Female and minority veterans faced difficulties accessing their GI Bill benefits.

Overview

  • African Americans and women were entitled to the same benefits as white men under the GI Bill, but often faced difficulty trying to claim their benefits due to discrimination.
  • Those who did manage to get benefits were often steered towards training for menial jobs.
  • The frustration of African American veterans barred from participating in the postwar economic boom became a major motivating factor in the Civil Rights Movement.

African Americans, women, and the GI Bill

Though the GI Bill itself did not bar female or African American veterans from enjoying its benefits, discrimination at the structural level often limited the GI Bill's benefits to white men. Though the program was federally funded, its implementation was directed at the state and local level by the Veterans Administration (VA), which was almost entirely white and closely affiliated with the pro-segregation American Legion. VA job counselors frequently steered African American veterans who applied for tuition benefits towards vocational training instead of university courses. In some cases, black applicants were told that they needed no further education, since the job market had no place for blacks as skilled workers--only as menial laborers.1^1
Movie still showing a group of men in uniform sitting around a table signing their discharge papers. Only one of the soldiers is African American; the rest are white.
Still from a film reel explaining GI Bill benefits, showing an African American soldier signing his discharge papers. Image from Army-Navy Screen Magazine #43, produced by the Army Information Branch, Army Pictorial Services, Air Forces and the Navy Department.
Even if African American veterans could attain GI Bill tuition money, it was far from certain that they could surmount entrenched prejudice and segregation at the university level to complete their educations. Many colleges had either stated or implied caps on the number of black students they would admit. Weary after enduring the insults of the segregated military, most black veterans elected to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) when possible, even if it meant waiting a year or more to matriculate due to overcrowding. HBCUs were few and far between in the north, however, so black veterans above the Mason-Dixon line had even fewer opportunities to pursue higher education.2^2
Furthermore, even though African Americans were entitled, in principle, to the same loan guaranties as whites, they faced serious barriers to home ownership. Many banks refused to loan money to blacks, federal guaranty or not. Suburban neighborhoods often boasted of restrictive covenants that banned African American families from purchasing homes in their subdivisions. As more and more white families moved to the white-picket-fenced suburbs characteristic of 1950s America, black citizens were confined to decaying inner cities.3^3
Front of an advice pamphlet for veterans. The advice pamphlet is called Dear Mr. Veteran and shows a cartoon of a white man in uniform smoking a cigarette and holding an opened newspaper, which has an advertisement on the back page selling automobiles. The soldier has a few dollar bills in his back pocket which are emphasized with dollar signs, as if to say he has money burning a hole in his pocket. The text next to the soldier says "want to buy a car? need a suit of civvies? looking for a place to live?"
An advice pamphlet for returning veterans. Note the assumption that a veteran was both white and male. Image courtesy National World War II Museum.
Women also took advantage of the GI Bill. Over 332,000 woman veterans were eligible for benefits. Although only about 65,000 female veterans attended college at Uncle Sam's expense, a higher percentage of them opted for university education (as opposed to vocational training) than men. This stemmed in part from the selectivity of the women's branches of the armed services, which--being volunteer organizations--could afford to limit their ranks to the highly-trained and -educated. One university dean estimated that 70% of woman veterans were prepared for college.4^4
Women's experiences varied. Many were not informed that they were eligible for the GI Bill during their demobilization process or faced hostility when trying to take advantage of the program. But the GI Bill also gave unprecedented support to women who never could have afforded to attend school without government support. Many trained in traditionally-female occupations such as nursing and teaching, while a few went into the professions to work as lawyers or architects. Despite these gains, fewer women during this time period received college degrees overall because colleges limited female enrollment in order to make space for male veterans.5^5

The GI Bill's legacy

The GI Bill, as a last gasp of the New Deal, demonstrated a growing sense that the US government was obligated to protect the rights of Americans, including the right to work and education as compensation for military service.6^6
The GI Bill was also key in creating the affluent American society of the 1950s and 1960s. But the uneven distribution of its benefits would have ramifications for years to come. Chief among these was the growing resentment of African Americans to being shut out of schools, neighborhoods, and entire economic brackets as the postwar boom stopped at the color line. Their frustration would soon erupt into the modern Civil Rights Movement.

What do you think?

Why would some historians regard the GI Bill as a "success" and why would others regard it as a failure?
How was the GI Bill related to the Civil Rights Movement?
How did the GI Bill impact women's education?
Article written by Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. Hilary Herbold, "Never a Level Playing Field: Blacks and the GI Bill," The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education No. 6 (Winter, 1994-1995), 106-107.
  2. Herbold, 107-108.
  3. Herbold, 106.
4-5. See Judith Bellefaire, "Women Veterans: Women Veterans and the WWII GI Bill of Rights," Women in Military Service Memorial Foundation, 2006.
  1. On the GI Bill and the growing sense of "rights-consciousness," see James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1971 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 55.
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