Home Front Experiences
World War II was a life altering experience for all Americans. The war affected many people through many different facets of social life. For instance, WWII would begin the integration process for African Americans into the military as well as opening new job roles for many different groups such as women. Two examples of groups deeply impacted by the war include women and African Americans.
African Americans and The War
In 1942, most African Americans were living under the strain of poverty and dealing with fierce discrimination. The advent of WWII would begin a long change towards social equality within the workforce and society. This change was spurred by war time needs which increased the demand for labor.
At the time of America’s entrance into WWII, the US was reeling from a massive depression. The war would help to resolve this depression by increasing the demand for labor. In 1942, the US ranked 17th in the world with its military and did not possess the capability of fighting a war on two different continents (US Department of the Interior 2007). In order to meet the demands of the war, many factories and industries would need to be converted to the war effort. For example, car companies such as Ford and Buick would convert their mass production lines to build tanks and other war products (US Department of the Interior 2007). At the same time, millions of Americans were enlisting and being shipped overseas which reduced the labor market in the US. One fifth of American households had one or more members in the military (US Department of the Interior 2007). At the peak of military mobilization 12 million Americans were serving in the military (US Department of the Interior 2007). This labor drain forced many companies to begin hiring individuals who had been discriminated against such as African Americans and women.
The labor demands of the war allowed African Americans to enter jobs that were higher paying. This shortage of labor was so severe that President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in defense industries (National Archives 1941). This further increased the opportunities for African Americans in the workforce. For the first time, positions that were once held primarily by white men were open to African Americans. Positions such as mailmen, assembly line workers, construction, mass transit drivers, and skilled trades such as plumbing, were now open to African Americans (Albrecht 1995). As well as having these new occupational opportunities, African Americans were also able to attain better economic status due to the high demand for workers forcing companies to compete. For the first time, African Americans were offered better working conditions, hours, training, and medical care (Albrecht 1995).
The war would also alter the demographics in the nation by providing a means for African Americans to leave the economically stagnate south where they had very little opportunity due to segregation and discrimination. African Americans began migrating into the north and into cities to claim new job opportunities. It is estimated that during the 1940s, more than a million African Americans migrated from the South and Midwest and into large northern cities (Albrecht 1995). This migration would permanently alter the demographics of cities such as Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Richmond, Vallejo, Los Angeles, and San Diego of which many of these cities would become predominately African American (Albrecht 1995). Enclaves such as in Oakland would form in part to individuals seeking better economic opportunity but also as a result of housing discrimination which forced African Americans to live in specific areas such as Oakland California.
As African Americans began creating larger enclaves, racial tensions would increase in many cities (Albrecht 1995) (US Department of the Interior 2007). Detroit was the most notable example of this problem. Detroit’s African American population would swell in 1943 as a result of labor demands but white citizens led by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan would attempt to enforce segregation (Public Broadcasting Service 2015). In Detroit, African Americans were forced to live in a 60 block area and lived in deplorable conditions. In June of 1943, Detroit would explode in a riot which killed 25 African Americans and 9 whites (Public Broadcasting Service 2015). Seven hundred people were injured and millions of dollars in damage was done to property.
While the riots were tragic they did serve to highlight the African American plight. NAACP leaders accused the US government being hypocritical as it fought for human rights and freedom in foreign lands but practiced discrimination and segregation domestically (Public Broadcasting Service 2015). This issue would prove to be a large catalyst for the Civil Rights movement (US Department of the Interior 2007).
Despite having better opportunities for jobs, African Americans still faced fierce discrimination. While the war increased the ability of many African Americans to leave the fiercely segregated south, these individuals still faced discrimination in the North. Housing and other opportunities still remained out of the reach of African Americans and when the war ended many African Americans would be forced back into poverty and unemployment (Albrecht 1995) (US Department of the Interior 2007). However, WWII was an important factor in instigating the Civil Rights Movement due to changes in laws and demographics which allowed for better opportunity.
Women and the War
Much like African Americans, women were also provided the opportunity for entering different occupations. For the first time, women were able to enter the workforce in jobs that were once only occupied by men. Manufacturing and labor positions would become new areas of work as well as benefits such as daycare, health insurance, maternity benefits, and a guaranteed annual wage (US Department of the Interior 2007). This was mandated under federal law in order to maintain the war effort and fulfill the demand for labor (US Department of the Interior 2007).
Women also began taking a prominent role in public service work. The demand for workers was so high that women were placed into many diverse government positions (most of which were administrative) that would solidify women’s employment in the public sector. In New York along, 55,ooo individuals were employed at the Port of Embarkation which provided support for the deployment of troops and supplies (US Department of the Interior 2007). The majority of these workers were women (US Department of the Interior 2007). Similarly women provided support for railroads as G.I.s were shipped across the country. The Pennsylvania Railroad employed 4,000 women for the purpose of distributing food to soldiers traveling (US Department of the Interior 2007).
Despite these positive changes, women face worse discrimination in the workforce than African Americans. Women were discriminated against in pay and benefits which favored men (Albrecht 1995). As well, women were forced to adhere to policies such as dress codes and subject to harassment and gender role discrimination such as having to get their male bosses and peers lunch or cleaning the office (Albrecht 1995). Black women were also able to find jobs in public service and in manufacturing. However, African American women faced worse discrimination than their white counterparts. African American women were almost never given promotions and were often forced to work in dirty jobs which at times were dangerous (Invisible Warriors African American Women in World War II 2015). These women were paid less than white woman performing the same jobs. Black women were often forced to work in arsenals and sheet metal factories where they were injured routinely.
Women, both African American and white, were provided with a new experience which would have a tremendous impact on American society. Women were able for the first time to show that they were equal in their job performance (United States Department of Labor 2015). This would have a lasting impact as women would begin seeking equal pay and careers in the 1950s and 1960s (United States Department of Labor 2015). Similar to African Americans, when the war ended women were forced to return to unemployment as men returned from the war and were given preference in hiring (US Department of the Interior 2007). This would instigate decades of legal challenges to gender discrimination.
Both African Americans and Women served vital roles during the WWII era. Both groups made the war effort possible since there was not enough labor to fulfill all of the jobs during the war. World War II was a defining moment for both African Americans and women. The war and the opportunities it brought for these groups would permanently alter the social landscape and beliefs concerning them.
Albrecht, Donald. World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Building Changed a Nation. Washington DC: MIT Press and National Building Museum, 1995.
Invisible Warriors African American Women in World War II. Warriors. 2015. http://www.invisiblewarriorsfilm.com/warriors.php (accessed April 29, 2015).
National Archives. Executive Order 8802. June 25, 1941. http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=72 (accessed April 29, 2015).
Public Broadcasting Service. Detroit Race Riots 1943. 2015. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/eleanor-riots/ (accessed April 29, 2015).
United States Department of Labor. Our History An Overview 1920–2012. 2015. http://www.dol.gov/wb/info_about_wb/interwb.htm (accessed April 29, 2015).
US Department of the Interior. World War II and the American Homefront. Washington DC: The National Historic Landmarks Program, 2007.
Willie Mae Govan Ammunition Maker I.E. DuPont Corp. (Invisible Warriors African American Women in World War II 2015)