Papers Detail Integration Efforts in Post-WWII Army

Brynn Hoffman has a summer of surprises in store for her. She is learning the inspiring story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at North Carolina State University and is interning with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History in Raleigh.  She will be blogging about what she learns about him, and what it’s like to be an archivist working with the Military Archives.

Today I ran across some of Elmer Gibson’s papers related to his involvement in debates over whether or not to integrate the United States Army.

Admittedly, I have little knowledge about the integration that took place in the Armed Forces shortly after World War II, so I had to do some investigation of my own in order to fully understand Gibson’s position on the idea. The United States Armed Forces have an interesting history of integration and segregation throughout their existence.

The Historical Background

White and black soldiers fought next to each other starting as far back as the North American colonies. It was not until the War of 1812 that white and black units began to be separated, and remained so until the Korean War. Even when the Army was segregated, many black soldiers still chose to fight and played very important roles in the victories gained by the United States. Throughout World War I and World War II, commissioned officers were mostly white, with black troops serving as truck drivers, dock workers and other roles that did not usually involve combat.

President Harry Truman's Executive Order desegregating the Army. Image from the National Archives.By the time troops returned home from World War II, Army officials were being called on by Civil Rights leaders to desegregate all of the Armed Forces. In 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ordered the integration of all sections of the Armed Forces.

Even with that order, integration did not seriously occur until the Korean War was well under way. After the first few months of the Korean War, the Armed Forces were facing incredibly high numbers of white losses and finally began accepting black troops as replacements. This forced immediate integration of many units and showed that these units could still perform well in combat situations. Army officials took notice, and on July 26, 1951 the Army officially announced its plans to desegregate.

Gibson's Perspective

In Gibson’s papers there are several items related to the desegregation of the Army, and some proved to be very interesting.One in particular caught my attention because of the hand-written notes attached with it. The item was a survey that Gibson completed titled “Employment of Negro Manpower.”

What I find most impressive about Gibson’s responses to the questions asked are his concise answers, free from any hint of anger or hostility regarding segregation. For example, Gibson responded to the question “Should the quota system [in regards to race] be abolished?” with the following answer: “Yes. To establish a quota on the basis of race is discriminatory. However, to maintain the proper balance, the physical and mental (or aptitude) and educational standard should be raised and then form requirements for all enlistments.” 

Later in the survey, Gibson suggests that “A service school should be established and courses conducted on the program and policy of the Department of the Army with regard to desegregation.” Gibson seemed to be very aware of the need for slow change in order for it to be well received and have staying power.

At the same time, he was clearly not afraid to speak his mind and let the Army know how he, an African-American in the Army, felt about the Army being segregated. It seems as though his belief was to educate soldiers on the positive aspects of desegregation to make it as smooth as possible while also encouraging the Army to create higher standards of physical fitness and mental aptitude, instead of using standards based on race.

It is easy to forget, even as a graduate student in history, that segregation was once a part of people’s daily lives throughout theUnited States. To think that even if you wanted to serve your country as a soldier, you would still be separated by race, is something that is hard for me to conceive of.

Having the opportunity to dig around in Gibson’s papers as I get them ready to head to the shelves has been an eye-opening experience for me. It is always good to be reminded of past figures who have helped overcome obstacles so that we forget they even once existed.

Thanks to Rusty Edmister whose generosity is making this project possible.

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