Sunday, October 28, 2012

Black Soldiers in World War II


The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, depicted above, is located on the bank of the Mississippi river on the campus of the University of Minnesota. It's an impressive piece of architecture by Frank Gehry.

On a brief visit there last week, I was impressed by their collection of works from New Deal art programs, and especially by a painting, "Wheels of Victory" painted in 1944 by American painter Philip Evergood (1901-1973).

The documentation accompanying the painting says "Created in the waning days of World War II, Evergood's painting at first may seem a celebration of American industry." However, the documentation continues, the painting seems "more melancholy than victorious," because it may be making a reference to the labor disputes about African Americans: could they join the railroad union and hold non-menial jobs? "Is the soldier here to remind viewers that African-Americans contributed to America's victory in war overseas but were not allowed to hold good jobs on the railroads at home?"

The white men in the painting do look pretty complacent to me, with their "pocket watches and church papers."

The documentation refers to the black soldier as looking on "despondently." To quote the National Geographic summary of the Black experience in World War II:
"African-American soldiers and civilians fought a two-front battle during World War II. There was the enemy overseas, and also the battle against prejudice at home."
Perhaps this is the subject of this impressive and maybe subversive painting.

Despite the formation of the famous unit of Tuskegee Airmen, most Black soldiers were given only duties like janitorial and kitchen services. "Black soldiers were generally restricted from combat," the article points out. However, "the realities of war would soon blur the lines of race. One major breakthrough came during the Battle of the Bulge, in late 1944.... General Dwight D. Eisenhower, faced with Hitler's advancing army on the Western Front, temporarily desegregated the army, calling for urgent assistance on the front lines. More than 2,000 black soldiers volunteered to fight."

When the black soliders returned home, mostly to homes in the South, they faced a return to the segregated lives and horrendous maltreatment that they had known before the war. Truman desegregated the military, and thus ended open discrimination in job assignments, in 1948, but the Civil Rights struggle  had only begun.

My book club selection for November is The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris of NPR -- a book with a focus on exactly the same topic: the unjust treatment of returning Black soldiers. In this memoir, she concentrates on the experiences of her father. He returned from service to his native Birmingham, Alabama, where Black citizens were still experiencing the worst of the humiliating and dehumanizing features of segregation and racial hatred.

In trying to understand her father after his death, Norris unearthed a part of her family history that no one had ever mentioned and that no one wanted to talk about after more than 60 years. Shortly after his return to Birmingham, he had been shot by a policeman, spent a night in jail (as she said, this was an incredibly dangerous place for a young Black veteran), and had paid a high fine which used up family funds that could have been better used to invest in business. She felt that the experience had been powerful -- too powerful to discuss.

Norris described the struggle of Black veterans to register to vote in Birmingham soon after the war, and the decision of her father and some of his brothers to move north, and his purchase of a  home in a white neighborhood. She was born in Minneapolis (not that far from the museum where I saw the painting), and her own experiences, which are briefly discussed in her memoir, are quite different from those of her father.

I've recently seen a lot of connections to the topic of Blacks in World War II and their experience when coming home. Earlier this month, my book club read Mudbound, which includes a fictionalized (and I would say, sensationalized) account of a returning Black Southern veteran. Also, not long ago at the Civil Rights exhibit in the Henry Ford museum, I saw the restored bus where Rosa Parks performed her famous historic refusal to sit in back. The connection of this to the struggle of veterans to the struggle for Civil Rights is interesting -- as the National Geographic article says "Not only had the war opened a new window of opportunity for blacks, a number of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and '60s, including Medger Evers, had been trained in the Army, where they acquired leadership and organizational experience."

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

I've wondered about this book. I had heard her mention it before and I believe I read something about it when it came out. Fascinating topic and one I think is coming more to the forefront than before. Nice to hear about it from you!