Monday, March 5, 2018

Hampton Institute and the Navy during the Second World War, Part I: The Crisis

It is a truism that participation in two global wars during the last century changed the Hampton Roads area forever.  Nevertheless, business leaders and politicians in Southeast Virginia 75 years ago, like many other centers of what would later become known as the military-industrial complex nationwide, systematically denied a significant portion of its population the benefits of broadened military spending, even as it shouldered a significant portion of the burden.  In the run-up to World War II, it became clear that leaders of industry, state and local government could not be counted upon to change policies or enact legislation to benefit this part of the population, echoing attitudes that prevailed among some elites before the Civil War.  As during the Civil War, the level of leadership required to achieve positive change would have to come from the President of the United States. 

With Memorial Church (with the clock tower) and the Academy Building of Hampton Institute in the background, Sailors conduct drills in a metal lifeboat while training  during World War II. Note orientation markings on the boat's hull and ropes for controlling the rudder.  Despite intransigence on the part of the Navy Department, a number of "A" schools were opened at the institute in 1942 to train African American recruits in advanced technical skills between basic training and assignment to the fleet.  This photograph was received by the Naval Photographic Science Laboratory on January 13, 1945. (Naval History and Heritage Command, from the collections of the National Archives and Records Administration)
Almost 75 years after the institution of slavery was wrested from southern society by military forces loyal to the federal government, a new federal commission under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt would take the first steps towards dismantling the systematic marginalization and exploitation of African Americans that had replaced that institution.  Unlike during the Civil War, however, the  leadership of the War and Navy Departments, ostensibly loyal to the President, nonetheless resisted the changes mandated by the commission and sought a segregated compromise.  As a direct result, Hampton University, then known as Hampton Institute, would play a role in bridging the gap between the racist interwar personnel policies of the Navy and the postwar integration of its ranks. 

"Scientific Education"

Samuel Chapman Armstrong wears the insignia of a Union colonel in this glass-plate photograph, taken around 1864. Armstrong was promoted to the rank of colonel in October 1864 and was later breveted a brigadier general before the end of the Civil War. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Founded as the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute 150 years ago to educate freed African American slaves and, nine years later, Native Americans, Hampton University focused on technical training and scientific education early in its development under the leadership of Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Armstrong, who led the institute until 1893, had been a brevet brigadier general in charge of African American troops during the Civil War, and his Soldiers were some of the first to enter Petersburg, Virginia, after the Confederate withdrawal from the city in 1865. After the war, he joined the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (commonly known as the Freedman’s Bureau), and was appointed as educational superintendent of a 10-county area of Southeast Virginia, including the Virginia Peninsula.

Armstrong quickly realized the potential of a former plantation near the end of the Peninsula known as “Little Scotland” close to Fort Monroe, which had served as a place of refuge during the war for thousands of slaves seeking escape from their erstwhile masters, as a school. The thousands of ex-slaves remaining near the fort were a ready student body for the teachers of the American Missionary Association (AMA), who had operated there during most of the war. 

Looking west from the City of Hampton across the Hampton River in 1900, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute lies on the opposite bank.  The building with the clock tower center left is Memorial Church, opened in 1886, while the nearby Academy Building at center right is home today to Hampton University’s naval science program.   (Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Library of Congress)

At Armstrong’s direction, the Freedmen’s Bureau and AMA pooled resources to buy the property in June 1867, and on April 1, 1868, with Armstrong as its principal, the school opened with one teacher, 15 students, and one matron. Armstrong retained his position for a time with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and many of the original campus buildings were built with the bureau’s funding. After its incorporation by Elizabeth City County and the state and the dissolution of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Hampton Institute received no further significant federal expenditures until it received its first Native American students in 1877. 

Armstrong strongly believed that the classical, liberal education that was standard fare at most institutions of higher learning at the time were of little use to his students. A Hampton Normal Institute student required, in his words, "scientific training." He defined it as "the facts, the forces and the resources and capacities of the world around him that he must learn to deal with if he is to advance." Military education also became an early part of the school's curriculum. Starting in March 1878, an Army officer, known alternately as Instructor in Tactics, Commandant of Cadets, or Disciplinarian, was assigned to the institute and led the school’s corps of cadets. They marched in the inauguration of James A. Garfield, a trustee of the institute and fellow Williams College alumnus of Armstrong’s, in 1881.   

African-American and Native-American students, wearing cadet uniforms, learn the operation of a cheese press screw at the Hampton Institute in 1900.  Education for Native Americans at the institute would be discontinued in 1923.  (Francis Benjamin Johnston Collection, Library of Congress)

The quality of technical training offered at Hampton was clearly good enough to make their graduates competitive candidates for industrial jobs, including those in the more technical ratings of the Navy. A number of African American and Native American alumni of Hampton Institute served in the Navy during the Spanish-American War, although it seems to have been easier for the latter to succeed. A prime example can be found in the case of machinist first class Chapman Skenandore, a Native American graduate of the institute, who visited his alma mater during a stopover of the armored cruiser New York (ACR 2) in 1899. 

By the institute's own estimates, 805 alumni served in the Army and Navy during the First World War, including 149 from the Student Army Training Corps chapter based at Hampton. Three-hundred-twenty-three were deployed with the American Expeditionary Force or served aboard ships in the European Theater. Forty-six were commissioned as Army officers. Ten were said to have died overseas. 

By the time yet another world war broke out in Europe a generation later, one might think that the documented, distinguished service that African Americans rendered to the Army would have resulted in broader opportunities in the Navy, but quite the opposite had occurred. The only Navy school in Hampton Roads that admitted them was the Messman School, which opened at Naval Training Station (NTS) Norfolk, just across the roadstead from Hampton Institute, in January 1933. That was because the Messman Branch was the only branch of the Navy that accepted African-American recruits. By June 1940, when the last hapless French, British, and Commonwealth military personnel were fleeing a falling France at Dunkirk, there were only 4,007 African-Americans out of the 160,997 serving in the U.S. Navy that year, roughly 2.49 percent. There were perhaps only one or two chief petty officers among them outside the Messman Branch, holdovers from a time before racist policies implemented after WWI denied black recruits everything except servitude. 

The Navy's policies were representative of those in place in private companies and corporations that supplied and equipped the service. As federal military outlays grew from $2.2 to $13.7 billion, African American participation in the labor market actually fell, bottoming out at 2.5 percent by April 1941.  

In an equitable political and business environment, Hampton Institute would have been well-positioned to provide services to the Navy. It had shed its "normal" basic educational beginnings and become a full-fledged college with full accreditation by the early 1930s. However, the decade had not been good in most other respects. Within a history of the institute he wrote for his doctoral dissertation at New York University in 1954, Hampton faculty member William Hannibal Robinson wrote, "The economic depression, decreased income from the endowment and investments, the loss of donations from organizations and organized philanthropy, unemployment among the families of the students, and the advanced state of disrepair into which the school's plant had fallen, all combined to a serious financial situation at Hampton Institute."  Long before all this, the discontinuance of training for Native Americans at the institute in 1923 had dried up an important federal revenue stream that had yet to be replaced.

Like other institutions of higher learning across the country, Hampton Institute would ultimately benefit from the onrush of emergency defense spending that would enable it to train military recruits how to operate all the hardware the War Department and the Navy would be receiving from other government contractors. With its long history of what founder Samuel Armstrong called "scientific education," the institute would become a natural home to a program of advanced "A" schools at a time in which some of those same schools at NTS Norfolk, practically within sight of its campus, were off-limits to African Americans. 

This important investment in Hampton Institute was not foreordained, however. Before it could become a reality, action had to be taken by two different presidents.  The Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), with the backing of President Roosevelt, and its particularly well-placed chairman; a man hand picked for the job by Roosevelt (who also happened to be president of Hampton Institute) had their work cut out for them.

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