‘Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took on the Army during World War II’by CONNATIX July 29, 2019
On the morning of March 9, 1945, 54 black enlistees in the Women’s Army Corps stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, reported to their barracks instead of their duty stations at Lovell Hospital South, where they worked as orderlies. For months, the women’s complaints to superiors about racism and unfair treatment had gone unheard. Unlike white WACs, black WACs had been relegated to permanent cleaning duties. This discrimination led to resentment among the women, who decided to take action.
The day before, Private Anna Morrison had warned her fellow black WACs that “if we don’t try to get something better now, we never will get it.” They went on strike the next day and soon had the attention of their commanding officers, who promised to address their concerns. But as the strike entered its second day, nothing was done. Instead, the women were ordered to return to duty or else face a court-martial. Driven by fear, many returned to their stations. But the strike’s main leaders, Privates Morrison, Mary Green, Johnnie Murphy, and Alice Young, refused. Responded Murphy when told to obey: “I would take death before I would go back to work.”
Ten days later, the four were taken to trial.
In Glory in Their Spirit, historian and army specialist Sandra M. Bolzenius reveals the tensions surrounding the military regarding race and sex during World War II. She writes that while the war required the service of women and blacks, much of the public saw them as unfit for military service, and that the army “did not have an adequate template, military or civilian, to guide it in its dealings with African American women.” The black WACs at Fort Devens, therefore, saw the strike as “their best option in a system that failed to adequately recognize them as members of the armed forces.”
On March 20, after just two days of testimony, the four women were found guilty and sentenced to one year of imprisonment and hard labor. But thanks to the efforts of civil rights leaders, the black press, and allies in Congress, the army overturned their convictions. The women returned to duty in an army that remained segregated until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order integrating all U.S. forces.
Sandra M. Bolzenius is a former instructor at The Ohio State University and served as a transportation specialist in the United States Army. She recently answered some questions about her forthcoming book Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took On the Army during World War II.
An enlightening read, Glory in Their Spirit examines a little-known history of the war. While not much changed in the immediate aftermath of the trial, the Fort Devens strike serves as a reminder of the important role of World War II in the nation’s struggle toward social justice. —Charissa Threat is an associate professor of history at Chapman University.