Memorandum on Suspension of War Training for Negroes in Alabama

Mr. George M. Johnson

Clarence M. Mitchell

Suspension of War Training for Negroes in Alabama

     In keeping with complaints received from the Southern Negro Youth Congress of Birmingham, Alabama, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, a conference was held with Dr. W. W. Charters, Chief of training for the War Manpower Commission.[1] The complaints charged that war training for Negroes had been stopped. The Southern Negro Youth Congress’s complaint stated specifically that twelve courses for Negroes had been halted. It also alleged that although numerous white persons were being trained for aircraft work to meet the needs of the Bechtel-McCone-Parsons Company, no training was being offered for Negroes in this type of work.

     After a preliminary discussion of the problem, Dr. Charters called in the following persons for a meeting on the matter:  Dr. Philip Van Wyck, assistant to Dr. Charters, Mr. Edward Ludtke, southern regional director for the United States Office of Education, Dr. L. S. Hawkins, director of war training for the War Manpower Commission and Dr. H. J. McCormick, W. P. A. regional representative whose territory includes Alabama. Mr. McCormick stated that “ regional representative” had been abolished as his title but that it was still most descriptive of his duties.

     In brief, the conference might be summed up by saying that Dr. Charters promised a complete investigation of the matter and it is my understanding that General Frank J. McSherry’s office has already begun action by sending Mr. Ernest Marbury of the operations staff into the area. Mr. Marbury, I am told, is to have Dr. Bowman F. Ashe, regional director of the War Manpower Commission, see that training in aircraft work is given to Negroes in the Birmingham area. For his own part Dr. Charters stated that he will have Mr. Ludtke and Mr. Edgar Westmorland, who is a Negro representative in the Office of Education, make a thorough investigation of the Alabama situation. This study is to be used as a basis for correcting whatever the shortcomings are. Because there is a special conference which Mr. Ludtke and Mr. Westmorland must attend. Dr. Charters stated that they could not begin work on the problem until a “Week from Monday, November 30.”

     During the conference the following matters came up for discussion and appear to be indicative of the peculiar circumstances which tend to hamper the training programs for Negroes in southern areas.

  1. Mr. McCormick stated that he was the first to raise the question which precipitated the current difficulty. He said that during one of his visits to the area he found forty Negro W. P. A. trainees who had been on the payroll longer than they should have been. There did not seem to be an opportunity for placing them, according to Mr. McCormick. After making some effort to find jobs for these persons, Mr. McCormick said the W. P. A. decided to drop them from its rolls. Apparently, the local council of administrators took this as a cue for deciding that the course in chipping and riveting, which was what the W. P. A. people were being given, was no longer needed and so recommended suspension of this training. At the same time there were approximately forty non-W. P. A. persons on the training rolls for the same type of instruction. There is nothing so far to show that their needs were taken into consideration.
  2. I have checked with the B. E. S. [Bureau of Employment Security] and find that both Ingalls Iron in Birmingham and the Alabama Shipbuilding and Drydock Company at Mobile have been increasing their Negro personnel. Unfortunately, the B. E. S. records do not show whether these company employed any riveters or chippers, but it is my understanding that Ingalls Iron has employed Negroes for this type of work. It is also true the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company at Wilmington, North Carolina has trained and hired a great many Negroes for riveting jobs. It is entirely possible that in an extreme emergency this last mentioned company could have been used for the placement of those trained. However, since industry generally makes use of Negroes as chippers and riveters it is entirely possible that some factor other than race caused the breakdown of the Alabama training. I venture the suggestion that such training should never have been given in the first place. The figures from the B. E. S. show the following on Ingalls Iron and Alabama Drydock:
    Ingalls Iron Works, Birmingham, Alabama

    Total Negro Employment Figures

    July . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 707

    August . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 772

    September . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 800

    October . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 934

    Occupation Increases

      September   October
    Skilled 23 23
    Semi-Skilled 29 31
    Unskilled 748 880
    Alabama Shipbuilding and
    Drydock Company, Mobile, Alabama

    Total Negro Employment Figures

    July . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3,200

    August . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4,000

    September . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4,300

    October . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4,300

         I was unable to obtain a breakdown on skills for Alabama Drydock, but its increases were substantially in laboring jobs and none above the semi-skilled level.

  3. Dr. Hawkins stated that Mr. Jed B. Yingling of the United States Office of Education informed him that war training had not been stopped, but rather it had been agreed that the training would not be expanded and no new trainees would be added. I requested Dr. Hawkins to define the difference between this and ordering the training stopped. He did not seem to be able to define the difference. At this point Mr. Ludtke stated that the representatives of the Office of Education have been working on the Alabama situation and that they have made some progress. He showed a list, which is attached to this report, outlining types and location of training for Negroes in Alabama. According to Mr. Ludtke, the recommendation for halting training in Birmingham affected only the riveting and chipping courses.
  4. Mr. McCormick and Dr. Hawkins seemed to make a considerable point out of the fact that  the local council of administrators in Birmingham had asked that the training be halted. They also pointed out that management and labor representatives “run the council.”  They admitted, however, that responsibility for making such decisions rests with the U. S. E. S., local education representatives and the N. Y. A., who form the voting membership of the council.
  5. In defending the efforts of the United States Office of Education in behalf of Negroes, Mr. Ludtke responded to a previous a statement made by me in connection with welding equipment. I had pointed out that Alabama authorities were supposed to be trying to buy 18 new welding machines for Negroes, although the W. P. B. has issued a ruling to the effect that such equipment cannot be purchased by schools. It was my suggestion that equipment available for whites at present should be divided with Negroes. Mr. Ludtke stated that he did not believe there was enough equipment for whites which would permit such a division. He also said that he feels that if enough “pressure” is put behind the W. P. B. the new equipment can be purchased. I must admit that I do not share his views concerning the W. P. B., but if pressure can get these machines, it seems that the United States Office of Education has the responsibility for applying it since, if welding equipment had been purchased for Negroes when it was purchased for whites, we would not now be facing the problem.

     In my opinion Dr. Charters will take corrective action in the Alabama matter. However, there still is considerable need for a planned approach to the whole southern problem of training for Negroes. Since Dr. Charters’ office will have training responsibilities, I would like to suggest that we draw up a training program which we believe will offer substantial remedy. I recommend that we then have meetings with Dr. Charters and appropriate members of General McSherry’s staff for the purpose of putting this program into effect.


MS: copy, HqR48, Central Files. General Reports, N-Z.

  1.       [1] See “Findings and Directives” in the case of “National Defense Training Program in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia” as mentioned in Cramer memorandum, 11/10//42, to Fenton, Brophy and Ethridge. A copy of the findings and directives was submitted to McNutt because of his special relations with the Office of Education. HqR38, Central Files, Meetings. (entry 25) Meetings. See also “Defense Training for Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama,” and “The Participation of Negroes in the National Defense Training Program in Alabama,” in HqR66, Aliens in Defense, Specific Groups, Mexicans (Miscellaneous).

         Another manifestation of Jim Crow-type training in the South were the dismal quality of whatever programs existed. “In the South, we expect the general poor equipment and poor facilities,” explained Herman Branson in The Journal of Negro Education. Branson’s quote from an article by John Beecher in Science and Society that was based on his observations in the spring of 1942 was revealing:

    The same thing [as the situation in Alabama] prevailed in Georgia, and Tennessee and Arkansas and South Carolina and Texas. Hardly any defense training was open to Negroes anywhere in the South, and much of what was labeled defense training was close to being outright fraudulent. I might mention one course of 150 shipfitter helpers where the sole shop equipment consisted of some shipyard pictures clipped from Life magazine and a bathtub navy, purchased out of the instructor’s pocket at the five-and-ten. This particular course accounted for two-thirds of the Negro trainees in the state of Georgia. Somewhere else they were pretending to train Negro marine electricians in a shop where positively the only item of marine equipment was an eight-inch length of electrical cable. I recall also a class in motor mechanics where the students were forbidden to go into the motors – it was actually a class in alemiting, tire-inflating and windshield wiping for filling station attendants. And I shouldn’t forget the Negro defense shop so far out into the piney woods that it was next to impossible to get to, yet I heard such praises of and such accounts of the completeness of its equipment that I arranged to visit it. There I found a splendidly-equipped sheet metal shop with unfortunately no sheet metal to fabricate but only tin cans salvaged from the garbage pile. There I found also a gleaming row of electric welding machines but somebody had neglected to connect them with power.” 

          Beecher, “Problems of Discrimination,” 36-44, quoted in Branson, “The Training of Negroes for War Industries in World War II,” 378. See also Doxey Wilkerson, “Vocational Guidance and Education of Negroes,” in which the author provides further critical analysis of the widespread concerns about the implications of the defense program on the American economy, particularly regarding the status of African Americans; Weaver,  “Defense Program and the Negro,” 324-27; and Weaver, Negro Labor, 41-60.