The Veterans History Project (VHP) is proud to offer a new online exhibit, part of our vast array of curated thematic presentations collectively known as Serving: Our Voices. Previously known as Experiencing War, these exhibits are part of VHP’s new website, which debuted Veterans Day 2022. These presentations provide users with a specially selected set of collections centered on a particular theme, offering immediate access to content-rich oral histories and other original primary-source materials.
The newest installment of Serving: Our Voices focuses on the experiences of African American women who served during World War II. Titled “Determined to Serve: African American Women in World War II,” the presentation explores the stories of 15 veterans who served stateside and abroad, from the Arizona desert to the boulevards of France.
Of the 15 featured veterans, a number served in the 6888th Central Postal Battalion, celebrated for being the only African American women’s unit to deploy to the European Theater. Stories from those in the 6888th can be further explored in VHP’s Research Guide on the unit and the accompanying blog post. It should be noted that African American women’s service during World War II extended far beyond this one unit—they served in roles ranging from nurses to administrators and teachers. Sometimes duty required taking on multiple jobs; Azalia Oliver served as a musician, librarian and occasional nurse.
No matter their roles or service locations, African American women serving during World War II were often drawn to the military for reasons beyond patriotic duty. Life in uniform offered opportunities for employment and advancement that were frequently denied to African American women in other sectors. Unlike many white women, who might have had the privilege of choosing military service for the adventure it offered rather than the paycheck, African American women seeking jobs beyond the limited options in the civilian world found a solution in the armed forces.
Opportunities within the segregated military were still inherently limited, however, and once they joined up, African American women often faced intense prejudice and mistreatment from both the general population as well as commanding officers and enlisted men. They were barred from base exchanges, mess halls and Officers Clubs; they were forced to ride in segregated Jim Crow cars while traveling by train in uniform. Both Dorothy Jenkins and Oliver recalled in their oral histories that German prisoners of war were treated with more respect than African American servicewomen, and Jenkins was nearly attacked by a white soldier who was incensed by the officer stripes on her uniform. Army nurse Oneida Miller Stuart wrote in her memoir of the many times she endured racial epithets hurled her way, usually from her own patients.
The abuse that these women endured while serving stateside stands in contrast to the experience of those who served abroad with the 6888th. Evelyn Johnson remembered that she was never discriminated against during her time in Europe, though she and others dealt with the curiosity and ignorance of English civilians who had never before encountered Black people.
Throughout the grueling racism and misogyny—not to mention the demands of wartime service—these women persisted. To survive and to thrive meant adopting an attitude of imperviousness; Vivian “Millie” Bailey would remind herself, “They’re not cursing me, they’re cursing my skin tone.” Though they may have ignored the everyday taunts of bigots, Bailey and her fellow servicewomen did not shrink from challenging more systemic racism. The featured interviews are full of accounts in which these women desegregated spaces, challenged discriminatory policies or stood up to white officers, such as when Bailey resisted a superior officer who attempted to coerce her into unjustly court-martialing a woman under her command.
In one of her three VHP oral histories, 6888th Central Postal Battalion veteran Alyce Dixon asserted, “I’m not a person who’s afraid, and so I did very well. A lot of the girls got upset and sick and wanted to go home, but I’m still out there fighting.” Though Dixon was positioning herself in contrast to peers that couldn’t make it through training, her words ring true for all of the women featured in “Determined to Serve,” and for African American women in general. Throughout their time in the service, Dixon and her comrades were “still out there fighting”—not only for the US war effort but for equality of opportunity for their gender and race, and for recognition of their incredible strength and accomplishments.
VHP is very proud that these stories of African American women are part of our archive, and hope to grow our holdings in this area. If you know of an African American woman who served during World War II (or at any time), please consider donating an oral history or original material that tells the story of her service. Find out how at www.loc.gov/vets.