Author Q&A: how four black women took on the Army during WWII

Kaylah Jackson
February 26, 2019 - 9:47 am
African American women during WWII get court-martialed for striking

Courtesy of University of Illinois Press

Mary Green, Anna Morrison, Johnnie Murphy, and Alice Young enlisted in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in the 1940s. But as black women, they weren't able to choose whatever job they wanted. Often, they were regulated to housekeeping duties around hospitals and other areas on base. 

In the 1940s, the U.S. Army created the Women's Army Corps (WAC), a separate branch that allowed women to serve. Although the military was segregated, thousands of black women served as WACs, but their job responsibilities were often limited to menial housekeeping tasks, different than that of their white counterparts.

The four women, fed up with the Army not coming through on their promise of opportunity, staged a strike at Fort Devens in Massachusetts and were eventually court-martialed. Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took On the Army During World War II, by Sandra M. Bolzenius, chronicles the court case and experience of the women as they faced racism and the military legal system. Connecting Vets talked to Bolzenius about this amazing story. 

Connecting Vets (CV): You open the book with a quote from Col. Eugene R. Householder from 1941 that says " The Army is not a sociological laboratory." He made this comment during a War Department conference that discussed adding more black units in the Army. Why did you choose this quote?

Sandra Bolzenius (SB): “There was this conflict between the military and what they wanted…they wanted soldiers to man their forces but it’s a people’s army. The army depends on the citizens to rally behind it, to support its personnel and to be that personnel so people are always trying to spread that out and it was one of the very few places where people who were not accepted as legitimate citizens could enter and supposedly have the same status as anyone else in was a good job, it had regular pay, which a lot of people did not have.”

CV: You were able to put the pieces of this case together through small footnotes you came across in academic and military journals. Can you speak to what you found interesting about this case hasn't gotten much acknowledgment in the 21st century?

SB: “This is such an unusual case with unusual soldiers so for it to be lost in history...We look back at 1945 and think ‘oh that was so long ago’ but so many of the things that happened then and so many of the understandings that white men and white woman had at that time, are duplicated today. People say 'everyone has the same chance, why don’t they just pick themselves up by their bootstraps? Why are they so angry all the time?' I think if we look at people’s circumstances and this book, that's what’s happening today.”

CV: While many praise the military for its diversity, it did mirror certain civilian attitudes about race. Were these black women aware that they would still be segregated? 

SB: "Black women understood they were joining a force that was segregated and this discouraged many from joining. All together four to six percent of the WACS were African American. Yes it had segregation but they dealt with informal segregation where they lived too, but the military was saying that everyone would be treated equally. So they were a lot more surprised than people in the south were as to how segregation actually worked in practice when it was part of the regulation.”

"They [WACs] had these lavish ads. The WACS spent a lot of money advertisements with top agencies to encourage women to join. They were constantly behind their quotas so they were promising the world. They were promising all these fantastic jobs and respect for being a soldier and respect for your femininity but they were looking for white women.”

CV: You were able to recover and research the court documents for this case. So for the readers who can't do that and read your book, what do you hope they gain?

SB: "I think it's easy to look in the past and say, 'that's how people were then, that's not how it is today,' but if we question ourselves a little bit more maybe we can see that things have not changed as greatly as we had hoped. When I read the comments in the investigations and throughout the trial, how captains, all white men mostly, we're putting down these women, I hope that when people read this book that they will find that maybe today, we have many of the same circumstances facing us. 

Bolzenius served in the U.S. Army from 1978-1982 and is a former instructor at The Ohio State University

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