Black Women in the Wartime Struggle

Members of an NAACP Planning Committee at a recruitment event. Photograph: Library of Congress

Black women were on the frontlines of civil rights activism during the war years.

The grassroots organizing work of young leaders like Rosa Parks, Juanita Jackson, and Ella Baker helped fuel a dramatic increase in NAACP membership and branch activism. Union organizers like Dollie Lowther Robinson and Maida Springer labored to ensure workers’ rights. Black women also engaged in direct-action protests against segregation like Pauli Murray’s 1940 arrest for sitting in the whites-only section of a bus in Virginia.

Grassroots organizers (left to right) Rosa Parks, Juanita Jackson, and Ella Baker helped the NAACP grow dramatically during the war. Rosa Parks: Photograph: Library of Congress. Juanita Jackson: Photograph: Maryland Center for History and Culture. Ella Baker: Photograph: Library of Congress
Pauli Murray, “Mr. Roosevelt Regrets,” July 21, 1943
In July, FDR responded to a New York congressman who had written to him about the racial unrest in Detroit and other cities. “I share your feeling that the recent outbreaks of violence in widely spread parts of the country endanger our national unity and comfort our enemies,” he wrote. “I am sure that every true American regrets this.”
After reading FDR’s statement in a newspaper article, Pauli Murray penned her poem, “Mr. Roosevelt Regrets.” On July 21, she sent the poem to Eleanor Roosevelt. ER wrote back: “Dear Miss Murray: I have your poem dated July 21st. I am sorry but I understand. Very sincerely yours, Eleanor Roosevelt.”
NAID: 11315473

More than half a million Black women left farm and domestic work for better-paying jobs in wartime shipyards and defense factories. But they had to struggle against employers who refused to hire Black women (or confined them to menial jobs) and white employees who resisted working alongside them.  

Welders at the Landers, Frary, and Clark factory in New Britain, Connecticut, June 1943. Photograph: Library of Congress

Black women also overcame determined opposition to enter the armed services. Mary McLeod Bethune served as a special assistant in the War Department and worked with the National Council of Negro Women and Eleanor Roosevelt to open the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) to Black recruits. Eventually, 6,500 served. Bethune also lobbied successfully for officer appointments. Still, Black WACs served in segregated units and were often assigned low-skilled work. The Army also limited the number of Black nurses and restricted them to segregated hospitals. Conditions in the Navy were even worse. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox opposed the entry of Black women into the service’s women’s auxiliary (WAVES). They were only admitted after his death in 1944.

Major Charity E. Adams inspects a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) battalion in England, February 15, 1945. NAID: 31249

African American women also took on the then taboo subject of sexual violence. Sexual assaults on Black women by white men were a parallel offense to the lynchings of Black men. A 1944 Alabama rape case involving Recy Taylor sparked an NAACP investigation by Rosa Parks and widespread publicity. The Committee for Equal Justice, organized by Parks, led a national protest drive to bring the seven, armed white rapists to justice. Its allies included the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), described by historian Erik McDuffie as “the shock troops for Black equality across the Jim Crow South during the war.” The SNYC conducted wartime campaigns for desegregation and voting and labor rights. Its leadership included women like Rose Mae Catchings and Sallye Bell Davis, mother of activist Angela Davis.

Demonstrators in a march organized to protest threats made against a Black family that had moved into a predominantly white area of Chicago, February 19, 1945. Photograph: North Park University

To learn more, please visit our current special exhibition BLACK AMERICANS, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND THE ROOSEVELTS, 1932-1962: