The GI Bill has helped millions of American military veterans ensure better lives for themselves and their families by removing the financial barriers to higher education and home ownership.
But not all of them.
President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act into law on June 22, 1944, just weeks after troops were sent to Europe on D-Day. It brought down college tuition and the cost of home loans, and provided unemployment insurance for military veterans, but institutional barriers held these benefits back from an estimated 1.2 million black veterans, who were left with little alternative.
After World War II, at least a million veterans were systematically denied the benefits of the GI Bill because of biased treatment from both the Department of Defense and the private lenders it worked with. According to History.com, by 1947, at least 3,200 VA-guaranteed home loans were approved in Mississippi, only two of them for black American veterans.
“These impediments were not confined to the South,” wrote historian Ira Katznelson. “In New York and the northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI bill supported home purchases by non-whites.”
In 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which outlawed racial discrimination in the military and the employment of veterans. However, the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC)107 was ineffective, had no power to achieve its goals, and was widely rebuked by legislators in Southern states. Alabama Governor Frank Dixon even turned down a government contract to set up cotton mills in state prisons subject to these anti-discrimination laws. By June 1946, the FEPC was dismantled.
Black service members were given dishonorable discharges at a much higher rate than their white colleagues. “Blue discharges,” neither honorable nor dishonorable, were even more common after the war, when the U.S. military effectively whitewashed its ranks, giving discharged minorities no other choice.
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Such classifications prevented many from qualifying for the GI Bill from the onset, not to mention, precluded them from having an honor guard at their funeral or the right to be buried at a national cemetery.
“Between 1941 and 1945, blacks comprised only 6.5 percent of the Army, but received 22.2 percent of the discharges, about 10,000,” Elizabeth Kristen, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Work in San Francisco, told Military.com.
The few black veterans who did qualify for the GI Bill’s benefits faced another challenge in segregated schools. According to History.com, “Black veterans in a vocational training program at a segregated high school in Indianapolis were unable to participate in activities related to plumbing, electricity and printing because adequate equipment was only available to white students.”
The VA actually encouraged black veterans to enter vocational training rather than apply to a university, where they would most likely be denied. Schools in the north still did not admit black students at the same rate as their white counterparts, and in the south, blacks were banned entirely. Those who persisted were often sent to unaccredited and underfunded black universities
As if institutional inequality wasn’t enough, violent racism was still widely accepted. When black veterans moved into a housing development in Chicago in 1947, they were welcomed by an angry mob that threw rocks at them. In other cities, black vets were attacked with fists and weapons, occasionally those belonging to police officers. Lynchings were not uncommon, either.
As EJI.org reports, “on February 13, 1946, armed members of the Ku Klux Klan abducted Hugh Johnson, a 21-year-old black navy veteran working as a bellboy at an Atlanta hotel, took him to a desolate area outside of Atlanta, and whipped him 50 times.
On August 8, 1946, black World War II veteran John C. Jones was lynched in Minden, Louisiana, for allegedly entering a white family’s back yard and looking through the window at a young white woman. Mr. Jones’s 17-year-old cousin, Albert Harris, was also accused, beaten, and left for dead, but he survived the attack and fled to Michigan in fear for his life. The Pittsburgh Courier observed that Mr. Jones ‘had answered Uncle Sam’s call for red-blooded men to fight for democracy abroad, even though he had never experienced democracy at home.'”
Black veterans who applied for unemployment benefits were denied them if any other work could be found, whether it could support their families or not. Mail carriers in the south would even “lose” the forms they needed to apply for those benefits, History.com reports.
“Though Congress granted all soldiers the same benefits theoretically,” write historian Hilary Herbold, “the segregationist principles of almost every institution of higher learning effectively disbarred a huge proportion of black veterans from earning a college degree.”
When Roosevelt’s GI Bill ended in July 1956, the racial gap in the U.S. had widened. Black veterans had been subjugated, misled, and denied the benefits they were promised for putting their lives on the line for their country for a full decade.
As we see in underserved communities across the country, unemployment rolls, and remedial schools, the effects of the racism of that period, institutional or otherwise, are still visible to this day. It’s taken some of the families and ancestors of those brave veterans generations to get back on their feet.
The GI Bill promises some of the same benefits today as it did after WWII. Veterans can take advantage of tools and assistance to help the, transition to civilian life, find education and training, buy a home and retire. But, the question of whether or not the military will restore the dignity of those it was denied in the 40s and 50s is rapidly growing obsolete. Many of those veterans have taken the injustice to the grave.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.