Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West
© 2005, by Matthew C. Whitaker. University of Nebraska Press
Chapter 2: Tuskegee, World War II, and the New Black Activism
In fighting fascism and Nazism, America had to stand before the whole world in favor of racial tolerance and…racial democracy.
Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended years of America’s questionable “neutrality” during World War II. It propelled the United State immediately into a climactic event that changed the nation forever. America’s participation in the war also altered its global status, making it the world’s wealthiest industrialized military power. The impact of America’s involvement in World War II on African Americans is complex. On the one hand, the war ushered in a period of unprecedented progress in black employment, mobility, and professional activism. On the other hand, America’s crusade in the name of freedom and democracy in World War II failed to reach millions of its black citizens at home. White supremacy and racial discrimination flourished in the United States during the war. African Americans such as Lincoln Ragsdale joined the armed services to fight America’s fascist enemies while resisting white supremacy and their own subordinate status at home.
Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, African Americans responded to the escalating conflict by supporting Ethiopia’s fight against the Italian invasion. Ethiopia was the world’s sole independent nation genuinely controlled by black Africans. The Ethiopian-Italian conflict demonstrated to African Americans the ways in which fascism and racism were interconnected. This rekindled the keen interest in the links between Africans’ struggles against colonialism and African Americans’ fight for freedom and democracy within the United States that black Americans had demonstrated ever since the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The military service rendered by black American soldiers later in World War II, therefore, was inspired by their condemnation of fascism and American racism. At home, African Americans responded to the challenge of white supremacy and the lack of opportunity in several ways. Like Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale, black people migrated in large numbers to western cities such as Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, taking advantage of career opportunities created by war mobilization and the increased demand for everything from shipbuilding and aircraft production to health care, housing, schools, and teachers. African American soldiers fought against fascism abroad and returned to America and civilian life to play pivotal roles in the ensuing change.
Led by individuals such as Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale, black people established and restructured protest organizations that formed the backbone of the modern civil rights movement. When whites responded to their efforts to give meaning to freedom and democracy by reinforcing Jim Crow conventions, black activists reinvented themselves. Out of this insurgent revival grew a new black activism rooted in greater political participation. Lincoln Ragsdale’s experiences during the World War II era illuminate the problems and progress that marked this riotous period. The experience that would most profoundly influence Ragsdale’s life during this era was his tenure in the military, culminating with his graduation from the Tuskegee Army Air Corps Flying School in Tuskegee, Alabama.
To understand Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale’s significance as business and civil rights leaders in Phoenix after World War II, one must grasp the importance of the war in shaping their views of democracy and freedom and the necessity of African Americans to fight for them more urgently at home. A new generation of black Americans became soldiers during World War II, and many, such as Lincoln Ragsdale, would come forth from the war with a fortified awareness of who they were and a renewed dedication to fight for African American equality. Unlike World War I, more black soldiers had earned their high school and college diplomas by World War II. Many more black servicemen and women, particularly those from professional, activist backgrounds like Lincoln’s, were proud, self-confident, and aware of their own value and dignity as human beings and Americans. For thousands of black servicemen, the armed services offered them their first exposure to a world free of legal segregation. For Lincoln and many others serving in the military during World War II, the conflict inspired them, their families, and their friends to raise critical questions about America’s racial order.
After finishing his after-school studies and secondary education at Douglass High School in Ardmore, Lincoln took the air corps entrance exam in Oklahoma. He enlisted on July 14, 1944. Lincoln immediately prepared to be assigned to a training installation and relocated. Despite his hard work and practice, he failed the written examination the first two times he took it. After finally passing the written portion of the test, he then “flunked the physical.” At five feet six and a half inches tall and weighing 130 pounds, Ragsdale was not a large, muscular, imposing man. Generally, however, he was healthy and in good condition. He had no reason to believe he would have trouble passing the routine physical examination. “My eyes were good, my depth perception was good,” he recalled, “everything was good except my pulse.”
Ragsdale’s average standing heart rate was around 150. When he was instructed to jump up and down, his heart rate would climb to 200. He was told by the test administrators that he was “going to flunk this thing again” if he could not maintain a lower heart rate during increased physical activity. Ragsdale was informed that one more failed attempt would bring about his dismissal. Concerned, Ragsdale consulted a doctor who prescribed a sedative to help him relax. When he took the test again, his standing heart rate “was beating about 50.” After he jumped up and down for a short period of time again, his heart rate registered 80. This conspicuous improvement in his heart rate gave the examiner pause. The test administrator believed it was “better than perfect.” This dramatic change made it necessary for Ragsdale to take the test yete again. The next time his heart rate was recorded at 45. Confused and no doubt exasperated, the examiner reluctantly gave Ragsdale a passing grade.
After finally completing his examination in Oklahoma, Ragsdale relocated briefly to Howard University in Washington DC. At the time, Howard and Wilberforce universities were the only “Negro” universities offering reserve officer training. As the war escalated and the likelihood of black pilot training increased, the Roosevelt administration considered the schools to be pools from which to recruit air corps officer candidates. Ragsdale’s temporary stop in the nation’s capital ushered in a series of sobering events. While stationed at Howard, Ragsdale was not present to accept and sign for his air corps certified recruitment letter ordering him to report to basic training. Since he was not present, Ragsdale recalled, “they didn’t give it to anybody.” After some searching, they eventually solicited the support of his mother, who gave the air corps representatives his address in Washington.
Soon after, a cohort of military police (MPS) brandishing “guns and big sticks” arrived at Ragsdale’s residence in Washington announcing that they were going to take him to jail. When he asked the MPs what he did to warrant the arrest, they told him that he had failed to report for service. The MPs took him to the military base at Fort Meade, Maryland. It is not clear whether he was subjected to any disciplinary action. Once at Fort Meade, Ragsdale received a number of required inoculations and for ten days prepared for another transfer. As a “preaviation cadet,” he was ordered to escort ten men south to the military base in Biloxi, Mississippi. He and the recruits boarded a train at Fort Meade and headed south, stopping briefly in St. Louis. There, the black recruits were not met by what Ragsdale described as traditional “southern hospitality.” Rather, they were met by southern white hostility and Jim Crow segregation.
An official at the train station told Ragsdale and the rest of his party that they could not ride the Pullman train and that they had to remove themselves. Irritated, Ragsdale reminded the official that he and the other recruits had purchased tickets to ride the train and that they had every intention to do so. An argument ensued between the two, which resulted in Ragsdale and his entire cohort being thrown off the train. As he threw them off, the train controller bellowed, “No Negro is going to be riding on this train to Mississippi.” Ragsdale, realizing that the group was going to arrive in Mississippi behind schedule, phoned the base in Biloxi to inform his commander that as “Negroes,” the group was denied access to Pullman trains. Ragsdale was told that it made no difference that they were military personnel. Racial segregation penetrated every segment of society, and the air corps provided no special protections. The administrator who received Ragsdale’s call was not concerned about the indignities and problems the recruits faced. “Look here, nigger,” the officer barked, “you better be on that train and get down here the best way you can, right now, wherever they put you.” After a day and a half of waiting, the men managed to secure transportation. Ragsdale and his group were most likely made to wait until a train became available with few if any whites on board. Many black soldiers were forced to wait until trains and buses had been loaded with white soldiers before they were permitted to board.
They arrived at Keesler field in Biloxi and were housed in a segregated section of the base called the “KK.” In the segregated bivouacs of the KK, Ragsdale went through three months of basic training and a battery of examinations. What Ragsdale remembered most about his introduction to the military was not the physical challenge of basic training or the cerebral demands of the tests. What stood out in his mind was the unequal and demeaning nature of military segregation. Black soldiers were banned from almost all of the places where white soldiers trained and relaxed. African American soldiers were not allowed to enter a military club to dine or drink. “(When) we wanted a beer,” Ragsdale recalled, “we went to the window and asked for it. White guys walked inside. We had to stay on the outside to get it.” Despite this unequal treatment, many black soldiers made the most of the opportunities to better themselves. For example, “many of the brothers, blacks, who came to the induction station to get basic training couldn’t read and write,” Ragsdale asserted. “The good thing” about their military experience, however, was that it “made them go to school.”
There were around five hundred preaviation cadets in Biloxi when Ragsdale arrived. “They eliminated, of the five hundred of us, about four hundred and fifty,” he remembered. Having succeeded in his training, Ragsdale was one of a relatively small number of recruits who were given the opportunity to attend officer training. He and the other remaining preaviation cadets were relocated to Tuskegee Flying School to receive pilot training. At Tuskegee, Ragsdale underwent intense instruction and myriad psychological challenges. Cadets at Tuskegee were subjected to the rigors of pilot training and the frustrations of being black in an institution dominated by white leaders who possessed deep-seated notions of white supremacy. During one of his first days at Tuskegee, in fact, one of Ragsdale’s commanding officers told him and his fellow trainees to “look at the person to the left and to the right, because at the end of the program they won’t be here with you.” Indeed, most cadets did not complete the program. Dogged by an overwhelming military ethos, intense competition, internal military politics, and institutional racism, successful cadets had to possess a cornucopia of laudable character traits, including intellectual acumen, strong interpersonal communication skills, and strength of will. Lincoln Ragsdale Jr. remembered his father telling him that over the years, “there were a lot of people that started out in the program,” but through natural and coerced attrition, “only so many people” graduated from Tuskegee Flying School.
Despite the military establishment’s lingering opposition to black people rising to the status of officer, it was pressured by black leaders and prompted by the urgency of war to create the program. The first class of thirteen flying cadets of the 99th Pursuit Squadron began its training at Tuskegee on July 19, 1941. The black press labeled the men the Lonely Eagles because of their small numbers and segregated status. They were trained in four phases: preflight, primary flight, basic military flight, and advanced military flight training. The instruction was provided primarily by white military personnel, with the exception of physical education and a limited amount of primary flight instruction, which were taught by Tuskegee Flying School chief C. Alfred Anderson. Cadets received their preflight education in a dormitory on the Tuskegee campus and their primary training on Tuskegee’s Morton Field. Their basic and advanced training were scheduled to be conducted on Army Field, which was under construction during the summer of 1941. If a cadet was one of the few who successfully completed the four stages of training, he would receive his pilot’s wings and a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Reeling from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the air corps intensified its training at Tuskegee Flying School. Late in 1941 the air corps transferred black fighter plane mechanics and specialists from Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, to the airfield in Tuskegee and gave them rank. Five nonflying cadets also received commissions. These men were joined by the first class of black preaviation cadets at Tuskegee. The soldiers were housed in a bathhouse and in makeshift tarpaulin shelters supported only by mud and muck in what became known as Tent City. Eight out of the first thirteen cadets were dismissed from the program, failing in at least one level before basic flight training. Most of the cadets who washed out could not handle the psychological stress associated with their service and training. The cadets were supervised primarily by white southern flight instructors, and many cadets were not oriented to military discipline and the intensity of military drilling. Most of the cadets, especially those from the North, clashed with white southern officers who used abusive, racially derogatory language. Some enlisted men, such as a cadet by the name of Jimmy Moore, eventually succumbed to the constant abuse. Moore endured the harsh environment through most of his training. He eventually “snapped,” however, and lashed out verbally at a white superior officer who hit him with a barrage of racial slurs, causing Moore to wash out one day before his graduation.
The first class of Tuskegee cadets only produced five graduates in March 1942: Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., George S. Roberts, Lemuel Custis, Charles De Bow, and Mac Ross. Davis, the first black graduate of West Point in the twentieth century, was the son of Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who was the only senior black officer in the army and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general by President Roosevelt in 1941. Between March and September 1942, thirty-three pilots received their wings. They were soon followed by more commissioned officers eager to see action. Once they were given the opportunity to fight, the Tuskegee Airmen proved themselves to be quite proficient in battle.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron was deployed to North Africa in April 1943, where it flew its first combat mission against the island of Pantelleria on June 2, 1943. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who had been promoted to colonel, was placed in command of the 332nd Fighter Group when it was dispatched to Italy in January 1944. Davis, like his father, would later rise to the rank of brigadier general. The Tuskegee fighters escorted bombers and took part in many other missions. The 332nd was instrumental in sinking an enemy destroyer off the Istrian peninsula, and it protected the 15th Air Corps bombers in important attacks on the oil fields of Romania. Under Davis’s command, the fighter group won the admiration of African Americans throughout the United States and the respect of many officials in the air corps. The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,500 sorties and completed 1,578 missions. They escorted heavy bombers into Germany’s Rhineland in 200 separate missions without losing one fighter to enemy fire. They destroyed 409 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer, and eliminated myriad ground installations with strafing runs. On January 27, 1944, the 99th shot down five enemy aircraft in less than four minutes, despite being outnumbered nearly two to one. The soldiers were revered and honored for their valor. In recognition of their service to their country, the Tuskegee Airmen collected 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, one Legion of Merit, one Silver Star, fourteen Bronze Stars, and 744 Air Medals.
Despite their heroism in battle and their service at home, black soldiers routinely suffered from low morale and frustrations born of racial discrimination. The military’s segregationist and white supremacist policies relegated the majority of the one million African Americans who served during World War II to auxiliary units in transportation and engineering corps. Throughout the South, black soldiers were refused service in places of public accommodation where German prisoners of war were often dining and enjoying the good life. World War II veteran Dempsey Travis remembered German prisoners being “free to move around the camp, unlike black soldiers who were restricted. The Germans walked right into the doggone places like any white American. We were wearin’ the same uniform, but we were excluded.” In a “whites only” waiting room in a railroad station in Kentucky, three black soldiers were beaten by civilian policemen for not deferring to white women when ordered to do so. An African American soldier had his eyes gouged out by a white policemean in an altercation in South Carolina, and in Durham, North Carolina, a white bus driver was found not guilty of murder after he killed a black soldier following an argument in July 1944.
Military bases offered little sanctuary from Jim Crow and white racism. Many commanding officers banned from their bases the black newspapers that Lincoln had earned money selling, and some resorted to burning them. Military markets were segregated and distributed inferior wares to black soldiers, and officers’ clubs and entertainment facilities were segregated. The cadets at Tuskegee tried to make the best of their segregated environment. Black entertainers such as Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway would visit and entertain the servicemen occasionally, to what Ragsdale described as their “utter delight.” Joe Louis, the celebrated heavyweight boxing champion, visited Tuskegee during the spring of 1945. He toured the facility, spoke with Lincoln and the other cadets about the significance of their service, and signed autographs. Military bases in the American West placed black soldiers, unlike Mexican American or American Indian soldiers, in separate units or confined them to labor roles. Due to racial segregation and their small numbers, African American troops found few sources of entertainment on the base. Moreover, since most bases were in predominantly white rural areas, black soldiers had even fewer options when they left their stations. Many military authorities encouraged segregation in surrounding cities. Lawrence B. de Graaf has demonstrated that in San Bernardino, California, white business owners posted “We Cater to White Trade Only” signs by 1944. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a twenty-two-year-old sailor named Dorie Miller pulled his captain to safety under heavy enemy fire, commandeered a machine gun, and having never before fired a gun, shot down at least two and perhaps as many as six enemy aircraft. Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism but was subsequently placed back in his former position as a mess attendant without promotion.
Racial segregation during World War II affected black soldiers and civilians alike. African Americans were excluded from many defense industries during the first years of the war. The effects of this practice were most striking in the American West, where a large allocation of government contracts were awarded. Western states received over half of the defense contracts to build ships and aircraft. The San Francisco Bay Area led the way in shipbuilding, while southern California became the leader in air craft construction. In Phoenix, World War II ignited an economic boom and unprecedented population growth, which led to the establishment of several high-profile military bases in the area. Named after noted Phoenician and World War I pilot Frank Luke Jr., Luke Air Field, now Luke Air Force Base, opened in June 1941. Mesa Military Airport, now Williams Air Force base, opened its doors in January 1942 and was named after an army air corps pilot. The creation of these installations brought at least six thousand jobs to the Phoenix area and funneled millions of dollars into the local economy.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, more airfields were opened in the Greater Phoenix Metropolitan Area. Thunderbird II, a primary aviation training school, was established north of Scottsdale in June 1942, and Litchfield Naval Air Facility, a research and development center, became operational in October 1943. American and foreign cadets flocked to these Valley of the Sun military complexes by the thousands. As World War II drew to a close, Luke Air Field, for instance, was the largest advanced aviation training school in the world. By 1945, 13,500 pilots received their wings from Luke Air Field. Off-duty white troops in the area found Phoenix to be “the desert’s greatest oasis.” They packed every obtainable structure, including makeshift accommodations constructed at the Arizona State University (ASU) fairgrounds. Many white soldiers described their military experience in positive terms and remembered the Phoenix community for its warm hospitality. Black soldiers, however, did not benefit from the boom in the defense industry during the early years of the war.
While white workers found jobs in aircraft factories, shipyards, and other defense industries, African Americans were routinely left behind. Defense industries would hire black people only in menial labor positions, even if they were qualified for more skilled jobs. In shipyards, African American women engaged in scaling (cleaning), sweeping, and painting work, and Chinese women performed electrical work, while white women held welding jobs, which were considered to be the easiest positions. Most predominantly white American federation of Labor (AFL) unions prevented their employers from hiring African American workers who were not members of the labor establishment. The president of North American Aviation articulated the position of many white business and labor leaders of the time, declaring that “regardless of their training as aircraft workers, we will not employ Negroes. It is against our policy.” A top oil company official refused to hire African Americans, arguing that the drilling and producing of oil wells was a “white man’s job” and was “going to stay that way.” The federal government did nothing to discourage these discriminatory practices. In its own training and placement programs, the United States Employment Service (USES) filled “whites only” requests for employers and deferred to the social mores of local communities. Many USES employees themselves believed that African Americans were best suited for custodial labor. In a gross example of institutional racism, the primary USES training facility in Inglewood, California, deemed any African American presence on the streets after dark to be cause for arrest.
African American leaders demanded substantive changes and an end to segregation in the armed services. Discrimination in defense industries found a formidable adversary in A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph had been working with a coalition that opposed the government’s discriminatory practices. This coalition called upon African Americans to march on Washington in protest of institutional racism in the federal government. The March on Washington Movement (MOWM) became the largest grassroots movement of African Americans in twenty years. The threats of Randolph and the MOWM pressured President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) in June 1941. The FEPC investigated complaints of job discrimination and tried to arbitrate such disputes. The agency had limited success. Thanks to the federal government and western industrialists who were now compelled to yield to government and private pressures, western unions began to open their doors to African Americans, and black people were able to secure skilled positions in coastal shipyards and factories.
Nonetheless, segregation and racism in the military continued, and officials vigorously resisted demands for change. The black press and leaders like Randolph, however, were undaunted. The black press had long been an outspoken supporter of U.S. participation in the war, while criticizing American racism. On January 31, 1942, the Pittsburgh Courier published a letter to Robert Vann, the editor, which had a powerful impact on the course of African American history. In his letter, James C. Thompson of Wichita, Kansas, shared his hope that African Americans “keep defense and victory in the forefront so that we don’t lose sight of our fight for true democracy at home.” He argued that if the Allied nations evoked the “V for Victory” sign to rally them in opposition to aggression, slavery, and tyranny, then black Americans should embrace the “double V,” victory over fascism abroad and victory over white supremacy at home. The Courier took Thompson’s concept and coined it “Double V” for “Double Victory.” The Double V concept and slogan were soon adopted by all of the black press and civil rights leaders and organizations.
The Double V campaign inspired black leaders and organizations to intensify their protests of inequality in the military. Randolph, Walter White of the NAACP, T. Arnold Hill and Lester Granger of the National Urban League (NUL), New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Robert Vann, and Mabel K. Staupers of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) led the way. Together, with other leaders and organizations, they mobilized African American workers, women’s groups, college students, and interracial alliances to resist inequality. When America’s leaders were working hard to present the nation as a beacon of freedom and democracy to the world, these leaders forced government and military officials to confront the contradictions inherent in their professed ideals and practices. White supremacy endured throughout the war, but the efforts of black leaders and protest organizations, coupled with the military’s need for workers, slowly reduced the pervasiveness of segregation and inequality.
Black soldiers themselves demanded equal treatment, and although most of them attempted to secure equal treatment without breaking military discipline, their dissatisfaction inspired by white malevolence and unequal treatment sometimes aroused heated and violent confrontations with whites. Their efforts included peaceful attempts to desegregate officers’ clubs and organized protests of racial discriminatory military justice. For example, over three hundred American sailors were killed by an explosion in Port Chicago north of San Francisco on July 17, 1944. Of the 320 men who lost their lives, 202 were black ammunition loaders. Following the incident, 328 of the surviving black soldiers were relocated to another ship to load ammunition; 258 of the soldiers protested and were summarily arrested. Fifty of the soldiers were cited as leaders of what has come to be known as the Port Chicago Mutiny. They were charged, convicted, and, despite a brief filed in their defense by the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall, sentenced to prison terms as long as fifteen years.
With the number of white and black troops increasing on the city’s surrounding military bases, Phoenix was inundated with young men looking to spend money, find entertainment, and enlist the companionship of local women during their down time. As historian Philip VanderMeer has argued, “rowdiness became a problem in Phoenix, as in all nearby towns.” Race only complicated these conditions, and armed confrontations involving white and black troops erupted often. As the war raged on, black soldiers increasingly responded violently to white admonitions, coercion, and brutality. On one such occasion, off-duty African American soldiers from the 364th Infantry Regiment stationed at Papago Park in Phoenix were involved in a violent incident in a “colored neighborhood” they often visited.
On Thanksgiving night in 1942, one of the black soldiers struck a black woman over the head with a bottle following an argument in a Phoenix café. An MP attempted to arrest the soldier, but he resisted with a knife. When the MP shot and wounded the soldier, black servicemen protested, MPs soon rounded up about 150 black soldiers at random, most of whom had nothing to do with the incident, to return them to Papago Park. Buses were secured to transport the group, but before the soldiers could be transported back to base, they became inflamed and broke ranks when a jeep full of armed blacks appeared. A “lone shot from somewhere” was fired, according to accounts; the source of the shot was never determined, but it ignited a riot. “This does it,” an observer shouted, “now all hell will pop.” Soldiers disbursed randomly as handguns, rifles, and high-caliber automatic weapons furiously “snapped and barked.” A “hunt” for everyone who may have been involved ensued.
Phoenix’s law enforcement authorities quickly summoned all available police officers and ordered them to join the MPs in apprehending the suspects. Twenty-eight blocks were cordoned off and searched. Several of the “hunted” soldiers hid in the homems of friends in the area. To “flush them out,” the MPs mounted armored personnel carriers. An anonymous observer later recalled that “they’d roll up in front of these homes and with the loudspeaker they had on these vehicles, they’d call on him to surrender. If he didn’t come out, they’d start potting the house with these fifty-caliber machine guns that just made a hole you could stick your fist through.” Before the tumultuous ordeal ended, three men died and eleven were wounded. Most of the 180 men arrested and jailed were soon released, but some of those who bore arms during the riot were eventually court-martialed and sent to military prisons. This chapter in Phoenix’s history demonstrated the injustice and brutality with which the military treated its black soldiers and the commitment of African American soldiers to resist such treatment.
Despite the many obstacles that stood in his way, in November 1945, at the age of nineteen, Lincoln Ragsdale was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Proud of their son’s achievements, his parents drove all the way from Muskogee to Tuskegee to attend his graduation ceremonies. During their visit to Alabama, their joy was offset by realities of southern race relations. As Lincoln recalled, “I was feeling pretty good about the graduation and so I drove my parents’ car, a 1940 Buick, off the base alone one day and took it to a service station. The attendant was white, and I asked him to look under the hood and service the car. I guess I must have sounded arrogant to him. I was a cadet captain, the head of my class, and I was used to barking out orders. He wasn’t used to hearing a black man talk like that.” Although Ragsdale’s pride and burgeoning propensity to “bark out” orders probably offended the attendant on a basic level, his audacity and willingness to challenge white supremacy played a more substantial role in what transpired next.
I think the attendant called the police because when I pulled away from the station, a police car began to follow me. I picked up speed, and the guys in the police car picked up speed. I turned off on a little road to see if they would still follow me, and they did. I stopped the car, and they stopped, and three men got out of the car.” Ragsdale, while “blinded by the pitch darkness of a rainy November night in Alabama, heard the cold steel click of a shotgun being cocked” and a belligerent police officer yelling “let’s get that nigger!” They charged Ragsdale, and in seconds “they knocked me down and one of them started kicking me in the head. Reeling and aching from three officers’ brutal kicks to my face and body, I was made to lay face down in the thick clay-like mud of a deserted field in the outskirts of Tuskegee, Alabama. The only thing that saved me was (that) it was really muddy, and my face was caked over with mud so (the officers) didn’t really hurt me.” As one of the officers prepared to fire his shotgun into the overpowered and prone Ragsdale, another one of the policemen said, “Naw, he’s got a military uniform on. Let’s just scare him.” They continued to beat Ragsdale for several more minutes until they apparently tired of the assault. Ragsdale was left alone, beaten and bruised on a muddy back road outside Tuskegee on that dark, rainy November night. The affair left him terrorized and afraid. “I was scared,” he remembered, “more scared than I’ve ever been in my life.” At that point in his life, Ragsdale recalled, it was the closest he had ever come to death.
Beaten and bullied, Ragsdale returned to base and remained there for the rest of graduation week. “That is what fear can do to you,” he said. “My mother was hysterical when she found out what had happened to me.” Still haunted by the “bitter memories” of the lynching of her brother-in-law in Muskogee twenty years earlier, Ragsdale’s mother feared for her son’s life. Despite being beaten without provocation, Ragsdale was not surprised by the attack. Such an incident, he argued, was commonplace in the Deep South during this era. “We knew that was something to be anticipated,” he maintained. “It was typical.” What did astonish him, however, was the extent to which the racial injustices of the Deep South extended thousands of miles west to Phoenix, where he was relocated within weeks of his brutal brush with Alabama police officers and death. Ragsdale was not thrilled at the idea of making the move to Phoenix, as he recalled reading an old city directory that proudly promoted Phoenix as “a modern town of 40,000 people, and the best kind of people too. A very small percentage of Mexicans, Negroes and foreigners.”
A couple of weeks later, just before Christmas in 1945, Ragsdale was one of eleven Tuskegee graduates assigned to Luke Air Field in Arizona. The group was relocated as a part of an experimental integrated gunnery team. This project was one of several test cases that influenced President Harry S. Truman’s desegregation of the U.S. military through Executive Order 9981 in 1948. During World War II, before Luke Air Field was integrated, many African American servicemen had trained at the segregated Fort Huachuca had the largest concentration of black soldiers in the nation after the army elected in 1942 to establish the U.S. 93rd Infantry Division by combining the 25th, 368th, and 369th regiments with various field companies and battalions. It had been home to the all-black 9th and 10th cavalries, known also as the Buffalo Soldjers, who, after being organized by an act of Congress in July 1866, protected settlers; subdued Mexican revolutionaries, indigenous peoples, outlaw gunfighters, and cattle thieves; and patrolled the U.S.-Mexican border during World War I. During World War II Fort Huachuca was enlarged to quarter fourteen thousand soldiers, who constituted the only all-black division in the U.S. Army. The Buffalo Soldiers had been led by white officers; the 93rd, however, had nearly three hundred African American officers. By December 1942 the 32nd and 33rd companies of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) had joined the men of the 93rd in the Sonoran Desert. These women served as postal clerks, stenographers, switch-board operators, truck drivers, and typists, freeing the men from these duties for combat.
Because he was commissioned after World War II, Ragsdale never had the opportunity to fly a military combat mission, but during his four-month stay at Luke Air Field, he continued to engage a different kind of enemy at home. All of the eleven Tuskegee officers stationed at Luke Air Field were paired off with white roommates. With regard to race relations, “Phoenix was unquestionably the Mississippi of the West,” Ragsdale believed. When Ragsdale arrived in the “Mississippi of the West,” he was assigned to live with a white captain from the Mississippi of the Deep South. His roommate proved to be unaccommodating and disagreeable. Ragsdale’s relationship with his roommate, however, would teach him a great deal about how most white people knew little about black people and how that ignorance often generated faulty perceptions, ill-will, and racist behavior.
Ragsdale recalled that his southern roommate “didn’t come to the room until late that first night.” When he arrived, he was incredulous. “When he saw me,” Ragsdale recounted, “he couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Who are you staying with nigger?’ I said I was staying with him and he stormed out of the room. He didn’t sleep in the room that night, and he complained to his superiors that I shouldn’t be with him; that there were other rooms available. None of us knew about Truman’s integration experiment. We were as confused and upset as the white officers. It wasn’t until April when I went back to Tuskegee that I learned about the experiment.”
Ragsdale never forgot the humiliation he experienced as a black officer at Luke Air Field. White airmen refused to salute him and conspired to harass him throughout his stay. On one occasion, Ragsdale’s roommate filled a balloon with water and placed it in Ragsdale’s bed. “I didn’t notice it when I went to bed,” Ragsdale recalled, “but I rolled over on it and woke up immediately. I was soaked and my bed was soaked. He couldn’t do much ore harassing than that though. He outranked me, but I was still an officer.” Ragsdale’s roommate treated him with a modicum of respect only once during his entire stay, immediately after the two had joined together to place first in a target competition. “I was the wingman and we had one other wingman,” Ragsdale remembered. “My roommate flew in the middle and led the formation in the competition. After we had shot our bullets and had landed, he was feeling real happy about how well we had done, and he came up to me and slapped me on my back.” After two months of living together, Ragsdale and his roommate began exchanging small talk. “He was not an ignorant man by any means,” Ragsdale recalled of his old roommate, “but he wasn’t informed racially. We talked a lot about the (white and black) races. I had never been around white people very much, and he had never been around black people. We were both ignorant and reluctant to get too close.”
During one of their conversations, the captain told Ragsdale something that made him “shake his head in disbelief” for the rest of his life. “There was a bathroom where we were living,” Ragsdale recalls, “and often when we were showering I’d look up and catch him staring at my body. I wondered why he was staring.” After a couple of months the Mississippi native told Ragsdale what had caused him to stare. The captain told Ragsdale that “back in Mississippi, his church and family had told him that all niggers had tails.” “He was staring at me to see if I had a tail,” Ragsdale declared. “I guess to the white man’s mind back then it was only logical: We came from Africa, just like the baboons and monkeys, and we had black skin, just like the baboons and monkeys, and we had kinky hair, just like the baboons and monkeys. So naturally, we had tails, just like the baboons and monkeys.”
Ragsdale credited World War II and his tenure in the military for inspiring him to work toward eradicating such ignorance. Whether or not the captain had actually believed that black people had tails mattered less to Ragsdale than the extent to which America had produced racial ideologies that sometimes bordered on the insane. World War II and the Double V campaign propelled Ragsdale into a lifetime of work on behalf of civil and human rights. Lincoln Ragsdale Jr. thought this experience led his father to believe he could do anything. Lincoln Sr. was a trained pilot of the P51, the fastests single-engine airplane in the world at the time. With an engine built by Rolls Royce, it was the largest piston-driven airplane in the world as well. The P51 was the first piston airplane to break the sound barrier at seven hundred miles an hour. To Lincoln Ragsdale, his ability to navigate the P51 was symbolic of the ability of black people to overcome the many adversities they faced.
Ragsdale’s ability to serve a white military administration while preparing himself to use his training for his own purposes later on also reveals his early willingness to work with people across race lines in the interest of advancing his own personal agenda and some of the objectives of the larger African American community. He understood that as his military career developed, his service would give him almost instant legitimacy in future business enterprises and political activities. Americans showered respect and almost instant credibility on those who served in the military during World War II, and servicemen who sought political or economic power benefited substantially from having served in the conflict. In fact, Ragsdale stated that it was the military “Tuskegee experience” that gave him direction. “It gave me a whole new self-image,” he maintained. He “remembered when we (Tuskegee Airmen) used to walk through black neighborhoods right after the war, and little kids would run up to us and touch our uniforms. ‘Mister, can you really fly an airplane?’ they’d ask. The Tuskegee Airmen gave blacks a reason to be proud,” and it also gave Ragsdale incentive to believe that he could achieve much more.
World War II and the fight to preserve democracy abroad fueled a massive effort by black people in American to make good in the promise of democracy at home. Ragsdale argued that although the attitude of whites did not change, when the Tuskegee Airmen came back home the attitude of blacks did. “If you’re told over and over again that you’re not worth anything, and you don’t have any contact with the people who are telling you that, then there’s no way to disprove what they’re saying. You start to believe what they say is true. But the Tuskegee Airmen disproved it, and men like Joe Louis and Jesse Owens disproved it. Those men were signals to our race that we were equal to whites.” The collective effort of African Americans culminated in the issuing of Executive Order 8802 by President Roosevelt, the victory over the all-white primary in the Supreme Court’s Smith v. Allwright ruling in 1944, and the successful campaign led by Mabel K. Staupers to end formal discrimination against black nurses in the military in 1945.
World War II had a significant impact on the African American West. The region’s black population grew by 443,000, or 33 percent, during the 1940s. The largest urban regions hosted increases in the African American population ranging from 798 percent in San Francisco to 168 percent in Los Angeles. Increases were not as striking in the Hawaiian Islands and the Southwest, but cities in these areas did witness an increase in the number of black residents. Black Phoenicians saw their numbers surge from 4,263 in 1940 to 5,217 in 1950. The growing populations ushered in social, economic, and political change, and as a result of desegregation in defense industries, employment opportunities increased somewhat as well. Four states—Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas—produced the majority of black migrants to the West. Fifty-three percent of the migrants were women, most of whom were married. As historian Quintard Taylor Jr. has indicated, “many migrants followed hot, dusty stretches of U.S. Highways 80 and 60 and Route 66, made famous by the Dust Bowl migration a decade earlier, across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.”
Since most hotels and other places of public accommodation were off-limits to African Americans, black migrants shared driving responsibilities and camped on the roadside. Black Americans also relied on the hospitality of other black people, staying in the homes of African Americans throughout their journey in Amarillo, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, and Phoenix. Once black migrants made it to the West Coasts, some were finally able to secure skilled work. Executive Order 8802 and the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) aided some blacks and gave them access to jobs in the region’s shipyards and factories. Western African Americans, along with the rest of the nation, celebrated V-E Day in 1945. Their optimism, however, was tempered by the reality of postwar cutbacks.
As World War II drew to a close, western industrialists and the federal government were downsizing war-related production and jobs. Many of the limited economic gains that black westerners had made eroded in the face of postwar reductions. Cities such as Los Angeles, Oakland, and Portland, for example, hosted a large population of out-of-work African Americans. San Francisco and Seattle, on the other hand, suffered no significant economic downturn. In the Southwest, African Americans had virtually no access to skilled jobs, and they continued to work primarily as field laborers or domestics. Both prior to and after World War II, black people in the American West were generally expected to remain subordinated in socioeconomic status. White supremacy and Jim Crow in the American West were most salient in southwestern cities like Phoenix. Though not as rigid, volatile, and capricious, race relations in this region most resembled those of the American South.
The segregation of black students in schools was also pervasive during this period, particularly in the Southwest. Local-option segregation in states like Arizona endured. Acts of violence to keep black people “in their place” during this era occurred often. In the Southwest, fears of black men raping white women ignited the Beaumont, Texas, riot of 1943. During this melee, two African Americans were lynched, over fifty people were injured, and many businesses were looted and set ablaze. Police brutality became an important issue during this period. In the Los Angeles “zoot suit riot” of June 1943, police officers singled out Mexican Americans and African Americans for physical abuse. Dressed in sporty suits, Mexican Americans and African Americans were targeted for arrest, beatings, and other forms of persecution at the hands of police officers and off-duty military servicemen. The media, dominated by whites, exacerbated racial tensions by producing coverage of the controversy that bordered on the theatrical. Ultimately, the racist and violent behavior of the police during the 1940s, building upon a long history of racist transgressions by those enforcing the law, gave African Americans and other minorities further reason to distrust law enforcement officers. This set the stage for poor relations between minorities and the police for decades to come.
African American migrants brought with them a race consciousness and a desire for positive change. Pressured by black activists, for example, the California legislature was considering bills to outlaw racial discrimination in workplaces and public accommodation by 1943. In Denver, black protesters eliminated legal segregation in theaters. Victories over job discrimination and Jim Crow were more elusive in the Southwest. In Phoenix, segregation continued to arrest the socioeconomic mobility of African Americans. As oppressive as Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination that accompanied black western migration often proved to be the most critical problem. In cities like Phoenix, whose prewar African American population had been small, World War II created distinctive neighborhoods marked by low living standards, poor health, and socioeconomic isolation. This “ghettoization” was the result of Euro-American discrimination in the form of “restrictive covenants” that barred the occupation or use of property by certain racial groups.
During World War II few African Americans could secure decent housing as a result of racial marginalization and economic subordination. In 1946 the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), against the protests of the NAACP, financed the construction of homes in residential districts in Arizona that openly discriminated in the sale of real estate properties. FHA officials claimed that it was unconstitutional to force realty agents and contractors to integrate African Americans into white neighborhoods. Black applicants who sought and could afford housing outside predominantly black neighborhoods either were given the run around, flatly rejected, or served with court injunctions. Most black military veterans who relocated to Phoenix also confronted housing shortages. For instance, eighty-five homeless African American veterans were forced to move into an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp near South Mountain Park in South Phoenix when they were unable to find affordable housing elsewhere in the city. The circumscription of African American socioeconomic mobility extended to virtually every facet of black life. In 1946, for example, black Phoenician veterans Elihu A. English and Jiles Davis petitioned the Arizona Corporation Commission for permission to start their own taxicab company. The commission predictably rejected their request, arguing that another cab company was not needed, despite the fact that the Phoenix Yellow Cab Company, the only other cab company in the city, refused to transport black people in its cars.
As historian Lawrence de Graaf has argued, “one of the most significant impacts of World War II on African Americans was on their attitudes. Many became more aware of the discrepancies between America’s professed ideals and its practices, and of their ability to bring about change. African Americans in the West reflected this increased assertiveness.” African Americans were angered by the poor treatment they endured and the lack of opportunities that many of them faced as they endeavored to improve their lives. Black veterans such as the ones who had no choice but to seek refuge in a deserted CCC camp in Phoenix were particularly petulant. The heightened confidence that many of them developed as soldiers, however, and their collective decision to no longer accept unequal treatment were essential to the development of the modern civil rights movement. Black military personnel were particularly affected. Would-be leaders like Ragsdale played a substantial role in the growth of protest organizations. The American West was a participant in a national trend that witnessed the number of NAACP branches triple and its membership increase over eightfold between 1940 and 1946.
The NUL which Ragsdale would eventually join, also played a critical role in the advancement of African Americans. The many ad hoc black and multiracial organizations that protested various forms of discrimination represent one of the most conspicuous manifestations of wartime activism. Unlike the NAACP, these groups organized marches and picket lines. World War II also sparked an increase in black political participation. Historian Darlene Clark Hines has maintained that one of the most notable “black victories” occurred in Texas, where the NAACP in 1944 successfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to nullify the all-white primary, which had effectively disenfranchised black voters in Texas.
World War II also influenced white racial attitudes. African Americans, members of the press, and various government officials argued that the war for democracy necessarily involved the destruction of racial barriers. Their efforts often coalesced into unrivaled interracial cooperation. In 1943, for example, activists of various racial and ethnic backgrounds in Los Angeles established the Council on Civic Unity, which championed interracial understanding and contested racial injustice. The group was duplicated in several western dities. In Phoenix, a similar organization would be founded in the late 1940s.
Ultimately, the Double V campaign proved to be bittersweet – sweet because many socioeconomic advances were made; bitter because, despite gains, African Americans continued to be subjected to economic oppression and segregation in schools, places of public accommodation, and residential areas. Military desegregation, even though it was not put into effect until the Korean War, and the development of the civil rights movement were perhaps the most significant advances. The African American vote, America’s budding fidelity with emerging nations, and the rise of the civil rights movement facilitated the desegregation of the military. A Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948 re-ignited tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Many leaders in both countries believed a war between the superpowers was imminent. U.S. military leaders, however, were concerned because African Americans had already voiced their opposition to serving yet again in a racially segregated army. In response to President Truman’s resuscitation of the draft, A. Philip Randolph once again posed the threat of massive black resistance.
In 1947 Randolph formed the League for Non-violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation, and in 1948, through this organization, he warned America that African Americans would not comply with a racially segregated draft. From his pulpit and seat in the U.S. Congress, the outspoken Adam Clayton Powell Jr. championed Randolph’s stance, proclaiming that the U.S. did not have enough jails to accommodate all of the African Americans who would refuse to serve. On June 24, 1948, pressures mounted as the Soviet Union instituted a military blockade on West Berlin. Truman, viewing this as a precursor to war and scrambling to rally support for his reelection campaign, issued Executive Order 9981 desegregating the military. The air force was the first branch of the military and the first federal agency to integrate, five years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Following the issue of Executive Order 9981, Randolph and Grant Reynolds, cochairs of the League for Non-violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation, dissolved the organization and canceled all protests against the military and federal government.
If African Americans’ successes against segregation in the federal government gave them reason to celebrate, the sobering reality of racial inequality in postwar America gave them pause. When the war came to an end, the 332nd came home to segregated reception centers and local separation stations. There were no New York ticker-tape parades, such as those given in honor of black soldiers who served in World War I. Black soldiers and veterans were not embraced like their white counterparts. All were subjected to the strictures of racial segregation, and many suffered physical abuse at the hands of angry white mobs. There were numerous instances of attacks of black soldiers and their families, particularly in the South.
In Walton County, Georgia, an honorably discharged black soldier was involved in a fight with a white man who had been making sexual advances toward the soldier’s wife. The World War II veteran was arrested and jailed without medical attention, while the white assailant was taken to the hospital. Shortly afterward, a mob of whites, enraged at the soldier’s defiance, stormed his jail cell and took him to an isolated area where his wife and another African American couple were being held prisoners. All four of them were tortured and brutally lynched. Although the NAACP attempted to intervene and successfully secured a grand jury, no one involved in the lynchings was ever brought to justice.
The impact of World War II on black westerners was considerable. Despite postwar cutbacks and persistent racial inequality, World War II and the industries that were created to support it improved the prospect of good jobs and a freer life for African Americans in the American West. As a result, large numbers of African Americans migrated to the West, increasing black populations in the region. This migration furnished many of the leaders and participants in the region’s burgeoning civil rights movement. It also paved the way for African American success in western businesses and politics. World War II ended unqualified discrimination in some areas, and throughout most of the West, African Americans were no longer relegated to unskilled labor positions. In southwestern cities such a Phoenix, however, white supremacy continued to reign, and blacks lagged behind their counterparts in other parts of the West and across the nation. Over one million black people migrated from the South to western states, including California, Washington, Colorado, and Arizona, ushering more vocal black presence in politics. As earlyi as 1948 African Americans’ political power influenced presidential elections, as both Republicans and Democrats included limited civil rights measures as part of their agendas. World War II also paved the way for African American leaders who sometimes greatly influenced race relations and the course of American history.
In some cases black westerners would achieve national recognition as politicians, lawyers, entertainers, or athletes. Jackie Robinson, for example, who grew up in California and attended the University of California at Los Angeles, was to many people a symbol of African American progress and potential. Often, however, local leaders unknown outside of their communities played critical roles in black progress at the local level. African Americans and Latinos elected Gus Garcia and George Sutton to the San Antonio, Texas, school board in 1948. Sutton was the first black elected official in Texas since the nineteenth century. In Arizona in 1944, Hayzel B. Daniels and Carl Sims became the first blacks to serve in the state’s legislature. Black Phoenicians organized systematic support networks to foster social, economic, political, and cultural enhancement. They established churches to provide spiritual support. Secular institutions were formed to heighten educational and intellectual development, improve medical care, and cultivate camaraderie among the black population.
De facto and de jure segregation limited the mobility of black Phoenicians and held them within the boundaries of their communities. Although confined, African Americans fought to overcome educational inequalities, labor problems, and ostracism from the larger, more economically secure Euro-American population. Simultaneously, black Phoenicians sought to retain their racial and cultural identity within their own neighborhoods, and though not immune to class consciousness and sexism, African Americans were able to flourish within their boundaries while being rendered “second-class” citizens in the larger community dominated by whites. After World War II, Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale would settle permanently in Phoenix and set out almost immediately to improve the status of blacks in Phoenix and to fight black marginalization in the city.
After his stint in the military, Lincoln Ragsdale brought his business, activist, and military background to Phoenix. He knew then that he could succeed and compete in a society that had been telling him that he was “nothing.” As a result of his service during World War II, Lincoln, like many black service personnel and their supporters, decided that he was not going back to “business as usual.” The personal transformation that Lincoln experienced and the partnership he would form with Eleanor, coupled with the international, national, and regional forces that the war unleashed, helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement in Phoenix. Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale became acquainted with the local community and established themselves as leading entrepreneurs and proponents of racial equality. It did not take long for their presence to be felt. After extensive combat training during World War II, Lincoln Ragsdale, with Eleanor’s help, set out to fight three of the most insidious racial problems in Phoenix: school and residential segregation and black Phoenician economic isolation.
Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
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Dr. Matthew C. Whitaker is an award winning scholar, teacher, activist and emerging voice among public intellectuals in the United States. Professor Whitaker is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, where he is also an Affiliate of the African and African American Studies Program and the School of Justice and Social Inquiry. Dr. Whitaker is a highly sought after writer, speaker, and consultant, who’s historical training and expertise in interpersonal and intercultural communication, social movements, politics, and popular culture places him at the cutting edge of our constantly changing global society.
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