The Double V

How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America's Military

by Rawn James Jr.

The Double V

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NPR Summary

Rawn James Jr. argues that if you want to understand the story of race in America, you must understand the history of African-Americans in the military. In The Double V, James documents the contributions of black troops since the Revolutionary War, and efforts to counter deep-seated racism on the fields and on military bases.

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Excerpt: The Double V

By September 28, 1918, it was plausible that a company of German soldiers, hunkered down in northeastern France and knowing that they would soon be attacked, would send word to the advancing Allied forces that they had suffered enough. One could imagine that the demoralized Germans would rather surrender than offer futile resistance. In the previous few days, the Allied troops had advanced far into Champagne, bringing with them enough artillery, ammunition, tanks, and provisions to inflict extraordinary damage.

The men of the 371st Infantry of the U.S. Ninety- third Division stood poised to take Hill 188 when a German noncommissioned officer approached their camp in surrender. He explained that he led thirty-five men who did not wish "to risk their lives" any further in pursuit of a "lost cause." The Americans took the German soldier into custody. They began to trudge toward the hill.

German infantrymen began rising from their muddy trenches and pulling themselves onto the ramparts, where they raised their arms in surrender. The Americans held their fire.

Suddenly a whistle blew. The surrendering Germans leaped back into their trenches, hoisted arms, and opened fi re on the Americans with rifles, machine guns, and mortars. In an instant more than half of the American soldiers were killed or severely wounded, many killed by a single German machine- gun stand. Amid the carnage, Corporal Freddie Stowers, a squad leader of Company C, spotted the turret and ordered the surviving men of his squad to join him in firing on the position. In a bloody exchange, they silenced the deadly machine gun.

Through the haze, Stowers spotted another machine-gun position and crawled toward it. His men followed on the ground behind him. From just yards away, they watched as machine- gun fire ripped through his body. Gravely wounded, Stowers continued toward the second German trench. When he could no longer move, he directed his squad to continue toward the target. They crawled past him. He yelled orders and encouragement until he died of his wounds.

Inspired by Stowers's example, the 371st Infantry continued the attack against what senior army officials later called "incredible odds." The Americans took Hill 188 after three gruesome days of trench warfare. Freddie Stowers was buried alongside 133 of his fellow soldiers at the Meuse- Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial in France.

It was 1991 by the time the president of the United States, Congress, and the U.S. Army formally recognized what Corporal Freddie Stowers's commanding officer knew to be true in 1918: The young soldier's actions in the battle that cost him his life were worthy of America's highest military honor.

"He had to be scared," President George H. W. Bush, himself a decorated war veteran, declared at the podium. "His friends died at his side. But he vanquished his fear and fought not for glory, but for a cause larger than himself — the cause of liberty." Among the officials gathered in the East Room of the White House shortly after three o'clock on that April afternoon were Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin L. Powell, and Mickey Leland and Joseph DioGuardi, the two former congressmen who had introduced the bill to confer the Medal of Honor on Corporal Stowers.

Freddie Stowers's wife and daughter never learned of his heroic acts, but his younger sisters, Georgiana Palmer and Mary Bowens, eighty-eight and seventy-seven years old respectively, traveled to Washington to attend the ceremony. Wearing pink dresses and hats, they sat in the East Room next to first lady Barbara Bush. Behind them an honor guard stood at attention. Georgiana had been fourteen years old when her brother, one of six children, left their rural South Carolina home to enlist in the army in October 1917. She remembered working in the cotton fields alongside Freddie. Her brother had been "a nice boy. He never gave his father any trouble."

Stowers's great-grandnephew, Staff Sergeant Douglass Warren of the 101st Airborne, had flown from Saudi Arabia to join his family members at the White House. The president joked that the Operation Desert Storm veteran appeared jet-lagged. "I want to welcome you home," President Bush told Warren before recounting the actions for which Corporal Freddie Stowers was finally receiving the nation's highest military award for valor.

It's been said that the ultimate mea sure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge. On September 28th, 1918, Corporal Freddie Stowers stood poised on the edge of such a challenge and summoned his mettle and courage.

He and the men of Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, began their attack on Hill 188 in the Champagne Marne sector of France. Only a few minutes after the fighting began, the enemy stopped firing and enemy troops climbed out of their trenches onto the parapets of the trench, held up their arms and seemed to surrender.

Stowers's Medal of Honor citation notes the South Carolina native's "conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism and supreme devotion to his men ... reflect[ing] the utmost credit on him and the United States Army."

In his remarks at Corporal Stowers's Medal of Honor presentation, President Bush did not mention that the young hero had served in a segregated army. The squad Stowers led, the company to which it belonged, and its larger regiment and division consisted of African Americans commanded mostly by white officers.

During World War I more than 90 percent of black combat soldiers were assigned to one of two divisions. This was not an arrangement that coincidentally comported with the way of life throughout much of America in 1918. Rather, the United States segregated its army and navy because its military and civilian leaders firmly believed that because black people were inferior to whites, black soldiers and sailors were likewise inferior. One major general's memorandum to the army chief of staff suggested that black men be excluded from "the Field Artillery as the number of men of that race who have the mental qualifications to come up to standards of efficiency of the Field Artillery officers is so small that the few isolated cases might be better handled in other branches." The navy permitted black sailors to work only as cooks or stewards, and the marine corps altogether excluded African Americans from its ranks.

Not all white commanders adhered to the military's systematic subjugation of African American soldiers. Indeed, it was Corporal Stowers's white commanding officer who first petitioned for him to receive the Medal of Honor. Such exceptions aside, however, the American military during World War I made official the discriminatory practices that had been largely unofficial policy since the founding of the republic. The way the military and public treated black servicemen during and after the war ignited a righteous anger among African Americans. That they had fought for freedom abroad only to be denied it anew at home awakened African-Americans to the fact that only a collective, nationwide effort would secure their basic constitutional rights. In time this effort would come to be known as the civil rights movement, but it began with the struggle to desegregate America's military.

From the advent of the Revolutionary War until the end of the Korean War, the complexity of black people's collective life in America was mirrored by their ser vice in defense of country. In March 1770 a middle-aged half- Indian, half-black sailor who had been born into slavery but escaped to a life of danger and drudgery on the high seas became the first casualty in what would become the American Revolution. Believing that British guards were being attacked by hoodlums, Crispus Attucks dashed from a Boston tavern with several other colonists intent on defending the soldiers. The men arrived on the scene to witness the guards abusing local adolescents who were throwing snowballs. The colonists turned on the guards and Crispus Attucks struck the first blow. The British opened fire with their muskets, killing Attucks and four other colonists.

Five years later, in October 1775, the Continental Congress voted overwhelmingly to exclude African Americans, slave or free, from serving in the military. The newly formed Continental Army, led by a slave-owning French and Indian War veteran named George Washington, would accept only white enlistees. South Carolina's delegates sought to have all African Americans currently serving in the armed forces summarily dismissed, but northern colonists forced the compromise that allowed those soldiers and sailors to complete their enlistments.

As a slave-owning Virginian, George Washington understood South Carolinians' uneasiness with the prospect of training a large number of black men in the use of firearms. During the 1760s Virginia experienced fierce slave rebellions in Frederick, Loudon, Fairfax, and Stafford counties. Virginia's slave owners remained nervous in the mid- 1770s, and Washington was no exception. Providing military training to freed black men could lead to an armed slave insurrection.

In Virginia members of the landholding class were more united than in any other colony; the Commonwealth would produce three of the first four presidents of the United States. By the time of the Revolution, the institution of slavery had come to define Virginia's governing men. Slaves accounted for half of Virginia's population. They were extraordinarily valuable property. Thomas Jeff erson, who inherited dozens of slaves and thousands of acres from his father, noted that "a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man." That is, the value of a child born in slavery increases more each year than the most productive crop. Jefferson's calculation elucidates how slavery concentrated wealth throughout the South. Slaves increased in value much more quickly than the land on which they worked.

Wealthy plantation owners bought slaves to grow their crops and hired overseers to drive their slaves, thereby freeing themselves to engage in more noble pursuits, such as politics and revolution. As one economist has noted, the average landed gentleman in the South in 1774 possessed almost exactly twice as much wealth as his counterpart in New England. This was despite the fact that "per capita wealth — land, livestock, producer and consumer goods— was almost exactly the same in 1774 in every region of the country. White southerners had more wealth than white northerners only because black southerners had none."

The vast majority of Virginia's slave owners possessed just one or two slaves. These minor slaveholders often defended slavery more ardently than wealthy plantation owners, because slave ownership was their only realistic means of escaping a life of hard labor for themselves and their children. Owning slaves provided their families with upward mobility. First, there was the significant growth in value as each slave matured and learned new skills. Second, and more important for these smaller landowners, owning slaves permitted them to send their children to school rather than putting them to work on the farm.

One month after the Continental Congress closed the military to African Americans, a Scotland-born soldier turned politician named John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore and governor general of the Colony and Dominion of Virginia, proclaimed that all slaves who took up arms against their colonial masters to fight for the British were free men. Dunmore had lived in Virginia's capital, Williamsburg, for more than three years. He knew the agrarian colony would be brought to its knees by the sudden loss of its slave labor force — if the slaves answered his call. Twice before, Dunmore had threatened to "declare freedom to the slaves and reduce the City of Williamsburg to ashes." When the Continental Congress announced its refusal to accept black enlistees, Dunmore shocked both enslaved and free Virginians by making good on his threats: "And I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to the rebels), free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his Majesty's troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this colony to a proper sense of their duty to his Majesty's crown and dignity."

Virginia's slaves leaped at the chance to earn their freedom, even if doing so carried the risk of receiving any of the severe punishments mandated by the laws the Commonwealth enacted in the wake of Dunmore's declaration. More than eight hundred African Americans escaped to join what became known as Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. He housed them on ships in the Rappahannock River. Despite his stipulation that any freed slave must be able to wage battle, many of the escaped slaves whom Dunmore sheltered were women and children.

In December 1775, Dunmore took his freedmen into battle at Great Bridge. There they suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the colonists, and Norfolk burned. Shortly thereafter, a smallpox infestation all but wiped out Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. One month before the colonies formally declared independence, Lord Dunmore surrendered his forces to the colonists on the Rappahannock.

Although largely forgotten among stories of the American Revolution, Dunmore's proclamation was an important moment in the history of African Americans' military ser vice. By freeing only those escaped slaves who agreed to fight for the British monarchy, Dunmore for the first time connected African Americans' military ser vice with their liberation. In the following decades African American leaders, soldiers, and veterans repeatedly sought to link the two, but never again would the connection be expressed by a government official with the authority to act on the issue.

Another reason Dunmore's emancipation experiment is significant is that it convinced Virginia's slaveholders that rebellion was the most viable way to defend their economic interests. They knew that King George III, like his faithful servant Lord Dunmore, would free all slaves in the colonies if doing so would allow him to maintain rule over those colonies. Conversely, the king would maintain slavery if doing so would quell a colonial revolt. President Abraham Lincoln would profess identical moral ambivalence in a famous letter to Horace Greeley ninety years later, and in neither case would wealthy slaveholding Virginians accept their leader's irresolution. In both cases, first against their king and later against their president, Virginia's ruling class chose rebellion.

When enthusiasm for the ongoing revolution began to erode throughout the colonies, both the Continental Congress and the citizenry lessened their opposition to black enlistees. Congress, less than three months after Dunmore's proclamation, announced: "The free Negroes who have served faithfully in the army at Cambridge, may be re- enlisted, but no others."11 From January 17, 1776, until the end of the Revolutionary War, enslaved and free African Americans fought and died in the new nation's integrated military. Slaves often enlisted as substitutes for their owners, whose opposition to arming them was weaker than their desire to avoid combat duty.

In September 1776, Congress ordered all member states to raise eighty- eight battalions of infantry soldiers for the Continental Army. This proved a difficult proposition, because even many state militia veterans were loath to join the army, which, unlike the militias, required long periods of ser vice, possibly on faraway battlefronts. A Virginian serving in the army might fight and die in New York while the British seized his farm and land at home. Enlistments of white men became insufficient as the war raged on, and this allowed for an increase in the number of African Americans serving. Runaway slaves posing as freemen were so readily accepted by the army that the Virginia Assembly in 1777 forbade "any recruiting officers within this Commonwealth to enlist any negro or mulatto into the ser vice of this, or either of the United States, until such negro shall produce a certificate . . . that he is a freeman."

The overwhelming majority of black soldiers served in integrated units. One Hessian officer, serving alongside the British, observed: "The Negro can take the field instead of his master, and therefore no regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance, and among them are able-bodied and strong fellows." The Continental Army so badly needed soldiers that, in the end, more than five thousand African Americans fought for America during the Revolutionary War. Many who survived, such as James Roberts of Maryland's Eastern Shore, would forever remember those awful days when "human blood ran down in torrents, till the waters of the river were as red as crimson."

The first draft of the Articles of Confederation was prepared in the summer of 1776 by Pennsylvania's wealthiest man, a slaveholding lawyer named John Dickinson. Upon presentation the draft caused much consternation among Southern delegates, because it mandated that regulation of states' internal affairs be subject to approval by a central government. South Carolina's John Rutledge, the future chief justice of the United States, declared that the Articles of Confederation as written would lead to "nothing less than ruin to some colonies ... The idea of destroying all provincial distinctions and making every thing of the most minute kind bend to what they call the good of the whole, is in other terms to say these colonies must be subject to the government of the eastern provinces." The "provincial distinction" to which Rutledge referred was slavery. "I am resolved to vest the Congress with no more power than what is absolutely necessary."

Southern delegates joined Rutledge's protest, and the Articles of Confederation were modified to reflect their concerns. As adopted in November 1777, the Articles provided: "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled." With this language, the newly formed federal government forfeited the power to regulate slavery within states.

When the federal government sought to strengthen its authority by replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution ten years later, slavery was left untouched. The Constitution adopted the "three-fifths compromise," which had been narrowly defeated during debate over the Articles of Confederation. According to the compromise, the government counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining a state's congressional representation and taxation. Southern congressional delegates had hoped to count each slave as a full person, but Northern representatives, such as Connecticut's Roger Sherman, argued that only free men should count as persons. The delegates finally agreed on the three-fifths accounting measure.

From The Double V by Rawn James. Copyright 2013 by Rawn James. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Press.

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