Police Violence Against Black WWII Veterans

U.S. Army troops returning home from Europe. (The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Black Americans signed up in record numbers to serve their country during World War II. They did so despite a long history of unequal treatment for Black servicemen. For instance, after the Civil War, the combination of a difficult bureaucratic process, unscrupulous claim agents, and prejudiced personnel made it incredibly difficult for Black veterans and their survivors to access their pensions, even though the laws that created those federal military pensions were race-neutral. In the aftermath of—and likely in reaction to—the great strides African Americans made during Reconstruction, Black servicemen in the Spanish-American War found their heroism undermined by the white press, and future president Theodore Roosevelt, who “downplayed, ignored, or twisted” their acts of bravery into “tales of cowardice.” For African Americans, WWII did not get off to a promising start as local recruiting branches, especially in the Jim Crow South, regularly turned away Black volunteers. Yet, despite all of this, African Americans still heeded the Pittsburgh Courier’s call for the “Double-V Campaign”—the concept that while white Americans supported the war effort to defeat fascism abroad, Black Americans wanted to defeat fascism abroad and racism at home. African Americans believed (or hoped) that their active participation in World War II would finally translate into tangible political rights and socioeconomic advancements.

Instead Black servicemen encountered explicit forms of racism during their time in the military. They were segregated into different barracks and recreation facilities, and they faced racial epithets and threats of violence on and off military bases. When they returned home Black veterans did not receive the hero’s welcome they deserved. Instead the country they served—the country that alleged it was fighting for freedom and democracy—expected them to accept second-class citizenship. Returning Black veterans traveling across the US South by train reportedly pulled down the shades in segregated train cars so that racist whites wouldn’t see them and be enraged by their mere presence. This (mis)treatment stood in stark contrast to how Nazi prisoners of war were treated. For instance, Nazi POWs were allowed to sit in the same train cars and dine in the same facilities as white soldiers.

Yet, despite the world being at war, many Black military members received a taste of freedom during their time in the service. Those who traveled outside the United States now knew the personal freedom of being able to move about unmolested, without their movements constantly being policed. This created a dichotomy between racist whites who had a long history of maintaining the racial order through violence and a generation of Black veterans no longer able to abide by the region’s racial mores.

One of the people who understood this dichotomy and reported on it was activist, politician, and editor/publisher of the Lighthouse & Informer, John McCray. On March 16, 1947, McCray gave a speech at Claflin College, a historically Black college located in Orangeburg, South Carolina. His speech “Heroes Are Made, Not Born” outlined the heroic acts of Black South Carolinians and the unique challenges they faced in a state McCray referred to as the “pace-setter for all that’s evil in white men in the South.” McCray spent much of this speech specifically focused on World War II and the routine violence Black veterans faced when they came home to South Carolina where local whites were unwilling to acknowledge their war contributions or even their humanity. He asserted that “the campaign against us is as alive as before Pearl Harbor.”

One of the people who faced this racial hatred was Corporal Linwood Brown. In February 1946 Corporal Brown and Corporal William Seabrooks had just returned from China after serving in Saipan, Guam, Russell Island, and Okinawa. They were part of the 20th Marine Depot Company which received a President’s Citation for gallantry beyond duty. On the train, they were traveling home to South Carolina when the conductor told Corporal Brown to move off the train platform. Brown did not oblige. Instead, he responded, “If you had an extra coach on the train we could have seats and not be either in the aisles or platform.” The conductor took umbrage with Corporal Brown’s response and called the police in Union, South Carolina, to arrest Brown. On the way to the police station, the police officer(s) hit him with a club. Corporal Seabrooks went on to Columbia, South Carolina, where he found out where James Hinton, president of the SC NAACP Conference of Branches lived, and showed up at Hinton’s house in the middle of the night seeking help for Corporal Brown. Hinton contacted the Union police station and managed to get Brown released without fines or charges. But before he left, the Union police told Brown that he was “back in South Carolina, and must be careful of how he talked.” In other words, even honorable service in the military would not give a Black man in South Carolina access to equality and manhood.

As disgraceful as Corporal Brown’s treatment was, other returning Black soldiers faced far worse. The case that garnered national media attention, and spurred President Harry Truman to make civil rights a national priority by forming the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, was Sergeant Isaac Woodard’s blinding. Woodard, who had just returned from Japan, was headed to Winnsboro, South Carolina, when he boarded a Greyhound bus in Augusta, Georgia, on February 12, 1946. He planned to meet his wife there and then head to New York to see his parents. About an hour into the trip, the bus driver stopped at a drug store and Woodard asked him to wait while he went to the restroom. Woodard said that the driver cursed at him. He cursed back and said that he was “a human being who could understand civil language.” As with Corporal Brown, when the bus arrived in Batesburg, South Carolina, the driver had the veteran arrested with the excuse that he disturbed the peace. According to John McCray, the driver, and several other whites, Woodard was drunk. McCray also alleged that two of Woodard’s fellow veterans, including a young white University of South Carolina student, testified that he was not drunk, or abusive. Still, Woodard was taken to the Batesburg jail. On the way there, the officer, Lynwood Lanier Shull, asked Woodard several questions. Woodard answered “yes” or “no.” Officer Shull found these answers unsatisfactory because he had not responded “yes sir” and “no sir” and struck Woodard. When Woodard tried to get up, Shull proceeded to beat him with the blackjack until he lay on the sidewalk bleeding. He then jammed the blackjack into both of Woodard’s eyes until they were swollen shut. Woodard was placed in jail overnight.

Woodard recalled being awoken the next morning and told to come out of the cell. When he could not due to eyesight loss, he was led to a sink to wash off his face and told that he would be all right. But he was not all right, and when the blinded soldier was brought before Mayor H. E. Quarles, Shull’s brother-in-law, he was fined fifty dollars. He did not have the fifty dollars, so they took all the money he had on his person. What was possibly the most poignant part of Woodard’s brief hearing was the judge’s response to hearing his side of the story. The judge told him, “We don’t have that kind of stuff down here,”—a clear and concise indication that he believed Woodard was stepping out of his consigned position in Southern society and therefore deserved what happened to him. As McCray later told a group in Charleston, Woodard “fought the Japs well for 4 years, beat off all types of savage animals but couldn’t beat off Batesburg’s brand of democracy.”

Sadly the violence Brown and Woodard faced was not unusual. Not only were Black veterans attacked, but their attacks often took place while they were still in their military uniforms. Military service—the very thing that supposedly garnered respect and proved someone’s commitment to their country—was seen as threatening when done by Black men. Intellectually, this can likely be linked to a much longer fear of arming Black men—a fear largely rooted in the history of slavery, and the constant fear of slave rebellions. But historian Matthew Delmont also notes that white Americans understood Black veterans were not going to accept the same second-class citizenship they lived under before their time in the military. The police officers who attacked Brown and Woodard likely understood that “these veterans were going to come back and be leaders in the civil rights movement.” The officers in Corporal Brown’s interaction and the judge in Sergeant Woodard’s encounter unambiguously indicated that they believed these Black men stepped out of line. Remembering the violence Black veterans faced is key to understanding the massive social changes that were to come. Change, fomented by a national Black civil rights movement that would garner international attention and inspire activists around the world, was on the horizon. Perhaps the people who could see that horizon most clearly were the very people who most feared the social upheaval that came to define the coming decades.

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Candace Cunningham

Candace Cunningham is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida Atlantic University. She specializes in African American history, Women and Gender studies, and Public History. Her research is on the 20th century African American experience with a special emphasis on civil rights, education, gender, and the South. Her 2021 article, “‘Hell is Popping Here in South Carolina’: Orangeburg County Black Teachers and Their Community in the Immediate Post-Brown Era” was published in the History of Education Quarterly. In 2022, she collaborated with the Boca Raton Museum of Art to conduct oral histories and write an essay to accompany the Black Pearls photography exhibit. The exhibit showcased Pearl City, Boca Raton’s oldest neighborhood and its only historically black community. Dr. Cunningham is currently finishing her manuscript on Black teacher activists in the civil rights movement. She is currently working on her manuscript about the role of Black school teachers in the civil rights movement.