The Hard-to-Find Voices

In the past year, I’ve pursued a lot of oral histories in order to get a more personal take on women’s military service from the end of World War II through the late 1970s. I started with oral history transcripts from sources such as the Women’s Memorial, the Library of Congress, and the UNC-Greensboro Women Veterans Collection. As you may know from reading this blog, I also started conducting my own interviews, which has been a lot of fun and very educational.

One of the key problems I keep encountering is the difficulty of finding minority women’s experiences. African American, Hispanic, and Native American women most definitely served in the armed forces during the period I study, but there were fewer of them than there were white women. I’ve been fortunate to speak with a Hispanic Korean War veteran, and the Women’s Memorial put a fair number of Native American and African American women’s oral history transcripts in my hand. Still, I feel like I’m missing out on a major set of sources. I know there are more women out there, but the problem has been how to find them and be able to talk to them.  In recent months, I’ve put out feelers through several organizations, including one for minority veterans, but I’ve had few responses (and none from minority women).

I think this is simply a reality for my project. I want very much to provide an account that doesn’t privilege any one group based on their race, and I don’t want to simply have token integration of non-white women. More importantly, I think the combined issues of race and sex in the U.S. military during the Cold War are really fascinating. For example, no one ever seems to realize that the legislation to integrate women into the military became law just six weeks before President Truman enacted Executive Order 9981 (which initiated the military’s desegregation efforts).

While most of the branches had some difficulties with racial integration, it’s particularly interested to consider how this process occurred in the women’s service components. While I won’t say it was easy, I think it’s safe to say that evidence suggests that the racial integration process in the women’s services went a lot more smoothly and quickly.

By the early 1950s, all of the women’s components were racially integrated, beginning with basic training and boot camp. Assignments for women were made pretty much on a race-blind basis, and the accounts I’ve read suggest that the biggest discrimination minority women faced while in military service came from the outside world.

For example, if you’ve never heard of Sarah Keys Evans, you’re missing out on a fascinating case. In 1952, Sarah Keys Evans was a young Women’s Army Corps private serving in Fort Dix, New Jersey. On leave, she traveled home to North Carolina in August 1952. When the bus changed drivers at midnight in Roanoke Rapids, NC, she was told to move to the back of the bus.

Sarah Keys Evans refused. The driver moved the other passengers to another bus and refused to let her board. Instead, the local police arrested her and made her spend the night in jail.

In 1955, the Interstate Commerce Commission Ruled in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company that decided in her favor, ruling that “separate but equal” could not apply in interstate bus travel.

While most servicewomen –regardless of race – would not find themselves caught up in legal fights for their rights, Sarah Keys Evans’ story is just one of the many interesting and important accounts I’ve learned while researching this dissertation.

I know there are many other stories like hers – maybe not stories that end with litigation and groundbreaking legal changes, but stories from women who experienced similar circumstances. And what a contrast, to go from being on a racially integrated military base to returning to segregation anytime you interacted with civilians.

By the way –the decision in Sarah Keys Evans’ case? It came one week before Rosa Parks initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott.


3 thoughts on “The Hard-to-Find Voices

  1. this is, indeed, a problem. It’s one I have with “my” chaplains as well. In the entire manuscript, nee dissertation, I have one (definitely) African-American chaplain and that’s really it. (There may be others, but I have no record of their race, and I know the numbers were so small, that I really must assume they are white.) As a result, I don’t engage the issue of race nearly as much as I should – as the sources themselves are pretty quiet on the issue. I can count on one hand the number of times a chaplain explicitly mentions race as an issue. In the middle of the Vietnam War, no less! It’s a major critique from my ms reviewers, and one that I honestly don’t know how to correct.

    • Are oral histories something you use at all? That seems to be the only place where I can really find engagement with race. It comes up occasionally in the official histories – Morden and Stremlow touch on African American women in the WAC and Women Marines very briefly – but that’s it. I think for me it’s going to have to be a “hey, look, this is a subject that’s very difficult to get at…”

      Also, the general consensus seems to be – and I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s there – that “race didn’t matter” when it came to women. Again, I don’t quite buy it because in theory sex didn’t matter to the military either, but that’s a big fat lie.

      • I have one oral history of a black chaplain, who later became a fairly high-ranking chaplain in the Office of the Chief of Chaplains–he was the point person for some of the racial reconciliation projects going on in the post-Vietnam era, especially in Germany. But oral histories for non-combatant males are rare, and even in collections of oral histories of black or other racial minority soldiers, I have yet to see a chaplain make an appearance. (doesn’t mean they don’t exist–I can’t claim to have looked at *every* collection. . . ) My hunch is that I do actually have oral histories and other firsthand accounts from a handful of black and other minority voices, they just aren’t identified as such, and there aren’t any obvious markers (e.g. being from a historically black church/denomination).

        At any rate, it’s terribly frustrating to think something is important and have really no idea about how to unlock it!

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