African Americans and the G.I. Bill
The G.I. Bill aimed to help returning World War II veterans adjust to civilian life by providing them with a series of benefits, including low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans, and financial support to allow veterans to pursue an education. African Americans did not benefit from the provisions of the G. I. Bill nearly as much as European Americans. Although the G.I. Bill did not specifically advocate discrimination, the law would be interpreted differently for blacks than for whites. Historian Ira Katznelson argues that "the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow". Because the programs were directed by local, white officials, many veterans could not reap the benefits of the G.I. Bill. Of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were taken out by non-whites.
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. Once they returned home after the war, blacks faced not only discrimination but also poverty, which confronted most blacks during the 1940s and 1950s and represented a barrier to harnessing the benefits of the G.I. Bill, as poverty made seeking an education problematic while labor and income were needed at home.
Gaining admission to universities was no easy task for blacks in southern states on the G.I. Bill. Southern universities had segregationist principles underlying their admissions policies, utilizing either official or unofficial quotas. Colleges accepting blacks in the South numbered just 100, both public and private, with segregation being legally mandated in many southern states. Those institutions were of lower quality, with 28 of them classified as sub-baccalaureate and only seven states offering postbaccalaureate training, with no accredit engineering or doctoral programs available for blacks. In addition, these institutions were all smaller than white or nonsegregated universities, often facing a lack of funding and resources.
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 that were prepared for college level work and gained admission to predominantly white universities.
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. However, these gains were limited almost exclusively to the Northern states, with the educational and economic gap between white and black actually widening under the effects of the G.I. Bill. With 79 percent of the black population located in southern states, the educational gains were limited to a small part of black America.
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