Were Black World War II Veterans Excluded from GI Bill Benefits?

After fighting wars abroad, Black former servicemen faced segregation, violence, and discrimination at home.

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Claim

Black veterans who fought in World War II were excluded from GI Bill benefits including housing and education.

Rating

What's True

While a few Black veterans were able to benefit from housing and education opportunities granted by the GI Bill of Rights, the vast majority of Black veterans were excluded from such benefits due to nationwide racism and discrimination against Black people. However ...

What's False

Black veterans were not meant to be excluded from the GI Bill — existing discriminatory laws and implementation ensured they were. Not all Black veterans were excluded, though all of them faced numerous challenges getting their benefits due to racism.

Origin

The GI Bill of Rights for returning World War II veterans in 1944 was heralded at the time as a significant piece of legislation that helped propel millions of servicemen into the middle class. The bill—which was promoted as race neutral—provided veterans with unemployment insurance, tuition assistance, job placement, and guaranteed loans for home ownership, farms, and businesses.

And the bill did that—just not for most of the roughly 1.2 million Black men who enlisted in the war. On paper they all could have received access to education and home ownership, but they had to contend with racism ingrained into systems around the country, not just in the southern states.

A New York Times report described how the civil rights group the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) encouraged more Black men to sign up for the military because of the transformative possibilities the benefits could offer to them. But discrimination found its way into the bill’s implementation, partly because states were responsible for distributing the benefits.

Rep. John Rankin, an openly racist Mississippi Democrat, was among those who drafted the bill. He had previously criticized a proposal that the American Red Cross abandon the practice of labelling blood to indicate whether it came from Black or white donors, calling it a conspiracy to “mongrelize the nation.” Rankin ensured that states were responsible for distributing benefits.

The disparity in implementation of the GI Bill increased the gaps in wealth and education between Black and white Americans.

A 1998 report, “First a Negro… Incidentally a Veteran” published by Oxford University Press, looked at what happened to Black veterans in the Deep South, when they tried to obtain their entitlements from 1944 through 1948. The report found that former Black servicemen in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi could not get the promised unemployment compensation, educational opportunities, housing and job loans needed to improve their socioeconomic conditions because of discrimination and poor implementation. Southern Black veterans “had to return home to the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder.”

And this was not limited to the South. According to the book, “The GI Bill: The New Deal for Veterans,” Black veterans from the South could not benefit from the historically white educational institutions, and were limited to studying at underfunded, overcrowded, and small historically Black colleges. Journalist and historian Edward Humes wrote in his article, “How the G.I. Bill Shunted Blacks Into Vocational Training,” that tens of thousands of Black veterans were also turned away from historically Black colleges because of limited capacity.

Theoretically, Black veterans in northern states could use their education vouchers to go to colleges, but few actually did. In the late 1940s, annual enrollment of Black students in colleges did not exceed 5,000. These veterans were overwhelmingly channeled into vocational training programs, manual training, and agriculture programs, instead of liberal arts.

A small number of Black veterans did manage to get what they were promised. Humes wrote about how 12 percent of Black veterans did go to college on the GI Bill, compared with 28 percent of white veterans. But out of that 12 percent, 90 percent went to the underfunded historically Black colleges.

The New York Times report detailed how Black veterans were routinely denied mortgages, alongside Black people in general. Across the country, Black home ownership remained extremely low. In 1947, Ebony magazine surveyed 13 Mississippi cities and discovered that of the 3,229 Veterans Affairs (VA) home loans given to veterans, only two went to Black veterans.

In an interview with NPR, Richard Rothstein, the author of the book “The Color Of Law: A Forgotten History Of How Our Government Segregated America,” described in more detail how entrenched racism in other government agencies affected Black people:

The Veterans Administration, established under the GI Bill, adopted all of the [Federal Housing Administration’s] racial exclusion programs. […] Big developments like Levittown or south of San Francisco, Daly City, or many other large subdivisions like that that were built after World War II were financed by the Veterans Administration, not necessarily the Federal Housing Administration, with the same racial restrictions.

In the book, I talk of one family of a returning war veteran who – a very ambitious man. He formed a trucking company, hired a number of people for his trucking company. He was a successful businessman. He got a contract – an African-American. He got a contract from Levitt when he was building Levittown to deliver sheet rock to Levittown. But he and his family members were prohibited from buying homes in Levittown because of the FHA requirement. So the Veterans Administration, which did provide benefits in the area of education to African-Americans – but when it came to housing, they were not permitted to move into areas that the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration had designated for whites.

Furthermore, white job counselors at local employment offices across the country refused to refer Black veterans for skilled or semi-skilled jobs, even though many of them came back from the war as fully trained mechanics, welders, electricians, and more.

Given that an overwhelming majority of Black veterans who fought in World War II were not able to benefit from the GI Bill of Rights, and were excluded from accessing it through a combination of racism, exclusionary federal and state law, and poor implementation, we rate this claim as “Mostly True.”