World War II Letters from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

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Problems in Red and Black

"Spain was the first place that I ever felt like a free man," remembered the African American veteran Tom Page, a native of New York City. "If someone didn't like you, they told you to your face. It had nothing to do with the color of your skin." In their struggle against fascism in Spain, the members of the Lincoln Brigade had resolved to eliminate the racial animosities that limited democracy in the United States. Among the nearly three thousand volunteers, more than eighty were African Americans, a half-dozen identified as Native Americans, two were Chinese, one was Japanese; there were also Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and at least sixty different European white nationality or ethnic groups represented in the ranks. That brigade leaders kept such detailed records indicates the Lincolns saw themselves as a self-conscious melting-pot organization.

Viewing itself as a "people's army," the brigade created fully integrated military units from officers to foot soldiers. Captain Oliver Law, killed in action in 1937, was the first African American battalion commander to lead predominantly white troops into battle. And when, despite official policy, racist comments did occasionally emerge, as they might in any army, brigade leaders acted decisively to stifle such outbursts.

The U.S. military treated the black Lincolns, like their white comrades, as a distinct species both officially and informally. Their unique combat experience gave them a favorable status among the white officers and black soldiers. Some, like the former officer Walter Garland, were invited to give public lectures about the battles in Spain. Indeed, Garland recounted how his expertise as a machine gunner enabled him to make a mechanical improvement in the army's machine gun sights for which he received a military commendation. Others, like Vaughn Love, became respected instructors who trained African American GIs for combat roles, even though black troops were not expected to fight the enemy with weapons. Within the ranks, their personal prestige made the politically mature, battle-hardened veterans a steadying force to bolster the morale of their fellow soldiers. Yet despite their favorable impressions, the black Lincoln veterans typically faced the same political discrimination that confronted other Spanish Civil War veterans. And like other Lincolns, the African Americans waged a two-front war in the army, seeking opportunities to persuade the white leadership to give them meaningful assignments to hasten the defeat of fascism.

Such possibilities were drastically limited by the racially segregated system within the U.S. armed forces, a stark and omnipresent contrast to their circumstances in Spain's International Brigades. White and black Lincoln veterans, like Bunny Rucker and Julius Hene, frequently commented on this anomaly, and it remained a persistent insult to the ideology and personal feelings of those who faced both political and racial discrimination in a war ostensibly fought against the Nazi Master Race.

Lincoln correspondents also reported numerous instances of racial violence on and off base, particularly in the southern states. Black veterans feared assignments in the South and often stayed on the bases to avoid trouble. Some like Jimmy Yates noticed improvements in race relations from his earlier days in the South; Burt Jackson was delighted to be reassigned near Detroit. Northern whites like Milton Wolff were appalled by examples of public terror near Camp Wheeler, Georgia, and compared anti-black sentiment to fascist racism.

Black volunteers saw such racist treatment undermining the war effort. In his later oral history, Vaughn Love described his discovery of an elaborate scam by which white military police near Chattanooga, Tennessee, regularly arranged to prevent black soldiers from boarding buses back to their base, then arrested them for being Absent Without Official Leave (AWOL), and transferred them to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where they were kept in an empty jail. "Every morning they would take them out and farm them out to these Georgia farmers," said Love.

Despite this hostile environment (or because of it), the African Americans pulled every string they could to obtain transfer into combat units. Once in combat, none achieved greater heroics that Sergeant Edward Carter, II. Although his military record in Spain is sparse, Carter boasted of combat experience in a 1942 interview with the army newspaper at Fort Benning, Georgia. He had enlisted the previous year, two months before Pearl Harbor, and took basic training in Texas, where he expressed shock at racial conditions in the south. Although Carter was an excellent marksman, the army placed him in a quartermaster truck company and shipped him overseas in 1944. The German counter-offensive in December, known as the Battle of the Bulge, encouraged the army to use black troops in combat situations. Like Bunny Rucker, Carter seized the opportunity. Coming under attack in Germany while riding with his rifle squad on a tank in March 1945, Carter bravely fought off a German squad, killed at least six enemy soldiers, and captured two, despite receiving multiple wounds. The Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest honor given to any African American during World War II. Fifty years later, in a ceremony held at the White House in Washington, D.C., President Bill Clinton added to the laurels by awarding Carter, along with six other African American soldiers of World War II, a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor in Germany. By then, only one African American Lincoln veteran, Frank Alexander, was still alive; he died in 1996.