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.
Standing orders and even a federal law passed in 1792 officially barred Black people from bearing arms for the United States Army. Nonetheless, free, and enslaved people of African heritage served in American conflicts since before the United States was an independent, free nation. During the American Revolution, some 5,000 Black combatants served in various roles including the artillery, the infantry and some working as laborers and even musicians. In that conflict and the War of 1812, some were even sent to serve in place of their slaveholders.
African American cuttermen were among the first to fight against the Royal Navy in the War of 1812. The U.S. Revenue Cutter Service (USRCS), predecessor to the United States Coast Guard (USCG), utilized both free and enslaved Black people, and restricted their roles to cooks, stewards and seamen. In the 1880s, the U.S. Lighthouse Service (USLHS), another superseding agency of the Coast Guard, utilized some enslaved and free Black men and women, at times in all-Black complements, to operate lights in Union territories.
In 1830, the U.S. Department of the Treasury banned the hiring of Black people or use of enslaved people for the USRCS except by permission of the secretary of the Department of the Treasury. As with the other armed services, racially discriminatory policies that officially forbade Blacks rendered it difficult for USRCS commanders to recruit a full crew and required exceptions. Capt. V.W. Polk, who commanded Revenue Cutter Florida in 1831, wrote to Treasury Secretary Samuel Ingham, stating:
In the general instructions for the government of the Rev. Cutter Service of Dec. … is prohibited the employment of persons of colour, unless by the special permission of the Secretary of the Treasury ... I have ... the difficulty of procuring suitable white persons to fill the stations of cook and steward, respectfully to request that the Honorable Secretary will permit me to fill those stations with persons of colour.
In the letter, he asked to additionally be permitted to employ an enslaved person. Secretary Ingham replied six days later, approving a waiver to the discrimination policy. Other commanding officers petitioned the secretary similarly.
According to former USCG Historian Truman Strobridge, USRCS officers were commonly allowed to use enslaved people who they personally held (this article will not use the term “owned”), onboard vessels. USRCS inspection lists affirm the presence of Black crew members. For example, four enslaved people worked onboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter Taney in 1843; four enslaved worked at York District, Virginia, the same year; a District Georgetown inspection found two free and two enslaved that year, and so forth.
Service regulation in 1843 officially banned the practice of enslaved persons working on or being part of a crew of any vessel and restricted the role of Black crew to non-authority jobs as cook, steward and boy (meaning unskilled young man or teenager). By 1915, the USCRS merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS), becoming the U.S. Coast Guard.
By 1862, with the nation embroiled in the Civil War, emancipation became strongly linked to military service. A tide of free Black men rushed to enlist in the military, just as numbers of white volunteers were declining. Thus, personnel needs of the military induced the government to rethink its ban on Black members. The U.S. Lighthouse Service hired people who escaped enslavement to operate lights in Union held territory. African Americans came to represent 5-10% of crew onboard revenue cutters during this conflict.
Congress passed a law in 1862 freeing enslaved people held by a member of the Confederate Army. Recruitment of Black men began in earnest after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops for the purpose of organizing separate African American regiments. The U.S. Colored Troops were led by white men and offered little prospect of advancement for African Americans.
Meritocratic Civil Servant Hiring and Promotion Crumbles
Four turning points are germane to Black civil service employment: Emancipation; a regressive social climate and the rise of Jim Crow (legal segregation) after the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling; President Truman’s overturn of segregation laws in government; and equal employment reform in the 1960s.
First, Emancipation precipitated the movement of thousands of free Black people to Washington D.C. seeking employment. After the 1883 establishment of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, Black Americans found equal and meritocratic practices in the federal sector. With an unbiased civil service exam, relatively un-segregated workplace and the emergence of degree-holders from newly established Black colleges, African Americans were finding decent jobs and compensation in the nation’s capital, including the government. The Civil Service Commission even promoted the government as a place in which Black Americans could find solace from discrimination. Many were hired by federal departments, and a few had reached senior levels.
The second turning point arrived with the extreme discriminatory policies imposed after the election of Woodrow Wilson. With Black people disenfranchised, the administration did not need to court them for votes. Fifty years after emancipation, when Jim Crow had finally started showing signs of retreat, President Wilson reprised it. He promoted a view that the races should be separated in order to avoid friction. “[H]is administration appointed White southerners who systematically demoted, fired, segregated, and otherwise humiliated Black workers to an unprecedented extent.” Wilsonian-era departments segregated restrooms, workspaces, and dining areas, and required employment applicants to submit photos so that Black people could be screened out.
For example, in July 1913, the Auditor of the Department of the Treasury issued an order directing separate toilets for Black employees. Segregation was erroneously yet constantly promoted as beneficial to and preferred by Black employees, and the administration attempted to brand Black employees as corrupt and incompetent. African American employment decreased from 6% to 4.9%, with most clustered in junior level and custodial positions. Wilson administration segregation was left in place by succeeding presidents.
Third, in 1948, President Harry Truman banned segregation policies in the federal government. As with the military, it would take years and a civil rights movement before the fourth turning point: the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination in voting, education, housing, employment, and other areas before integration (a unified climate) was felt.
African American Segregated Forces: An Under-Told Story
Segregation policies resulted in all-African American military groups who served with valor, many whose contributions were subordinated in history. Despite dispiriting structural and cultural barriers, Black military members fought with distinction in every theater. Scholar Tyler Bamford wrote, “Some of the more famous Black [Army] units included the 332nd Fighter Group, which shot down 112 enemy planes during the course of 179 bomber escort missions over Europe, and the 761st Tank Battalion, which served in General George S. Patton’s Third Army.”
Company A, 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, known as the “Triple Nickels,” was at the vanguard of Army integration. Activated in 1943, under command of an African American officer, Capt. James Porter, it was the Army’s only all-Black parachute battalion. Members were required to complete jump school, considered one of the most difficult Army trainings. “Porter and his men knew they were under an Army microscope, with observers waiting to criticize every move, every misstep,” said historian Bradley Biggs. “In the face of this challenge, the troopers performed their duties with efficiency and dignity,” he noted. The 555 performed challenging jumps into difficult environments for which they became the Army’s first rough terrain jump specialists.
The Buffalo Soldiers were African American “colored” Army regiments formed after the Civil War. When one of the co-author’s fathers, Walter M. Dickerson, served in the Italian Campaign of World War II, his unit, the 92nd (Buffalo) Negro Infantry Division was segregated when they served 81 years later — just like their eponymous Black cavalrymen. Mr. Dickerson recalled that the Buffalo division distinguished itself with decorations and citations, “[Yet] there were great debates as to the worth of Negroes in combat. As in any other Negro contribution to society, the efforts and accomplishments were minimized. ... Extremely adverse conditions were imposed, like segregated units, all white officers and assignment to non-combat service operations.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African American pilots; navigators; bombardiers; maintenance and support staff; instructors; and other personnel associated with the Army Air Corps (later the U.S. Army Air Forces) during World War II. Trained at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama, they were the first African American military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces and served with distinction, overcoming racial prejudice and discrimination.
Until recently, little was known about the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion all-Black women unit deployed to the United Kingdom and France, which solved a postal crisis during World War II. When the “Six-Triple-Eight” returned to the U.S. in 1946, they were not accorded any ceremonies or recognition for their achievements. Seventy-five years later, in March 2021, President Biden awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal.
In the U.S. Life-Saving Service, predecessor to the U.S. Coast Guard, the Pea Island Lifesaving Crew was an all-Black unit located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The crew was established in 1880 and served until 1947. The Pea Island Lifesaving Crew was known for their heroic efforts in rescuing shipwreck survivors along the dangerous coastline. One of their most notable actions was in 1896 when, during a hurricane with upward of 100 miles per hour winds producing immense waves, they rescued the crew of the schooner E.S. Newman, saving the lives of all nine people onboard. Much to the credit of African American Adm. Stephen Rochon, a hundred years later, in 1996, the crew was recognized posthumously with the Gold Life-Saving Medal. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian Dr. William Thiesen offers context, stating: “Though retroactive from 1996, this rescue became the first in which the Coast Guard honored minority servicemembers for heroism.” Much later in history, 5,000 African Americans served as members of the Coast Guard during World War II.
The Montford Point U.S. Marines served during World War II. Following their training, many were assigned to support units and served in logistics, ammunition handling, transportation, and other non-combat roles. Some were deployed to the Pacific Theater of World War II and participated in campaigns, including the Battle of Saipan and the Battle of Iwo Jima. Their history, achievements and endurance in a segregated military and society, like that of other units referenced here, is relatively unexamined.
These examples speak to challenges faced by African Americans in the military services and their contributions to breaking down racial barriers. Their successes helped branches of the military move toward greater integration and diversity, paving the way for a more inclusive military. Archivists and historians are still uncovering little-known episodes in American military history, and some Black groups and individuals have been recognized posthumously.
Fighting for a “Double V”
With Jim Crow segregation laws in place in America, Black service members found the freedoms and acceptance they experienced overseas uplifting. Many lived in places for the first time where no segregation existed. Some were integrated within European troops. For example, the 93rd and parts of the 92nd Army Division fought with the French Army. The term Double V was coined as Black military members pledged to gain victories in the war as well as for the Black community in the United States.
Tensions often roiled and violent clashes sometimes erupted as Black members experienced the irony of fighting for freedom and justice overseas, while serving within a military system that required segregation. One of the more prominent incidents of racial violence became known as the Battle of Bamber Bridge when white American military police attempted to arrest African American soldiers as they socialized with white local community members at Ye Olde Hob Inn in Lancashire, northern England. The town had supported the Black troops’ patronage at local businesses even as their commanders tried to enforce the color line. Violence broke out with gunfire and a fatality. A court martial convicted 32 of the Black soldiers, though in later retrospect, it was found that poor leadership and racist attitudes were root causes.
Coming out of WWI, many Black service members were inspired to help others experience the same freedom as they had overseas. The war produced many who went to the forefront of American civil rights activism, including Oliver Brown, plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court school desegregation case; Medgar Evers, a top deputy to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; national civil rights leaders Hosea Williams and Whitney Young; and many others.
Segregation in the Military’s Defense Contracting Industry
In 1941, as the country prepared for World War II, it needed military personnel. Furthermore, many defense industry leaders refused to hire African Americans into their workforces. The situation prompted labor leader A. Philip Randolph to begin organizing 100,000 African Americans to march on Washington in protest of discrimination in the military and by their contractors.
Though he did not want to, public pressure and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt induced President Franklin Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, which he did on June 25, 1941. It stated: “There is evidence that available and needed workers have been barred from employment in industries engaged in defense production solely because of considerations of race, creed, color, or national origin, to the detriment of workers’ morale and of national unity.”
While this action promoted equal opportunity and affirmed a need to prevent discrimination, it did not end segregation in the military and government workforces. In response, some in the defense industry began to hire African Americans, but only into segregated divisions.
One of the co-author’s fathers, Dr. Maynard Hawkins, graduated from Xavier University in 1950 before completing Meharry Medical College and joining the military as an Air Force dentist. President Roosevelt’s directive against discrimination a decade prior, and even President Truman’s 1948 desegregation order, did not erase segregation instantaneously. Dr. Hawkins treated personnel still serving in segregated units until 1952. African Americans in the civil service and the defense industry continued to face discrimination.
History has a duty to affirm that African Americans possessed the desire and skillsets necessary for success, despite laws and worldviews that denied them opportunities. African Americans’ contributions have often been impactful but forgotten as an earlier discriminatory society sought to justify their subordination. To the present day, many still assume that African Americans lacked the skills and wherewithal to be integrated into society during the period covered by this article. The eyes of history are on this generation — which has unprecedented access to archives — to affirm that they showed uncommon patriotism, capability and endurance against an entrenched social climate that was determined to exclude them.
Dr. Terri A. Dickerson is Civil Rights Director for the United States Coast Guard and the first African American woman to serve in its Senior Executive Service. Retired Col. Hawkins, a 32-year veteran, was among sparse Black entrants to the U.S. Army Airborne Ranger School. He served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division and, after retirement, worked for U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command. While this article is about segregation, to read articles and view photos of early African American achievers in the Coast Guard, see the USCG Historian archives.