Seventy-Five Years Ago, the Military’s Only All-Black Female Band Battled the War Department and Won | History
An estimated crowd of 100,000 people clogged the intersections in Chicago’s central business district in May of 1945 for a war bond rally, one of several marking the War Department drive that week. Police had traffic stopped for blocks approaching the stage at State and Madison Streets, and reporters noted sales clerks and customers hanging out of store windows to catch a glimpse of any famous performers or war heroes who might arrive.
Former prisoners of war appeared on stage, and the famed flag-raisers of Iwo Jima pushed war bonds to finance the war in the Pacific as a 28-member military band played patriotic music. That group, the women of the 404th Armed Service Forces (ASF) band, were the only all-black female band in U.S. military history.
During the war, all-women military bands rallied hearts—and raised millions in war bonds. The musicians numbered among the Army’s first female personnel, a distinction that branded them as pioneers to some and prostitutes to others. Each company endured societal bias, but only one, the 404th, had to battle racial stigma as well. Seventy-five years ago this year, the 28 musicians forced the War Department’s hand in a victory for civil rights.
In May 1941, citing the need for military personnel, Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Rogers introduced a bill that would allow women to join the Army in a noncombatant role but with the same rank and status as men. Even though the Army Nurse Corps had existed as a uniformed military “organization” since 1901, the military did not give women equal pay, rank or benefits. Rogers’ legislation was designed to ameliorate that disparity.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall encouraged Rogers to amend the bill. At first opposed to women in the military, he recognized the need for additional personnel in case of emergency, and on December 7, 1941, one arrived with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “It is important that as quickly as possible we have a declared national policy in this matter,” he later wrote in a statement to Congress. “Women certainly must be employed in the overall effort of this nation.”
A few months later, on May 15, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed H.R. 6293, establishing the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), but it did not give women the hoped-for military status. In exchange for their non-combatant “essential services”—administrative, clerical, and cooking skills among others—up to 150,000 women would receive pay, food, living quarters and medical care, but not life insurance, medical coverage, death benefits, or the prisoner of war protection covered under international agreements.
More than 30,000 women applied for the first WAAC officer training class of 440 candidates. To qualify, women had to be between 21 and 45 years old, with strong aptitude scores, good references, and professional, skilled experience. Mothers and wives were welcome to apply, as were African-Americans.
For decades, the N.A.A.C.P. had argued for integrating the military. During World War I, segregated units of black soldiers served in largely non-combatant roles in the Army, and as the only armed service branch to admit African-Americans by the start of World War II, the Army insisted upon segregation. “The Army had argued [to the NAACP] it could not undertake a program for such a major social change while it was in the midst of a war,” writes military historian Bettie J. Morden in The Women’s Army Corps, 1945-1948.
The Army told the N.A.A.C.P. that 10.6 percent of WAAC officers and enlisted women would be black (the approximate percentage of African-Americans in the U.S. population at the time). Even as the servicewomen would have segregated housing, service clubs and basic training, the Army said black women would serve “in the same military occupational specialties as white women.” Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women and good friend to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, recruited black women along with the N.A.A.C.P. with the message that military service was a way to serve one’s country and further the fight for equality.
On July 20, 1942, the first group of officer candidates—white and black alike—arrived at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, home of the first WAAC Training Center and Officer Candidate School.
Selection for its geographical location in the center of the country, Fort Des Moines held significance in African-American military history; a former cavalry post, it had hosted black infantrymen in 1903, and in 1917, held the first officer training for black men.
Charity Adams Earley, who would become one of only two African-American women to hold the rank of major during World War II, was one of the women who passed through Fort Des Moines’ stone gates on July 20—a muggy, rainy midsummer’s day. The facilities, renovated horse stables, still smelled like animals. Mud covered the grounds, and as they walked among the red brick buildings, the women mingled. In her memoir One Woman’s Army, Earley described the camaraderie that had had built on the way to Iowa:
“Those of us who had traveled from Fort Hayes [Ohio] together had some feeling of closeness because we had started out together on our adventure: race, color, age, finances, social class, all of these had been pushed aside on our trip to Fort Des Moines.”
She would soon become disillusioned. After the candidates’ first meal, they marched to a reception area, where a young, red-haired second lieutenant pointed to one side of the room and ordered, “Will all the colored girls move to this side?”
The group fell silent. Then officers called the white women by name to their quarters. “Why could not the ‘colored girls’ be called by name to go to their quarters rather than be isolated by race?” Earley asked herself.
After protests from Bethune and other civil rights leaders, officer candidate school became integrated for women and men in 1942, serving as the Army’s first integration experiment. Bethune traveled often among the women’s training centers – to Fort Des Moines at first and then to four other WAAC locations that opened in the southern and eastern United States. She toured the properties, spoke with officers and servicewomen, and shared discrimination concerns with Walter White, executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., and Roosevelt herself.
One immediate problem was job placement. After graduation from basic training, enlisted women were supposed to receive assignments in the baking, clerical, driving, or medical fields. But jobs didn’t open as quickly as they could have, and Fort Des Moines became overcrowded. A large part of the problem was the attitude of soldiers and commanding officers who didn’t want to relinquish positions to women, and the problem was magnified for black officers.
In “Blacks in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II: The Experiences of Two Companies,” military historian Martha S. Putney writes that then-Major Harriet M. West, the first black woman to achieve the rank of major in the wartime women’s corps, toured posts “to see if she could persuade field commanders to request black units.” Most of the men, she found, “talked only about laundry units—jobs not on the War Department’s authorized lists for [WAACs.]”
Historian Sandra Bolzenius argues in Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took on the Army During World War II that the Army never fully intended to utilize black services. “While the [WAAC] claimed to offer opportunities to all recruits,” she writes, “its leaders focused on those who fit the white, middle-class prototype of feminine respectability.” N.A.A.C.P. correspondence from 1942-1945 are full of letters from frustrated black servicewomen with stories of being passed over for opportunities given to whites.
In July 1943, the Chicago branch of the N.A.A.C.P. telegrammed White of the complaints they received. “Though many of the Negro personnel completed all required training weeks ago, they are kept at Des Moines doing almost nothing. On the other hand, the white personnel is sent out immediately upon completion of required training.”
White forwarded the complaint to Oveta Culp Hobby, the 37-year-old appointed head of the WAACs, who as a southerner and wife of a former Texas governor, was far from the N.A.A.C.P.’s preferred selection for the job. She responded the following week: “Negro WAACs are being shipped to field jobs as fast as their skills and training match the jobs to be filled.”
Stories of stagnant movement affected recruitment of black and white women—as did a slander campaign branding WAACs as organized prostitutes. After investigating the sources of defamatory stories, Army Military Intelligence identified most authors as male military personnel who either feared WAACs or “had trouble getting dates.”
Those women who had begun military duties excelled in their work, and the Army needed more WAACs trained in medical support. To boost recruitment, and to solve administrative problems, on July 1, 1943, FDR signed legislation that turned the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps into the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), giving women military status and rank.
By 1944, then-Maj. Charity Adams had become the African-American training supervisor at Fort Des Moines. One of her favorite parts of the job was nurturing the military’s first and only all-black female band.
“Society in general doesn’t understand the value of the military band for men and women at war,” says Jill Sullivan, a military band historian at Arizona State University, who asserts that military bands bring communities together, serve as entertainment, and rally morale and patriotism. Fort Des Moines started the military’s first all-female band in 1942 to replace a reassigned men’s band, but also, says Sullivan, to honor military tradition during wartime.
“What [the War Department] found out was that the women were a novelty,” says Sullivan. The first WAC band (officially the 400th Army Service Forces Band) became an instant hit and a “showpiece for WAC women.” In addition to giving local concerts, the all-white 400th ASF Band toured across North America on war bond drives, sharing stages with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and actor/officer Ronald Reagan. When the second WAAC center opened up in Daytona Beach, Florida, musicians from Fort Des Moines transferred there to start another band, the 401st. Three other WAAC bands would later form.
Repeatedly, black male officers encouraged black women to try out for the popular WAC band at Fort Des Moines. “Regardless of their experience,” Earley remembered in One Woman’s Army, “whether they were private- and public-school music teachers, teaching and performing majors in college and graduate school, amateur and professional performers, no Negroes who auditioned were found to be qualified to play with the white band.”
Letters from several musicians place blame for discrimination on one man: fort commandant Col. Frank McCoskrie.
“Colonel McCoskrie,” wrote Rachel Mitchell, a French horn player, “said that the two races would never mix as long as he was on the post.”
When Adams realized no black woman would be allowed in the white band, she pushed for the women to have their own. In fall of 1943, McCoskrie approached Sgt. Joan Lamb, director of the 400th, and made it clear that though it was not his wish, he needed her to start an “all-Negro company” in order to quiet complaints of discrimination among black servicewomen and civil rights leaders. The band wouldn’t survive, he said, unless it could play a concert in eight weeks.
Working with Adams, Lamb began interviewing interested black women. Auditions were not possible, as only a few of the women had played an instrument before. According to Sullivan, music education programs didn’t begin in public schools until the 1930s, and that was in white schools mostly. Poor, black schools, especially in the rural South, didn’t even have access to instruments. One woman though, Leonora Hull, had two degrees in music. Another had sung opera professionally, and several had been in choirs. Lamb selected an initial 19 women “on a subjective basis of probable success.”
“What we were doing was an ‘open’ secret, unrecognized but not forbidden,” wrote Adams. “We ordered band equipment and supplies as recreational equipment.”
McCoskrie’s eight-week clock would not begin until the instruments arrived. While they waited, the women learned to read music by singing together. Sergeant Lamb made Hull a co-teacher, and asked the all-white band (which became known as WAC Band #1 with the all-black band known as WAC Band #2) if any members could help instruct. Ten volunteered. Several mornings every week, Lamb and the white musicians would walk to the black barracks and give private lessons. From lunchtime into the night, the black musicians would rehearse their music whenever they could.
On December 2, 1943, the all-African-American band played a concert for McCoskrie and other officers and exceeded expectations. “He was outraged!” wrote Rachel Mitchell in a letter. “I think we enraged the Colonel because he gave the officers and the band impossible duties and time to complete them.” As the band continued, Lt. Thelma Brown, a black officer, became its conductor.
As they honed their musical skills, the band performed in parades and concerts, often stepping in for the all-white band when it was on a war bond drive. They played as a swing band at the black service club, where white musicians would sneak in to hear them play jazz, and incorporated dancing and singing into stage performances. Adams saw to it that word of the first all-black female band spread. Bethune visited, as did opera star Marian Anderson. Adams accompanied the women on tours throughout Iowa and the Midwest. Once or twice a day, they set up bandstands and attracted interracial audiences.
“They made us feel like celebrities,” wrote Clementine Skinner, a trumpet and French horn player. “Many of the young girls sought our autographs as if we were famous individuals.” Mitchell said the “soul-moving” experience of playing with the band “had us more determined to make people see us.” And more people did—at concerts for churches, hospitals and community organizations.
On July 15, 1944, the band had its most high-profile appearance yet: the opening parade of the 34th N.A.A.C.P. conference in Chicago. On South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), in front of thousands of onlookers and fans, the members of the military’s first all-black female band marched, stopping to play on a bandstand at State and Madison Streets (one year before the Seventh War Bond drive).
But they wouldn’t play for their conductor, Lt. Thelma Brown, again.
Prior to the band’s departure for Chicago, McCoskrie told Brown that the War Department was not going to continue funding the personnel for two bands. He ordered her to tell her women of the band’s deactivation. Risking insubordination, Brown told McCoskrie that he could inform them when they got back.
“She refused since this was to be our finest appearance,” wrote Mitchell. “She would not burst our bubble.”
On July 21, 1944, fresh from their exhilarating rallies in Chicago, the band faced McCoskrie, who shared the news with them. They were to turn in their instruments and their music immediately, and they would be stripped of their band merits.
The reaction in the black community was immediate.
“Our officers urged us to fight for our existence,” Leonora Hull recalled, “and told us that this could best be done by asking our friends and relatives to write letters of protest to powerful persons.”
The women wrote nearly 100 letters to their families, communities and civic leaders. They wrote to the black press, to Bethune, to Hobby, to White at the N.A.A.C.P. and to the Roosevelts themselves. Concerned that the protests could lead to a court martial if the women were found to be complaining on the job, Skinner took a trolley, and not a military shuttle, to mail the letters from town instead of the base post. Headlines across the country picked up the news. “Negroes throughout the nation have been asked to join in protest to President Roosevelt in an effort to have the recently inactivated Negro WAC band re-organized,” reported the Atlanta Daily World.
N.A.A.C.P. records indicate that White and others pointed out “that deactivating the band would be a serious blow to the morale of Negro WACs which is already low because of failure to assign colored WAC officers to duties comparable to their rank and training.” In a letter to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, White wrote, “We submit that original refusal to permit Negro WACs to play in the regular Fort Des Moines band was undemocratic and unwise.” The N.A.A.C.P. requested that the musicians be absorbed into the 400th Army band.
The Army reversed its decision, a little over a month later. On September 1, 1944, WAC Band #2 became the 404th Army Service Forces WAC band. The musicians, however, didn’t have instruments. Theirs had been taken away, with some ending up in the hands of the players of the 400th. It would take several weeks for new instruments to arrive, and in the meantime, the women had to serve their country somehow. Hull and others had to retake basic training classes and complete “excessive amounts of unchallenging KP and guard duties.” Although the only thing they could do together was sing, the musicians continued to meet. Their instruments came in October, and furious practice began anew. By then, they had learned that Brown would not continue as conductor.
“She feared our progress might suffer from the powers that be trying to get back at her for all her efforts to get us back together,” explained Mitchell in a letter.
The following May, the 404th traveled again to Chicago for the Seventh War Bond Drive. They were only supposed to perform in the opening day parade, but the reception was so effusive that organizers contacted Washington and asked if band could stay for the rest of the week. Together, the 404th collected monies throughout the city’s black neighborhoods and performed at high schools, in the Savoy Ballroom, on the platform at State and Madison Streets, and at Soldier Field, sharing a stage with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Collectively, the Seventh War Bond tour raised over $26 billion across the nation in six weeks for the U.S. Treasury.
News of the Japanese surrender in 1945 foretold the end of the band, and the 404th was deactivated along with the WAC program in December 1945. During the three years of the WAC program existed during World War II, approximately 6500 African American women served. At the end of 1944, 855 black servicewomen followed Major Adams overseas in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-black Women’s Army Corps unit to serve overseas. Stationed in Birmingham, England, the battalion was tasked with organizing a warehouse of stockpiled mail from America to servicemen abroad. Within months, they redirected correspondence to more than 7 million soldiers.
In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces, and General Eisenhower persuaded Congress to pass the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act, which reestablished the Women’s Army Corps as a permanent part of the Army. The military also reactivated the 400th ASF band as the 14th WAC Band, the legacy of the five World War II WAC bands, one of which helped lead the way on racial desegregation.