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African Americans, women, and the GI Bill

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
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
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
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
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

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
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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf green style avatar for user Magiks
    About the pamphlet subtitle - why are marketing assumptions (which were mostly correct for the time) worth noting? Roughly 15 out of 16 million American WWII veterans were caucasian males.

    The 'Mr. Veteran' bit IS exclusive, granted, but is there really more to it than simply targeting the overwhelmingly majority with a printed message that had to be cost-efficient?
    (28 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Cara M.
      It is important to note because it prioritized white men at the expense of all other veterans. If there is money available to send veterans to college, and no one informs women that they can apply, then it's self-selecting. The important part was not just this one flyer, but that the whole system was operated in a way that excluded everyone else

      The flyer is notable because it's a sign of the larger, systemic problem.
      (28 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Samantha Moone #Writer's Alliance
    In answer to the first question, Some would say it was a success because it gave veterans the opportunity to have an education, and to buy a house in a less crowded area. But other would say that it was a failure because while it was an equal opportunity for women and African Americans to get the same benefits, many were faced with hostility when they tried to take advantage of it, and because of that, not a lot of women and African Americans took advantage of it.
    In response to the second question, This is related to the civil rights movement because it was one of the first times that women and African Americans got the same opportunities as white men, so they started to realize about how they were treated different from the white male.
    In response to the final question, This brought to womens' attention that they could get an education, and they could become a nurse, or lawyer, or architect, they could get an education!
    (16 votes)
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  • male robot donald style avatar for user cody jackson
    what do they mean by the economic brackets as the postwar boom stopped at the color line?
    (6 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Bruce Esch
      The postwar boom created a large middle-class in the decades following WWII. The economic bracket of middle-class, because of structural discrimination, was almost exclusive to whites. Discrimination is not only bad for those that experience it, but also for generations to come.
      (13 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user mgardner
    In the third paragraph, how did home ownership effect the African American families's lives?
    (4 votes)
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    • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Benzion Chinn
      The post-war period was important for the later Civil Rights Movement because blacks, even though they faced segregation, did greatly benefit from the economic boom. This helped create a black middle class that could afford homes. The children of this new black Middle Class would later go to college were they could develop the necessary media skills and alliances with white liberals to be able to challenge segregation head on.
      (14 votes)
  • stelly blue style avatar for user Jorge Daniel Garcia
    On the poster, what does "suit of civvies" mean?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Andrew King
      I've never seen that word written, but I assume "civvies" is the shortened term for civilians which is often used in the military. I believe the poster is saying "Do you need a civilian suit to go to work in?". People fresh out of the military in this time period would need some support in finding a job and learning how to operate in the workforce.
      (10 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Alek
    With a large amount of women going to school did this start a rise in female employment?
    (4 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Stefanie Bent
    Why was their a BIG difference between blacks and whites?
    I think it was wrong.
    In the declaration of independence they say ALL men are created equal, why not honor that?
    (5 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Humble Learner
      My friend, racism is terrible. When the Founding Fathers were writing that statement, they were thinking more of white males. African Americans were slaves and looked down upon. I am sure that some founders believed that black people deserved equal rights, but even people like Thomas Jefferson had slaves and raped his slaves as well.
      (2 votes)
  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Adi.price
    Why is the GI bill so important to some people and other people don't care at all what so ever?
    (2 votes)
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  • marcimus orange style avatar for user YellowThere
    Is the GI bill the reason why people get benefits for college after joining the military?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The GI Bill is a bunch of benefits created near the end of the second world war. Those benefits include preferential rates on mortages (which benefitted the house building industry), and lots of educational aid programs (which benefit schools, teachers and the economy in general by getting veterans better qualified to contribute to society).
      Some people join the military because they believe in supporting what the nation stands for.
      Some people, like I did, join the military to get away from their parents' homes after finishing high school.
      Some people, like many I knew when I was a soldier, join because they are given the chance to "go with the recruiter or go to jail for the crime you did."
      Some people join because they plan to use the training they got as soldiers PLUS the educational benefits they will get from the GI Bill to advance in life.
      (3 votes)
  • cacteye purple style avatar for user Gaige Harold
    The bill was a huge success, propelling Americans to new heights of education and helping to fuel the economic prosperity that characterized the postwar era. it helped make blacks and whites equal
    (4 votes)
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