Upon the eruption of World War II in Europe, the United States defense industry expanded across the country. After several years mired in the Great Depression, Americans welcomed these new economic and job opportunities. Rapid expansion required a greatly increased workforce, which forced leaders to confront discriminatory hiring practices. In June 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt created the National Defense Advisory Commission to create equitable employment for all Americans in the Defense industry. Still, enforcing anti-discriminatory hiring policies proved difficult across the War.
In June 1941, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) started a National Defense Day to protest discrimination of African Americans in government hiring. Labor leader Philip Randolph called for 100,000 African Americans to march on Washington to protest discrimination in the armed services and defense industry. In response, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, forbidding racial discrimination in government hiring and training programs. The order set up the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC). Though it was not a law, it was the first federal action to promote equal opportunity and prohibit employment discrimina
tion in the U.S.
The lure of defense industry jobs and the promise of the FEPC triggered the migration of African Americans from the South to defense plants across the country. Yet, industry leaders often refused to comply with the order, arguing that if African Americans were hired, employers would be forced to integrate the workforce. For example, the St. Louis Ordnance Plant deliberately ignored the hiring policies of the War Department, and refused to hire African Americans. They fought back and picketed in segregated employment lines outside the plant. Forced to comply, the plant responded by creating a segregated production line. In 1943, Roosevelt strengthened the FEPC and by 1945, the number of jobs held by African Americans had increased to eight percent of the industry workforce.
In the ammunition industry, WWII records reveal how challenging it was to recruit and sustain a large enough workforce to build and operate the plants. Discussions on labor pools and hiring practices are not detailed in accounts of how the plant was operated. However, advertisements across the nation and in plant newspapers targeted specific groups of people, like white females. Available employment statistics illustrate the ratio of employment by race.
A 1944 employment chart from the Iowa Ordnance Plant (operated by a defense contractor), listed employees in four categories: white males and females, and black males and females. Of 6,148 employees, just 91 employees were African American. An explanation above the chart indicates that “racial distinction is not in practice at this plant.” This is one example of how racial quotas and hiring practices limited the opportunities for African Americans.
Many authors have documented the inferior experiences of the black labor force in the defense industry, and the injustices they encountered as they were given more dangerous and dirtier jobs than white counterparts across industry. African American women were given the last order of employment, below white women and black men. Even so, by 1944, while the number of African American women employed in domestic service decreased 15.3%, their employment in defense work increased 11.5%.
The government set up special divisions dedicated to African American workers within the Labor Division of the War Production Board. The Negro Employment and Training Branch was created to help qualified black workers participate in the employment and training opportunities of the national defense program. The effort appeared worthwhile, but participants who completed training programs were often denied placement, even in job fields that were critically understaffed.
Despite resistance to expanded hiring practices, America’s rural African American population benefitted from the establishment of ammunition plants and depots.
Opportunities had been limited in rural Kentucky, but the Army expanded the options for employment with the establishment of Lexington Signal Depot. The first graduate of the depot’s radar school was John Graham, a Black soldier who had previously been posted to Fort Scott, Kansas.
Despite increased employment opportunities for African Americans, the workers were often not treated equally. Into the 1960s, the local mass transit system serving the Lexington facility operated separate buses and even separate bus stops for white and black passengers. Other plants maintained separate entrances, rest rooms, and break room facilities. Often, plants with large numbers of African-American workers maintained racially segregated production lines.
Equal treatment in the workplace was only one issue for black workers in the defense industry. Once employed, working and living conditions were identified by many as difficult. Newly constructed ammunition plants were frequently located in remote areas of farmland. With the rapid construction of plants, living quarters and “company towns” had to be created in support of each plant. Early living conditions involved tent and trailer camps, or temporary housing additions along highways leading to the plant. This was a difficult situation for everyone, but harder for minority employees who were segregated in both society and the workplace.
When the federal government announced the establishment of Indiana Ordnance Works, the town of Charlestown had approximately 200 homes and one hotel.
Indianapolis newspapers reported that new workers were living in trailers, tents, cars, chicken coops, barns, lean-tos, and even the town jail. The town board struggled to cope with the complexities of becoming a “boom” town. Public health and sanitation were the most critical concerns, along with schooling, childcare, building jurisdiction, police and fire protection, traffic control, and recreation.
State and local governments intervened to provide solutions to the influx of people. Unfortunately, adequate funding was not available to address many of these complex community problems in short timeframes. In African American communities, the problems went unaddressed and reports of inadequate services, sanitation, and treatment were common experiences in their neighborhoods. The problems the U.S. faced with integrating labor and the Armed Forces were exacerbated by trying to uphold segregation in all facets of society.
During Black History Month, we remember that racial barriers and segregation began to collapse, because of the dedicated African Americans that fought and worked for our country. As reference to progress of in the employment of minority employees, in 2020, the percentage of African American workers in the defense industry remains at or above the percentage within the population of United States (13%), both in the Armed Forces
– Air Force (13%), Army (16%), Marine Corps (18%), and Navy (13%) – and particularly in Department of Defense agencies (22%). Of these, 6.6% hold SES positions.