On 14 May 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved legislation to establish the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in the summer of 1943. The purpose of the Corps was to “enlist women (volunteers) for military service with the Army to replace and release for combat service enlisted men who are now performing certain non-combatant duties.” For the first time in US history, up to 150,000 women were allowed to join the war effort in active non-combatant duties, such as taking over major parts of the Army Air, Ground and Service Forces, the Airport Warning Service, and numerous administrative duties. At the start of the recruitment day, the New York Times reported that 10,000 women rushed to join the New Army Corps: “From ocean to ocean, from the Rio Grande north to Canada, women poured out of homes, offices, and colleges to roll up […] for the recruitment station of the nation”.

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was a member of the advisory board that created the WAAC. Although she is most known for founding the Bethune-Cookman College and being president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club’s and the National Council of Negro Women, throughout World War II, she also played a key role regarding racial integration and equality within the WAAC.

As a result of the activism and press coverage in African-American newspapers, inspired by Bethune’s role in the advisory board and her public influence, a quota for ten percent of the total WAAC was set for the integration of black women in the Corps. When the first training camp, Fort Des Moines, Iowa, opened in July 1942, forty black officer candidates were selected. Bethune not only played an essential role in aiding in this selection, but she was also committed to ensuring racial equality within the training camp.

When, after the first six weeks of training, stories of segregation and discrimination within the camp reached Bethune, she immediately requested Mr. Charles P. Howard, head of the Howard News Syndicate, to investigate these charges. His report of August 1942 identifies that “as to housing, recreation, and eating,” the women are segregated, which was done, according to Colonel Faith, “in conformity with the ‘policy of the army.’” When Howard questioned the Colonel further on these policies during a press conference, Howard noted in his report that he refused to answer any further questions about the subject. Moreover, Howard wrote that although “the army purports to justify its segregation […] in southern training camps to conform to state law. It is difficult to understand how violation of state law in this camp is justified,” considering that “[t]he state Laws of the State of Iowa directly prohibit the segregation of Negroes in eating places.”

Bethune and Howard made public their findings about the conditions in Fort Des Moines and shared them with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), of which she was the vice-president.

In her effort to establish equality, Bethune personally visited the training camp and sent letters to Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, and to Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby, Director of the WAAC. In the letters, Bethune emphasized the need for integration between black and white candidates, drawing a stark comparison: “The situation at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, where the W.A.A.C officers are being trained, when compared with the situation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, represents a disheartening contrast.” She pointed out that, despite being in a Northern state, where discriminatory attitudes are not as entrenched, the officers in Fort Des Moines faced unnecessary and humiliating disparity in treatment. Such segregation, she argued, was “not only unnecessary and contrary to the spirit of national unity but also absolutely unnecessary and artificially fostered.”

Besides writing letters, Bethune used her friendship with First Lady Eleonor Roosevelt and her position as founder of President Roosevelt’s Federal Council on Negro Affairs (also called the “Black Cabinet”) to lobby for equality within the WAC.

Another highlight of the WAC in which Bethune was involved was the demand to send black women in the Army overseas. In 1944, the National Civilian Advisory Committee (NCAC) of the WAC and other African-American organizations requested that black women get the opportunity to serve in the Army Corps overseas. In January 1945, the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion became the WAC’s first (and only) multi-ethnic women’s Battalion to serve in Europe. This predominantly black Battalion was led by Major Charity Adams Earley, Captains Mary F. Kearney and Bernice G. Henderson. Their Battalion consisted of 855 women and was first deployed to Birmingham, England, to clear the enormous amount of undelivered mail sent to US soldiers fighting in Europe.

In 1948, Omar N. Bradley, Chief of Staff of the US Army, acknowledged Bethune’s significant contributions, thanking her for the results she had achieved as a member of the NCAC for the WAC.

After the war, despite President Truman’s official desegregation of the armed forces with Executive Order 9981, Black women still faced racism in the American military and in society after their return. Bethune continued to champion equality in public and private, writing letters, speaking at conferences, and pushing for the examination of black women’s living and work conditions in the Forts of the WAC.

In total, around 6,500 African-American women served as WACs in World War II, a reality made possible by Bethune’s tireless efforts.

This article was written using the following archival and digital collections available at the RIAS:

In addition to this material, the following secondary source (also from the RIAS) was consulted: Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World. The title quote “What Are We Fighting For?” came from a speech, given in 1942 at the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, within this book.

And the following external online data:

  • ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post
  • “The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion” project by the Women’s Army Foundation
  • “All-Black Female WWII Unite to Receive Congressional Gold Medal” article from the U.S. Department of Defense