How the G.I. Bill of 1944 left out African Americans
Established during World War II, the Double-V campaign motivated African American soldiers to not only fight for liberation and freedom abroad, but also back home. The announcement of an important post-war act that aimed to reintegrate military volunteers and draftees into civil life, seemed to constitute a success of this campaign on American soil: Signed into law on June 22, 1944, President Roosevelt manifested with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, “‘America’s first color-blind social legislation’” (Bennett in Katznelson 118). Lacking a clause that directly or indirectly excluded minorities, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 did not classify veterans by ethnicity or race. All veterans were equally entitled for its benefits that provided major assistance in the fields of education and job training, job finding and unemployment allowances, as well as the guaranty of loans (Primary Source #1: “The G.I. Bill of Rights and How it Works” 9-12).
Widely promoted through advertising brochures and information catalogues (Primary Source #2), American veterans looked forward to the G.I. Bill’s legal validity. Advertising films such as the film by the Army-Navy Screen Magazine from 1944 even integrated African American veterans (Primary Source #3: 00:01:47-00:01:53) and thus publicly presented them as eligible for the benefits promised by the bill. For black veterans, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 seemed to be a step forward to civil rights and promised an improvement of their life and position in society.
However, hopes for black veterans were dashed quickly: An alliance of the US Congress, governed by southerners in its key positions, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) approved an administrative decentralization and thus made it possible that the federal benefits of the bill were administrated by state and local governments which “ran the programs in a manner consistent with their environment’s racial laws and customs” (Katznelson 124). Since 79% of the nation’s African Americans lived in southern states, the vast majority of black veterans were exposed to local agents that still believed in white supremacy and supported the laws of Jim Crow (Olson 74). The local administration system discouraged many African American veterans to apply for the bill’s benefits (Herbold 107). If black veterans did apply though, local agents insured a denial of benefits to the vast majority by creating impassable barriers.
In 1946, some 100,000 black veterans had applied for educational benefits of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, but only one fifth made it to college (Herbold 107). Local administration ensured educational race segregation by law, claiming that “‘[…] white and colored persons shall not be taught in the same school’” (Virginia Codes of 1942 in Katznelson 131). African American veterans were systematically expulsed from white universities and colleges. If at all, they were sent to underfunded Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) instead (Herbold 108). The alliance of local administration and educational institutions made it nearly impossible for black veterans to receive an adequate and high-quality education as offered in white institutions.
African American veterans were furthermore denied to benefit in an appropriate manner from the job finding assistance provided by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Congress mandated the United States Employment Service (USES) to assist veterans in finding jobs at their level of skills (“The G.I. Bill of Rights and How it Works” 12-13). Due to the radical decentralization of the USES in 1947, black veterans were left with local agents who channeled them systematically into so called black jobs that were far beneath their skill-level (Katznelson 138-39). If African American veterans refused the offered employment, the USES contacted the VA which then limited or stopped unemployment benefits (Herbold 105).
The decentralized administration system of the G.I. Bill of 1944 moreover denied African American veterans the access to loan benefits. In order to receive loan benefits, veterans had to apply directly at banks or lending institutions (Katznelson 139). For black veterans, this circumstance represented an impassable barrier since most financial institutions denied loans to African Americans claiming that they were unreliable and undesirable customers (Katznelson 139). The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) which functioned as “protector of the all-white neighborhood” (Perea 596), additionally prevented African American veterans from receiving loans and homestead by sending out agents that pressured financial institutions, real estate agencies and building firms that considered supporting black veterans (Perea 596).
With its race-neutral language, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 seemed to be in the first instance a domestic victory of the Double-V campaign and hence raised hopes for African American veterans – hopes that were dashed quickly. Caused by the elaborate decentralized administration, the G.I. Bill of Rights of 1944 only pretended to be a legislation of equal treatment. In reality, the bill was influenced by Jim Crow laws and continued segregation: It established the suburban white middle class and expanded the educational and economic differences between African Americans and White Americans.
- Primary Source #1 – The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 Army Times. “The GI Bill of Rights and How it Works.” Washington D.C.: Army Times, 1944. The National Word War II Museum – New Orleans. 15.05.2017. http://www.nationalww2museum.org/learn/education/for-students/national-history-day/gi-bill-of-rights.pdf.
- Primary Source #2 – Information Catalogue: “Your ‘G.I. Bill of Rights'” The National Word War II Museum – New Orleans. 15.05.2017. http://www.nationalww2museum.org/learn/education/for-students/national-history-day/back-to-civilian-life.pdf.
- Primary Source #3 – Advertising Film: The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 Army-Navy Screen Magazine. “G.I. Bill of Rights.” Army-Navy Screen Magazine, No. 43. Washington D.C.: Army Information Branch, Army Pictorial Service, Air Forces, Navy Department in cooperation with all United Nations, 1944. Prelinger Archives San Francisco. 15.05.2017. https://archive.org/details/0521_Army-Navy_Screen_Magazine_43_G_I_Bill_of_Rights_22_24_56_29.
- Herbold, Hilary. “Never a Level Playing Field: Blacks and the GI Bill.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 6. The JBHE Foundation, Inc., 1994.
- Hyman, Harold M. “American Singularity – The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill.” The Richard B. Russell Lectures, No. 5. The University of Georgia Press, 1986.
- Katznelson, Ira. “When Affirmative Action was White – An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America.” W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
- Olson, Keith W. “The G.I. Bill, the Veterans, and the Colleges.” The University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
- Perea, Juan F. “Doctrines of Delusion: How the History of the G.I. Bill and Other Inconvenient Truths Undermine the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Jurisprudence.” University of Pittsburgh Law Review, Vol. 75. University of Pittsburgh, 2014. p. 583-606.