The following is a guest blog post by Nathan Cross, an archivist for the American Folklife Center.
This African American History Month, the Veterans History Project (VHP) is pleased to announce a new resource designed to introduce VHP’s holdings related to the veterans of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, an all-African American, all-female unit of the Women’s Army Corps that deployed to Europe in 1945 to process the large backlog of undelivered mail that had accumulated in the European Theater of Operations. VHP is proud to be the repository of these firsthand recollections, and to make them accessible for today’s researchers and for future generations.
Courage. It is one of those words that is used—and misused—so often that we rarely stop to consider its meaning—or perhaps I should say meanings.
It is one of the four cardinal virtues of both classical philosophy and Christian theology. For classical Stoics, courage was viewed as something like the prime mover of the four virtues – it is impossible to practice the other three without first cultivating the courage to do that which is unpopular or dangerous. “Be of good courage” and “be not afraid” are two of the most repeated phrases in the Bible.
Courage is also cited repeatedly in the core values or creeds of every branch of the U.S. military. The Navy and Marine Corps share the core values of “Honor, Courage, Commitment,” three iterations of this same virtue.
Anyone who studies military history at all will become well acquainted with tales of courage. A perusal of the VHP collections from Medal of Honor recipients provides hair-raising accounts of servicemembers’ bravery in the face of enemy fire. These veterans’ fortitude and audacity—often referred to as “physical courage”—is rightfully recognized and celebrated, and indeed this type of bravery is strongly associated in many people’s minds with military service.
A form of courage that people might not associate with the military so readily is the type of courage it takes to assert one’s right to serve your country when a large segment of your own society does not believe you should be allowed in the military. The African American women who served in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in World War II displayed this type of courage—what is commonly called “moral courage”—in abundance.
Women in the World War II era were not allowed to serve in combat arms roles, and as a result their contributions are not frequently mentioned in the lore of the “Greatest Generation.” Women—and especially African American women—entering the military were faced not only with institutional discrimination, but also with the often-painful effects of defying societal gender norms. It certainly required a great deal of moral courage to take on responsibilities in organizations that often went out of their way to make you feel unwelcome, while simultaneously “disappointing” the expectations of many in your own communities and families.
Only courage can’t really be separated into two different varieties. As the modern Stoic author Ryan Holiday says, “Courage is courage is courage…. There aren’t two kinds of courage. There is only one. The kind where you put your[self] on the line.” (His language is more colorful.)
And for African American servicemembers in the 1940s it was impossible to separate “moral” from “physical” courage – their acts of what might be called moral courage put them in very real physical danger in their own country. In Elizabethtown, Kentucky, a police officer brutally beat three African American WACs (Women’s Army Corps members) for sitting in a “white” waiting area in July 1945. An African American WAC captain was assaulted by white soldiers after she had admonished them for not saluting her. They were frequently subjected to racist insults and threats. The history of the lynchings of African American veterans from the Civil War to the post-World War II era is one of the most shameful chapters of our nation’s history.
It would be understandable—and human—to react to such hate with bitterness or perhaps resignation. It requires profound courage to respond to discrimination with a determination to serve; to respond to brutality with compassion and kindness; and to face ignorance with humor and grace.
One of the first things that stands out about the veterans of the 6888th when listening to their oral history interviews is the sense of duty and purpose that they express about their time in service. Despite the racism they faced—or perhaps inspired by it to prove their doubters wrong—they felt a determination to succeed in the military. As Violet Hill Gordon expressed it:
“I think that the thing that really sustained and enabled all of us was that underneath the adventurous aspect of it was a sense of duty; that it was our country, that we were at war and that there was a purpose to all of this.” (Audio interview, 16:18)
Fannie Griffin McClendon remembered how the women she worked with in the 6888th took great pride in their work and their ability to get the mail delivered:
“The girls got a kick out of working the mail – we had over 600 cards and we had to determine whether they maybe were killed in action, whether they had gone home, or they moved on to another unit or another area. And they were very happy, they found all but about a hundred—and out of 600 that was pretty good.” (Video interview with Barbara Hatch, 10:21)
Mary Crawford Ragland also felt a distinct sense of pride in the battalion and what they accomplished:
“We wanted to prove ourselves. We represented our country, and we represented our organization, and all minorities – and we did a damn good job of it.” (Video interview, 32:20)
Another common theme that emerged from these veterans’ interviews was the kindness and compassion they manifested. They did not let their own degrading treatment diminish their capacity to see the humanity in others. Emma Brown worked at an Army hospital before being assigned to the 6888th, and recalls how difficult it was to see servicemembers returning from overseas bearing the marks of war:
“I think the hardest thing was when they started bringing those prisoners of war back from Corregidor and Bataan… You could almost want to cry, but you knew you shouldn’t… And that put me to wondering about man’s inhumanity to man – I don’t understand it, it just doesn’t make sense to me why you have to do things like that.” (Audio interview, 4:17)
Brown also remembered how members of the battalion did what they could to help the population in Rouen, France, which had been devastated by the war. They shared their rations with local civilians and those with medical training offered aid to the injured and sick. Essie Woods reflected in her interview on the destruction that the battalion witnessed when they landed in France, and how it affected them:
“Le Havre was the worst place that I had ever seen, and that’s when it really hit me… to see a whole city leveled—just leveled—it was just heartbreaking. So that really got to us when we saw that.” (Audio interview, 26:04)
These veterans also exemplify the importance of humor in handling difficult situations. In her oral history interviews, Fannie Griffin McClendon laughed often while she reminisced about white WACs from northern states who didn’t know how to enforce the rules of segregation they were sometimes asked to.
Emma Brown displayed an effervescent sense of humor during her oral history interview from 2005. This sense of humor—combined with her mother’s teachings about human dignity—enabled her to face racist treatment with grace. She described her reaction to the absurd racist misconceptions of British civilians she encountered during the war:
“It was comical – they’d look at you so funny. And they’d look at the hair, and I guess someone must’ve told them that they had tails because I’ll never forget somebody walked in and asked me, ‘Where did you put your tail?’ [laughs] That’s the only thing you could say, you could go and laugh about it… Some people were definitely angry… but the training I had from my mother was that ‘God made all of us, and you know what you are, so you don’t worry about what other people think about you.’ So it always went over my head.” (Audio interview, 11:06)
Nearly 80 years after making history, the “Six Triple Eight” is finally getting the recognition they deserve – the battalion was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2022, and there is a Netflix movie in the works with filmmaker, actor and philanthropist Tyler Perry at the helm. With this recognition, it is also important to note that there were thousands of other African American women in the military during World War II who did not get the opportunity to show their abilities in a war zone. Because of this, the women of the 6888th are perhaps most significant to American history, not for their uniqueness but for their representation. The 6888th—along with other all-African American units like the Tuskegee Airmen and the 761st Tank Battalion—revealed the error of pre-judging someone’s ability based on their race or ethnic background. Along with providing a key service to American servicemembers in Europe during the war, they provided an even more valuable service to the country by tearing holes in the logic of segregation, and paving the way to a stronger and more just America.
In addition to the 6888th LibGuide, we are also excited to announce that VHP will be releasing a Serving: Our Voices online exhibit this month that will further explore the experiences of African American women veterans of the World War II era. This exhibit will feature veterans of the 6888th as well as those who served in other capacities. VHP recognizes that African American history is American history, and hopes these stories will not only inspire you, but increase your appreciation for the service and sacrifice these courageous women made for our country.