Categories
All Posts

Celebrating Black History Month by Restoring G.I. Bill Benefits for Black WW II Veterans

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity.

By Mariela Martinez, MPP Candidate and IERE Graduate Research Assistant

We hope to shed some light on the untold stories of Black WW II veterans who deserved to benefit from the G.I. bill but were limited systematically from utilizing the same benefits as their White counterparts.

Photo from left to right: Frederick Douglass, Carter G Woodson the founder of Black history month, Medgar Evers WWII veteran, Isaac Woodard WWII veteran, Henry Nelson Jr. WWII veteran and Charity Adams Early WWII veteran.

February is Black History Month. Started in 1897 as a school holiday on February 14th to celebrate the life of abolitionist and civil rights advocate, Frederick Douglass (called Douglass Day). Since then, the pursuit to recognize and reckon with Black history has taken on many forms. Today IERE is leading a research study on the economic impact of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. bill, on Black and White families. Motivated by the same aspirations that inspired scholar and “father of Black history” Carter G. Woodson to campaign for the remembrance of Black history, we hope to shed some light on the untold stories of Black World War II veterans who deserved to benefit from the G.I. bill but for a multitude of circumstances were limited or even completely barred systematically from utilizing the same benefits willing offered to their White WW II counterparts.

This is why we have Black history month:

The celebration of Black history in the form of the first Negro History Week came in February 1926 organized by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASMLH). ASMLH, now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), started the Journal of Negro History to research Black life and its history. After years of advocacy campaigns, President Gerald Ford issued a statement celebrating Black History Month and emphasizing the need for all U.S. Americans to honor the accomplishments of Black Americans in February 1976.  

This is why you should care about Black and White WW II veterans G.I. benefit disparities:

Note: Absolute wealth gaps between Black and White veterans and non-veterans by region from “Preliminary Results from our G.I. Bill Study” by Tatjana Meschede, Maya Eden, Sakshi Jain, Branden Miles, Mariela Martinez, Sylvia Stewart, Jon Jacob and Maria Madison. Institute for Economic and Racial Equity, Brandeis University. November 2021. Available at https://heller.brandeis.edu/iere/pdfs/racial-wealth-equity/racial-wealth-gap/gi-bill-report.pdf.

Recent data as shown in the figure above, from IERE, on what the racial wealth gap in absolute dollars between Black and White veterans looks showed that there is a $101,850 difference in what Black veterans’ wealth is compared to their White veteran counterparts. This highlights the existing wealth inequality between Black and White WW II veterans. The 1944 G.I. bill was lauded as a large investment into veterans. Often credited with building a larger middle class and boosting the country’s economy. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Black and other marginalized communities, and the economic disparities continue to be reflected today.

The prevalent narrative that G.I. benefits given to WW II veterans were a great equalizer for Black and White veterans is wrong. Though we have stories of exemplary Black people who benefited from the G.I. bill, like 1943 U.S. Army veteran and civil rights activist Medgar Evers, stories like those of Nelson Henry Jr., a 1945 Army veteran who was given a discriminatory blue discharge and barred from using G.I. benefits to pay his education, are rarely heard.

Below is a tree map I created, breaking down the three different pillars of the G.I. bill: employment support (whether through on-the-job training programs or unemployment benefits), education support (vocational trade school or college assistance), and loans for either homes or business with the VA as co-signers not lenders.

Note: created by author using newspaper testimonies from 1944-1950 time period.

The rollout and implementation of G.I. benefits relied on local authorities, other government agencies, and 3rd-party private groups to serve as the barriers for Black veterans’ equal access to G.I. benefits.

How did the G.I. bill so dramatically differ in impact between Black and White veterans?

Although the G.I. bill did not explicitly discriminate against Black veterans in its legislative language or eligibility definitions, it built and relied on loopholes for limiting Black veterans’ access to G.I. benefits. The rollout and implementation of G.I. benefits relied on local authorities, other government agencies, and 3rd-party private groups— bodies corroded by Jim Crow— to serve as the barriers for Black veterans’ equal access to G.I. benefits. A stark example of this is how only six percent of Black veterans of World War II earned a college degree, compared to nineteen percent of White veterans of World War II.

When the 1944 Servicemen bill was being written, the chair of the House Veterans Committee, racist Mississippi Congressman John Rankin lobbied for the G.I. benefits program to be administered by states rather than the federal government. What this created was the loophole for systemic discrimination for Black veterans. In so allowing— knowing the vibrancy of New Jim Crow and overall racism in the South— the legislators of the G.I. bill made it to be administratively discriminatory in access and use for Black veterans.

It is undeniable that for those veterans who were able to access any of the G.I. benefits, the benefits made a foundational difference in their lives. However, scholars have found that there were many administrative barriers that prevented many Black veterans from receiving the full or at times any amount of the G.I. benefits afforded to them for their service. When studying this period, it is difficult to make clear concussions about the impact G.I. benefits had on Black people. Black people’s lives in the U.S. during the reconstruction era and the New Jim Crow period were tumultuous. The history of Black veterans fighting for freedom abroad and returning to the U.S. to be recognized for their service and given rightful benefits by the government and society during this time is difficult to trace. However, the benefit — a free college education, a high skilled job training program, a home loan in an integrated neighborhood, and a business loan — could have implied undeniable economic benefits in someone’s life. As are the racist beliefs and systems that weaponized this economic welfare program for veterans and instead used it to further entrench White wealth, and further deny economic prosperity to Black people.

This is why we should recognize and participate in Black history month:

Today, Black history month continues as a US tradition to reconcile its past and celebrate the accomplishments of Black people. Though historically grounded in many institutions as an established period on the calendar, the transformative practice of learning about Black history and confronting the deep racial inequities that continue to plague this country is still not practiced everywhere, and recently has been under attack.

Currently, there are thirty seven states with standing bills, fourteen states with passed restrictions on the teaching of race and racism on the classroom. The reckoning and meaningful reflection of Black history that its founder Carter Woodson argued for is under threat. Researching and critically reflecting on the Black experience through U.S. policies is more crucial now than ever before.

It’s time we set the record straight, corrected this historical injustice for Black Americans and restored the benefits these WWII veterans and their descendants were denied.

Dr. Martha Jones from Johns Hopkins, says “there’s no question that history is and continues to be a battleground. The origin stories that we tell matter a great deal for where we set the bar and how we set the bar going forward, so when you talk about people like Carter G. Woodson, these are men who knew that if you don’t rewrite the history of [Black people], if you don’t rewrite the history of the United States through the lens of Black history, if you don’t make that record and if you don’t make that case, there are [false] stories that will expand and go toward rationalizing and perpetuating racism, exclusion, marginalization and more.” The origin story of the 1944 G.I. bill is often one of economic prosperity for all, glossing over the racial inequities of who could access and use the benefits. It’s time we set the record straight, corrected this historical injustice for Black Americans and restored the benefits these WWII veterans and their descendants were denied.


Do you know any Black or White World War II veterans who benefited from GI benefits?

We would like to invite them or a family member to participate in a virtual or in-person interview with a member of our research team. Email Branden Miles at brandenmiles@brandeis.edu to schedule an interview. For questions about this study contact Dr. Maria Madison at mtm@brandeis.edu


Mariela Martinez, MPP Candidate and IERE Graduate Research Assistant