Many Black World War II Veterans Were Denied Their GI Bill Benefits. Time to Fix That.
During World War II 1,154,486 black Americans served in uniform. Not only did they face continued brutal racism and discrimination when they returned home from the war, but the benefits of the GI Bill, which Congress passed as a gesture of gratitude for veterans, were denied to a great many of them. The U.S. Congress should adjust the current GI Bill to benefit their descendants. This would compensate veterans and their families for the withheld benefits to which their relatives were legally entitled and were unjustly denied. It could also help to reduce the historic race-based inequality that the United States still struggles with.
The U.S. military, like the nation at large, is looking inward at the vestiges of racism and discrimination that still plague the institution. Those things are clearly at odds with the American values that the military is sworn to uphold. There is an effort underway in both houses of Congress to rename bases named after Confederate officers, and the Marine Corps has banned the display of Confederate symbols on all of its installations. On July 15, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced measures ranging from removing references to race from promotion packages to changing biased rules about hairstyles.
Some of these changes are symbolic. They are not unimportant, however, in an institution where symbols and history are taken seriously. Others may have lasting effects in dismantling institutional inequalities that have hurt African Americans and other minority servicemembers for decades. All of these efforts are worthwhile and should be pursued vigorously. But fixing the biased legacy of the GI Bill could send a powerful message and, more importantly, actually repair some of the damage caused by racism that still affects black Americans today.
The Original GI Bill
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cognizant of the problems faced by the returning veterans of World War I, began preparing for the return of World War II personnel even before the war was over. But it was former American Legion National Commander and Republican Party National Chairman Harry W. Colmery who proposed expanding what had been a very small package of benefits into a more generous one available to all returning World War II veterans. His proposal became the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the “GI Bill of Rights.” After a close vote in Congress, Roosevelt signed it into law shortly after D-Day on June 22, 1944.
The law offered three major benefits: money for education and training, loan guarantees for homes, farms, or businesses, and unemployment pay. The Veterans Administration was tasked with administering them. In 1947, largely because of the GI Bill, 49 percent of students admitted to colleges were veterans. By the time the original bill expired, nearly half of the 16 million World War II veterans had received a college education or participated in a vocational training program. In 1955 the Veterans Administration backed 4.3 million loans, including nearly a third of all home loans, with a total face value of $33 billion — about $316 billion in 2020 dollars. The unemployment provisions in the bill that provided a $20 weekly check for up to one year were less necessary for most, given the postwar economic boom.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact of the GI Bill on American society. An article in The Saturday Evening Post concluded that “the 1950s’ prosperity wouldn’t have been possible without millions of veterans who had upgraded their skills with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act … and set a new standard of living for themselves and their children and grandchildren.” The GI Bill funded the educations of 22,000 dentists, 67,000 doctors, 91,000 scientists, 238,000 teachers, 240,000 accountants, 450,000 engineers, 14 Nobel Prize winners, and two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners. Among the beneficiaries were presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush; Supreme Court justices William Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, and Byron White; senators Bob Dole, John Glenn, George Mitchell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Alan Simpson; representatives Ronald Dellums and Charles Rangel; civil rights activists Medgar Evers and Hosea Williams; as well as Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, and Walter Matthau. By 1956, the education and training benefits had paid out $14.5 billion, about $137 billion in 2020 dollars. Congress estimated that for every dollar spent under the GI Bill, the U.S. economy received seven dollars in return. While it might be difficult to measure exactly, the post-World War II economic boom in which the United States grew to be the dominant economic power in the world was to a significant degree underwritten by the GI Bill. America was trying to do right by its veterans and they returned the favor.
The bill in some ways was also a boost for American equality. Children from poor immigrant Jewish, Irish, and Italian families in the cities, as well as those from poor rural farm families, had an opportunity for a college education that their parents never could have dreamed of. Tablet magazine notes that
before the war, the college-bound were drawn almost entirely from white, elite circles; what’s more, cleverly designed quota systems made sure to keep the Jews at bay. After the war, the potential pool of applicants was now more diverse — racially, ethnically, and religiously — than ever before.
The new rising middle class in post-World War II America was much more diverse than it had been, thanks to the GI Bill. But it was still largely white, and that wasn’t an accident.
Some Veterans Are More Equal than Others
Technically the benefits of the GI Bill were open to all veterans. Indeed, there is nothing in the law that discriminates on the basis of race. “Black,” “white,” “Negro,” “segregation,” “colored,” or “discrimination” appear nowhere in the text of the law. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The key sponsor of the bill in the House was Rep. John Rankin, a notorious racist from Mississippi. Rankin had fought for laws banning interracial marriage, against laws penalizing lynching, and for the poll tax. Rankin ensured that particular language was included in the law to ensure race would be taken into account:
No department, agency, or officer of the United States, in carrying out the provisions of this part, shall exercise any supervision or control, whatsoever, over any State educational agency, or State apprenticeship agency, or any educational or training institution.
Rankin knew that, at least in the South, the GI Bill’s education benefits would be filtered through state agencies that were governed by both the formal and informal rules of Jim Crow. He could rely on the banks and the Federal Housing Administration to help ensure that the home loans would also be restricted.
The bill paid for college, but how many colleges were open to black Americans? In the South, blacks were barred completely from most colleges and universities, and in the North their options were extremely limited. According to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, black residents of the South were restricted to about 100 public and private institutions labeled in the Office of Education publications as “Colleges for Negroes,” and 28 of the institutions in 1949 and 1950 were classified as sub-baccalaureate colleges. In 1945, 45 percent of these schools enrolled fewer than 250 students, and 92 percent of the institutions enrolled fewer than 1,000 students. As a result, about 95 percent of black veterans could only attend historically black colleges, which were overwhelmed by the influx of veterans and woefully underfunded. Ultimately the paper concluded that for blacks in the South, where two-thirds of the black veterans were from, “The G.I. Bill exacerbated rather than narrowed the economic and educational differences between blacks and whites.” President John F. Kennedy sent the National Guard to force the desegregation of the University of Alabama in 1963. The World War II GI Bill expired in 1956.
While black veterans had somewhat better access to vocational training than to the college benefit, here too the value in practice was rather limited. A study compiled from data from the Bureau of the Census, the National Urban League, the Southern Regional Council, and the American Veterans Committee observed:
Only eleven cities had any formal vocational or technical training facilities. Only Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D. C, among those cities with segregated school systems, had satisfactory schools which Negro veterans could attend. In cities where color lines were not drawn, Negro veterans were able to attend only the industrial arts departments of high schools. These give only a general training which is not applicable to a specific job.
The study noted,
Because of the limited training opportunities, a number of individuals and groups have set up special vocational training courses for Negro veterans. Although these courses have, in every case, been approved by the Department of Education in the respective states, it is doubtful if many of them meet minimum standards for this type of training.
The data for the other major component of the GI Bill, home loan guarantees, is even worse. In 1945 returning African American veterans faced a slew of barriers that made the GI Bill’s promise of a guaranteed home loan essentially hollow. Richard Rothstein, who wrote The Color Of Law: A Forgotten History Of How Our Government Segregated America, has documented how the Federal Housing Administration, which was financing post-World War II housing developments like Levittown in Long Island, prohibited these homes from being sold to black residents. This was true across the country for both Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration-financed projects. The federal government mandated segregated housing, aided and abetted by state and local governments as well as private realtors and bankers, and in some cases rioting mobs trying to force black residents out of their neighborhoods. So in theory a black veteran might qualify for a GI Bill loan guarantee to buy a house, but no bank would give him a loan, no realtor would show him a home, and no white owner would sell him one. In New York and northern New Jersey, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages backed by the GI Bill supported non-whites. In 1947, Ebony magazine found that only two of the 3,229 Veterans Administration-guaranteed home loans in 13 Mississippi cities went to black borrowers, though black veterans were 38.5 percent of the total veteran population in the state.
The discriminatory implementation of the GI Bill, as well as of other programs designed to benefit veterans, led the National Urban League study cited above to conclude: “Consistently, as though the legislation were earmarked ‘For White Veterans Only,’ federal agencies, particularly in the South, have discriminated against Negroes.”
The Check Bounced
Last year I had the honor of attending an event with three of the dwindling population of living Tuskegee Airmen, those famed black pilots and crews who fought discrimination at home and the Nazis in the air, and were noted for never losing a bomber under their escort. After they told some of their amazing stories, we had the opportunity to ask questions of these heroes. So I asked, “When you returned home from the war, after all you had done, were you treated any differently as black men than you were before the war?” Without hesitation all three of them simultaneously laughed out loud and then shared how despite their records they were still black men in America in 1945, with all that that meant.
American World War II veterans earned the moniker “The Greatest Generation” and deservedly so. But even among them the African American veterans should have a special place. While they went off to save the world from racist tyrants abroad, they faced brutal racism at home. Like the Japanese Americans who went to fight in Europe with distinction, many saw their service in World War II as a way of finally proving that they were worthy of being considered fully American. About one-third of the leaders in the civil rights movement were veterans of World War II. But much of America didn’t see it that way and the country they came home to was hardly different from the one they left. Six black veterans were lynched between July 20 and Aug. 8, 1946. The lynching of Emmett Till, seen by many as the spark that kicked off the civil rights movement, occurred in 1955, a decade after the veterans marched home from Europe and the Pacific.
America made a promise to these men and women of the “Greatest Generation” and, frankly, we broke it. Looking at the United States today, the average net worth of an African American family is about one-tenth that of a white family. That didn’t just happen. Two significant mechanisms for building wealth are education and home ownership. It is in these two areas that Congress, and by extension all of America, went out of its way with the GI Bill to build up white veterans and grow a rising middle class. At the same time the bill’s implementation showed black Americans that we did not in fact believe that all men or women, or all veterans, were created equal.
It’s too late for the country to do much for the actual World War II veterans. They are in their nineties and won’t be with us for much longer. Even their children are likely already grandparents. But it is possible to try to repay some of that debt to their descendants. The current version of the GI Bill allows veterans under certain circumstances to transfer the education benefit to a spouse or a child, so the concept of someone receiving a benefit for the service of a family member isn’t new. It just needs to be extended a little.
It’s time for a World War II GI Bill Restoration Act. Under this act anyone who can document that they had an African American direct ancestor who served honorably during World War II and did not use the GI Bill benefits to which they were lawfully entitled would be eligible to receive the benefits under the current GI Bill, as well as the same housing loan support the Department of Veterans Affairs provides to current veterans. Not a new program, just an expansion of the eligibility rules of existing ones, with the details of administering it to be worked out by the department. This won’t be without cost, but on the education front it’s really an investment that will pay the country back. And home loan guarantees only cost something if the borrower defaults.
Time to Pay Up
In his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, when speaking of the lack of equality for African Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We should make sure that this time the check won’t bounce.
Rob Levinson is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who served as an intelligence officer, foreign area officer, commander and politico-military affairs officer. As a graduate of the Air Force Academy the government paid for his undergraduate and graduate educations. He still qualifies for his post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, which he has yet to use.
Image: U.S. Air Force