The Afro-American Newspaper Goes to War

The Afro-American Newspaper Goes to War

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The Afro-American Newspaper Goes to War


The Baltimore-based newspaper The Afro-American has been in existence since 1892 under the proprietorship of the Murphy family, and by the 1940’s had forged a place at the forefront of African-American journalism. The newspaper is still in business today and is online at www.afro.com. Founded by John Murphy, a former slave, the Afro-American has grown from a church weekly to one of the nations leading black newspapers. The newspaper has used it’s column inches to campaign for the civil rights of African-Americans throughout the 20th century, from opposing the persistence of racist “Jim Crow” laws in the South to defending eminent figures such as W.E. DuBois and Paul Robeson during the McCarthy-era anti-communism of the 1950’s.[1] During World War 2, when the U.S. military was still segregated along racial lines The Afro-American sent correspondents to cover the fighting alongside the various black American units that served in both the European and Pacific theatres. These men and one woman were relaying to an audience of Maryland and Washington D.C. African Americans the roles fulfilled by black American troops, fighting in a segregated military abroad. The primary impact of black and white Americans serving together was to be felt socially in the post-war years. The Civil Rights movement that gained momentum in the 1950’s owed much to the fact that many people engaged in war work during the 1940’s, who in peacetime would never interact with one another on grounds of race, were challenged by their shared wartime experiences.

“The common danger, the common foe and hardships of battle are bringing American troops closer together…Soldier after soldier has told me he can never be narrow-minded again after seeing such widespread human suffering.”[2]

Ollie Stewart, correspondent for The Afro American, 1944

Compared with the quality of contemporary reports filed by “embedded” reporters in the 21st century US military, filtered by both the Pentagon and major media networks, some of the copy from the Afro correspondents is surprising given the circumstances under which it was filed. Despite the circumstances of war the reports filed by Afro correspondents used a number of means to convey the reality of service in a segregated military without alarming the wartime censors, and did so with deep insight, humour and graphic accounts of the full spectrum of roles fulfilled by black service personnel.

The Correspondents.



Correspondents for the Afro American.

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http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/intro.html


One of the correspondents was Elizabeth Murphy Phillips Moss, who was not only the first female black war correspondent but was also the daughter of the publisher at that time, Carl Murphy (the son of the paper’s founder)[3]. The Afro-American sent six correspondents, including Phillips, to cover the service of black soldiers in the U.S. forces. Five of these correspondents were sent abroad; Ollie Stewart, Art Carter, Max Johnson and Phillips going to Europe while Vincent Tubbs filed copy from the South Pacific.[4] Of the correspondents, Ollie Stewart was the most prolific reporter for the Afro sending dispatches from North Africa, Italy and France from 1942 until late 1944. His reports came from locations well known to his domestic audience such as Paris, France and Rome, Italy, but also from locations that remained as anonymous to the reader as they were to the correspondents and troops at the time. Through the pen of Stewart the domestic readers of the Afro-American encountered enthusiastic African American soldiers showing their white counterparts that they possessed equal reserves of determined fighting spirit, skill and courage despite their second-class status within the army. Art Carter covered the European Theatre from December 1943 onwards, while Max Johnson arrived in Italy with the 366th Infantry in March 1944. Vincent Tubbs accompanied US troops on part of their island-hopping campaigns across the Pacific and his copy presented Afro readers with the grimmest details of war when he filed You Can't See Much of a Battle from New Britain in the Western Pacific.

“What they exhibited defies description, but there were, among other revolting sights, remnants of a Jap machine gunner who had knocked off nearly 20 marines before they got him and they didn't leave much.”[5]

Combat fatigue, confusion, casualties and the brutal physical consequences of warfare are all presented in vivid detail by Tubbs who evidently was not averse to following the front line as close as possible. Tubbs wrote less about the civilians he encountered than did his colleagues in Europe but given the compacted battlefield sites of the Pacific island campaign this is hardly surprising, a condition reflected in the amount of combat action Tubbs witnessed first hand.

Elizabeth Phillips was sent to Europe in the latter stages of the war but was taken ill shortly after her arrival in England and never made it to the front lines. As the first female African American war correspondent she faced scepticism of her ability to perform effectively under wartime conditions given her race and gender, but despite her confinement to England she was still able to convey details of the race issue from her hospital bed. Recuperating alongside battle casualties in England Phillips noted how well all the US troops were taken care of and how “there is no Jim Crow” in terms of the care offered in her military hospital. The only segregation among casualties, Phillips noted, was by rank. Prior to departing the US, Phillips had had to be accompanied on her travels to Preston, MD, by an escort of state troopers such was the tense climate of race relations there following the burning and forced eviction of a black storekeeper and his family by a white mob. She was questioned about what good a woman could do overseas but felt confident enough in her literary skill that her audience would not be able to tell of her gender through her writing. Unfortunately, due to he illness, Elizabeth Phillips never got the chance to demonstrate the eloquent style of her delivery from “the field” as she was shipped home from England without ever seeing the desolation of continental Europe or witnessing African American soldiers in action. Phillips had wryly remarked in one report that she may have stood to gain advantages over her male colleagues as a woman, as she could “get into some places where a man can’t go”[6]

A Segregated Army

“The American Army cannot fight two wars at the same time- One against the Axis and the other between it’s own white and colored soldiers” Elizabeth Phillips.[7]

The US military remained segregated by race until President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948[8]. Despite the passing of the 13th, 14th & 15th Amendments after the American Civil War, the subsequent development of ‘Jim Crow Laws’ in the South saw many black Americans live in a climate of fear and suffer extreme discrimination. When in 1941 the United States entered World War 2 African Americans were still faced by segregation in the workplace and in public, as well as in the armed forces. The pressure on American manufacturing industry to keep up with the surging demand for war-related goods had coincided with a loss in the numbers of experienced workers, as men joined up in the armed services. This prompted President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 in 1941 that brought about desegregation in industries related to the national war effort. The impact that the presence of volunteer black troops had on advancing the cause of full integration of blacks into American society (in both a legal and social-acceptance context) was far-reaching. It was not until twenty years after D-Day that the Civil Rights Act was signed into law and full voting rights for African Americans were finally established, and racial segregation in public places was outlawed[9]. There were no direct instances of interracial fighting among US soldiers reported in the Afro-American although under the pressure of wartime censors this is hardly surprising. What is apparent from the Afro coverage is that both the black troops and the correspondents were well aware that the prejudice of “home” was reflected in the military hierarchy, a fact borne out by the frequent mention that almost all officers were white.

The Experience of African American Troops in the field.

The majority of African American troops in WW2 faced the enemy at the wheel of a truck rather than down the barrel of a gun. All the Afro correspondents noted how the majority of black soldiers were assigned to “non combat roles”, that for every Captain in the 399th engaged in dogfights there was a whole unit of drivers ferrying supplies through the day and night at the wheel of a truck. The vast majority of officers were white except in the black fighter squadrons, the medical corps and in the case of chaplains, where all officers carried the ranks of Captain or Lieutenant[10]. The Afro American correspondents, in accordance with established military practice, were themselves given the rank of Captain. This situation somewhat bemused Elizabeth Phillips at first, who had difficulty in returning a salute due to her initial embarrassment over the issue[11]. Quite what the opinions of white soldiers made to salute a black, female officer in 1944 were remain unrecorded by the sources, unfortunately. Ollie Stewart commented on this unequal distribution of commissions from France:

“As a matter of fact, the only colored officers I have seen since coming to France with rank higher than first lieutenant, have been either chaplains or medical officers… Such a remarkable coincidence. Like at the big headquarters where we sleep and eat; no colored officers at all happen to be stationed in the immediate vicinity.” [12]

Although the majority of African American servicemen in the war served in units designated “non-combat”, such as truck drivers and supply personnel, that distinction became increasingly blurred the closer the reporters got to the front line. White officers sometimes assumed that all black personnel were employed in such units, but as Stewart commented from North Africa;

“Every unit near the front is a combat unit. All our quartermasters, engineers and truck drivers are subject to enemy encounters day and night and all are prepared to fight their way out of a crack”[13]



Access to combat zones for journalists made the military feel uneasy in 1943 as it does today, but there is no evidence that the Afro correspondents were stifled or discouraged in their attempts to access front line troops. Indeed, they were not the only African American journalists covering the war, as Stewart discovered when he attended “the greatest gathering of colored war correspondents in history” at Cherbourg, France in late 1944 near the site of the D-Day landings[14]. Stewart encountered black American soldiers driving the French General De Gaulle into liberated Paris; all-black artillery units that white officers assumed were quartermasters who had strayed too far from the supply lines; truck drivers pushed to the physical and mental limit by the military’s war needs; and an all-black barrage balloon unit that went ashore on D-Day to protect the invading army from low flying aircraft. Infantry and medical staff were interviewed by all correspondents, and of particular note was the practice of printing the full name and home address of personnel interviewed or quoted in the reports. This added a personal touch to the war coverage and many of the addresses given were from the East or North-East United States.



Drivers for the 666th Quartermaster Truck Company, May 1945. NARA


European civilians liberated by Allied forces were, in most places, overjoyed and extremely grateful for their freedom. Many of them had never encountered Americans before; less an African-American, and Max Johnson caught the surprise at the appearance of such troops in Rome, Italy, during 1944. Riding in a jeep, Johnson was stopped by a rush of civilians eager to greet American forces. An elderly Italian civilian “wiped his hands across the bronzed face of our driver; then looked amazed when he discovered his hands were not stained”[15]. Johnson regarded the incident as evidence of the amazement of Italian civilians at the sight of black American troops and, one assumes, black newspaper reporters too. Ollie Stewart encountered a similar reaction on entering a newly liberated Paris. Kissed by “almost every woman (he met) on the streets” Stewart relays the color-blind acceptance of African-American troops in Europe that was initially encountered on their arrival in the wake of the retreating German forces. Such was the effect of the passionate welcome he encountered he was moved to consider the implications of his expereince: “If I ever run for any office, I will be rather experienced in this kissing business.”[16]



Genoa, Italy. Men of the 92nd Division troops in newly liberated Genoa, Italy. April 27, 1945. NARA


This grateful reception was common for the majority of Allied troops as liberators from the Nazi regime and was certainly a welcome experience for the black US soldiers, the correspondents, and heartening for the Afro’s domestic audience to read about too. In the Pacific theatre Afro correspondents witnessed the impact of African American faces and American culture in general on indigenous cultures. Vincent Tubbs attended a burlesque USO show on the island of New Caledonia in the company of 8,000 US troops and reported an amusing exchange between a soldier and his “native girlfriend” as they watched the singer Ann Lewis perform in a revealing costume. One can only imagine the effect Lewis had on the assembled war-weary men as she “sauntered Mae Westishly” across the stage. This soldier told his disbelieving girl and her family, who had accompanied the couple as local custom dictated, “them’s home folk there, baby. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you about”. Tubbs recalls the girl and her family “gazed at the stage open-mouthed almost to the drooling point” in response to their introduction to American entertainment and we can only guess as to what the long-term effects were on the family, or whether the said soldier’s romance lasted the test of time.[17]



Conclusion

All The Afro-American reporters conveyed the same observations about the African American military experience;

Most officers were white, even in “all-black” units.

Black troops were equal to their white counterparts in all aspects of fighting ability except for the ability to be promoted out of the ranks
All personnel interviewed (both white and black) wanted racial equality and opportunity for all on their return to the US.

Like all war correspondents the Afro-American reporters had to be careful how and what they reported, yet their stories still managed to reflect the often uneasy reception the black troops encountered, especially from the very army in which they served. The Afro American correspondents relayed the hopes and expectations of black and white soldiers upon their return to the US after the war, the most common theme being that the African American veterans will deserve the full rights and opportunities that their white comrades would receive.

White officers assigned to black units were frequently quoted as heaping glowing praise on their men, whether in front-line combat units or driving trucks on the “Red Eye Express” supply route. The Afro reporters also conveyed the praise of white infantrymen about the job their black comrades were doing, and even German prisoners were quoted as asking to see “our automated artillery that comes so fast and so accurate”[18], such was their proficiency in the field. There was a great deal of pride among the black soldiers about the quality of their service but there was also a frustration that they were not going to be given the recognition, at the least, for their efforts once the war was done. The military’s reluctance to appoint African American officers, the assignment of African American units to dangerous “non-combat” roles that were every bit as physically challenging and perilous as the “combat roles” (but which did not receive the pay, or the recognition given to the white soldiers at the cutting edge of the military machine) and the fear that the troops will return the same ‘Jim Crow’ they left fuelled a determination that things will change, a spirit that spurred on the Civil Rights movement in the subsequent decades.



[1]The Afro-American website, About Us http://www.afro.com/aboutus.htm

[2] "No Color Line in Foxholes", Ollie Stewart, The Afro-American website, http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/stewart3.html

[3] The Afro-American website, About Us

[4] The Afro-American website, http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/intro.html

[5] “You Can’t See Much of a Battle”, Vincent Tubbs, The Afro-American website http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/tubbs.html

[6] “On Going Overseas”, E. Phillips, The Afro-American website, http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/phillips.html

[7] ibid

[8] “Executive Order 9981”, Our Documents website, http://ourdocuments.gov/index.php?flash=true&

[9] “Civil Rights Act”, Our Documents website, http://ourdocuments.gov/index.php?flash=true&

[10] “With Colonel Davis’ Flyers In Italy”, Art Carter, The Afro-American website, http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/stewart1.html

[11] E. Phillips, The Afro-American website, http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/phillips.html

[12] “Barrage Balloons”, Stewart.

[13] “Proud and Humble”, Stewart, The Afro-American website http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/stewart2.html

[14] “Barrage Balloons”, The Afro-American website.

[15] "Inside Rome", Max Johnson, The Afro-American website, http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/carter.html

[16] "Liberation of Paris", Stewart.

[17] “Flesh Show in the Pacific”, Vincent Tubbs, The Afro-American website, http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/tubbs.html

[18] “Whispering Death”, Stewart, The Afro-American website http://www.afro.com/history/OurWar/stewart1.html
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