Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Double Victory

March 26- Today's post provided by Cheryl Mullenbach

Double Victory: How African American Women Broke Race and Gender Barriers to Help Win World War II, by Cheryl Mullenbach

Double Victory stood for victory at the front and victory at home—victory for democracy in Europe, Africa, and Asia and victory for democracy in America. It was a campaign started by a black newspaper—the Pittsburgh Courier—in 1942, and it caught on quickly. Across the nation African Americans flashed the double V sign and stuck bumper stickers that read “Democracy: At Home + Abroad” on their cars. But for women like Louise Miller, Hazel Scott, and Ora Pierce victory for democracy must have seemed unattainable in America in the 1940s.

Louise was an Army nurse returning from service in Australia and New Guinea late in 1945 when she encountered some very undemocratic Americans. Wearing her uniform as she traveled home to Atlanta, Georgia, from overseas duty, Louise went into an airport coffee shop in Texas to grab a quick bite. As she approached the counter, a restaurant worker told Louise she would have to eat at the back of the establishment—because she was “colored.” It didn’t stop there. Louise had just settled in to her seat on the next leg of her flight when the attendant asked her to move to another seat. The white passenger in the seat next to Louise did not want to sit next to a “colored.”

Photo 03-009 Ruth Wade and Lucille Mayo were Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps members who learned to maintain vehicles.
They freed male service members for combat duties. Photo courtesy of National Archives [AFRO/AM in WW II List #145]

Hazel Scott had attained star status as an entertainer by the 1940s. She had performed her special brand of jazzed up classics on piano all across the country—including in Carnegie Hall. She had raised thousands of dollars in war bond rallies. Late in 1945 Hazel was traveling through Missouri on her way to a concert. She was a well-recognized star by this time. But when she went into a small town cafĂ© for lunch she was told by the person behind the counter that she would have to eat in the kitchen. When Hazel refused, the server agreed to give her food for take out. Later, someone asked Hazel why she didn’t identify herself to the worker—who surely would have recognized the star’s name. Hazel replied, “I don’t want any special privileges. There are 13 million Hazel Scotts in America. They just don’t play the piano.”

Ora Pierce was an Army nurse stationed at Florence, Arizona, in 1945. She headed up a team of black nurses who tended wounded service members at the camp hospital. When the black nurses arrived, a group of white nurses quit their jobs rather than work with Ora and her fellow nurses. That wasn’t the last time Ora and the other black nurses would feel the sting of racism at the camp. Thousands of German POWs were processed through the Arizona camp from which they were sent to work sites across the country. Some of the Germans were kept in Florence at the hospital where Ora and her nurses worked. Ora told reporters that the Germans worked well with the nurses and that “they just accept us.” That wasn’t the case with all the white American Army officers. Ora and the other black nurses were not allowed to eat in the cafeteria with the other military personnel. But that wasn’t the most outrageous insult faced by the black nurses. It was even more infuriating that the German POWs—the “enemy” in the war—were allowed to eat in the cafeteria with the American personnel! The black nurses decided to do something about this injustice. They contacted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and reported the situation. After some discussion with the Army staff, Ora and her nurses were given permission to leave their segregated cafeteria and join the other white personnel—and the German POWs.

Photo 05-004 The all-black 404th Army Service Forces Band at Fort Des Moines, Iowa.
Courtesy of the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center, Vera Campbell Collection.
Thousands of African American women overcame race and gender barriers to help win the war. But it wasn’t easy. High profile women like Mary McLeod Bethune and Lena Horne were names familiar to most Americans at the time and in later years. However, there were many more women who contributed to the struggle for equality and for victory over fascism. Their stories were ignored at the time by the white, mainstream media. And in subsequent years they were forgotten. Some of their stories are told in Double Victory.

From Double Victory:
“Throughout their lives, many of their stories were overlooked. Many of their accounts of victory over racism were ignored. It’s up to the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to recover the stories of the women who have gone—and pay attention to the stories of the women who survive. It is their responsibility to ensure these victorious women are not forgotten. It will be a double victory.”

Cheryl Mullenbach is a former social studies consultant for a state department of education and was a project manager for a public television network. She taught social studies at the secondary level and was a high school librarian. Her book, Double Victory, encourages young adults to recognize the contributions of African American women who faced racism and challenged it to help win a world war.


  1. Thank you for writing Double Victory. I found it to be such so informative and a wonderful resource for everyone, but especially for African Amercan as part of their heritage. As you say, sometimes stories are overlooked and it is thanks to people like you that they are brought to the fore.

  2. Thanks for this fascinating post and also for your book, which highlights so-called "ordinary" people and their stories of courage against prejudice that was only a few years ago but is hard for our young people to imagine today. Thanks for bringing their stories to light!