Feb. 08, 2024 — Dartmouth historian Matthew F. Delmont shed light on the often-overlooked narratives of African American history during World War II as part of a Black History Month Lecture Monday night at the University of Houston Law Center.
"This history is not that long ago. When we think about Black History Month and why we're still celebrating today, it is because we have to tell these stories. … We can't understand the history of War World II if we don't talk about these stories, and we can't understand American history if we don't understand Black history," said Delmont, the Frank J. Guarini Associate Dean of International Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies and the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth University.
Delmont shared insights from his research for his book, "Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad."
“When I was going through these Black newspapers from the war years, the 1940s. I kept coming across pictures and stories. More than a million Black men and women served the country during World War II. These weren't famous people. These were average people from Minneapolis, from Houston, from Chicago, from Los Angeles, from New York,” Delmont said. “I was blown away to see this many examples.”
Delmont recounted several archival treasures, including a letter in the Pittsburgh Courier written by James G. Thompson who, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, questioned, “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American? … Is the kind of America I know worth defending?”
“That phrase — ‘Should I sacrifice my life to live half American’ — stuck with me. It's why I chose half American as the title of the book,” added Delmont.
“That phrase — ‘Should I sacrifice my life to live half American’ — stuck with me. It's why I chose half American as the title of the book,” added Delmont. “The Pittsburgh Courier used Thompson's letter to launch the Double Victory campaign. Double Victory stood for victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home. It became the rallying cry for Black Americans during the war.”
UHLC Dean Leonard M. Baynes, who moderated the event, reflected on the impact of the Double Victory campaign, noting, “A prevailing hope among African Americans was that participation in the war effort would lead to equality. Many believed that being patriotic and fighting for their nation would earn them equal rights, but when they returned from the war that was often not what happened.”
Delmont's presentation explored various aspects of African American involvement in World War II, from the civil rights movement's galvanization before the war to the challenges faced by Black veterans upon their return.
“Black Americans recognized the threat that Hitler posed earlier than most other Americans because they saw that Hitler was explicitly drawing on American racial policies as justified as treatment of Jews in Europe,” Delmont said. “Every time a new policy was passed, whether it was the segregation of Jews on train cars or violence against Jewish communities, it showed up in the Black press. Black Americans are sounding alarms saying this isn't just a problem for Europe, this is a worldwide problem.”
Serving as a commentator for the lecture was Tara T. Green, CLASS Distinguished Professor and Chair of African American Studies at the University of Houston.
Green underscored the vital role of Black newspapers in documenting and disseminating the era's reforms, “We cannot talk about this history of activism of the early 20th century without looking at the archive of Black newspapers.”
She also emphasized the significance of history as a continuous, evolving movement rather than a static moment.
Delmont echoed this sentiment, stating, "History is about what stories we choose to tell about the past. We have the opportunity to tell more true, honest, full, complex, nuanced stories."
The event was part of the Bracewell LLP Distinguished Lecture in Racial and Social Justice and was co-sponsored by Bracewell LLP and the University of Houston Law Center.
For more information on this speaker, please visit https://www.prhspeakers.com/speaker/dr-matthew-delmont.
For more information on the book “Half American,” please visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/624655/half-american-by-matthew-f-delmont/.
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