Mary McLeod Bethune, a renowned Black activist and adviser to U.S. presidents, applauded the women’s courage and sought their release. The NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall agreed to represent the four women while his mentor Charles Houston investigated the circumstances that led to the strike. Other notable and ordinary citizens lent their support to the WACs. From across the nation’s racial, gender and class lines, many held rallies and wrote letters protesting the discrimination against Black women in uniform.

The defendants’ officers, including their Black WAC commander, disputed charges of discrimination, insisting that they had followed the War Department’s directive of equal racial treatment. The problem was not racism, they explained, but the limited abilities of Black WACs to master assignments beyond menial labor. The public overwhelmingly disagreed. It came to light that these officers had reassigned even Black women who were Army-trained surgical technicians to cleaning duties. Correspondence expressing outrage over the ill-treatment of the women flooded the War Department.

Persistent civilian pressure compelled an odd outcome that, while eventually freeing the women, affirmed the racial and gender status quo that had sparked the strike. Seeking to end the troublesome trial, the Army used a technicality to warrant a dismissal and returned the WACs to Fort Devens — and their cleaning duties.

Nevertheless, the strike sent a message to the War Department that Black WACs would resist discriminatory treatment. When it organized a new company, it took meticulous care to staff it with Black WACs representing a range of ranks and skills, and it carefully monitored their treatment. Subsequently, officers remarked upon the company’s high morale and impressive performance. It was the same at other posts where WACs, regardless of race, worked in skilled assignments.

The Fort Devens strike was one of hundreds of incidents that forced the Army to acknowledge Black WACs and properly incorporate them into its operations. Contesting confinement to menial labor through individual resistance, collective action and the backing of outside allies, Black WACs during World War II pried open doors to gain access to various assignments at posts such as Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., and in Europe through service in the 6888th Postal Battalion. Even at Fort Devens, the strike produced training courses for WACs assigned to cleaning duties, including Young, Morrison, Murphy and Green.

The war ended, but the WAC did not dissolve as initially planned. Its personnel had proven too valuable. In 1948, the corps became a permanent force in the Army, and by 1950, it had been racially integrated. The WAC’s much-reduced size and President Harry S. Truman’s desegregation orders often prescribed the Army’s inclusion of women. Yet it was Black WACs’ continued presence, commendable service and continued struggles against discrimination that paved the road toward full integration.

It would take another troop shortage and the 1970s transition to an all-volunteer force for the Army to at last concede to the realities of military efficiency and accept female soldiers as equals.

It is fitting therefore, on this very ordinary 43rd anniversary of women’s assimilation in the Army (further fulfilled when combat duties opened to them in 2013) to recognize the many ordinary rank-and-file members of the U.S. Armed Forces, of all racial and gender identities and sexual orientations, who have demanded their full rights and opportunities.