African Americans and the G.I. Bill
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Following the Second World War, the G. I. Bill of Rights (or, "G.I. bill") greatly expanded the population of African Americans attending college and graduate school, forming a "crack in the wall of racism that had surrounded the American university system."
Due to the prevailing social climate that existed in the United States after World War II, one in which racism was a prominent factor, African Americans did not benefit from the provisions of the G. I. Bill nearly as much as their European American counterparts. Though the bill did provide a more level playing field than the one blacks faced during Reconstruction, this is not saying much. Representative John Elliott Rankin, an economic liberal who was also an avid segregationist and racist, sponsored the bill in the United States House of Representatives. Although the law did not specifically advocate discrimination, the social climate of the time dictated that the law would be interpreted differently for blacks than for whites.
Not only did blacks face discrimination once they returned home after the war, the poverty confronting most blacks during the 1940s and 1950s represented another barrier to harnessing the benefits of the G.I. Bill as it made it problematic to seek an education while labor and income were needed at home. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), because of its strong affiliation to the all-white American Legion and VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), also became a formidable foe to many blacks in search of an education because it had the power to deny or grant the claims of black G.I.s. Additionally, banks and mortgage agencies refused loans to blacks, making the G.I. Bill even less effective for blacks.
The black middle class failed to keep pace with the white middle class because blacks had fewer opportunities to earn college degrees. In addition to the other obstacles, gaining admission to universities was no easy task for blacks on the G.I. Bill. Most universities had segregationist principles underlying their admissions policies, utilizing either official or unofficial quotas. Even if they could gain admission to universities, public education was in such a poor state for blacks that many of them were not adequately prepared for college level work. Those blacks that were prepared for college level work and gained admission to predominantly white universities still experienced racism on campus.
By 1946, only one fifth of the 100,000 blacks who had applied for educational benefits had been registered in college. Furthermore, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) came under increased pressure as rising enrollments and strained resources forced them to turn away an estimated 20,000 veterans. HBCUs were already the poorest colleges, resting at the bottom of the educational hierarchy, and served, to most whites, only to keep blacks out of white colleges. The HBCUs resources were stretched even thinner when veterans’ demands necessitated a shift in the curriculum away from the traditional "preach and teach" course of study offered by the HBCUs.
Though blacks encountered many obstacles in their pursuit of the benefits offered by the G.I. Bill, there were positive aspects of the law for the African American community as well. The bill greatly expanded the population of African Americans attending college and graduate school. In 1940, enrollment at Black colleges was 1.08% of total U.S. college enrollment. By 1950 it had increased to 3.6%. Additionally, the bill led to the passage of the Lanham Act of 1946, which provided for the federal funding of improvement and expansion of HBCUs.
As Hilary Herbold writes, "Clearly, the G.I. Bill was a crack in the wall of racism that had surrounded the American university system. It forced predominantly white colleges to allow a larger number of blacks to enroll, contributed to a more diverse curriculum at many HBCUs, and helped provide a foundation for the gradual growth of the black middle class." Not only did the G.I. Bill provide the foundation for the black middle class, it educated the generation of African Americans who would help spearhead the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
- Howard Johnson, "The Negro Veteran Fights for Freedom!" Political Affairs, May 1947, p. 430.
- Hilary Herbold, "Never A Level Playing Field: Blacks and the G.I. Bill," The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, (Winter, 1994–1995), 104-105,107,108.
- Ronald Roach, "From Combat to Campus: G.I. Bill Gave a Generation of African Americans and Opportunity to Pursue the American Dream," Black Issues in Higher Education, (August 21, 1997), 26-29.
- Mark Boulton, "How the G.I. Bill Failed African-American Vietnam War Veterans," THE JOURNAL OF BLACKS IN HIGHER EDUCATION, Number 58, Winter 2007/08, 57-61.
Humes, Edward, "How the G.I. Bill Shunted Blacks into Vocational Training." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 53 (Autumn, 2006), pp. 92–104, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25073543.
Katznelson, Ira. When Affirmative Action was White, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006.
Onkst, D., “First a Negro…incidentally a veteran: Black World War II Veterans and the G.I. Bill of Rights in the Deep South, 1944-1948.” Journal of Social History 31, no. 3, (1998).
Turner, Sarah and Bound, John, "Closing the Gap or Widening the Divide: The Effects of the G.I. Bill and World War II on the Educational Outcomes of Black Americans" National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 9044, (July 2002), http://www.nber.org/papers/w9044.
Atkins, James A., "Negro Educational Institutions and the Veterans' Educational Facilities Program" The Journal of Negro Education, 17, no. 2 (1948), pp. 141–153, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/2966055.pdf.
Truman K. Gibson, Jr., “Government Fails Negro Vets: Systematic Denial of Rights Under G.I. Bill Scored at Conference; New Technique Needed to Get Results Under Government Program,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 13, 1946, p. 1.
“Negro G.I.’s in South Seen Shorn of Rights.” New York Times, June 2, 1947, p. 16.
Thompson Chas. H., "Editorial Comment: The Critical Situation in Negro Higher and Professional Education" The Journal of Negro Education 15, no. 4 (1946), pp. 579–584, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/2965881.pdf.