On Veterans Day, a group of Democratic lawmakers revived their efforts to pay the families of Black military personnel who fought on behalf of the nation during World War II for services they were denied or prevented from returning from the war to use fully.
The new legislative effort would benefit surviving spouses and all living descendants of World War II Black Veterans whose families were denied the opportunity to build wealth through housing and education through the GI Act.
Since 1944, these services have been offered to millions of veterans transitioning into civilian life. But due to racism and discrimination in the way it was granted by local Veterans Affairs offices, many black WWII veterans received significantly less money to buy a home or continue their education.
The Senate bill was due to be introduced Thursday by Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, son of a World War II veteran.
“We have all seen these injustices diminish over time,” said Warnock, adding that the bill “represents a major step in addressing this injustice.”
A House version was unveiled last week by South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, Democratic Majority Leader, and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton.
“This is an opportunity for America to correct a monstrous mistake,” said Clyburn. “Hopefully it can also begin to lay a foundation that will help break the cycle of poverty among the people who are the descendants of those who have made sacrifices to maintain this democracy.”
Moulton, a Navy veteran who completed four tours during the Iraq War, said, “There are many black Americans today who are feeling the effects of this injustice, even though it was originally committed 70 years ago.”
“I think restoring the benefits of the GI Bill is one of the greatest racial justice issues of our time,” he said.
The legislation would extend the VA Loan Guarantee Program and GI Bill Educational Aid to Black World War II veterans and their descendants who are still alive at the time the bill goes into effect. A panel of independent experts would also be set up to examine inequalities in the delivery of benefits to women and people of color.
Lawrence Brooks, the oldest living US veteran at 112 years old, was drafted during World War II and assigned to the predominantly black 91st Engineer General Service Regiment.
The Louisiana native, who has 12 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren, always believed that serving his country was the only way he could put his life as the son of tenants behind, his daughter Vanessa Brooks said.
But after his release in August 1945 as a private first grader, he did not realize his dream of studying, but instead worked as a forklift driver before retiring at the age of 60. “He always wanted to go to school,” says his daughter.
And when he bought his house, he was using his retirement plan, not GI Bill’s benefits, she said.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act in 1944, which gave benefits to 16 million veterans of the 2nd Regardless of race, veterans who had served in the war for more than 90 days and were honorably discharged.
But after returning from the war, black and white veterans faced two very different realities.
Because the GI Act’s benefits had to be approved by local VA officials, few of whom were black, the process created problems for veterans. This was particularly acute in the deep south, where Jim Crow’s segregation imposed racial barriers to home ownership and education.
Local VA officials there either made it difficult for black veterans to access their benefits or diminished their value by diverting them from mostly white four-year colleges to vocational and other non-graduate programs. Meanwhile, the country’s traditionally black colleges and universities saw such a significant surge in enrollment among black veterans that schools were forced to turn down tens of thousands of prospective students.
Sgt. Joseph Maddox, one of two World War II veterans Moulton and Clyburn after whom their bill was named, has been denied study assistance by his local VA office despite being accepted into a master’s degree at Harvard University.
“When it came time to pay the bill, the government just said no,” said Moulton, who himself attended Harvard on the GI bill. “It’s actually quite emotional for vets who have been through this themselves and how I know the difference the GI bill has made in our lives.”
The bill is also named after Sgt. Isaac Woodard, Jr., a World War II veteran from Winnsboro, South Carolina who was brutally beaten and blinded by a small town police chief in 1946 after returning home from the war. The acquittal of his attacker by an all-white jury in 1948 contributed to the integration of the US armed forces.
In contrast to treating black veterans, the GI Act helped white veterans skyrocket home ownership rates in a post-war housing boom that created a ripple effect that continues to benefit their children and grandchildren to this day.
Of the more than 3,000 VA home loans made to veterans in Mississippi in the summer of 1947, only two were to black veterans, according to a poll conducted by Ebony magazine at the time.
The Federal Housing Administration’s racist housing policies also impacted black WWII veterans, and undoubtedly heightened today’s interracial prosperity gap. Typically referred to as redlining, real estate agents and banks would refuse to show homes or offer mortgages to qualified homebuyers in certain neighborhoods based on race or ethnicity.
Preliminary analysis of historical data suggests that black and white veterans used their services at similar rates, according to Maria Madison, director of the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University, on the impact of racial inequalities in managing GI Bill has examined achievements.
However, due to institutional racism and other obstacles, black veterans were limited in how they could take advantage of their benefits. As a result, the present value of their benefits was only 40% of what white veterans received.
After adjusting for inflation and market returns, this corresponds to a difference in value of $ 170,000 per veteran, according to Madison. Her ongoing research seeks to put a dollar amount on black families’ wealth loss caused by racism and GI Bill injustices.
Black World War II veterans fortunate enough to have full access to GI Bill benefits managed to build good lives for themselves and their families, said Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College. It is a clear argument why the new legislation is necessary.
“Because GI benefits weren’t evenly distributed among black veterans, we’ve lost a generation of black wealth-builders,” said Delmont. “After the war we could have had more doctors, lawyers, teachers and architects.”
Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a Black woman who was a World War II veteran, graduated from Howard University Law School with GI Bill accomplishments. Then she became a nationally known criminal defense attorney in Washington who played a pivotal role in the desegregation of buses.
And World War II veteran Robert Madison, who served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, credited his GI perks for his success as a renowned architect.
Morrison reported from New York City. Stafford reported from Detroit. Both are members of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow Morrison on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorison. Follow Stafford on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/@kat__stafford.
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