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The GI Bill left behind Black World War II vets. Now there's a move to fix that

US, Blacks soldiers of an anti-aircraft unit moor a barrage balloon to a site on the coast of Normandy, Summer 1944. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)
US, Blacks soldiers of an anti-aircraft unit moor a barrage balloon to a site on the coast of Normandy, Summer 1944. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

William Dabney never liked to talk much about his time fighting in World War II.

"He didn't keep his uniform or any of those things. In other words, he was through with the service," says Beulah Dabney, who married him in 1951.

It wasn't just the horrors of war — which he had seen up close at Omaha Beach in France on D-Day. What bothered Dabney was the treatment he and his fellow Black veterans got when they came home.

"One reason why we never had pictures of my dad in uniform," says their son, Vinnie Dabney, "was that coming back from the West Coast after they had been deployed to go to the Pacific Theater, after they fought all the way through the European Theater, they noticed that they had the ride in the back of the train. But Nazi POWs got the ride in first class, in the front of the train."

This was after Dabney risked his life as part of the all-Black Barrage Balloon Battalion, which provided crucial protection to Allied troops landing in Normandy, France. Black GIs came home from being honored by grateful French civilians to the Jim Crow South where segregation still ruled.

"Nazis were getting treated better than Black veterans who had put their lives on the line. So that kind of pissed my dad off," says Vinnie Dabney.

Beulah Dabney says her husband hardly spoke of it until a few years before he died in 2018, at age 94.

A denial of benefits

Just wearing a uniform in the South could be a provocation. In 1946, Army vet Isaac Woodard was pulled off a bus, wearing his Army uniform, and beaten nearly to death by a South Carolina police chief. The attack left Woodard blind. The police chief was later acquitted by an all-white jury. It's one in a long list of lynchings and attacks on Black WW II veterans.

And there were other forms of racism – Black soldiers didn't get their full benefits.

Some members of Congress aim to address that injustice with the Sgt. Isaac Woodard, Jr. and Sgt. Joseph H. Maddox GI Bill Restoration Act, which would compensate the families of their descendants.

"The GI bill was one of the best pieces of policy that the United States ever created. At least it was for white veterans. The fact that Black veterans weren't able to benefit from the bill in the same way is frankly a disgrace," says Matthew Delmont, the author of "Half American," about Black soldiers in World War II.

The GI Bill, with free college and an easy home-loan, has been credited with helping create the modern American middle class. The federal program was administered locally, though, and segregation was still the law in 18 mostly Southern states.

In 1950s Roanoke, Va., the Dabneys couldn't get a home loan, the family recalls.

"They didn't actually say that they wouldn't give me a loan, but they kept dragging it out. There was always some excuse as to why it didn't go through," says Beulah Dabney.

"Nobody would honor the GI bill because they were Black," says Vinnie Dabney. "Roanoke had a reputation as being one of the most segregated cities in the South for a long time. No banks would give them a mortgage."

The Dabneys eventually found a loan through a Black insurance executive they knew — but even then there was red-lining, so the houses they were able to buy were in poorer parts of town, and worth less.

A lack of education opportunities

The same goes for the GI Bill's college funds. Many universities wouldn't accept Black vets, or had quotas. They were pushed toward vocational schools and away from higher education.

"Black folk were largely locked out of this really important social welfare program. It planted a seed for longstanding economic inequality that persists today," says Richard Brookshire, one of the founders of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council.

Brookshire's group is supporting the GI Bill Restoration Act. He knows that the word "reparations" sets off all sorts of heated rhetoric, but he hopes veterans' issues can rise above politics.

"Black vets are the most well-positioned group to push forward the conversation about reparations in this country," he says. "Not only because they've been affected, but because of the ways in which the United States holds up veterans and what they purport to believe veterans are owed."

Paying back these Black veterans involves a concrete number. Researchers at Brandeis University found that the amount owed to descendants of a Black World War II veteran is $180,000. Adjusted for today's dollars, that's how much more white veterans got out of the GI bill compared to Black veterans in 1944.

Beulah Dabney says, sure, that money would be welcome, but at 93, she won't dwell on it.

"Financially, we wouldn't have had maybe as many problems as we did," she says. "But I'm not a person who likes to revisit a lot of negative things."

Vinnie Dabney says some of the damage was repaired for his dad when he got a call inviting him to return in 2009 to Normandy, 65 years after D-Day.

"My dad thought it was a gimmick. He didn't want to go. He thought it was somebody pranking him," he said. "So I had to talk him into going. I said, 'Dad, this is historic you can't not go.' It was quite an event. My dad got the Legion of Honor, which is equivalent to our Medal of Honor."

"France treated him royally when he went back and they were very happy to show their appreciation for what he had done," says Beulah Dabney. "So of course, all that stirred up a whole lot of memories. And then he started talking more about it."

About one million Black Americans served during WW II — not all of them lived long enough to get the that sort of recognition — or the benefits they were promised.

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