Mr. Roosevelt and the Navy

Posted on September 29, 2015

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Part of my summer reading was a joint biography of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt written by a brilliant and sensitive historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. My summer reading has evolved into my “autumn” reading since I’m a slow reader.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I always like to pick a book that has nothing to do with my current interests that I consider my “work.” And I invariably fail.

Last spring as I browsed books on my Kindle I figured: what does the life of Eleanor or Franklin have to do with my current research and writing? I always seem to discover that there is something in the book that not only entertains me, but also teaches me something.

The book is, more specifically, about the Roosevelts during the World War II (1939-1945) years. It is rich in the details of a peacetime society—ours—preparing for war. In the book, Franklin is the war hawk, and Eleanor the reluctant supporter.
She saw the liberal, social agendas of the New Deal enacted during the 1930s being sacrificed to the reorganization of the country for war.

But a country going from the Depression to war produced some profound changes in the social consciousness of the nation.

A new book by the University of Alabama Press, The Great Melding: War, the Dixiecrat Rebellion, and the Southern Model for America’s New Conservatism by an historian at UAB, Glenn Feldman, is an excellent exploration—along with others in a series on the Modern South edited by Feldman and Kari A. Frederickson (chair of the Dept. of History here at UA)—of what constituted Southern life and culture in this epoch. While the South, and much of the rest of the nation, persisted in maintaining the official separation of the races, or segregation, the coming of war interrupted old patterns of behavior.

One of Eleanor’s pet peeves was to bring the Negro—in the language of the times—up from his place as a second class citizen in a world which, at least in theory, celebrated the equality of all people.

Early in 1942 Franklin, pushed along by his more liberal wife, told the Navy—which he truly loved and favored–to start putting blacks into other billets, or jobs, other than mess men, or just working in the kitchens and dining spaces. This request was part of a simmering civil rights campaign moving forward, albeit slowly, across other areas of American life.

For example, a new high rise apartment complex had been built recently by the government in Detroit to house black families moving into the area, seeking and finding employment in the expanding automobile and related industries.

When whites in Detroit heard of this, they blocked the blacks from moving in, and it took a lot of pushing by the federal government to get past that opposition.

The Navy—when presented by the White House’s suggestion to open billets to black sailors– said “no, absolutely not.” White sailors will not serve side by side with Negro sailors. It’s never been done. It won’t work, and all the usual racial arguments were made about incompetence, inability to learn, yada, yada, yada.

Roosevelt got his dander up.

“Send the suggestion back to that Navy Bureau of Personnel,” he wrote the Secretary of Navy, “and ask them to seriously reconsider their decision.” Frank Knox, then Secretary, got the message. He was an astute newspaperman and had run as a Republican for Vice President in 1936 and could read the tea leaves. Within a few weeks the Navy was assigning blacks to billets other than the kitchen—gunners, machinists mates, boatswains, etc. The door had been cracked open a bit.

The Tuskegee airmen also came into being in this prewar period as Roosevelt prepared America for war. Although a segregated unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first all-black fighter squadron, was created in 1941, buoyed by an air plane ride that First Lady Eleanor took at Tuskegee in March, 1941 in a Piper Cub piloted by chief flight instructor, C. Alfred Anderson, an African American.

She declared, after a half hour flight, “well, you can fly alright!”

Today we may smirk at such an innocent endorsement by Eleanor Roosevelt. But it resonated through those who were committed to a fair shake for blacks still laboring under Jim Crow laws and segregation.

One never knows where summer, now fall, and probably winter (it’s a long book) may take you. In my case, into a part of our past that bubbles up with many instances of prejudice and hope, discrimination and change, old ways and new ways, a nation still building and working on a vision of what it truly is. I think we’re still working on it.

Posted in: History