tv 1945 Black Women Army Corps Strike CSPAN June 30, 2019 7:50pm-8:02pm EDT
you're watching american history tv. all weekend, every weekend on c-span 3. >> in 1945, four black privates serving in the u.s. women army corps went on strike to protest discrimination. next on american history tv, sandra bolzenius talks about the women's decision, their court martial and the public and press reactions. she's the author of "glory in their spirit: how four black women took on the army during world war ii." we recorded the interview at the annual black history luncheon hosted by the association for the study of african-american life and history. >> sandra bolzenius, what was the women's army corps? >> the women's army corps or the wac, i'll be using that acronym to describe the women's army corps and members of the women's army corps -- it was established in 1942. the military, the army was fighting a two front war and needed more troops so they enlisted women for the first
time in its history in order to make sure they were able to fill the jobs that the men were leaving so they could go to the front. >> and there have been many books on the mistreatment of african-american soldiers during world war ii, but you wrote about four enlisted female soldiers. who were they? >> first of all, i'm very glad that you mentioned that because so often the books are on the officers and they're on the white wacs who served, but very few on black enlisted women so i wrote about the four women that i mentioned here, they're part of the 6,500 contingent of black women who enlisted in the war, pioneers of the wac and they had the same reasons that other women had for joining. they wanted to learn new skills. black women were engaged in service occupations, cleaning, laundry work and they wanted to make sure that they had other
skills to give them opportunities after the war. they also were very interested in helping to advance democracy abroad, as well as at home being african-american, and female. >> and coming up, tell me about the four women. >> the four women involved, to be honest the -- this is an incident at fort evans in massachusetts. there were 100 women in this detachment. nearly all of them were orderlies. orderlies given the assignment of cleaning one of the hospitals at fort devons. and so they were assigned this position. they came in to have skilled jobs. mary green had hoped to have any
other job, except cleaning houses at the time. same thing with ana morrison, johnny murphy i feel when i read her material, it looks like she joined for adventure. find something different, get out of her home town. but alice young, she went in specifically. she had some experience as a nurse in training and she wanted to join the wac, they were desperate for medical technicians and she thought this would be her pathway to become a nurse after the war. >> and were there other women, white women in the hospital that were working as nurses? >> as medical technicians. you have the army nurse corps and this is about the wac and there were white wacs there, twice as many as there were black wacs. there had only been white wacs originally and when fort devons was told to incorporate this detachment of 100 women, they
basically segregated the two hospitals, all the white wacs moved to one hospital, all the black wacs were put in the other one and in the white wacs working, you had very few working as orderlies and the rest were working in the skilled jobs that the black wacs had enlisted to perform, as well. >> tell me about the actual strike. how did it happen and what was the outcome? >> when the women arrived at fort devons at the end of 1944, october of 1944, they expected to have the same jobs that the white wacs were doing. that's why they enlisted, that's what had been advertised, how desperate of a need the army had for these skilled jobs. when they arrived at fort devons, they were given these orderly jobs, they thought this is what newbies do, they'll do it for a while and see what a great job we do and they did a great job, and then we can move on to other professions. that didn't happen. not after the first month, second month, third month. almost five months later, they realized it's not going to happen. and so it was spontaneous, but it followed a number of events.
there was a strike and it happened one morning, march 9th, 1945, and that's when the strike happened that was spontaneous, something that happened the night before, the last straw and the strike occurred. >> and what was the outcome? once they decided to strike, what was the response of those officers that worked with them? >> interesting, because prior to this time, the women had been complaining, not these four, but the detachment and wanting to resolve the situation and the army said no, there's no racism involved here, it's just what you guys do best today. they wanted to show after the strike, the general of the first service command arrived and said you go to work or you will be court marshaled. four women took the court marshal. they opted for the court marshal. others would have, others tried to, but four women were put on trial. >> and how widely reported were their actions? >> the black press was amazing.
it focused on the military during world war ii, it got the word out pronto. the naacp was also alerted to this incident prior to the actual strike. someone from there had written to them about how things were, how volatile a situation it was. so the case was national news within the black press. that did not necessarily mean in the white press, but this was such an interesting case. there were tons of court marshals featuring black men, but women in the military was so new so this became a national sensation because it was black women, women at all, being court marshaled and then black women who the press did not see that much of. normally, when they were talking about white wacs and how interesting it was and about their green girdles that were army colored and all these kinds of things. this came on, when this hit the news, people are interested in it. curious. >> so let me about the court marshal.
what was the outcome for the women? >> court marshal is one of the most interesting parts of the book. it was a pretty dramatic trial. the naacp stepped in and provided them a lawyer, a prominent local attorney, but normally, when defense lawyers had their arguments for their clients, they spoke about their courage and bravery. this lawyer, julius rainey was trying very hard to get these women off, but he could not use his racial discrimination defense because racial discrimination did not exist in the military because the war department had a policy against that. so you have the circular argument where it can't exist. these women are saying these are our problems, here are our grievances and the military -- so they had this trial where
their lawyer was defending them and saying gentlemen, they were confused, they didn't know what they were doing. he knew exactly what was going on, maybe not from the position of a female, though, so he used the women's natural tendencies to be confused and hysterical and based his defense on that. and he called them a monomaniac at one point. the women had their say, they were able to defend themselves during the court marshal, too, but it's interesting to see how even their wac attorney turned it around, but he did try to build it up to take intuthis idea that it was the perception of racism, not that the army was racist, but these women had this perception of racism. >> and so what happens to the women? did they leave the army? stay in the army? what happened with them? >> yes, the case went on. i should mention the biggest factor besides these women, these otherwise ordinary women, the biggest factor was the public. the public got involved, the
black press, spread the word out. all the way to california, oregon to the south to the north. people knew about it white and black and the public, men, women, black, white, everybody was writing in to the war department. the war department had to take action. what action they take is a bit convoluted but eventually the women did return to fort devons and they remained as orderlies. so you read this book and say well nothing really changed, but things did change. they did have the attention of their higher brass. before they could not get the attention of even their local officers or tenants, and now, the war department of, secretary of war knew who these women were. president roosevelt knew who these women were, the naacp, the godmother of the wac, they had their attention and it did make a difference. even though these women returned
back to their duties, it didn't change a lot for them all dramatically, but it really made a difference for other black women who were also being sent to other posts and there's one case in particular, gardner hospital, where during this case and after this case, there's a lot of memorandums between the war department and gardner hospital in chicago to make sure that there are a lot of women's in different ranks, different skills and that worked out much better for them than it did for these women here. >> sandra bolzenius, thank you for talking with us. >> american history tv is on social media. follow us at c-span history. presidency."
thethan pliska talks about white house grounds and gardens in this program from a daylong symposium hosted by the white house historical association in washington, d.c.. he is an author of "a garden for the president: a history of the white house grounds." [applause] good morning -- >> good morning, i am the assistant director of the national center for white house history. it is a privilege to be with you this morning. kind of seeing all the pieces together. it is truly a privilege to introduce our first speaker, who is a fellow wisconsinite like myself. our first speaker would be jonathan pliska, and author of the award-winning white house historical association publication, "a garden for the president: a history of the white house grounds." jonathan will be signing copies of this book later in the day du