From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division
It didn’t have the branding power of the Emancipation Proclamation that was issued 86 years prior, but President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981 would give the military services the guidance they needed to fully integrate their service members for years to come.
At just a little more than 400 words, Executive Order 9981, when it was issued July 26, 1948, established there shall be “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”
Bespectacled as a youth and awkward around boys and girls his age, a young Harry Truman spent his leisure time reading and playing the piano, entertaining the thought of becoming a concert pianist. He also dreamed of being a solider.
In 1917, with the United States on the verge of entering World War I, Truman joined his National Guard unit, where he blossomed as a leader, rising through the ranks to captain. Truman and the 129th Artillery Regiment were sent to France in 1918, where they served until the end of the war.
At that time, African-Americans were allowed to serve in any capacity in the armed services, as ordered by the Emancipation Proclamation: “that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
But after World War I, the Navy in particular chose to limit black Sailors to the steward and mess- man rates, and further eliminated chances of attaining a higher rank by not offering petty officer status to stewards and messmen.
Decades later, Truman’s leadership skills brought him to the White House for the final months of World War II after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt just 82 days into his fourth term.
After the war, Truman struggled to fix a fractured Democratic party that splintered over Truman’s advocacy of civil rights through his 1947 report “To Secure These Rights” aimed at reforms in voting and employment. The party was throwing its support to avowed “Dixiecrat” and segregationist Strom Thurmond.
If there was one event that might serve as the flash point for Truman’s civil rights advocacy, it would most likely come from the case of U.S. Army Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr.
Woodard, a World War II veteran who had served in the Pacific Theater, was taking a bus from Augusta, Ga., to his family in North Carolina. The 27-year-old was still wearing his uniform after receiving his discharge papers just hours before on Feb. 12, 1946…President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
During one of the stops, Woodard asked the driver for the time to go to the bathroom. The driver reluctantly agreed after an exchange of words, and Woodard returned to his seat without incident.
When the bus stopped in Batesburg, S.C., the driver called the police. After showing the officers his discharge papers, Woodard was accused of disorderly conduct and then beaten with nightsticks. He was jailed and beaten further, with the nightsticks being jabbed repeatedly in his eyes. The next morning, with both his eyes ruptured and suffering from partial amnesia, Woodard was fined $50.
After his family found him at a hospital weeks later that provided inadequate care, nothing could be done to save his eyesight. Despite publicity demanding South Carolina officials investigate the incident, nothing happened.
NAACP Executive Secretary Walter Francis White brought the case before Truman during a meeting Sept. 19, 1946. Truman was outraged, and a week later, he directed the Justice Department to investigate the case.
It mattered little in the outcome for Woodard. The trial was a travesty, the all-white jury found the police chief not-guilty, even though he admitted to blinding him with the nightstick. Woodard moved to New York after the trial, dying at age 73 at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in the Bronx in 1992. He was buried with military honors at nearby Calverton National Cemetery.
The case spurred Truman to be the first American president to speak at a meeting of the NAACP on June 29, 1947, as they met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was there he proclaimed civil rights as a “moral priority.”
Riding his civil liberties platform, as he headed into the November 1948 election against New York Republican Thomas Dewey, Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, stating: “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” A sister act, Executive Order 9980, declared equality for those in the federal government.
The order also established the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.
The Committee did its homework over the next two years, making field investigations of eight Navy ships and stations, seven Air Force bases and 10 Army posts, held more than 40 meetings and heard testimony from 67 witnesses, according to its 1,025-page report to the president given May 22, 1950.
The Navy was the most compliant, following through with a directive June 7, 1949, from Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal, with all jobs and ratings in the naval general service open to all enlisted men, and berthing as well. “Negroes are currently serving in every job classification and in general service.”
Blacks who had been serving as stewards could transfer into the general service as well.
All technical courses were open, with “Negroes attending the most advanced technical schools and are serving in their ratings both in the fleet and at shore installations.”
Sailors in general service were integrated, with whites and African-Americans from basic training, technical schools, on the job, in messes and sleeping quarters, both ashore and afloat.
But most importantly, the steward rate added third, second, first and chief petty officer to its promotion levels, like other rates in the Navy.
The success of the Navy incorporating African-Americans into the Navy was recently illustrated in a blog about Vice Adm. Samuel L. Gravely Jr., who took advantage of the Navy’s V-12 College Training program and became the first African-American admiral.
“The thing that most impressed the Committee about the Navy’s experience was that in the relatively short space of five years the Navy had moved from a policy of complete exclusion of Negroes from general service to a policy of complete integration in general service,” the Committee report concluded. “In this about face, the Navy had not been primarily motivated by moral considerations or by a desire to equalize treatment and opportunity. Undoubtedly public opinion had been a factor in this reversal of policy, but chiefly the Navy had been influenced by considerations of military efficiency and the need to economize human resources. Equality of treatment and opportunity, the Navy had discovered, was a necessary and inevitable condition and byproduct of a sound policy of manpower utilization.”