Common Heritage

African American Military Service

African Americans have served in every conflict in United States history. They often found themselves fighting for democracy overseas, despite being denied fundamental freedoms at home. Historically, African Americans have viewed service in the military as a means to illustrate to the nation that they demanded and deserved full citizenship in their country, with all entitled liberties. They were willing to sacrifice their lives in the service of the United States to prove this point and to better their communities.

Image: The first three African American Women Red Cross workers arrive in Britain, pictured taking a walk with two African American GI Soldiers in Bristol, circa 1943. Bristol Post.

World War Two saw 1.2 million African American men and women serve across every theater of the war and on the home front. By this point in our nation’s history, the systemic social and economic disadvantages facing African Americans had not improved. Understanding that African American support and participation in the war effort were vital to American success, President Roosevelt petitioned Arthur B. Spingarn, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for their assistance in securing African American support.

This service of your organization in helping to strengthen democracy is needed now, more than ever. Democracy as a way of life faces today its most severe challenge. It is challenged by powerful adversaries – men and governments that deny full liberty to the individual. In the face of this challenge, the American democracy must marshal all the strength of its people in a unity of conviction and purpose.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

The African American community felt the irony of the plea. Stephen Ambrose framed this sentiment well by stating, “the world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated army.”

As the war progressed, African American troops proved their worth in combat. Serving in all-Black tank and infantry units and as pilots, African Americans fought valorously, challenging the perceptions of their fellow white service members. Despite this, many African American servicemen and women were subject to Jim Crow laws, such as nonentry to white food mess halls and being relegated to the back of the bus. On many occasions, African American service members were treated more poorly than German prisoners of war. These prevailing prejudices led to the assignment of the majority of African American troops to non-combat or service units. Tirelessly serving in these logistical roles, such as the Red Ball Express, the famed truck convoy system that supplied Allied forces moving quickly through Europe after breaking out from the D-Day beaches in 1944, African Americans were instrumental in the success of the war.

Image: African American airmen of the US 332nd Fighter Group at a briefing, Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945.Public Domain.

Above Left: Albert Alford, Milledgeville, Ga, pictured in U.S. Army uniform, unknown location, circa 1945. Digitized during Common Heritage Community Harvest Event, October 5, 2019. Georgia College Special Collections.

Above Right: Draft registration card for Albert Alford, listing his place of employment as the Fuse Plant.

Two naval ordnance plant sites were operated by the Reynolds Corporation in Milledgeville and Macon; these two facilities worked in conjunction manufacturing explosives that included flares and detonators. After the war, the Milledgeville plant was leased to J.P. Stevens & Co., which produced dye worsted suitings and dress fabrics.

Image: Aerial view of the Milledgeville Plant of J.P. Stevens & Co., Inc. in Milledgeville, Ga., circa 1953. The American Textile History Museum Collection, Kheel Center, Cornell University Library

African Americans saw World War Two as a means to foster change through their service to the country. The Double Victory Campaign initiative was launched in 1942 by the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper, calling for “Victory Abroad and Victory at Home.” The tenets of the campaign were to champion military success overseas and demand equality for African Americans in the United States. This defiant rejection of systemic racism at home contributed to laying the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement.

The hard work and sacrifice by African Americans during World War Two, coupled with the conflict against fascism bringing the inequalities in the United States into focus for many Americans, led to Executive Act 9981. In 1948, President Truman abolished racial discrimination and segregation in the armed forces. However, this was not fully enacted until 1953, and the war in Vietnam would be the first combat deployment of a desegregated United States military.

Image: Handkerchief with World War Two Double Victory design. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Jackson family is representative of African Americans serving their country during times of war. Willie Jackson served during World War One as a member of Company A, 516th Engineers Battalion in France. Willie L. Jackson Sr. (pictured on right with his wife, Donette) enlisted in the U.S. Army on May 31, 1944 and served overseas during World War Two. Willie, Sr. and Donette’s son, Willie Jackson Jr., served during the Vietnam War as a member of 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne division. He was wounded in action in August 1969.

Image: Willie L. Jackson, Sr. and Donette Jackson, Milledgeville, Ga, circa 1964. Digitized during Common Heritage Community Harvest Event, March 07, 2020. Georgia College Special Collections.

Roosevelt Woolfork, Jr., of Milledgeville, served in the U.S. Army for 22 years, participating in two wars. Enlisting at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, Woolfork served as a truck driver delivering ammunition to the front lines. He went on to serve a tour of duty in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Sergeant First Class Woolfork retired from the military in 1972.

Image: PFC Roosevelt Woolfork, Jr., South Korea, circa 1952. Courtesy of Sandra Woolfork Jones.