A people newly delighted in liberty by federal decree yet tormented by popular scorn and legal indifference exemplified courage amid a rapidly changing national landscape during the 1940s. New citizens from Eastern Europe, the Orient and Latin America would call America home from New York City to Chicago, from San Francisco to Seattle, and from Louisiana and Texas and throughout the Southwest. As immigrants came to America, African Americans were also on the move, migrating from the South to better opportunities in a burgeoning new industrial age.
The winds of impending war in Europe and the Pacific were the natural call to arms in 1940s America, whose worn and weary citizenry was anxious and adamant about revving up its powerful economic engine once relieved of the Great Depression. African Americans were equally ignited by a new charge in social improvement, because their confidence in American progress and posterity had been shaken greatly by the previous decade of worldwide economic turmoil and by three centuries of social and political injustice.
Franklin Roosevelt promised a “New Deal” with his election in 1932, but African Americans saw no identifiable change in their upward mobility in terms of national, state and local laws and a national disregard of 14th-Amendment rights.
Labor leader A. Philip Randolph, then president of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, in 1942 threatened a “March on Washington” by the hundreds of thousands to protest job discrimination in defense industries and the military. To avoid this, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which reaffirmed the policy of “full participation” in the defense program by all persons, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin.
Roosevelt invited Randolph to the Oval Office and reportedly met the labor leader with an unusual question: “Mr. Randolph, instead of you asking ‘how can the government help the Negro,’ I’d like to know how your [people] can assist me?’” Randolph swiftly provided the president with an eloquent plea in a famous news article, spelling out for the masses the near-tyrannical plight of wartime African Americans: “The March on Washington is essentially a movement of the people. It is all-Negro and pro-Negro, but not for that reason anti-White or anti-Semitic, or anti-Catholic … it’s major weapon is the nonviolent demonstration of Negro mass power.”
Though the armed services had once again become segregated with African Americans serving primarily in support roles, a number of African American veterans distinguished themselves during the war. Doris “Dorie” Miller was a mess attendant on the U.S.S. West Virginia on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Miller manned an antiaircraft machine gun and downed several Japanese planes before being ordered to abandon the sinking ship. Miller’s courage and devotion to duty earned him the Navy Cross, the first ever awarded to an African American sailor. Miller was killed in action in 1943.
Defense officials were reluctant to allow African American nurses to attend to White wounded personnel, but commonplace racial prohibitions did not prevent the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, bolstered in their cause by Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt, from protesting wartime racial policies and achieving success in increasing the number of African American women in medical support roles at home. Also, civil rights groups and Black professional organizations pressed the government to provide training for Black pilots on an equal basis with Whites. A result was the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen, which flew escort missions into southern Europe and North Africa. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., son of the first African American general, and his 99th Fighter Squadron played a pivotal role in the liberation of Tunisia.
Though near the end of the famed Harlem Renaissance, the 1940s saw some of America’s finest literary giants come to the fore. Langston Hughes enjoyed in his youth the poetry of Carl Sandburg, being influenced specifically by the latter’s gritty, unrhymed “free-verse” style, which led to Hughes 1921 work “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (i.e. the Nile in Egypt, the Jordan in Israel, the Mississippi in America). Hughes embraced radical politics during the war and published a collection of satiric short stories titled “The Way of White Folks” in 1943. He also penned the lyrics for the opera “Street Scene,” and wrote the screenplay for the Hollywood film, “Way Down South.” He also wrote a Christmas play, “Black Nativity,” which is performed regularly by African American theater companies today. One of his most famous poems, “A Dream Deferred,” would be the motivation to the popular Lorraine Hansberry play, “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Richard Wright was influenced by the writers Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, both of whom presented a modernist-style of capturing the American landscape–void of superfluous verse and archaic views of past American glory. Wright’s novel, “Native Son” (1940), was selected to Harper Publishers’ “Book of the Month Club” and sold more than 250,000 copies in one month. “Native Son” is the story of Bigger Thomas, the angry first-generation Black ghetto dweller in Chicago. Critics, including James Baldwin, attacked “Native Son” for what they believed was an excess of hatred, violence and a stereotypical portrait of perceived Black pathology. Marxists even criticized the book for placing too much emphasis on individual rebellion.
Wright’s powerful autobiography, “Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth” (1945), was released amid growing hostility toward writers with left-wing views.
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks won worldwide acclaim for her 1949 verse narrative “Anne Allen” and received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry–the first for an African American woman. Brooks was also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the second of three “great migrations” of African Americans from the South to the North (the first after the Civil War, the second after World War I and the last, primarily to the West Coast, after World War II). Brooks’ first collection of poetry, “A Street in Bronzeville” (1945), is a conceptual critique of the northern ghetto and is considered one of the finest collections of American modernist poetry ever published.
Brooks’ literary legacy would move readers beyond dates and facts to encourage an understanding of her encounters with, and responses to, racism, as well as the careers/talents that bolstered African American confidence and a people’s resolve to succeed.
African Americans have defined jazz and pop music for the world.
The Mills Brothers made more than 2,000 recordings, sold more than 50 million records worldwide and earned three dozen gold records. Reportedly, CBS founder William S. Paley heard the quartet on his office radio and signed the Mills Brothers to a recording contract, making them the first African Americans to have a network radio show. After the death of the youngest brother, John Jr., the trio became a signature African American act seen on television programs through the late 1960s.
The Mills Brothers were sponsored by the largest advertisers in radio, such as Standard Oil, Procter & Gamble and Crisco. During their tenure on the charts, the Mills Brothers recorded with the most famous names in jazz and pop, including Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. Singer Dean Martin said that Harry Mills was the inspiration for his singing style. Among their million-selling hits were “Tiger Rag,” “Sweet Sue,” “WPA,” “Up the Lazy River,” “Paper Doll” and the wartime classic, “Till Then.”
Louis Armstrong was arguably one of the past century’s most influential musicians. From a New Orleans boy’s home, to Hollywood, Carnegie Hall and to television, Armstrong influenced such jazz and pop legends as Charlie Parker, Harry James, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and present-day artists Herb Alpert and Wynton Marsalis. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Armstrong maintained one of the most grueling schedules of all time–a series of “one-nighters” that would cause strain on his upper lip leaving him with a permanent indentation from wear and tear from his cornet mouthpiece.
Armstrong introduced to jazz music the extended solo, which formed a natural “bridge” to the first and third parts of the piece he was playing. Prior to this innovation, Jazz was played in highly orchestrated arrangements (example: the “symphonic” Jazz style of Paul Whiteman or George Gershwin) or in a more loosely structured “Dixieland”-type ensemble where no musician soloed for any length of time. Among Armstrong’s biggest hits were “St. Louis Blues,” “West End Blues,” “St. James Infirmary” and, in a Top 10 revival 20 years later, the 1960s hits “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello Dolly.”
Since the inception of the American film industry, African Americans have played a significant role. Their cinematic input exceeded the negative misrepresentation of the African American community with its stereotypical images of the antebellum South, captured in the twisted romanticism of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915). Practically all movie studios of the time (Famous Players/Paramount, the Goldwin Studios, United Artists, Warner Bros., et. al.) made specific “race” films which, were often written, acted, filmed and edited by African Americans and shown at studio “owned-and-operated” African American theaters.
Oscar Micheaux was an independent producer who made more than half of the 82 race movies made. Regarded as the most successful Black filmmaker of the era, he produced race films in both the silent and sound eras with his most famous production, “Body and Soul” (1925), remaining a production favorite today. Micheaux was the first African American to produce a full-length, eight-reel race film and, in the 1940s, became a best-selling novelist with “Wind From Nowhere” (1943) and “The Case of Mrs. Wingate” (1945), which sold more than 55,000 copies.
Ethel Waters was the first African American entertainer to move seamlessly from the vaudeville and nightclub venues to major motion pictures. A former showgirl and featured artist at the Cotton Club in Harlem, N.Y., Waters possessed an innate theatrical flair that enabled her to project the character and situation of every song she performed. Her most famous role was that of Petunia in Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 classic, “Cabin in the Sky,” which also featured Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Lena Horne. Waters’ later years found her as featured soloist with the Billy Graham Crusade.
Glamorous Lena Horne was able to garner even more movie roles than did Waters; each woman brought beauty and sexuality to White audiences, but Horne’s light complexion and chiseled face would take her to the panoply of Black superstars witnessed today in “crossover” performers like Halle Berry, Alicia Keys and Beyonce. Horne had singing roles in “Panama Hottie,” (1942), “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky” (1943) and, unusual for 1940s Broadway, performed in the Rodgers & Hart musical “Words and Music” (1948).
Horne would not accept roles that were disrespectful to women of color, thereby jeopardizing her professional welfare in Hollywood. She worked with Paul Robeson with the Progressive Citizens of America to oppose racism, financed her own entertainment trips to the European war theater, and assisted Eleanor Roosevelt in drafting anti-lynching legislation.
Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson were more than champion athletes of their day. These men exemplified the hope that Black America could demonstrate its skills, poise and character in the unrehearsed, unapologetic and often ungrateful world of White professional sports. Until his retirement in 1949, Louis had the longest championship reign in any boxing weight division by successfully defending his heavyweight title 25 times with 21 knockouts.
Louis actually served in a segregated Army unit with Robinson in 1942, and later, as part of a War Department campaign to showcase to the totalitarian German and Japanese governments a “free and liberated” African American. He fought in 96 exhibition matches and donated more than $100,000 to the Army and Navy relief funds. Although Louis earned almost $5 million as a prizefighter, he never received proper accounting or tax management and he eventually spent and gave away his winnings.
A later, more militant Black generation would unfairly view Robinson as the “token” or passive African American figure who “went along” with White management. In 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey reportedly told Robinson: “Jackie, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” This unwritten pact would, of course, change over time as Robinson became a more seasoned professional, but the moral of that agreement resonates today for African Americans stepping into an all-White professional setting.
Robinson’s first season saw an abortive rebellion by his own teammates, the threat of a strike by the St. Louis Cardinals, black cats thrown on the field and death threats to and from the stadium. Robinson’s fierce competitiveness and poise under pressure would earn him worldwide praise not only as a superior athlete, but as a beacon of civil rights as well.
Locally, the artistic grandeur of architect Paul Williams is known around the world as the hallmark of art-modern design. Among Williams’ most popular and critically acclaimed buildings are the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Los Angeles Museum of Art (the former May Co. store at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, featuring the famous golden perfume bottle), the former Golden State Mutual building at Western Avenue and Adams Boulevard, the Angeles Funeral Home building on Crenshaw Boulevard and, probably his most iconic creation, the Los Angeles Airport Theme Building, which boasts a restaurant. Williams also designed homes for many celebrities including Betty Grable, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Danny Thomas.