Race and the Good War: An Oral History Interview with Calvin D. Cosby, World War II Veteran

African American and white soldiers during World War II at a heavy bomber base iCalvin D. Cosby was born in 1918, in Knoxville, Tennessee, which was my hometown as well. I first knew Calvin Cosby as the husband of my beloved second-grade teacher, Mrs. Ima Bradford Cosby. Mr. and Mrs. Cosby and their daughter attended the same church that my family did and our families shared a deep connection. However, despite that close relationship, it wasn’t until the year 2001 that I discovered Mr. Cosby was a World War II veteran, a captain in the US Army Medical Service Corps, attached to the 2nd Battalion of the 92nd Division. He was a wonderful man and a hard worker, devoted to his family and very much representative of his generation in his reticence regarding his war experience. My mother—who was very persuasive when she used her "teacher voice"—finally convinced Mr. Cosby to sit down and talk to me about his service. It was a wonderful interview, conducted on December 28, 2003, three years before he passed away, chock-full of humor, sadness, and modesty. Twelve years and three laptops later, I was unfortunately only able to find a portion of his interview, but his candid answers to even these few questions illuminate the issues of race and African American life during the World War II period.

Cecelia Hartsell:  Mr. Cosby, what was your draft experience? Do you remember your first days in the service?

Calvin Cosby:  I sure do! Let me tell you this first. I finished college in 1940 and was headed to Atlanta University for my master’s. If I had gotten enrolled someplace, I could have gotten a three-month deferment. Anyway, I didn’t do that and I was called up in February of ’42. Well, I got down to the draft place and my name wasn’t on the entry form. They tried to get me on the train anyway! I said, "Are you crazy? I’m not that stupid!" But they got me—I was called up again three months later. Two hundred sixty-five of "us" left Knoxville that day! You know, that was a lot for a little town like ours. They took you whether you were crippled, lame, whatever—they were sweeping the streets—they were desperate for people! They took people like that every two months for a while!

Mr. Cosby’s answer possibly speaks to two issues. First is the ambivalence of many African Americans about fighting the war, an ambivalence stoked by the racial violence of the period. Second is the US Army’s initial structural inadequacy in maintaining segregated facilities. When Mr. Cosby was called up in 1942, America had gone to war with a segregated military. That fact was a bitter pill for African Americans who had watched black veterans of the First World War return home in 1919 to violence against them, many still in uniform.

In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 desegregating the US defense industry, a move precipitated by the actions of the March On Washington Movement (MOWM). In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, who had cut his teeth organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union in the 1920s, organized the movement. Its goal was to press President Roosevelt to defend democracy with a desegregated military and defense industry. When lobbying the President did not help, Randolph hoped to achieve those ends by organizing an African American protest march in Washington, DC. President Roosevelt had no wish to advertise America’s issues with race on an international stage, but he was also unwilling to "fight two wars at once" by desegregating the US military. He compromised and was able to hold off the march by desegregating the defense industry and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). That would prove to be a complex solution, as bringing recalcitrant defense industry workers and unions along on that path would not be as simple as issuing an executive order and establishing a grievance committee. However, it was a start and a victory for the MOWM, and it planted the seeds for a similar movement in 1963.

Racial violence was rampant in southern military training camps and large cities in 1942. In the industrial centers of New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles, where large-scale race riots occurred during the war, the Great Migration continued to bring large numbers of African Americans out of the South in pursuit of a better life up North. In vying for decent housing, employment, and education, African Americans were often perceived as a threat to native-born whites and immigrant groups following those dreams in close proximity. In the training camps, military police, local police, and white civilians clashed with black soldiers, and these conflicts spilled over into organized violence against African American civilians in the local communities as well. This violence threatened America no less than the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous year and it exacerbated the feelings of ambivalence about the war within the African American community.

The Army attempted to manage the racial issue. It pressured the Selective Service to abide by Army directives limiting the number of African American draftees and volunteers in correlation to "available accommodations and facilities." This meant that unless segregated facilities were available, those draftees would be put on hold and volunteers turned away by local draft boards. That policy had the potential to damage the war effort and did cause collateral damage in the soldiers’ hometowns. The presence of able-bodied African American men at home sometimes created the perception among white residents that those men were shirking their duty in the war effort, and this resulted in violent confrontation. The war had barely started for America and the country was already having trouble reconciling the fight for democracy with the fight to maintain its racial barriers. The conflict would continue to have an effect on the artificial construction of race. The Army’s structural issues may have created the "clerical error" when Mr. Cosby was initially called up. Once a segregated solution was in place, the Selective Service was cleared to actively bring in African Americans. This may have accounted for Mr. Cosby’s perception that the Army was "sweeping the streets" in May 1942. In any event, he completed his basic training in segregated facilities at Fort Benning, Georgia.

CH:  So, how was basic training?

CC:  Well, it was ok. What happened was, I was sent to the Induction Center at Fort Benning, Georgia, and they assigned you according to your profile. I had a college degree, so they said, well this Negro can read, we can use him. So, they sent me to service school—a medical training school. A lot of those boys with me at first, at Fort Benning, couldn’t read or write, so I was lucky to have that kind of profile. Otherwise, they turned you loose in infantry and taught you how to shoot.

CH:  When did you go to Europe and how in the world did you make the transition from civilian life to the military?

CC:  I went in September ’44. I was assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the 92nd Division. It’s a matter of survival, really. It was relatively easy. Once you got in the pitch of things, you had to put up or shut up. When I got in, I tried to make the best of it, do my duty. I took every advantage to upgrade myself. It was much better higher up the ladder than at the bottom.

Mr. Cosby’s responses reflect his generation’s conservative vision that education was the linchpin of achieving civil rights. This idea had a long history in the African American community, but the concept of "racial uplift" honed during the Progressive Era would have influenced Mr. Cosby’s generation. The proponents of racial uplift embraced what they referred to as "self-help" strategies. One of the most important of these was utilizing educational training to enhance prospects of attaining employment, achieving success, and ultimately, gaining broader citizenship rights. Those individuals who succeeded would help move the race forward collectively.

CH:  So, tell me about Europe, Mr. Cosby. You were stationed in Italy for most of the war, right? How did you go in?

CC:  Well, we went into southern Italy in Liberty Ships escorted by destroyers. Boy, those ships rocked like a cradle out there in the Atlantic! (Laughing) They were "Liberty Ships," but they were segregated. The Atlantic was covered by Jerry U-boats. We went in just above Naples. By the time I got in, they had made a few advances, but I joined then in the middle of it. I got off the boat and went right into the mountains to fight.

Mr. Cosby’s answer underscores the emphasis placed on maintaining the color line in the theaters of war, as well as at home. He described going in on Liberty Ships, which were ostensibly earmarked for transportation of cargo and supplies, not troops, and he indicated that the African American troops were segregated from the crew and other personnel. However, the circumstances of combat had a way of destroying those boundaries. During the war, there were instances of white and African American servicemen who, although separated by race on board US transport ships, were forced to work together to survive when attacked. This provides a powerful example of war’s ability to break down racial barriers. But had those groups been transported back home, the racial lines would have been restored.

CH:  I have to ask you about this story my Mom told me about your time in Italy—the one about the rumor that black soldiers had tails?

CC:  (Laughing) That’s right, I did tell your mother that story! What happened was, the white soldiers told the Italian women that the Negro soldiers had tails, so they’d stay away from us. One woman did lift up my coat to see! But they flocked to us anyway, because we were different.

Mr. Cosby’s story demonstrates how the maintenance of the color line abroad continued to be a priority during his service in Italy. It was also a priority in Great Britain. A number of historians have noted that the British government—in an attempt to preserve its relationship with the United States—was quietly supportive of the extension of Jim Crow practices across the Atlantic. However, most Britons responded positively to the presence of African American units stationed in their country. In fact, Britons often disregarded racial boundaries, causing white American servicemen to take action to secure them. This led to restriction of the movements of African American servicemen and harassment of British citizens—especially women—who refused to honor Jim Crow practices. The resulting tension between African American and white American GIs erupted into violence on a number of occasions, including during the months preceding the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. For example, earlier that year, the Leicester Mercury published a story indicating that white American soldiers rotating into Great Britain to train for the invasion were upset to see members of black quartermaster units—who would have come in much earlier to set up facilities—fraternizing with local white women. As a result, a number of serious altercations occurred between black and white American servicemen in Leicester, including one on February 28, 1944, in which at least twelve soldiers suffered knife wounds. Shortly afterward, the black service units were transferred twenty-eight miles away. With invasion plans ramping up, soldiers would have felt increased pressure, desperate to maintain any familiar social boundary in an uncertain world. The ultimate futility of such violence was reflected in Mr. Cosby’s anecdote.[1]

CH:  What were your expectations when you got back to the United States?

CC:  Well, I’d been in the furnace and it was still hot! I was hopeful, but it was the same old sixes and sevens. I went back to a secondary job, but in ’47, I took the postal exam and went to work

After helping win the war for democracy, Mr. Cosby returned home to a country where his access to citizenship rights remained virtually unchanged. Historians regard that generation of African American veterans as seeding the civil rights movement, for many of them were unwilling to accept the status quo when they returned from war. Mr. Cosby’s statement reminds us that there were many ways to resist that status quo. Historian Robin Kelley maintains that it is possible to see signs of African American civil disobedience in what he refers to as the "hidden transcript"—ordinary acts of resistance by ordinary people that demonstrate an unwillingness to be cowed by the social injustices of their day. Mr. Cosby did not elaborate on his postwar activities, but he did say that he just got on with things, doing what he had to do to make a living and support his family. That dedication to duty and family defined him. After taking the postal exam in 1947, Mr. Cosby began his career with the US Post Office as a mail carrier, working his way up to the position of branch manager by the time he retired in 1980. In fact, he was the first African American postal branch manager in our hometown. That really sums him up—a quiet trailblazer, as so many of his generation were.

[1] Adam Wakelin, "The History of Race: Riots on the Streets of Wartime Leicester," Leicester Mercury, April 24, 2015, accessed July 25, 2015, http://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/hidden-history-race-streets/story-2638....

Cecelia Hartsell is a researcher of American history, specialising in twentieth-century war and society. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and is completing her doctorate in American history at Fordham University in New York City. Her doctoral research examines parallels between the political struggles of Irish nationalists and African Americans during World War I.