Blog #45: Black Veterans: Punished for Serving

Posted in: Leader's Blog

As we approach Veterans Day this year, the expression “Thank you for your service” seems almost trite – an admission that it’s nearly impossible to pay veterans back for their sacrifice. Many Black veterans, however, weren’t thanked. In fact, they were denied equal benefits and physically assaulted.

In the Civil War, Black soldiers were paid about 60% of what white soldiers were paid. After WWII Black veterans were virtually cut out of America’s largest welfare program: the GI bill.  While the bill’s language did not specifically exclude Black veterans from benefits, systemic racism made sure Black vets were “kept in their place.”

Regarding housing, for example, banks refused to honor VA loans to Black veterans. Redlining, housing covenants, and physical attacks kept Blacks buyers out of white neighborhoods. Education loans meant little when universities refused to admit Black applicants. Instead 95% of Black veterans were funneled into underfunded, often unaccredited, Black colleges.  Unemployment benefits were inequitably distributed because some postmasters refused to deliver to Black vets the forms necessary to apply for them.

 Violent racist backlash swelled when Black veterans vociferously demanded the same dignity accorded to white veterans. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, said, “No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror…. Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused, or lynched following military service.” (Emphasis added)

This happened with horrifying intensity when 380,000 Blacks returned from WWI, “ a war to make the world safe for democracy.” According to historian Chad Williams, the War Department treated Black soldiers, not as a valued resource, but as “a problem to be managed.” White supremacists resented Black veterans competing for jobs. Their uniforms made Black veterans targets for discrimination and racist violence.

This was the case after WWII as well. One example, Sgt. Isaac Woodward Jr., was highlighted by the New York Times 1619 Project. In 1946, when this decorated vet headed back home to Winnsboro, S.C., he was dragged off a bus and beaten until he was blinded for life because he dared to be a Black man in uniform. While a historical marker will soon commemorate his service in both script and braille, we have yet to fully confront our moral blindness. This Veteran’s Day don’t just thank a vet – demand full reparations for racial abuse of our Black soldiers.


  • Lesson #231: Few Black veterans of the Civil War received recognition for their service. General Butler, who wanted to recognize the heroism of African-American troops, had to pay personally for the medals he awarded to nearly two hundred Black soldiers.

  • Lesson #232: Despite the blatant racism in the U. S., Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois encouraged Black freedmen to serve in the military. Two of Douglass’ sons, Charles and Lewis, joined the Massachusetts 54th Infantry. Lewis was wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner. DuBois advised that African Americans should “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens and allied nations that are fighting for democracy.”

  • Lesson #233: One of the worst cases of racial conflict in the military was the 1919 Houston riot. The complexities of this case – which you can read about here – still weigh on the descendants of all involved. It particularly haunts families of the Black soldiers – the 110 found guilty, the 53 sentenced to life, and the 19 executed by hanging. Not a single white involved was held accountable. Angela Holder, great niece Corporal Jesse Moore, one of the soldiers executed, is seeking a posthumous pardon with the help of NAACP as the 100th anniversary of the day of his execution approaches.

  • Lesson #234: According to journalist Erin Blakemore, “When the GI Bill ended in 1956, nearly 8 million World War II veterans had received education or training, and 4.3 million home loans worth $33 billion had been approved. But most black veterans were left behind. As employment, college attendance and wealth surged for whites, disparities with their black counterparts not only continued, but widened.” She cites historian Ira Katznelson’s claim that there was “no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar America than the GI Bill.” Today’s wealth gap between black and white Americans is the result. See: “How the GI Bill’s Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans.”

  • Lesson #235: VA housing benefits were inequitably distributed. Erin Blakemore reports that, “[i]n 1947, only 2 of the more than 3,200 VA-guaranteed home loans in 13 Mississippi cities went to black borrowers.” Additionally, “In New York and the northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages issued by the GI bill supported home purchases by non-whites.”

  • Lesson #236: Unfortunately, racism in the military continued into the Vietnam era. Read here about one violent clash at Camp Lejeune in 1969 that left one dead and 13 wounded.

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