By Sydney Johnson
The USO has been dedicated to serving all those who serve in the U.S. military – regardless of race – for its entire 80-year history.
The organization was founded before the U.S. Armed Forces were officially integrated, which meant that when the first USO brick-and-mortar locations were erected in November of 1941 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the USO found itself amid the complex and daunting realities of both racial segregation and World War II.
Despite the challenging circumstances, the USO found ways to serve all men in uniform – including the one million Black soldiers – during WWII.
The Board’s Approach to Serving Black Troops
Even in the USO’s earliest days, internal documents show that USO leadership recognized the organization’s responsibility to serve Black military members fighting in the war. After all, the USO’s founding policies expressly forbade discrimination on the basis of race or creed.
On May 22, 1941, at a USO Board of Directors meeting just a few months after the USO’s founding, a motion was made to elect a Black Board member. A week later, Hubert T. Delany was elected unanimously. Delany, who was a civil rights pioneer, lawyer and politician, was not shy about advocating for Black soldiers and proposing how centers should operate during the war.
In a memo addressed to the Chairman of the Board at the time, Delany reiterated the USO’s official policy that, that no matter the color of a soldier’s skin, “… all buildings erected by or for USO should be open to all men in uniform.” He also called for diversity of entertainment and accessibility to that talent, as well as the employment of Black administrative staff.
Delany’s guidance was implemented in several USO centers, but since the “opinion was expressed [at a 1941 Board meeting] that the USO was in no position to solve the question of segregation,” his vision was not fully realized during the WWII era. However, a compromise was made in the creation of the internal Negro Service Committee, which met monthly “to check over what each [USO member] Agency was doing for the Negros.”
Although the USO’s agreement with the federal government explicitly declared that USO locations be open to all men in uniform regardless of race or creed, in practice, universally enforcing this policy during WWII proved difficult at times due to local community attitudes toward race.
According to a 2000 article by Gretchen Knapp in the Journal of Policy History, “USO centers were often segregated [during this era and it was not uncommon to see two separate USOs in the same town], either because of local regulations or by the request of African Americans who deplored the tensions that arose when they entered the USO center. In 1943, more than 180 of 1,326 USO operations were designated for African Americans.”
In March 1943, the War Department – the precursor to today’s Department of Defense (DoD) – formally ordered the integration of all recreational military facilities, paving the way for a wider variety of USO offerings for Black service members during the WWII era, particularly in places like Hawaii.
The Complexity of the Black USO Experience Throughout the U.S.
A Black service member’s USO experience truly depended on where they were stationed – and even varied from town to town – reflecting the very complex reality of being a Black service member in America during WWII.
Throughout much of the Western U.S. during WWII, local communities often opted to open separate Black and white USO facilities.
In Tacoma, Washington, two USO centers opened on Feb. 9, 1942, to serve white military members stationed to nearby Fort Lewis. A few months later in September, a third USO center opened – this time, to serve Black soldiers.
Similarly, across the state in Spokane, Black service members could head to the wildly popular George Washington Carver USO, which opened in 1943. This location offered a fun escape for those who visited, giving troops somewhere to play cards, dance and socialize while taking a break from their duties.
Reading records from facilities like the Carver USO club, it can be easy to see how, according to a national survey conducted during the war, 44% of Black troops felt the USO was “absolutely essential” to them.
Down in Richmond, California, the plans to serve the Black military population didn’t pan out as smoothly.
Although Richmond was (and still is) a city with a large Black community, during World War II, the USO’s effort to open a Black club on an available property in a white neighborhood was met with pushback by the local community.
Although this specific center never came to fruition, other USO centers remained available for Black troops to visit in the Greater Bay Area.
Still, situations like this were not uncommon throughout the U.S. during this era.
Similarly, in the Midwest during WWII, Black service members often had to head to separate USO facilities than their white counterparts, and in some areas, where there weren’t separate facilities, the local community did not welcome them at the USO in town.
In Evansville, Indiana, where Black service members were denied entrance to downtown buildings and businesses, they headed to the nearby Lincoln USO Club, where they were met with open arms. Occupants of Lincoln Gardens, a federally funded community that provided affordable housing for the area’s Black community, initially opened the location in 1942, calling it the Lincoln Gardens USO. The operation was later moved to a nearby location in 1943 and renamed the Lincoln USO Club.
Although this USO location is no longer operational, Evansville visitors today can still visit the last remaining Lincoln Gardens building, which has been converted into the Evansville African American Museum and has a commemorative marker mentioning the USO club.
Over in Kenosha, Wisconsin, records show there was a USO center during WWII that served more than 250,000 service members during its four-year run – all of whom were white. No Black center was built in the area, and according to a 1943 Kenosha Evening News article, Black service members in the area were encouraged by their commanding officers to spend their brief leaves at the Negro USO center in Waukegan and in Chicago, which were at least a 30-minute and 90-minute drive away, respectively.
Still, on at least one occasion, when a large number of Black service members were training near Kenosha, volunteers from the local Black community and from the Waukegan USO came together to host a party just for the visiting Black service members, bringing them a bit of home and hospitality.
Across the country in the Northeast U.S., similar situations to those in the West and Midwest often existed as well.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, Black soldiers at nearby Grenier Field weren’t totally barred from USO centers in town, but like their fellow soldiers in Kenosha, were encouraged by their commanding officers to stay on base during their downtime, as the local community did not feel warmly toward Black service members at the time.
In a 2006 interview with the Manchester Historical Society, Faye L’Ecuyer, who volunteered at the downtown Manchester USO during the war, reflected on the prejudice she witnessed while at a center dance. A Black soldier walked in with two women to join the rest of his fellow troops on the dance floor, she recalled.
“They started dancing and there were other people dancing on the floor and, I think there were a lot of southerners there,” she said. “One by one, they stopped dancing … That’s a shame, I thought that was terrible. They stopped dancing because they didn’t want to dance with the Black men.”
Despite significant prejudiced community sentiment toward Black service members, local USO leaders did their best to provide more welcoming entertainment options for Black service members at Grenier Field, to include a monthly USO dance every other Saturday night just for Black service members.
Eventually, base, community and USO leadership decided they needed to provide more consistent services for the large number of Black service members in the area and opened the USO Guest House location on Grenier Field specifically to serve Black service men.
This center was particularly out of the ordinary; centers typically didn’t operate on military installations, as they do today, but the exception was made for USO Guest House to safeguard Black troops and offer them a recreation option where they didn’t have to leave base and battle local negative sentiments.
Similarly, over in Philadelphia, the USO operated a center specifically for Black service members called the South Broad Street USO. However, as the war went on and Black service members started to visit other USO locations outside of the Broad Street center, not every visit to these other locations went smoothly.
In a 1999 article in the The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, author Maryann Lovelace describes several instances where local negative attitudes toward racial segregation played out dramatically at some of these Philadelphia USO locations during WWII, exemplifying the complicated realities of the time.
The Deep South
Racial tension throughout the South – the home of Jim Crow segregation laws – was especially palpable and made the USO’s job even more challenging in this region.
In downtown Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the USO operated a spacious two-story, red brick USO club – but Black people, even those serving our country, weren’t welcome downtown at the time, even just to visit the USO. Even when entering the few businesses at which they were tolerated, they typically had to use a “Blacks only” door to enter.
However, no matter what, they were always met with a warm welcome after walking through the front doors of the USO center built just for them: the Hattiesburg USO.
Opened in the early months of 1942, this center was erected to exclusively serve Black service members, many of whom were training at nearby Camp Shelby. It was a place where they could let loose and temporarily escape the realities of war and discrimination.
“For the G.I.s, most of them not from the South, and not accustomed to the South’s activities, [the Hattiesburg USO] was a safe place,” Vietnam War veteran Charles Brown said in the 2016 PBS documentary, “USO: For the Troops.”
Vermell Jackson volunteered at the Hattiesburg USO during World War II. She recounted her experience back in 2016 to the USO and recalled how she helped the service members stay connected to home through letter writing during the war.
“[The soldiers] knew what they wanted to say, but they didn’t know how to put it together and say it,” Jackson said. “I tried to help them from a lady’s standpoint, because in the meantime, I was writing letters, love letters, too.”
As a USO volunteer, Jackson also got to see firsthand how much they enjoyed having a space to relax and feel welcomed.
“They [were] elated to have a place to go,” she said. “And they were really proud of it.”
Today, the original Hattiesburg USO building still stands and welcomes visitors as the African American Military History Museum.
The USO in Hawaii
Thousands of miles away in Hawaii – a then-territory – things looked different at the USO.
After the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor sparked the U.S.’ involvement in the war, the organization fast-tracked efforts that were already in motion to build USO locations across the territory.
An important part of Hawaii USO’s mobilization was its intent on serving all service members, regardless of racial background.
So, the USO opened two clubs in Honolulu, one of which was called the Rainbow Club with an intentional focus on serving and welcoming enlisted men of all backgrounds. The USO team in Hawaii was very explicit about their decision to open these centers with the mission of inclusivity, stating in the 1945 annual report:
“The USO did not, through the Rainbow Club solve the racial problems of the 186,307 men and women in uniform who were its guests in 1945. But it gave them the impetus to think and to share, without which there can be no solution.”
The club also had employees of all backgrounds, proving that it was possible for Black and white people to work together and that all service members could be served under one roof.
“The USO Rainbow Club is interracially staffed, and offers equal educational, recreational and other USO facilities to service men and women of all races,” The Honolulu Advertiser reported in an article about the club’s open house in 1945.
Thanks to USO locations like the USO Rainbow Club, when President Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military in 1948, nearly seven years after the USO was founded, the organization was already along the path to full center integration in its dedication to serving all those who serve.
Although the USO’s navigation through societal attitudes toward racial segregation during WWII had its own set of challenges, the organization managed to find ways to serve military members of all races at its more than 3,000 USO centers.
Remembering and acknowledging the complex reality that Black WWII-era service members faced as they fought for our nation and visited USO centers is vital to honoring the legacy of these brave service members who stepped up to protect their family, home and country.
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