Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

April 21, 1953

Guest post by Katelyn Culver, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.

On April 21, 1953, the Washington Afro-American released a story regarding integration, or the lack thereof, in the two army posts Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. and Fort Myer in Virginia. The article brought to light the corrupt behavior of General J. Lawton Collins, Army Chief of Staff and General Omar N. Bradley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In reflection of the study at the two army bases, the newspaper reported, ”Two of the army’s highest ranking generals, whom the President has ordered to end racial discrimination in the military service, actually tolerate more segregation and discrimination in their own military home bases than can be found at any other installation in the Army.”

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which called for the government to desegregate the military. Patrick Feng of the Army Historical Foundation explains the nation’s response: “Despite the issuing of the order, there was considerable resistance from the military. The full effects would not be felt until the end of the Korean War. The Army’s last segregated units were finally disbanded in 1954.”104 Five years after Truman signed, the two previously mentioned army bases showed a good effort with integrating their programs. There was an exception, however. It was found that the job title of “flunky,” or “orderly” as the army called it, had been set apart exclusively for people of color. The article stated that orderlies “simply do anything the general and his wife want them to do around the house from washing and ironing to changing the baby.” The generals were not the only ones who benefited from their flunkies. Before even reaching the rank of a general’s glorified manservant, the orderlies had to go through a training program where they practiced for their future positions by serving a major or a colonel and their families.

Let it not be said that the flunkies were undercompensated for their position. In addition to the pay associated with their rank, the orderlies made a private agreement with the general in which they would receive extra payment each month in exchange for their service to him. While the exact amount of payment was not specified, army officials revealed to the reporter that it varied from anywhere between $15 to $30 a month. That would be the equivalent of around $130 to $265 in 2016. Even though the extra payment seemed to be a good reason for volunteering to be an orderly, it did not explain why only black men took up the position.

Because of that, the job itself was not the only thing that was exclusive. Although the rest of the base was integrated, the units of flunkies and flunky trainees were completely made up of black men. They lived only with other black men and used jim crow recreational facilities. Another instance of segregation in those two army bases was revealed in the Third Infantry Regiment. The newspaper explained that a “unit, which is called the ‘President’s Guards,’ is a select regiment of picked troops which performs ceremonial activities for the President and other high officials of state.” There were black men clearly qualified for the President’s Guards, but only white men held this position of high honor.

Obviously the segregation problem at Fort McNair and Fort Myer was displeasing. However, it did not go unchecked. An article in the same paper informed readers of an interview with a spokesman for General Collins, where it revealed that “the findings had been called to the attention of the Army’s G-I Section and that immediate steps are being taken to remedy certain conditions there.” It seemed that even after all the opposition to Truman’s executive order, there still was evidence of progress toward desegregation in the military.
To read more on this topic, see Patrick Feng’s “Executive Order 9981: Integration of the Armed Forces.”

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