Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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African Americans in the Navy during World War II

On the eve of World War II, African Americans continued to serve mostly as messman and stewards. In the fall of 1941, there was some discussion about integration of the Navy and opening more rates to African Americans.  As the war progressed, there was a tremendous need of manpower. On 27 March 1942, the Navy’s General Board stated that they recognized the social and economic problems involved with integration and strove to reconcile these issues with the need for highest level of the fighting efficiency within the Navy. It concluded that black sailors could be used with least conflict in shore and dock installations, aboard local defense vessels, with the construction units (Seabees,) and on selected Coast Guard cutters.


In February 1942, CNO Admiral Harold Stark recommended African Americans for ratings in the construction trades. Two months later, the Navy announced it would enlist African Americans in the Seabees. Even so, there were just two regular units that were segregated. Both had white southern officers and black enlisted personnel. Within these battalions, they experienced problems that led to the replacement of the officers.


The Navy had a huge need for cargo handlers. The lack of stevedores for unloading ships in combat zones was creating a problem. On 18 September 1942, authorization was granted for the formation of a different type of construction battalion denoted by the tag "Special" for cargo handling. By the end of the war, 41 Special Construction Battalions were commissioned of which 15 were segregated. Those Special units became the first fully integrated units in the U.S. Navy. However, at the end of War, each of these units was decomnissioned.

 

At the beginning of the Second World War, African Americans were viewed by many as inferior, including senior Navy personnel.  However, with executive leadership, the civil rights movement and black citizens the opportunities available by the end of the war had greatly improved.