Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Hampton Institute and the Navy during the Second World War, Part II: The Compromise

The following is part two of a two-part series on Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, during World War II, halfway through its 150-year history, and the little-known role what was then known as Hampton Institute played in the prelude to full integration in the United States Navy.
Sailors paint and tighten bolts on a landing craft while training at Hampton Institute during World War II. This boat appears to be a LCV type. This photograph was received by the Naval Photographic Science Laboratory on January 13, 1945. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)
By mid-1940, much of the civilized world was in turmoil, and the American political landscape, not to mention civil society, was not untouched by the slaughter going on in Europe and the Far East. Sooner or later, war would come. This impending crisis was a threat to American citizens of all races, yet African Americans faced limited opportunities to participate in the defense of the nation, either within the private businesses that produced munitions and other war materiel for the military, or within the military itself.

The Hampton Conference

This stunted state of affairs drew the ire of Dr. Malcolm MacLean, who was chosen in July 1940 to became the sixth president of Hampton Institute (HI), one of the nation's oldest educational institutions for African Americans. Only days after officially taking office, MacLean hosted a national “Conference on the Participation of then Negro in National Defense” on November 25 & 26  to discuss the issue of why the burgeoning employment opportunities in the defense sector were passing African Americans by.
Dr. Malcolm MacLean. (Hampton University Digital Archives)

A common refrain that MacLean would sound at that conference and at appearances nationwide during his tumultuous tenure at Hampton Institute revolved around the tremendous waste in human resources that exclusionary and segregationist policies represented. He also compared those policies and the pseudo-scientific rationale behind them with those that he believed would cause the ultimate ruination of the Axis, rhetorically linking the forms of institutional racism maintained in the United States with that practiced by the Nazis.

"Nearly the whole American process of handling its Negro problem is a fundamental violation of both democracy and intellectual freedom. Further, it is an enormous wastage of human resources, a wastage that no nation, certainly no democracy, can afford," MacLean said in 1941 in a speech widely reported by the African American press nationwide. "If there is any one thing that will finally bring about the collapse of the [Nazi] dictatorship, it is the vast draining away of brains and ability from Germany, Poland, Austria, Belgium, and occupied France by their slaughter and suppression of brilliant, skilled, and trained Jews and Negroes and others on the basis of a fantastic and exploded theory of race superiority."

Before the conference had even started, MacLean received a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wrote “It is heartening to know that in this time of stress and strain, when the whole nation is engaged in a mighty effort to gird itself against any challenge which a mad world may hurl at it, you and your associates at Hampton Institute are to hold a two-day conference on the participation of the Negro in national defense.” Roosevelt ended the letter with, "There could be no finer manifestation of the loyalty of the Negro, no more fitting rededication of himself to the cause of America, than the conference which you are holding. We who are at the center of the defense effort in Washington will take new heart from this sterling manifestation of devotion to country. You may be sure that suggestions and recommendations representing the views of your conference will be appreciated by those administering the program of national defense.”

These were no mere platitudes from the president, who was by then grappling with a significant amount of political pressure to do something about the hundreds of defense contractors nationwide that marginalized or flat-out refused to hire African Americans. Under pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the threat of a march on Washington from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, establishing the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC). Not since the dissolution of the Freedmen’s Bureau had the federal government enacted a formal body to protect the civil rights of African Americans by making nondiscrimination a formal policy. Roosevelt would ultimately recruit MacLean to play a key role in the FEPC, and as an indirect result, Hampton Institute stood to benefit.

As president of the institute, MacLean labored not only to expand awareness of the abuse being meted out to skilled African American workers by racist defense contractors, but he was also acutely aware that the institute, still smarting from the financial woes brought on by the Great Depression, would also be left out of the surge of federal investment being made in other institutions of higher learning as a part of the war effort. Regardless of his or her pedagogical predilections, a university president is, after all, its chief fundraiser. "We are and must be wholly aware of the fact that the United States is in the midst of a world war," MacLean wrote in his first annual report to the institute in mid-1941. "Whether we conceive our part in that war as one of defense only or of active participation on an undeclared basis, nevertheless all that we do at Hampton Institute must be thought of and planned in relation to that war..."

The forward magazines of USS Arizona (BB 39) explode after she was hit by a Japanese bomb on the morning of December 7, 1941. Frame clipped from a color motion picture taken from on board USS Solace (AH 5). (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

Hampton Institute Goes to War

World War II came early for Norfolk native and Hampton Institute alumnus Irvin C. Anderson. Although he had studied printing for two years at HI, the only occupation offered to him after his enlistment into the Navy in 1936 was that of a mess attendant. After graduating the Cooks and Stewards School at Naval Training Station Norfolk, he shipped off to his first ship, the battleship Arizona (BB 39), where he died on the morning of December 7, 1941. An unknown number of the 5,000 or so African Americans serving in the Navy at that time were Hampton Institute alumni, but it is certain that, regardless of what they had studied at the institute, they were restricted to being Messmen.

During World War II, over 90 percent of African Americans in the Navy worked in the Stewards Branch.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Only one month before the Pearl Harbor attack, two students of HI's civilian pilot training program responded to letters from the Navy's Aviation Cadet Selection Board urging that they apply to be aviation cadets, only to be told in a terse reply that the Navy accepted "applications from Negroes in none but the messman branch." "While the Navy continues its urgent appeal for flyers," wrote a commentator for the Cleveland Gazette, "many hundreds of experienced 'Negro' American pilots, all over the country, continue to train for the day that they may serve in the defense of America." Considering that some Hampton Institute students had already left for the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to receive advanced aviation training, with many going on to become members of the revered Tuskegee Airmen of the Army Air Corps, the Navy's tactical obfuscations were beginning to wear thin.

The FEPC was established to monitor compliance of new policies designed to end exclusionary policies practiced by civilian contractors, yet the Navy’s refusal to abide by similar rules became a sticking point early on, which in turn became the basis for the undoing of the Navy’s own racist policies. Yet the FEPC didn't exactly break the back of the Navy's segregationist system. The Hampton Institute's contribution to winning the war would ultimately become intertwined in the compromise struck between the FEPC, acting on behalf of the Roosevelt Administration, and the Navy.

The FEPC’s first chairman, Mark Etheredge, took the Navy to task over regressive racial policies that had been instituted after World War I, yet Navy Secretary Frank Knox, taking the side of the Navy’s General Board, paraphrased their general opinion that integration would erode the Navy’s warfighting capability, writing, “Experience of many years in the Navy has shown clearly that men of the colored race, if enlisted in any other branch than the messman’s branch, and promoted to the position of petty officer, cannot maintain discipline among men of the white race over whom they may be placed by reason of their rating.”

Relenting to pressure from the White House, on January 16, 1942, Knox asked the General Board to develop a plan to induct and train 5,000 African American recruits for jobs outside the Messman (by then known as the Steward) Branch. After considerable internal debate, particularly within the Bureau of Navigation, which held sway over personnel matters, President Roosevelt was informed that integration would pose an unacceptable risk to efficiency; not because of any inherent deficiency on the part of the African Americans, but because of white resistance to them at the deck plate level. Roosevelt, having been an assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I, did not buy the argument. By this time, Roosevelt had appointed Dr. MacLean as chairman of the committee, and it was he who came to an agreement with Knox permitting African Americans to enlist in the general service. Nevertheless, Knox only agreed with the provision that they be trained separately from white recruits.

Looking less than enthused, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox enlists William Baldwin, the first of thousands of African Americans to enlist for the general service in the Navy during World War II, on June 2, 1942.  Until Knox and the Navy Department relented to pressure from the Roosevelt Administration, African Americans could only enlist into the Messman (later Stewards) Branch. (National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command/Flickr)
On April 21, 1942, Knox approved a plan to begin enlisting 1,000 African Americans a month on June 1, in occupations other than stewards or mess attendants, as well as allowing 900 to enlist in the Marine Corps. On June 18, Dr. MacLean announced that Hampton Institute would be one of the two locations where advanced training for African Americans in the Navy would occur. After eight weeks of basic training at Camp Robert Smalls at Naval Training Station (NTS) Great Lakes (named for an African American naval hero from the Civil War and commanded by Hampton Institute founder Samuel C. Armstrong’s son, Lt. Cmdr. Daniel W. Armstrong), “128 carefully selected men” would undergo 16 weeks of training at Hampton Institute. The schools to be established there were essentially duplicates of Class "A" schools just a mile away at NTS Norfolk and at NTS San Diego.

Seaman George Clinton Fields is congratulated by Lt. Cmdr. Daniel W. Armstrong as he graduates with honors from Camp Robert Smalls, the segregated basic training facility at Naval Training Station Great Lakes in September 1942. Fields' last job before joining the Navy was as a valet to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Armstrong's father was Brig. Gen. Samuel C. Armstrong, founder of Hampton Institute. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives) 
On September 12, 1942, the U.S. Naval Training School, Hampton Institute, officially opened with Lt. Cmdr. Edwin H. Downes commanding a staff of 11 officers and 28 enlisted personnel. The first 128 basic training graduates that arrived from Great Lakes six days later took their places in the electrician, motor machinist, machinist, metalsmith, and carpentry schools on campus three days after that. In addition, the Cooks and Bakers School that had been based at Naval Training Station Norfolk was moved to the Chamberlin Hotel, which had been owned by the Navy since January 1942, and made part of the HI training program.

Sailors study small craft & automotive electrical systems training at Hampton Institute during World War II. This photograph was received by the Naval Photographic Science Laboratory on 13 January 1945. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

Within a year, the student body at HI had grown to nearly 900 at any given time, and the naval staff had grown to 139. In addition, the monthly student quota for the HI program was raised to 187, with 30 going to the Cooks and Bakers School at the Chamberlin Hotel near Fort Monroe. The regular machinist course was discontinued in 1943, but a shipfitter's course was added. Meanwhile, the Navy built a brand-new instructional building featuring a large diesel machine shop, and a large recreational building featuring a gym and auditorium was also added to the campus. A boat house was also built after a coxswain school was added to the curriculum.

Looking northwest from an aircraft flying over Armstrong Field (now known as Armstrong Stadium), the U.S. Naval Gymnasium, which opened in April 1943 (later known as Williams Gym, which was replaced by the Hampton University Student Center), lies across Marshall Avenue, with Phenix Hall located behind it.  In addition to the gymnasium, the building contained a drill hall, an auditorium equipped with a movie projection room, and even a tiled swimming pool.  A young seaman named John Thomas Biggers painted a mural for the building, and another of the works he created while on active duty with the Navy at Hampton Institute was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, catapulting him to national prominence.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)

Located on Fort Monroe, the Chamberlin Hotel was acquired by the Navy in January 1942 to house transient officers during the war.  The Navy Cooks and Bakers School, which was located at NTS Norfolk from 1933 to 1942, moved here after the establishmant of the U.S. Naval Training School at Hampton Institute in September 1942 and trained up to 100 African American students at any given time in its kitchens. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)

Malcolm MacLean Goes to War

As president of Hampton Institute and chairman of the FEPC, Malcolm MacLean made the establishment of the Navy school on campus, as well as the investment and construction that came with it, possible. The institute had been spending more than it was making since 1922, but in 1943, the first full year after the establishment of the Naval Training School, Hampton Institute's deficit from the year before was cut by 94 percent.

Despite the success with the Navy school, all was not going well with MacLean's tenure at HI, to the point that he abruptly resigned to join the Navy himself. Only one month after MacLean assumed the presidency of the institute in 1940, columnist L. Baynard Whitney of the Cleveland Plaindealer observed that "Dr. Maclean has already... locked horns with the Status Quo who hate his method, fear his pace, and tremble at the boldness of his vision." After over two years of stiff resistance from the faculty and trustees over a broad range of changes he wished to make at the institute, he resigned in January 1943, taking a lieutenant commander’s commission in the Navy and a posting at the War Department School of Military Government in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the wake of MacLean’s sudden exit from Hampton, the institute’s board of trustees approved MacLean's pick as his successor, R. O’Hara Lanier, who had been serving as dean of instruction, as interim president. For the first time in its 75-year history, Hampton Institute was led by a black man.

After Secretary Knox's death in April 1944, James Forrestal took a different approach towards African Americans as Navy secretary, and on his watch the segregationist policies of the Navy would come to an end, negating the need for separate "A" schools for them.  By the time the last graduation ceremony was held at Hampton Institute on August 15, 1945, approximately 5,000 Sailors had graduated from the Navy program, including most of the Sailors who manned the destroyer escort Mason (DE 529), which proved that a largely African American crew could perform its duties on par with white Sailors, as well as the man who would become the Navy’s first African American flag officer, Samuel Lee Gravely, Jr.

After the closure of the program, Hampton Institute faced the same type of cutoff in federal funding as it had after the dissolution of the Freedmen's Bureau during the institute's infancy and the discontinuance of training for Native Americans in 1923.  Dr. Ralph P. Bridgman, HI's president at the close of the war, sought to maintain a naval presence at the institute, at least in the form of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC), something that would happen at many colleges and universities across the nation, but the Navy declined on the grounds that the student body was of insufficient size to warrant it. "Hampton's prexy has already protested [the] Navy's plans to discontinue the Jim-Crow school [at Hampton Institute], and has been informed that you can't preach integration while begging for the practice of segregation," quipped columnist Paul Pentagon in the magazine Headlines and Pictures

Although Hampton Institute was turned down in its bid to maintain a postwar Navy presence via the NROTC, they were not alone. In fact, the NROTC eschewed all traditionally African American institutions of higher learning for another two decades, finally establishing a unit at Prairie View A&M in Texas in 1965. Hampton University finally became part of the Hampton Roads NROTC consortium, which also includes Norfolk State University and Old Dominion University, in July 1982.

Now celebrating its sesquicentennial, Hampton University maintains a Navy presence on campus via its NROTC detachment, but it has never approached the level of coordination with the Navy as it had during World War II, after which any pretensions that segregation was good for the sea services were finally extinguished.

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