Race, gender, war, and integration

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“You have to see this.” I’ve uttered this many times over the last few weeks. It’s interesting the things you find in a university archives.

In my archives rotation, I’m working on creating a K-12 curriculum plan. The idea is to highlight collections that could have possible ties to the Maryland Common Core curriculum, with an eye towards critical thinking, investigative research, and problem-based learning. Additionally, materials that I’ve located may also (or alternatively) be used for materials surveys or “white gloves sessions” hosted by the archives staff, as a part of academic coursework. Themes that I’ve identified as possible foci are desegregation/integration in the state of Maryland; race and gender during WWII; technology, transportation, and industry; and construction and expansion.

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Elementary school in Hurlock, MD circa 1935 (image via Library of Congress)

Within the topics of integration and desegregation, I’m selecting materials that highlight attempts to integrate public education institutions and responses to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. A 1954 Maryland Board of Education study on integration in response to the Supreme Court decision begins, “Maryland has always been considerate of its colored populations. As a matter of fact, the State was considerate of the Negro race when most of its representatives within the confines of the State were not citizens but slaves…” Sounds promising, right? The report detailed how the state of Maryland had a “long and honorable record” as a part of the Union and they were more than happy to comply with desegregation, as soon as it was required. Further, while the Supreme Court considered the psychological effects of segregation on black children, no one considered that the Supreme Court in determining that segregation was unconstitutional, “abrogated a right of the majority group” and that integration may “cause emotional disturbances in those white children who have lived in a segregated world with […] a clear conscience.” The committee wished that the Supreme Court would take this into account in deciding their final mandate. Gradual desegregation was the committee’s recommendation and hope. Equal rights are, of course, important… *sarcasm*

Some other interesting finds include minutes from the State of Maryland Board of Education meetings, including advice/opinions from the Attorney General of Maryland and the Board of Education members regarding the legal implications behind desegregation; minutes from the Maryland Board of Trustees of State Colleges and Universities; and correspondence and notes within presidential papers.

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Case listing in archived index (image via Maryland State Archives)

Additionally, though Towson began integrating in late 1955, there was at least one African American student who attempted to gain admission prior to 1954. In 1950, F. Vernon Roberts applied for admission on the grounds that Coppin State’s educational experience was not on the same level as Towson’s and he wanted to have access to advanced courses that Coppin didn’t offer. Roberts was refused admission. Because he suspected it was on the basis of race, he filed a lawsuit with the Maryland courts. The outcome isn’t known (the actual court records are at the Maryland State Archives), but presumably he was not successful, as he completed his degree at Coppin a few years later. Roberts went on to become a principal in the Baltimore City school system.

The discussion around integration continued within the Maryland States Colleges and Universities for the next fifteen to twenty years, with predominantly white Towson trying to figure out how to attract more students of color and predominantly black Morgan State trying to figure out how to attract more white students, so as to be in compliance with mandates from the Supreme Court and the Board of Education. In 1968, Morgan proposed that students at Towson be required to take 9-12 credits at either Morgan State or Coppin State prior to graduation. Towson proposed that they offer scholarships to attract more students of color.  It’s not yet known what the outcome of these suggestions were. I find it interesting that these are the same discussions that continue to be had in 2016. I guess it’s hard to undue a race-based system that still supports so much of the national economy and infrastructure.

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African American WAACs, Lts Harriet West and Irma Cayton going over recruiting schedules in 1942 (image via National Archives)

Within the areas of race and gender during World War II, I am currently looking through the World War II collection. During the war, Towson administrators sent newsletters to the college alumni, staff, and students who were serving in the armed forces. In response, the alumni would keep in touch, relaying some of their job duties and experiences during the war. The collections includes correspondence, news clippings, photos, and ledgers. Its interesting to read how the men versus the women talk about and navigate their time in the military and in military support roles.

Hester Brown, female Naval Yeoman, recounted, “I have relieved a man for sea duty and my feeling was a mixture of emotions when the time came for me to say goodby to him. I was a proud WAVE, and yet fearful that I might not be able to fully take that Bluejacket’s place here. As I grow more accustomed with my job, that fear is being overcome.”

“Three of us from Texas were the first WAACs on the field.” wrote Helene Davis, WAAC Link Trainer,  “Don’t think that wasn’t a thrill. The boys were so glad to see us for they expected us to take over the KP [kitchen patrol]. We soon straightened them out on that score. Most of us are taking over office jobs, but you’ll find WAACs doing most everything except flying the planes.”

Sibyl Davis, WAAC, wrote, “After feeling like the Army’s unwanted step child for over a month, I feel a little better now that I have a job that doesn’t make me feel like a scullery maid, even if it may be temporary.”

From Dorothy Farmer, WAAC Sergeant, “We are fortunate in having quarters in the temporary BOQ–Bachelor’s Officer’s Quarters–where most most of us have private rooms. It is very much like a school dormitory except we aren’t allowed to have curtains or fancy bedspreads and pillows. Everything is strictly GI, and woe to us if any dirt or dust is found anywhere on Saturday morning inspections. We all ought to make immaculate housewives when this is all over.”

“I am convinced that women are learning more from this war by being a part of it than they could have any other way.” Gwendolyn Felts, Pfc. and WAAC recruiter, wrote enthusiastically to Dr. Rebecca Tansil, “Perhaps this is the greatest assemblage of women for one ultimate goal, peace, ever known in the era of democracies…Say this is beginning to sound like an argument and somehow I don’t think you need any persuasion.”

For many women, the opportunities afforded during World War II, both in military service and in civilian positions, exposed them to a variety of jobs that had been typically reserved for men. Once the war ended in 1945 and men returned from active duty, most of these women were forced to revert to traditionally feminine roles. An emphasis on the woman in the role of homemaker and wife prevailed during the “golden age” of the 1950s, before being challenged during the push for civil and equal rights of the 1960s and 1970s.

Lack of opportunities and prevailing prejudice on a national scale limited employment options for African Americans for a very long time.  Even in service to the military, there was an obvious color line. Both the Marine Corps and the Navy began integrating their ranks during WWII, but the roles people of color were allowed to fill tended to differ greatly from that of their white comrades and serving in segregated units was a given. For a time, the only role the Navy allowed black soldiers to play was to serve as mess attendants, cooking and serving food. By the time Towson janitor, John Gwynn (featured on the archives’ blog here), joined the Navy in 1943, they had expanded their options somewhat. Though being a person of color, he was still limited to a service role

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John Gwynn in uniform, circa 1943 (image via TU Archives)

similar to the one he had at Towson. He wrote to one of the Towson staff members of his work at the Naval Officer’s Club as being, “very much the same as I did there at school.” Meanwhile, mention was made of his joining the Navy in the newsletter sent to Towson affiliated military personnel, but the manner in which it was communicated gives a clue of the racial climate of the time. There was an elementary school (Lida Lee Tall School) located on the grounds of Towson, which has a long history as a teacher preparation college. The students of the Lida Lee Tall School were said to have done their part to support the war effort by “giving” Gwynn to the Navy.

Though African American men and women still faced Jim Crow laws and unjust practices in their homeland, they were willing to join in fighting for democracy abroad. It was with great disappointment that they returned after the war to find the same social conditions they had left. While white soldiers returned to fanfare and celebration, African Americans, especially in the South, were quickly reminded of their place and, in some instances, killed, for stepping out of it. Unwilling to settle back into this scripted existence of blackness, many departed the South in droves for better opportunities up North and out West, while other began to fight for change in their communities, spurring the Civil Rights  and Freedom movements.

I’m still sorting through materials and alternately laughing, shaking my head, and Googling things in fascination. I can’t wait to see what I stumble across next!

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