Fort Lee WACs helped drive the racial integration of the U.S. Army in 1950s
February 20, 2014
FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 20, 2014) -- An article discovered during the search of the vast archives of the U.S. Army Women's Museum at Fort Lee about two years ago led the museum staff to delve deeper into the little-known story of the integration of the Army in the 1950s -- led by the Women's Army Corps at the installation.
"The WAC Training Center at Fort Lee is an integrated island in an otherwise sea of segregation."
This is the opening paragraph of a story published in the "Journal and Guide to Virginia" (Norfolk edition) on Aug. 4, 1951. It was written by Daisy C. Hicks, an author who visited Fort Lee with her husband -- a correspondent from a national newspaper organization on a tour of military installations.
"While other parts of Fort Lee conform to a pattern which works to keep the races separate," the article continued, "in such things as officers clubs, swimming pools and dances, colored and white WACs completely ignore barriers within the confines of their own command, enjoying an integrated officers club on their own, swimming together and attending social events together without incident."
The article, which described how race and color were ignored in the WACs area, was found by Tracy Bradford, education and training specialist.
"When she saw this article and then another from an African-American publication," said Amanda Strickland, museum specialist-archivist, "she loved the idea of an Island of Integration theme for a museum program here."
Bradford teamed with Strickland and they developed a huge K-12 presentation for the American Association of State and Local History.
"It wasn't until this article was found that we really understood the impact that the integration of WACs had (outside of Fort Lee).
"We wanted to widely-communicate how women led the way in the Army in terms of integrating racially, noted Strickland.
Gathering materials from the archives was a daunting task. There are more than one-and-half million documents, she said. Strickland went through the numerous boxes of historical artifacts, oral histories, photo albums and more with the goal of educating the public -- particularly students -- about the WACs role at Fort Lee. She also talked with former WACs, including white women who trained at Fort Lee in this period.
This resulted in an exhibition "Island of Integration" created for Black History Month in 2013. The staff also held a series of Lunch and Learn workshops for community members on the post with outside speakers.
"We pulled out old artifacts and archives that no one had ever seen and invited a number of people for bag lunches," she said.
The exhibit is now a permanent display at the museum. Through many photographs, newspaper articles, display boards, a WACs Taupe Garrison Cap, an ID "Dog" Tag" worn by Elizabeth Jones who trained here in 1952, a video and more, this remarkable time in the history of the region and nation is recounted.
The practices of segregation within the WACs was based on a policy established during World War II that dictated two percent of the Army could be women and 10 percent of the WACs could be African-American.
Therefore, when Camp Lee became the site of the WACs Training Center and School in 1948, racial segregation was still the policy within the Army.
"This meant that every fifth class of WACs that came to Fort Lee were African-American and were placed into Company B, commanded by Capt. Bernice Hughes, to complete basic training," said Strickland.
Later in the same year, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 that declared, "There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." Thus, within a short period the WACs integrated their service clubs and facilities leading to the end of segregation in all WACs training. "The last class of segregated Company B completed training in early 1950," said Strickland.
"The desegregation of training was unique to WACs at Camp Lee because the rest of post was segregated as was society outside the gates. This phenomenon is what created the 'Island of Integration," she said.
For details about the WACs and the desegregation developments, contact the U.S. Army Women's Museum at (804) 734-4327.