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tv   African American Soldiers World War II  CSPAN  June 15, 2021 11:48pm-12:28am EDT

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over 1 million african americans served in the armed forces during world war ii. up next, washington post writer deneen brown, and education consultant lynn williams discuss the challenges they
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faced. they argue that while fighting fascism overseas, the soldiers also had to battle with racism at home. this event was hosted by the u.s. holocaust memorial museum. and they provided the video. >> good morning. welcome to the museum's facebook live series. i am your host, historian edna friedberg. in each episode we discover a new aspect of holocaust history, and its connections to, influence on, relevance to our world today. here in the united states, february is black history month. and to commemorate the special month we will honor today, black americans serving in the united states military during world war ii. and helped to defeat nazi germany. their service is even more remarkable when viewed against the backdrop of racism and persecution they face that home. even while fighting for their country abroad. this history has often been buried or overlooked. we hope to shed some light on
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it and its intersection withheld across history, in today's program. i am very pleased to be joined by two special guest today to help bring this chapter to life. first, deneen brown is an award-winning journalist for the washington post. and an associate professor and the philip meryl college of journalism at the university of maryland. hello there deneen. >> hello, good morning. it is great to be here. >> so glad you are here. and lynn williams is a longtime friend and colleague who is an educational program consultant at the museum. so good to see you. >> good to see you as well. good morning to both of you and our guests. >> during today's program please send your programs for deneen and lynn by posting them in the comments section and we will get to as many of them during the course of the live show as we have time for. but let's begin with lynn. in setting the scene. we have a lot of international viewers. of this program. maybe less familiar with the american context.
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tell us about some of the pressures that average americans were grappling with? and specifically the way racism influenced the country at the time. >> in order to understand this period, i think i'm going to focus on three major realities. the first one was that the united states was in the throes, in the middle of the great depression. they were bread lines, you see here, this is the migrant workers huddled into the tent during the great depression. the second was that we were coming out of about 12 years away from world war i. and americans were not interested in foreign engagements. they wished to be isolationist 's. and they didn't have the stomach for another entanglement. the third, really, is the
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intolerance in general. there was animosity against jews, a very pervasive against foreigners. and racism, you know was also at play and rampant all over the country. we think of the south, but this is a restaurant in ohio. the picture you are seeing in front of you. and why trade only. this is the message at the time. there were limited opportunities for black people. much of the country was still segregated. schools, public transportation, bathrooms, everything was basically segregated. not only in the south but much of it in the north. finally there was violence. there was someone lynched in the south, perhaps every day. these are students at howard university. in washington d.c.. it's a historically black university that are protesting.
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they are protesting in favor of a national anti-lynching law that was passed. very strange, since lynching is definitely murder. >> for people who may not be familiar with determine lynching, they will have seen ropes hanging around nooses. it was mob violence. typically a person, an african american person, would be surrounded by a racist mob. hung up and lynched. i want to emphasize the target here is not just the victim directly the murder. but the entire community. these were designed to intimidate and create an atmosphere of terror and fear. against this backdrop, i would like to turn to you deneen, where we can focus on how the scene that lynn has just described intersects with our history at the holocaust museum. how did racism impact black
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americans who joined the military as the u.s. into the war? i know you've done reporting in this area. >> yes, again, good morning. more than 1.2 million black men and women enlisted in the military to help fight in europe. here you see a photo of some of the black men who fought overseas in europe during world war ii. here is a photo of some of the black women who served in europe. black americans in the military during world war ii faced racism and discrimination. really horrible treatment in europe. both by white american soldiers and sometimes by europeans. the troops were segregated by race. they live in segregated barracks. many were relegated to menial duties.
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some veterans i talked to during my reporting told me that black soldiers were often ill treated. sometimes the german prisoners were actually treated better than the black american soldiers. the german prisoners sometimes had more rights and privileges given to them than black american soldiers. i'd like>> it is really a very g scene to imagine. i would like to pause for a moment to greet our viewers watching us from all around the country. warning to you, thank you for joining us from omaha nebraska, farmington, connecticut, tele-houma, tennessee, not far away. delaware, center ville, minnesota. also good morning to you in birmingham alabama. we would also like to welcome our international viewers, whatever time of day it is there in berlin, london, nicaragua, in the city of
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cooling on, italy, ecuador, brazil, argentina, peru, tanzania. we are so glad to have so many of you watching. lynn, we have described the ways that the u.s. military was segregated, was unjust. now let's make this more personal. you knew one of these black soldiers. later in his life. please tell us about doctor leon bass and his experience as a black soldier during his training before deployment? >> i had the privilege of really spending a great amount of time with dr. bass. he volunteered, spoke to young people from all over. at the museum. this is a picture of him. in his uniform when he was a sergeant. and he grew up -- he was born in 1925, grew up in philadelphia. his parents were part of the great migration that was happening throughout this period, where blacks were moving up north into cities and
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changing the landscape. in many large cities. he went to an all-black school, was an excellent school. so as soon as he finished high school, he volunteered. he had started -- he passionately volunteered for the army in 43. he went into the army as a sergeant. as he put it, it was really a shock to the system. he was trained in georgia. so the minute he hits georgia, whether he is in uniform or not, he is faced with segregated everything. he has told, you know, he cannot use this water fountain. you have to move to the colored only water fountain. so he experiences racism and this out in a different way, codified to local law.
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many of those that enlisted and volunteered were, you know, highly skilled, very smart. they knew they had to be, you know, better in order to excel in anything. especially in the military. >> when you say better, you mean better than their white peers? >> yes, more dedicated, they had to be, you know, they had to demonstrate, over demonstrate how smart they were. they really had to have achieved and be ready to fight for their place, to just get equal footing. >> but it was sergeant passes assignment in europe? how did he come to feel about the sacrifices he was making? >> well, he joined the 183rd engineer combat battalion. it's an all back unit. they usually had a white commanding officer, whether
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they were with each unit or not. he drove tanks, played a part in building roads as an engineer. he cleared the way for soldiers as a battalion. he took part in the battle of the bulge. that was the first time where he really saw death antibodies as a soldier. at this young age of both strangers and people he knew. and that was, you know, really impactful on his life. >> we have a comment from a viewer named richard. richard writes in, i often wonder why these men volunteered because today more than ever we know they were often treated poorly by their fellow soldiers. i think as a group they had a more pride. richard, his comment leads in nicely to a clip we have directly from dr. bass describing the 1988 where he
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discusses the impact of seeing a did soldier while serving. let's hear how he describes it. >> i remember another time, i saw someone i didn't know. he happened to be white. about my age. he was on the ground was so col. he had been alongside the road for a while and i looked down into those eyes, and i realized that i could end up just like that. and that's when i began to question my wisdom. for having join the army and i wanted to know why i was there. what the heck am i doing here? when i can't get a drink of water. when i can't ride on a bus when i can't even a restaurant and here i am putting my life on the line fighting for rights and privileges that i denied. yeah, and it's important to remember that that don't be young man and a young no to me a child at the time, but it's shaping his the world.
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and sergeant bass was not alone in seeing this disjuncture back home momentum was building for black americans to fight racism at home while simultaneously fighting for their country abroad lynn. could you tell us a bit about what came to be known as the double v campaign? yes, because black americans remained conflicted and the double v campaign came about in response to a letter that was written in 1942 to the pittsburgh curry or it was a black newspaper at the time and this is one of you know the publication headline. should i sacrifice to live happier american? well, that's a question that was really asked consistently in the black community. and the letter was written by james thompson this you see and that campaign lasted throughout the war and it certainly affected those who fought here.
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shares veterans from my in 1947 that are still embracing the double v. it's victory at home as well as overseas in abroad with the access power so they want to fight hate on both fronts and discrimination. and when you're describing media outlets newspapers like the courier the black press was really vibrant diverse at the time. i remember reading that the circulation the official circulation of the courier the pittsburgh courier than was about a quarter of a million, but that represented surely only a fraction of the number of readers copies of newspapers would have been passed from friend to friend, you know within a restaurants barber shops families neighbors so many many more people were reading about this debate. yes. janine before i turn back to you. i want to offer some special thanks to partners and friends who helped us prepare for
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today's episode particularly to thank the embassy of the kingdom of the netherlands for their assistance the afro-american historical and genealogical society and also an author named joe wilson who wrote a book about the 784th tank battalion that we'll learn about a little more in a moment for the insights and information that they shared with us. we are grateful for your support. janine let's put another face another personality to these experiences. just last year you interviewed a gentleman named dr. james baldwin. tell us about dr. baldwin and his path to military service. yes, dr. james baldwin. he was born in 1924 and north carolina. and we see a picture of him there. it's a young man in, north carolina. he attends segregated schools. he's living in a segregated society segregated by race. we know that lynchings for
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rampant and and across the country then he graduates from high school with honors, and he goes off to college after six months and college he decides to enlist in the army. and he he is in that 784th tank battalion, right? which yes one of the dockery go ahead, please. james baldwin is assigned to the 784th tank battalion. this is one of one of three all black fighting units. it's model was it will be done. it was a segregated unit that had an excellent combat record. according to my research i read that the 784th tank battalion proved proved to be one of the finest. and one of the finest fighting
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forces and that and the american arsenal as len was saying many of these men felt that they needed to prove themselves prove that they were better than their colleagues proved that they were. fierce fighters and this 784th tank battalion which dr. james baldwin was a member of made valiant efforts in europe and proved to be a fierce fighting unit. and before being deployed to the european theater, he was promoted to the rank of corporal. so looking back. what did corporal baldwin encounter when he arrived to europe? so when when they were shipped to europe they were hit hard.
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the 784th tank battalion arrives in england it travels to france and then it travels to the netherlands black soldiers again and europe they face racism, but they're also facing a really warm reception from europeans as they travel through these towns fighting the germans here. we see a photo of corporal james baldwin. i think the photos taken in 1945. somewhere in germany. he told me he wasn't quite sure which town he was in germany when this photo was taken. and what about his interactions with locals with civilians? so many of those black american soldiers when they rolled through these towns they were greeted with warm receptions
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from civilians. we see here that a black american soldiers helping. a little girl with her doll off a truck that that may have been in the netherlands one of the towns and the netherlands again, we see here. some young people and the netherlands posing for photo with black american soldiers. lynn we have a couple of questions coming in from viewers that i'd like to post to you to one from a woman named kimberly is asking if you could speak a little bit about the experience of black american soldiers upon their return to the us after the war and as a subset of that doreen writes to ask were black americans able to access the post-war gi bill benefits for college and mortgages as white veterans work. could you speak to that a little
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please? i think they're both excellent questions. yes, you can imagine we know how celebratory it was for victory in world war ii and white soldiers. certainly, you know, we're applauded and and praise it wasn't quite the same for black soldiers when they came home the discrimination not only continued but right if in terms of the gi bill for many of them were denied at the access that was given to other soldiers to the mortgages and the college benefits. so yeah, it was greatly diminished and the experience even taking it further and i think jenny janine can speak more to this there was violence. he soldiers came home proud. armed trained and enjoyed wearing their uniform which
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costs many of them as they walked and returned to their communities. it's not just a question of personal dignity. it had very very real and dangerous consequences and dangers, janine. could you give us one example of that? what happened to a returning sergeant soon his return to america? sure, i want to talk about sergeant isaac woodard he in 1946. he was discharged from the army with honors. he's a decorated soldier who fought the nazis in europe. he returns to the united states and he's again discharged with honor from the army. he takes a bus south heading home to south carolina. on the way home on the bus. he asked the bus driver whether he could stop to use the restroom. there was a policy for bus
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drivers to allow passengers to take a bathroom break. as len pointed out many of the soldiers who came back after having thought for democracy in europe were expecting to be treated with some sense of dignity here in the united states. to be treated with honor to be treated with respect to be treated as equals. so isaac sargent isaac, what would is on the spas traveling south? the bus driver does not want to stop to allow him to use the restroom. um there may have been. somewhat of a you know a confrontation on the bus verbal content confrontation on the bus. we're not quite sure what happened, but at the next town the bus driver stops, he calls the police.
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the police chief and the south carolina town greets the bus he pulls sergeant woodard off the bus. and again, this is a decorated soldier. pulled him off the bus. he beats him and then he takes his nightstick and he jams his nightstick and to sergeant woodard's eyes gouging his eyes out. here we see a photo of sergeant woodard with his mother. he's blinded their patches over his eyes. this beating of sergeant woodard makes national headlines and president harry truman hears about the speeding. many people may know or may not know that president truman had a soft spartan soft spot and his heart for veterans. when he sees this photo of sergeant isaac woodard, he's
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just taken aback. i mean, it's just a horrible sight. this beading and the photo eventually leads president truman to desegregate. the arm the military and also desegregate the federal workforce. it's beyond troubling to hear this kind of story it's terrifying and impossible to really imagine the feeling that must have been to know for these soldiers. you've put your life on the line. you're coming back and the idea that you feel proud of that service makes people want to kill you for it to have that patriotism trampled on must have been so profoundly disillusioning, you know negating the promise that the service might have represented as an opportunity. we have a viewer comment and audience comment from a man named peter. he writes in that even jackie
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robinson an officer 761st tank battalion was pulled off a bus and killeen, texas for not moving to the back of the bus while he was enduring a court-martial his unit was called up to fight for general patton robinson was acquitted but never got to fight with his legendary unit. so these are not isolated isolated incidents. lynn i'd like to return to dr. leon bass because he spent many years not talking about what he had seen in europe, especially in concentration camps that had recently been liberated. thanks and recognition only came later in his life when he began to publicly discuss the atrocities he had seen could you tell us a bit about dr. bass's personal trajectory, please? yes, dr. you know as sergeants sergeant ambass was only 20 years old when he first encountered and you know those holocaust victims that he saw at that camp in april 1945 and he
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kept that in it certainly had a profound effect, but like many survivors it took him 20 or 25 years to find his voice and it happened when he as a teacher. he's an educator. he's become, you know doctor of education. he's principal of the school and he's in his class and a holocaust survivor is speaking. his students are you know listening but not as intently and he then begins to share his story. and it's there where he really found the importance of him as a witness and from then on it became his mission to share his observations and insights with students all over and all over the united states and canada. and let's hear him. once again describe in his own words what this meant to him and what he took away from it. it's not a black problem. it's not a white problem.
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it's a human problem. and we've got to face it. and as dr. king says injustice anywhere is the loss of justice everywhere you see wish that effect and it's true what affects you affects me. your pain has to be my pain. my pain has to be your pain. i know it's been 40 some years. but that doesn't make it go away. it only makes us become more aware that we today have to do something that to stop that which created the final solution. and that something is racism. really racism is that the root of all of this under that umbrella comes bigotry and prejudice and discrimination unemployment people who are unemployable large institutions filled with those who are drug addicts and those who are criminals all because somehow we have come to grips with that institution of coral racism. and we have to because we see the ultimate of racism which was what i saw at booking ball.
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yeah, that ultimate consequence. he really understood what the consequence was for not finding his voice not actively fighting against you know, this kind of hatred and racism and you know, so put him in touch with survivors from all over and one of those survivors robert weisman. in 1991 in vancouver, they met this is a picture of robert weisman as a teenager and they met and engagement when robert remembered clearly and here they are the two of them together. remember clearly meeting seeing not meeting but seeing leon bass at buchenvolved in that april and he's looked up. he said it was the first black person i'd ever seen. and i looked up and i realized you our thought you were my
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messiah and many years later. um as they as he met the grandchildren of another survivor youth of guam who referred actually on it to dr. bass and the members of his unit as black angels. so certainly their presence had a great impact on those that on the survivors those that he helped. and that for many we've heard that for many of these survivors. this was the first black person that they had ever seen and for them. this was the face of america. this was the face of a nation that had fought for their freedom were having many audience comments. excuse me coming in about the impact that dr. leon bass had when he spoke about his experiences because he spoke far and wide just to read one karen writes to say that dr. bass spoke at an event that i brought my students to his impact on
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them was amazing and another woman writes adele writes that dr. leon bass liberated my father at buchanwald concentration camp. my dad had the chance to speak with him years ago at an event at rutgers college. so there's someone who you know might not be alive. if not for the efforts of soldiers like, dr. bass. janine how about dr. baldwin? who i know you've had the chance to meet and talk to personally has he been recognized for his service and bravery and how did you cross paths with him? so yes, dr. james baldwin received two bronze stars in 1946. and many other honors and awards last february. i went to the embassy of the kingdom of the netherlands where they were honoring black american soldiers on the 75th anniversary of the defeat of of the germans and and these
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occupied towns. here's a photo that i took of dr. james baldwin with officials at the embassy of the netherlands. they have just given him a certificate of appreciation for his service and in the 784th tank battalion, which roll through talents in france and and the netherlands fighting the germans. during this event. i was just it was really amazing to hear the story the story told by dr. james baldwin of his service. you could hear pen drop in the audit auditorium as baldwin told about rolling through these towns and the netherlands and and fighting the germans. i had a chance to interview dr. baldwin after the event.
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and again, he told me his story of fighting the germans. he told me that he fired an 81 millimeter mortar gun at nazi troops, which had a stranglehold and holland during the war. um, here's a quote that i really loved from my interview with him. he says we took 23 cities and three days. we were really moving. we were taking the city's meaning killing germans and running them out. we came in and we freed them we liberated them to know i had a role in the liberation of holland means a lot. so again the embassy of the netherlands honored baldwin and hundreds of other black soldiers as part of their commemoration of the 75th anniversary of what they called the liberation. freeing them from german
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occupation and oppression and i hope you'll both have a chance to go and look at the lively discussion that's happening in the comments section of this show. we're getting audience reflection about dr. james baldwin, including two one from a viewer named nadine who says that he is 96 years old and still brilliant and that she plans to share this program on facebook and someone else writing in to say that james baldwin attended attended fayetteville state university, which is another historically black university and that he is celebrated by the students and alumni there. so certainly a hero i'm also struck looking at these pictures of then corporal baldwin in europe and then later at the embassy of the kingdom of the netherlands thinking. these are people whose lives otherwise would never have intersected how the forces of history brought them together in powerful in moving ways. in the last minutes that we have left. i'd like to ask you both kind of more reflective question. here. we are more than 75 years after
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the holocaust of you know, a violent eruption of racism and we are still grappling with the forces of bigotry and hate. what messages do you hope that viewers will take away from these complex stories of true american heroes and lynn. let's start with you. yes, you know one thing is that certainly the struggles still continues for not only black people but for all americans and understanding history is exceedingly important because history shapes us and personally and really shapes us and so i would say that for me this commitment to understanding where we've come from and why we sit where we sit today is everyone's mission and then going forward knowing is leon bass who? countries that dr. bass who found his voice understood that what each of us does matters
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janine yeah, i'm i'd like to say that you know racism is truly an ugly evil and this world and it's important that we fight racism. i often say that it's important that but people educate themselves about racism race is a social construct it is it is a it's a term that's invented by a society to divide us by our skin color. what i believe is that we're all human. we're all part of one race the human race. we're just walking around here in different packages, but we truly are part of one race of people. and it's important that we we see each other just as humans
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when you cut me i bleed. i think if we are able to overcome this racial divide that's society has tried to construct to divide us. we will find i think we'll we'll find a better world and the world will be better as a result of that. well, i want to thank you both very much for helping. we hope to introduce some of our audience members to history. they may never have heard of before and to help us to honor even belatedly these men and women who were charting very very difficult waters at a time of competing pressures. thank you. thank you. i'd also like to close with a comment from a viewer named peggy peggy writes that white history has been every day for many years spoken about textbooks written about while black history was excluded
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celebrating the contributions of black soldiers is writing a wrong giving true history and allowing them to tell their stories. this is about being better human beings. and peggy, i'm sure we all are in agreement with you. we hope that you will come back to the museum's website to see in their own words again more firsthand testimony from african-american,'h
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international conference on world war ii presented by pritzker military foundation on behalf of the pritzker military museum and library. the very first session of the day is one of the most famous world war ii chroniclers. this session will feature todd depastino whose latest book drawing fire the editorial cartoons of bill. mauldin was published by pritzker military museum and library this past year. todd will be interviewed by the museum's own samuel's murray stone senior historian and the executive director to our institute for the study


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