Our workforce and Nation have the opportunity to reflect on a monumental turning point in our history. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed a pair of executive orders, the combination of which banned racial segregation in the armed forces and federal civil service. This article offers context on this occurrence and why it was so significant.
To understand, one needs to know that myriad orders, regulations, policies, and practices had been enacted to establish and enforce segregation in government domains. Within the federal civil service, these actions primarily affected African American applicants and employees, and led to their widespread exclusion and marginalization in government spheres. Three occurrences are germane to the segregation outcome. First, after the Civil War, various individuals and groups conspired to undermine equality for Black Americans. Second, in 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was legal. Third, to buttress discriminatory hiring, the Civil Service Commission in 1914 instituted a new policy necessitating all job applicants to submit a photo of themselves. This was claimed to be for identity verification purposes, but few cases of applicant fraud had been raised previous to the policy.
The year prior, Postmaster General Albert Burleson had delivered a plan to President Woodrow Wilson for segregating the Railway Mail Service. Workers for this service sorted mail on moving trains, and Burleson objected to the practice of black and white employees working in close spaces, and sharing utensils and restrooms. President Wilson received the Postmaster General’s plan, setting conditions for him to segregate African Americans from other workers, and to demote and terminate Black workers wherever possible.
Burleson’s views were shared by Wilson and many in his administration including William McAdoo, secretary of the Treasury, who believed segregation was necessary. By far, most Black civilian employees worked for the Departments of Treasury and Commerce or the Postal Service. The President authorized his cabinet secretaries to segregate their respective departments, and by 1913, departments implemented racially segregated lunchrooms, restrooms and workspaces. These actions further enabled agencies to use the excuse of lack of dual facilities as a pretext for whites-only hiring.
The administration implemented policies and practices that further entrenched segregation, including personnel decisions that limited jobs and upward mobility for Black employees within federal agencies. African Americans were demoted, pushed into menial jobs and forced to take pay reductions. Jobs were taken from Black employees and given to whites with less skill, education and experience.
The discriminatory policies’ effects were limiting and enduring for generations on the experiences and opportunities available to African American federal employees. Furthermore, the U.S. government’s stamping of approval of discrimination greatly fueled negative attitudes toward Black workers. As such, policies and practices put in place at that time created a distinct environment of racial segregation within the federal government civil service and perpetuated systemic discrimination.
By the time President Truman desegregated the government 31 years later, a climate of racial subordination had overtaken the federal sector. By their view of federal government policies, many presumed that blacks were only entitled to and capable of holding low-rung jobs.
To fully appreciate the significance of President Truman’s actions in 1948, one also needs to know that in 1863, War Department General Order No. 143 by Secretary of War Edward D. Townsend established the Bureau of Colored Troops, thereby authorizing the recruitment and organization of separate African American regiments. The action acknowledged the service of African Americans but directed the formation and maintenance of racially segregated units and assignments. In 1948, the order was still in effect.
The first official government order banning Black people from service is thought to have occurred on March 16, 1798, by Secretary of War James McHenry, when he sent instructions to a Marine lieutenant onboard the frigate Constellation. McHenry’s communication directed: “No Negro, Mulatto or Indian to be enlisted nor any Description of Men except Natives [meaning Americans] of fair Conduct.” On August 8 of the same year, Benjamin Stoddert, as secretary of the Navy, wrote a letter to Lt. Henry Kenyon, who was in Philadelphia, upon the latter’s appointment to the schooner Retaliation. Stoddert directed, “[Y]ou should recruit with all possible expedition, the requisite Number of Men, say Thirty able Seamen and Twenty Landsmen and Boys … No Negroes or Mulattoes are to be admitted.” Stoddert re-stated the clear ban against Black Americans on August 20 to Capt. Hugh George Campbell on the revenue cutter Eagle, writing, “enlist none but healthy, white men, and give a preference to Natives if they are to be had.” Two days later, he similarly instructed Capt. Alexander Murray onboard the Montezuma “No Negroes or Mulattoes are to be admitted.” Stoddart issued a circular to revenue cutter commanders on October 10, stating “No Negroes or mulattoes are to be admitted.” Artifacts show that the regulation was recommunicated to others taking command.
Historic communications and documents indicate that the restrictive policies sometimes impeded commanding officers’ ability to recruit a full workforce for their crews. Officials sometimes issued clarifying instructions, and at times, created alternatives tailored for the situation. When in 1798, the governor of Georgia feared an attack by the French, President John Adams with Secretary of War James McHenry and Secretary of State Timothy Pickering formulated a state policy for participation by Black service members. The policy entailed assigning white men to operations and Black men to galleys for food service.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s history includes examples of interracial crews that predated the official end of the government segregation policy years later. The vast majority of the more than 5,000 Black men and women who served in the Coast Guard during World War II were in the restricted ratings in the same manner as the U.S. Navy — that being the role as stewardsmates. Though not implemented sweepingly across the Service, operational needs sometimes necessitated the formation of mixed-race crews.
For example, the Coast Guard “River Cutter” Yocona in 1919 represents the first known occurrence in the service of Black enlisted men serving on the same vessel with white officers and non-commissioned officers. Although the segregation by position remained, in totality the crew was racially mixed. The Coast Guard Historian’s Office holds this as a first in military history for sea service vessels. According to Dr. William Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian, the situation was remarkable because, “Except for officers, Yocona’s enlisted crew was entirely African American, including petty officers in every rating.” He noted that the occurrence “is very surprising given the discrimination and violence carried out against African Americans at that time in U.S. history.” Thiesen conjectures that the Coast Guard recruited the best-qualified watermen near Yocona’s homeport of Vicksburg, Mississippi, resulting in the interracial crew.
While rules limited Black Coast Guard members to stewardsmates ratings, they episodically served in other ratings during WWII, for example, at Coast Guard Lifesaving Station Pea Island, North Carolina, and Tiana, New York. These stations were primarily staffed by Black Coast Guard members, and the crews served in a greater variety of ratings than was officially permitted. A few Black members also served in ratings other than stewardsmates at various units throughout the Third Coast Guard District during the war. Some were assigned to beach patrol duties and held ratings such as boatswain’s mate (BM), signalman (SM) (later called quartermaster (QM)), engineman (EN) (now machinery technician (MK)).
Uniquely, Lt. Clarence Samuels, a man of Afro-Latino heritage, rose through the ranks from enlisted to officer, serving at various units in the Coast Guard, all but one of which was with interracial crews. The only exception was his service at the all-African American Pea Island Lifesaving Station. Samuels commanded a Coast Guard Patrol Boat as a chief boatswain’s mate (BMC), and a lightship and a buoy tender as a lieutenant — with interracial crews.
Noteworthy during this period of government-sanctioned segregation was Cmdr. Carlton Skinner, a white man, who through his own efforts and at significant risk during a period of widespread discrimination in American society, advocated for racial integration of Coast Guard crewing. His advocacy began when he was executive officer (XO) of Coast Guard Cutter Northland at the beginning of WWII, where he championed the assignment of Black Stewardsmate Oliver Henry to be placed out of the wardroom and into the engine room as a Motor Machinist Mate. Skinner later successfully advocated for assignments, and took command of Coast Guard Cutter Sea Cloud, and later the Coast Guard Cutter Hoquiam, where he operated with interracial crews. He took these actions in 1943 during WWII when the military was still under segregation policies.
While crews may have been assigned on a mixed basis, living, dining and restrooms were not, nor were surrounding communities. History is replete with examples of Black members who served in the military despite the restrictive government orders. The record of African American service during the time of official government exclusion is too extensive to be presented here. Many across the military were recognized at the time, but often posthumously, for service contributions and valor. African Americans sought to and successfully served their country even under policies banning their presence. First-hand interracial experiences at the time, and later in history as more African Americans joined the military, induced many white members to reexamine and reject negative preconceptions about African Americans on which they had been socialized.
As our Service observes the anniversary of bringing equal opportunity to its military and civilian personnel, it behooves those who communicate about history to disambiguate the lexicon of desegregation. Many people conflate independent examples of inter-racialism, such as the foregoing, with desegregation, but they are not. Desegregation involves more complexity. The following offers clarification.
President Truman’s order was necessary to reverse government segregation policies that had for decades stood, legalizing discrimination and prohibiting equal opportunity for African Americans serving in the military and civil service employment. The signing of the executive order is the semi-sesquicentennial anniversary that we observe this year. The executive order was a turning point, and example of early civil rights activism that predated and in part inspired the later movement, prompting desegregation of other sectors. It was a crucial action that strongly contributed to the Nation’s pursuit of equal opportunity for all its citizens.
Dr. Terri A. Dickerson is civil rights director for the U.S. Coast Guard and the first African American woman to serve in its senior executive service. Dr. Vince Patton was the first African American master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOCG), now retired from military service, and current senior vice president for leadership, NewDay USA.