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New book 'Half American' details struggle of Black soldiers in World War II and back home


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Stories of American military service and heroism in World War II have been immortalized in books and movies for decades.

Missing from most of those narratives, though, have been the crucial contributions of more than one million Black Americans who served in the war. No longer, thanks to the book "Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad," which gives a detailed look at the dual battle Black service members waged, fighting fascism overseas and racism back home.

I recently sat down with the author, Matthew Delmont, history professor at Dartmouth College, to learn more.

Matthew Delmont, welcome to the "NewsHour." And thanks for joining us.

Let's start with what brought you to this story in the first place. I mean, much of the narrative around Black Americans' service in World War II is really limited. We all know about the trailblazing Tuskegee Airmen, but your research revealed service on a much broader level.

Tell me a little bit about what you found.

Matthew Delmont, Author, "Half American": What I found in doing the research is that Black Americans participated in every aspect of World War II.

Even though the military was racially segregated during the war, Black Americans were in the army, Navy. They were eventually in the Marine Corps. And they participated in every theater of the war, in Europe, in the Pacific, even in the China-India-Burma theater. They helped to build roads, build bridges, loading old ships, and fought in combat when given the opportunity.

And so what they came away from with my research was that you really can't tell the history of World War II without talking about the contributions of Black Americans.

Amna Nawaz: Did it surprise you to learn how widespread that service was, and that it's not more widely known or taught?

Matthew Delmont: You know, it did.

I'm a historian. I have taught about this topic for more than a decade. But once I actually got into the research, I realized how vast the story was. It goes far beyond just the Tuskegee Airmen or beyond Doris Miller, the Black hero from Pearl Harbor.

You literally can't talk about this history without talking about the contributions of Black Americans. And what was so exciting for me in doing the research was that there's so many stories that are just fascinating that typically don't end up in our history textbooks, and aren't the kind of things I have had the opportunity to teach before.

And so the opportunity to write the book made me even more excited to bring these stories into the classroom and more excited to share these stories with general readers and audiences.

Amna Nawaz: One of the themes I found fascinating in the book is how Black Americans identified the threat from fascism long before much of the rest of the nation did, how, for many Black Americans, the real start date for the war was well before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Tell us about that.

Matthew Delmont: Absolutely.

I think one of the important things when you look at World War II from the Black perspective is, the chronology of the war changes. If you looked at a Black newspaper from the 1930s, you would see extensive coverage of the rise of fascism in Europe.

And one of the reasons Black Americans were able to recognize what a serious threat Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime posed was that they could see that Hitler was explicitly pointing to the Jim Crow laws in the U.S. South to help justify his treatment of Jews in Europe.

And so 1933, '34, '35, you see coverage in The Chicago Defender and other Black newspapers of Hitler in Germany. You see coverage of Italy and Benito Mussolini invading Ethiopia. And then later in the '30s, you see coverage of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism there in Spain.

All those things captivated the imaginations of Black Americans. And so, several years before Pearl Harbor, Black Americans understood that fascism was already spreading across Europe and that something had to be done about it, because, if not, it was going to become a worldwide problem.

Amna Nawaz: Many of those Black Americans who chose to enlist and serve had to travel to the Jim Crow South for training at those military bases.

What were the conditions like? What did you learn?

Matthew Delmont: That was some of the most difficult research I did.

Reading the recollections and the letters that these Black soldiers wrote once they were stationed on these bases was troubling. These, by and large, were Black soldiers from Northern cities, places like Chicago, Cleveland, New York. They would get on trains and be sent to the South and then describe pulling into these small Southern towns, having to pull down the shades on the train, so that white townspeople wouldn't throw rocks at the trains, because they were so upset about Black soldiers being sent to these bases.

They describe being called racial epithets daily by their officers and by white enlisted men, and then violence both on base and then in small towns from white sheriffs and police.

Things got so bad that these soldiers were writing up to the NAACP, to people like Thurgood Marshall, the head lawyer for the NAACP, saying, we will feel safer once we deploy to war in Europe or the Pacific than we feel on these military bases in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

They literally described themselves as being at war here in the United States before they ever even deployed to the war overseas.

Amna Nawaz: You did say one of the hardest parts about writing this book was reading some of those personal letters and their personal accounts, including what happened when they came back home after serving overseas.

What did you find there?

Matthew Delmont: Well, what's so troubling about the end of the war is that Black veterans came back and they were treated with hostility and violence in many of the communities they returned to.

One of the things I describe in the book is, there were at least 12 Black veterans who were murdered or attacked immediately after they returned, some also wearing their military uniforms. It was just horrific, the kind of violence that was enacted against Black veterans.

And the only inspiring thing we can take from that, though, is that Black veterans came back and they immediately started fighting for civil rights. In the words of one veteran, they went from fighting in the European theater of operations to fighting in the Southern theater of operations.

And so one of the big-picture stories that the book tries to show is that the war didn't end for Black Americans in 1945. They were committed to helping to win the war militarily, but, once that was over, they came home and immediately started fighting for freedom and democracy here in the United States.

And so there was real continuity between Black veterans fighting during the war and then coming home and fighting another war for freedom and democracy here in the U.S.

Amna Nawaz: It strikes me that you and I are speaking at a time when our own American history, in particular, the history of racism in America and anti-Black policies in America, is part of a larger political debate, right, how we talk about it, if we talk about it.

I'm curious how you, as a professor of history, having written this book, how do you view this whole conversation right now?

Matthew Delmont: Well, it's troubling, as a professional historian, to see some of the debates and the attacks on the teaching of history that are going on all across the country.

What I say is that you can't talk about American history without talking about African American history. And one thing that's important is that, for scholars, we focus on evidence. The kinds of things I write about in the book are true, regardless of who's in the White House or which party is in power. It's true whether it's President Biden or President Trump or Obama or whoever's in the White House in the future.

These aren't just arguments that people are shouting at each other on cable news. These are -- these are factual stories that are based in years of research and years of evidence that has been gathered.

I think, for us today, it's important to reckon honestly with the history of our nation, to reckon honestly with both the good and bad parts of it. If we can't do that, we have really no chance to understand how we got to where we are today as a country or how we might navigate the future.

Amna Nawaz: The book is "Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad." The author is Matthew Delmont.

Thank you for joining us.

Matthew Delmont: Thanks so much for having me.

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