I grew up in a union family and both of my grandfathers went on to work blue-collar union jobs when they came home from World War II. They started their families during “the good old days” – the years after World War II when the US built a huge middle class that the majority of Americans were part of. If you were not an aristocrat graced with old family money, you worked with your hands in a factory or a field before the Great Depression hit in late 1929. Unable to find work during the depression, my nineteen-year-old grandfather enlisted in the military in 1938 and served for four years in the Phillippines. He came home in 1942 and got a job working as a mechanic for International Harvester, later joining the civilian effort as a mechanic at Camp Kilmer. He owned a simple house where he and my grandmother raised four children. He only had an eighth grade education. My Pop-pop arrived in the US at the age of four from Kingston, Jamaica aboard the ship Abangarez. He was drafted and was awarded a Silver Star at The Battle of Anzio in 1944. He returned home and got a job at the Bristol Myers Squibb factory, raising three children with my grandmother in the simple row homes near the factory. Both of my grandfathers were union members – a Teamster and a Machinist.
The New Deal policies of the1930s created vast opportunities for regular people – blue collar jobs with family wages, plenty of mid-skilled jobs for returning vets that made use of the GI Bill to go to college, and accessible homeownership with the advent of the residential mortgage. The Fair Housing Administration (FHA) was formed in 1934 as part of the New Deal, setting policy for the use and administration of residential mortgages. Drafted by a coalition of realtors, bankers, and construction companies, the FHA operationalized the myth that Blacks would lower property values and were risky borrowers, creating the system of “redlining” that would prevent Black families from buying homes in white neighborhoods.
More than 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II – 1.2 million of them were Black soldiers. Even as these Black soldiers were fighting fascism abroad, back home in the US racism was alive and well. While the GI Bill did not explicitly exclude Black soldiers from getting mortgages, racist politicians exploited white fears about integration and fought to draft the law in a way that excluded them. When we think of the Levittowns and other new suburban developments as a symbol of broad middle-class prosperity in the post-war years, it is important to remember that the US government paid for the infrastructure that made this possible and that Blacks were excluded from owning homes in the vast majority of these white-only communities. As much as I honor the military service of my grandfathers and take pride in their work as blue-collar union men, I recognize that the post-war prosperity that their families benefited from was to the exclusion of Black families – only 2% of FHA loans administered went to Blacks, including GI Bill mortgages.
My ancestors were simple people who worked with their hands and had very little individual impact on how the GI Bill was drafted, but they benefited from it and were able to start building wealth through homeownership. And as much as I am proud of my grandfathers’ union membership, I know that Black workers had to fight tooth and nail to win the right to organize in the only industries that actually permitted them to work. I also know that many white workers, using the skills they acquired fighting their bosses, organized pickets and sometimes violent protests to prevent Black families from moving into their communities during the decades that followed World War II.
Can you imagine what it would be like to bravely serve your country in a horrifyingly violent war against fascism, only to return home to an apartheid situation where you are not only prevented from sharing in the prosperity, but you are also subjected to social exclusion and violence? The Abolitionist movement did not end with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, but was carried forward by successive generations of Black Americans demanding that their full humanity and citizenship be recognized and protected under law. Black veterans’ fight for integration and labor rights added fire to the struggle for justice that would eventually become the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.