Sandra M. Bolzenius is a former instructor at The Ohio State University and served as a transportation specialist in the United States Army. She recently answered some questions about her forthcoming book Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took On the Army during World War II.
Q: Glory in Their Spirit tells the story of the 1945 strike led by four African American members of the Women Army Corps (WAC) in Fort Devens, MA. Briefly, can you summarize the events at Fort Devens and why they were protesting?
Bolzenius: Anna Morrison, Alice Young, Johnnie Murphy, and Mary Green were among the 6,500 black women who enlisted in the newly-created WAC during World War II. Assured of equitable treatment regardless of race, they expected placement in one of the hundreds of skilled jobs that the army opened to women due to its personnel shortage. Instead, they encountered discrimination in the PX, on KP duty, and most frustrating of all, in their assignments. At Fort Devens, their officers ordered the four, along with two-thirds of their detachment, to clean hospital wards and wait on patients. Initially, they accepted these menial tasks as part of their initiation before transitioning into the skilled positions that most white WACS worked at Fort Devens. This abruptly changed when the hospital administrator announced that black WACS were there to do “the dirty work.” The women protested to their black WAC detachment officers, who assured them that their work was important to the war effort, and to their white supervisors who balked at suggestions of discrimination. Most later expressed little confidence in these troops’ abilities to manage in other positions, a view the army seemingly confirmed by assigning the majority of black WACS, at Fort Devens and elsewhere, to menial labor. In a nation where three-fourths of employed African American women worked in the same capacity, this similar high ratio of black orderlies at Fort Devens appeared the natural norm.
A series of events that further cemented Fort Devens’ black WAC orderlies as menial laborers prompted these women to take matters into their own hands. Five months after their arrival, nearly all of those assigned to orderly duties refused to report to their hospital wards. Their action immediately gained the attention of their officers, including the general of the First Service Command, but not in the manner they had hope. Ordered to return to duty or face a court-martial, Morrison, Murphy, Young, and Green opted for the court-martial. They wanted to serve their country, they explained, but could no longer continue in duties they found discriminatory. As Murphy put it, she would take death before returning to orderly duties.
Q: What sparked your interest in this story and how did you first discover it?
Bolzenius: In 2001, I boarded a bus to Washington, D.C. with two distinct purposes: hone in on a graduate thesis topic during the long ride from Ohio and take part in an act of civil disobedience to protest a U.S. foreign policy. These goals unexpectedly intertwined after several of the books I had packed referenced a World War II trial of female privates who had opted for a court-martial rather than accept discriminatory treatment. As a former female army private who, after my arrest for civil disobedience, likewise faced a trial, these brief accounts strongly resonated. Shaken but intrigued by the experience, I decided to forefront the Fort Devens WAC trial in an examination of the historical role of American women in peaceful yet illegal protests against injustice. The completeness of the archival records of the case that centered on African American women, however, compelled an interrogation of World War II era constructions of gender and race through state policies. While these policies systemically, and imperceptibly for most Americans, marginalized women of color, they also, by virtue of enlisting women and declaring equal racial treatment of all personnel, provided a formidable platform for black women in uniform to assert their rights. With the focus squarely on the 1945 court-martial of four WACS who violated military law to protest discriminatory treatment, my topic shifted to black women in the military during World War II through the lens of the WAC strike at Fort Devens.
I fully expect that many readers of Glory in Their Spirit will delve into the pages of the story assuming few, and since resolved, differences in the experiences of black women and those of white women and of black men during the 1940s. The challenge of this book is to disrupt that comfortable narrative in the same way that Alice Young, Anna Morrison, Johnnie Murphy, and Mary Green disrupted it for me. By taking a court-martial rather than acquiescing to discrimination, they left a record, much of it in their own voices, that documented the unique circumstances the faces and their resistance to it.
Q: How did the Army’s policies on race and gender leave out black women?
Bolzenius: Though the Army spent considerable energy negotiating the utilization and treatment of its African American and its new female troops, its resulting policies often left out black women. Designed with black men and white women in mind, Army directives subsumed black WACS into identities that they did not entirely fit. Furthermore, overlapping gender and racial policies often excluded them altogether. The army’s marginalization of black WACS to the point of near invisibility was inevitable given that it prioritized white men over women, segregated African Americans from whites, and separated its women’s corps from its male forces. Subordinates in each dichotomy, black WACS complicated a post’s housing and job assignments, mess hall and transportation schedules, and theater and even chapel seating. The WAC compounded this marginalization by insisting on black WAC officers for every black WAC unit, effectively ensuring that they operated independently, and on the periphery, of other units. Segregated by race, separated by gender, and subject to biases that questioned their intellectual, emotional, and moral characters, black WACS had far fewer opportunities for advanced training, skilled assignments, and overseas duties than their counterparts. The Fort Devens protest against this marginalization would force the army to take notice of its black WAC troops.
Q: What type of media coverage did the strike and subsequent court martial receive, and how did it foster public debate?
Bolzenius: The Fort Devens strike was one of the most well-publicized disciplinary cases of World War II, aided by both the black and mainstream press that catapulted this otherwise routine court-martial of African American military personnel onto the national stage. This was in part due to the Americans’ insatiable fascination with the notion of female soldiers during the first years of the WAC. Though the white press rarely covered black WACS, who did not fit its conventional image of femininity, the black press regularly did and were therefore well posed to immediately investigate and widely publicize the strike at Fort Devens. Reporting on female, rather than male, defendants’ charges of racial discrimination gave the black press a fresh base to protest segregation in military. At the peak of its wartime militancy, circulation, and popularity among African Americans, it showcased the affair in headline articles, regular updates, and passionate editorials. Encapsulating many of the nation’s most controversial issues during the war – segregation, women in the military, and the meaning of democracy abroad and at home – the case also gained traction in the mainstream press. Whether reported in the Chicago Defender or in Time magazine, news of the incident spread across the nation igniting a public discourse that transcended racial and gender lines. Within weeks, the extraordinary publicity of the case had gained the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, WAC director Oveta Culp Hobby, several congressmen, and the leading civil rights leaders and organizations of the era.
The debates focused primarily on the case’s racial issues, yet its challenges to entrenched gender roles under-girded both sides of the arguments. The WACS’ detractors, for instance, questioned the viability of female soldiers given women’s apparent unfamiliarity with the importance of following military orders while their champions expressed concern about incarcerating the women, if found guilty, in military prisons. Absent from the debates was discussion of the defendants’ unique circumstances as both females and African Americans in the military, the very reason for the strike at Fort Devens.
Q: What relevance does the Fort Devens strike have on issues in the military today?
Bolzenius: The United States military is currently wrestling with whether to deploy women in combat and admit transsexuals in the armed forces. Embedded in gender issues, they wonder how these troops could be employed, how their presence will affect group cohesion, what the public reaction will be, and if they would be a good fit in a military.
Seventy-six years ago, the military expressed similar concerns about African American women. Based on flawed state policies and public attitudes that reinforced notions of their unsuitability for military service, the answers were resoundingly negative. For a time, the Army was the only service that accepted black women, albeit reluctantly. Nevertheless, the radical nature of its decision to enlist them cannot be overstated even, as the Fort Devens strike illustrates, the army failed to properly employ them. Most Americans had no experience working with African Americans or women, much less African American women, on an equal basis, and many objected to the prospect as a threat to valued social conventions. What was once a radical concept is now commonplace as women of color, serving in all ranks in all services in crucial positions, are an indispensable feature of the United States military. As the armed forces consider whom to accept and in what capacities, it is worth considering the historical role of flawed and divisive state policies and attitudes in complicating its decisions.
Read more in Glory in Their Spirit, which will be available in April 2018.