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Black vets were excluded from GI bill benefits — a bill in congress aims to fix that

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Americans who fought in World War II are called the Greatest Generation not only because they fought fascism but also because of what happened when they came home. It was the greatest expansion of the American middle class in history, partly due to the GI Bill. It gave free college and cheap home loans to millions of veterans, except the U.S. was still segregated when the GI Bill became law. And as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, that meant many Black veterans were left behind.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Amid all the movies and books about World War II, you probably never heard of the Barrage Balloon Battalion.

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BILL DABNEY: When we got this tour, the first thing we did was dig in, dig in the sand.

LAWRENCE: Bill Dabney fought with the battalion on its first mission, the D-Day landing in Normandy.

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BILL DABNEY: And the Germans had a plane they called the Do 217.

LAWRENCE: Dabney and his men had cables attached to blimps packed with explosives high above, designed to prevent the German planes from strafing the beach where the Americans were landing.

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BILL DABNEY: That would shoot coming down, and when it went up, it would shoot so they're scraping the beach. So the main purpose of balloons was to stop the scraping and protect, you know, the anti-aircraft, the big guns.

LAWRENCE: Still, Dabney said that he and his fellow soldiers were nearly pinned down by German gunfire from the cliffs above the beach.

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BILL DABNEY: The fire was so heavy up in the mountains from the German side that we was really, really afraid there at at one time.

LAWRENCE: Dabney and the entire brigade were Black. It was a segregated unit, the first to land on Omaha Beach.

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BILL DABNEY: And I think the highest ranking Black officer was a first lieutenant. And, of course, you have white officers that would come round every so often to inspect and whatnot. But my platoon officer, they were Black.

LAWRENCE: Dabney died in 2018, but he told his story to historians at the National World War II Museum. He did not really tell his story to his family back home in Virginia.

BEULAH DABNEY: He never - he didn't talk much about his time overseas.

LAWRENCE: Beulah Dabney married Bill in 1951, and she still lives at their home in Roanoke.

BEULAH DABNEY: Otherwise, he talked very little about it. He didn't keep his uniform or any of those things. In other words, he was through with the service.

LAWRENCE: Like a lot of Black veterans were. Dabney says her husband came home from Europe, where the French treated him like a hero, to the Jim Crow South.

BEULAH DABNEY: They treated some of the prisoners who were brought to the United States better than they were treating the ex, you know, soldiers, the GIs. And of course, you can imagine how that made them feel.

LAWRENCE: Their son Vinnie Dabney explains.

VINNIE DABNEY: One reason why we never had pictures of my dad in uniform was that coming back from the West Coast, after they had been deployed to go to the Pacific Theater, after they fought all the way through the European theater, they noticed that they had to ride in the back of the train, but Nazi POWs got to ride in first class in the front of the train. Nazis were getting treated better than Black veterans who had put their lives on the line. So that kind of pissed my dad off.

LAWRENCE: Returning home, Black veterans quickly learned that just wearing a uniform could be a provocation, says Matthew Delmont, the author of "Half American" about Black soldiers in World War II.

MATTHEW DELMONT: Eugene Bell, who's a father of two young children and was honorably discharged from the Army, was lynched in Liberty, Miss. Sam McFadden was taken into custody by a white sheriff and killed in Suwannee County, Fla. Timothy Hood, who was a honorably discharged Marine, was shot and killed by a white streetcar conductor in Bessemer, Ala.

LAWRENCE: The list goes on. Delmont teaches history at Dartmouth. He says many Black GIs also faced a less violent form of racism which hit their benefits.

DELMONT: The GI Bill was one of the best pieces of policy that the United States ever created, at least it was for white veterans. The fact that Black veterans weren't able to benefit from the bill in the same way is frankly a disgrace.

LAWRENCE: The GI Bill, with free college and an easy home loan, was federal but administered locally. Segregation was still the law in 18 mostly southern states. In 1950s Roanoke, Va., Beulah Dabney and her son Vinnie say their family couldn't get a loan.

BEULAH DABNEY: They didn't actually say that they wouldn't give me a loan, but they kept dragging it out. You know, there was always some excuse as to why it didn't go through.

V DABNEY: Nobody would honor the GI Bill because they were Black. Roanoke had a reputation as being one of the most segregated cities in the South for a long time. No banks would give them a mortgage.

LAWRENCE: The Dabneys eventually found a loan through a Black insurance executive they knew. But even then, there was redlining, so the houses they were allowed to buy were in poorer parts of town and worth less. The same goes for the GI Bill's college funds. Many universities wouldn't accept them. For white veterans, it built generational wealth, says Richard Brookshire with the Black Veterans Empowerment Coalition (ph).

RICHARD BROOKSHIRE: Black folk were largely locked out of this really important social welfare program. Because of it, it planted the seed for longstanding economic inequality that persists today.

LAWRENCE: Brookshire's group is getting behind a bill in Congress called the GI Bill Restoration Act that would try to repair some of that harm. Now, Brookshire knows that the word reparations sets off all sorts of heated rhetoric on cable news. Veterans issues are supposed to be above politics, though, he says, and so maybe helping Black veterans can be a beachhead.

BROOKSHIRE: Black vets are the most well-positioned group to push forward the conversation about reparations in this country, not only because they've been affected, but because of the ways in which, you know, the United States holds up veterans and what they purport to believe veterans are owed. And so, you know, you kind of force a uncomfortable-but-necessary conversation.

LAWRENCE: Paying back Black veterans involves a concrete number, not like the vast, incalculable harm of slavery. Researchers at Brandeis University found that the amount owed to descendants of a Black World War II veteran is $180,000. Adjusted for today's dollars, that's how much more white veterans got out of the GI Bill compared to Black veterans in 1944. Beulah Dabney says, sure, that money would be welcome, but at 93, she won't dwell on it.

BEULAH DABNEY: Probably would have been able to live a little bit better. I mean, financially, we wouldn't have had maybe as many problems as we did. But we were able to overcome problems that cropped up. I'm not a person who likes to revisit a lot of negative things, so I don't have a whole lot, you know, to say about it.

LAWRENCE: Her son, Vinnie Dabney, says some of the damage was repaired for his dad when he got a call inviting him to return to Normandy 65 years after D-Day.

V DABNEY: My dad thought it was a gimmick. He didn't want to go. He thought it was somebody pranking him. So I had to talk him into going. I said, Dad, this is historic. You can't not go. It was quite an event. My dad got the Legion of Honor, which is equivalent to our Medal of Honor.

BEULAH DABNEY: France treated him royally when he went back. And, you know, they were very happy to have him come back, showed their appreciation for what he had done. And so, of course, that stirred up a whole lot of memories. And then he started talking more about it.

LAWRENCE: About 1 million Black veterans served during World War II. Not all of them lived long enough to get that sort of recognition or the benefits they were promised. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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