An article titled “Navy Ends Segregation—Meaning Off-Hours, Too” was published on November 5, 1949, in the Norfolk Journal and Guide, a newspaper based out of Norfolk, Virginia. The end of military segregation, at least for the Navy, extended to dances and get-togethers. The Serviceman’s Recreation Club at Little Creek, Virginia, part of the naval base at Norfolk, was integrated. There were no “special arrangements” or special rooms provided to separate black servicemen from white servicemen or their guests.
The article reported that on “Dance Night” no one was bothered by the intermingling of whites and blacks. The “traces of blond and pressed hair” in the ladies’ powder room give a glimpse into a small bubble of what appeared, to the author, to be integrated harmony. What seemed like a moment of tension when a “blue-eyed sailor” without a word “plunked” his beer can down at a table of black sailors was in reality just comradery—with one of the seated sailors explaining that he’s not rude, he’s just from Brooklyn.
Even celebrations on board the ships were integrated, and the sailors “laughed in the traditional South’s face,” enjoying integration despite being in the segregated South. Integration in the military forces began with Executive Order 9981, signed by President Truman on July 26, 1948. After serving in every military conflict since the Revolutionary War, black soldiers would not be kept separate both in the field and the historic narrative any longer, having been kept separate in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II, sidelined as special units of the military. For the Navy, this was a drastic change given that almost thirty years before, in 1920, the Navy completely barred African Americans from service. By 1944, the Navy finally allowed black personnel into combat positions, and after World War II began efforts to further integrate the Navy. Truman’s executive order went beyond just enlisted men and included military bases, houses, and schools for children on bases. Although there were several commissions that advocated for eventual or gradual integration, Truman ordered complete integration. Eisenhower would continue Truman’s work by desegregating military hospitals and military schools. In 1954, the last all-black unit in the military was abolished.
While complete integration of the armed forces would not be “complete” until the 1960s, this brief glimpse into the first steps toward integration is fascinating given the military’s historic role as an institution that upholds power structures rather than subverts them. This instance of integration went beyond the “workplace” of the armed forces and permeated the personal sphere of housing, school, and social spaces. And that this was happening in Virginia, with its long history of segregation in schools and housing in places like Richmond, was extraordinary. Although desegregation clearly was a multistep process that took over a decade, the fact that it was already taking hold in Norfolk a year after the executive order is fascinating. When asked if all Navy clubs were integrated, a sailor explained that all were supposed to be. He said, “This is Virginia, you see how things operate here,” which implies that if it is possible in Virginia it is possible across the U.S., an optimistic view of the future of the United States.