Interwar Years: Between WWI and WWII

The decade of the 1920s was a time of change in America. As the manufacturing and consumption of consumer goods increased, America entered a financially prosperous decade. The youth of America experienced greater freedoms as the ownership of cars increased, traditional gender roles changed, and religious morals became more liberal. Music became edgier. Women’s hemlines and hair lengths shortened. Flappers and jazz became the new rage. The old, Victorian social morals were challenged. Yet many Americans held tightly to old values, such as the federal and local governments pushing Prohibition laws. As Americans challenged each other over the old versus the new, African-American civil rights struggles increased after the war, as life for African-Americans both changed and stayed the same.

The Great Migration of southern African-Americans to northern states continued after the war. Servicemen returning back home after the war hoped for changes to Jim Crow laws and racism. White southerner s were concerned that the black soldiers returning would not “know their place” in society and would expect the abolition of Jim Crow laws. As African-Americans who moved North entered jobs, neighborhoods and social areas previously occupied by whites, racial tensions increased in northern cities. In the summer of 1919, over two dozen race riots broke out in northern, mid-western, and western states, resulting in over one hundred deaths, hundreds of injuries, destruction of property, and homelessness of many African-American families. Conditions in the South continued to worsen. While lynchings were not as prevalent in the 1920s, lynchings of African-Americans in the South increased in the early years of the 1920s. Around this time, the South witnessed a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

America faced more changes with the onset of The Great Depression. As American unemployment rose, African-Americans were hit particularly hard. By 1932, almost half of African-Americans were out of work. This increased racial tensions between whites and blacks as competition for jobs became a means of survival. Incidents like the Scottsboro Nine further increased African-American distrust of the American government. Some African-Americans turned towards communism as a means to find racial equality.

The election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt also changed African-American politics. Traditionally voting Republican, African-Americans began to vote Democratic as President Roosevelt slowly passed bills to protect African-Americans. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became a formidable leader in the fight for civil rights. While New Deal politics helped many unemployed Americans find work with the Civil Conservation Corp (CCC) and the Works Progressive Administration (WPA), African-Americans continued to face discrimination within these organizations, especially in southern states. African-American civil rights leaders and groups such as the NAACP, urged Congress to protect African-American rights and used the courts to gain more rights, particularly voting rights. As African-Americans leaders threatened to protest with a march on Washington in 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 which prohibited discrimination against African-Americans in the defense industry. With war raging in Europe, America once again prepared for war.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Camp Devens underwent many changes. U.S. Representative Edith Norse Rogers, the first woman in the state of Massachusetts to be elected to the House of Representative, saw how a permanent base would stabilize and sustain the local economy, and fought to make the camp permanent. Turning Camp Devens into a permanent base required dismantling many of the temporary structures built in 1917 and 1918, save for a few stone walls and the Sweetheart Memorial. Most of the building were constructed by the WPA and consisted of brick Georgian revival structures. The land was landscaped following the trend of City Beautiful and Garden City Planning. Native trees and shrubs were planted, including pine, oak, maple, black walnut and elm. Recreational areas were set up for the soldiers and their families at Mirror Lake to boat and swim in the summer, and ice skate in the winter. In November 1931, Camp Devens was turned into a permanent army base and renamed Fort Devens.
Representative Edith Rogers continued her commitment to improving the military by sponsoring numerous bills including the G.I. Bill, both bills that created the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and the Women’s Army Corp (WAC), and bills that supported the veterans of wars. The WAC served at Fort Devens in non-combat areas and was an integral part of running the base during the 1940’s.

As talks of American involvement in WWII surfaced, African-American soldiers led a campaign to “fight for the right to fight” and were given the opportunity when the Selective Training and Service Act was passed in 1940. In order to diffuse some of the racial tensions regarding African-American participation in the armed forces, the military instituted a quota of how many African-Americans could serve in the armed forces to reflect American society. But this did not make things easy for the African-American men serving. The army was still segregated, with African-Americans serving in all black units.

At Fort Devens, the sense of being separate was evident for the African-American soldiers, as all training facilities and some (but not all) of the recreational facilities were segregated. The surrounding community, approximately 40 miles west of Boston, continued to be primarily white. While racial tensions were not violent at Fort Devens and the surrounding community, racial tensions existed not far away in Boston between soldiers, as one off-base incident between white and African-American soldiers from Camp Edwards prompted the army to have one black and one white MP ride the weekend trains to New York to keep the soldiers on the train calm.

While the military practiced segregation as a policy during World War II, African-Americans tended to speak out more often and create change in the army while serving so they could create their own identities and experiences in the armed forces. While there are still many incidents of the army trying to keep discrimination and civil rights protests quiet, those efforts did not entirely succeed. The records of World War II are filled with courts-martial for speaking out against discrimination and civilians joining in fighting for equality for African-Americans in the armed forces. The civil rights movements in both military and civilian society were more organized than they were in World War I, and their agenda of full integration and full equality, was well thought out. If segregation was meant to keep white and black separate, it served a greater purpose by uniting African-Americans and fighting for a larger cause, even on northern military camps. It was within these military camps that African-American military personnel fought for civil rights.