On Veterans Day, lawmakers revive efforts to pay families of black WWII servicemen who were denied GI Bill benefits

In honor of Veterans Day, a group of Democratic lawmakers are reviving an effort to pay the families of black military personnel who fought on behalf of the nation in World War II for benefits they were denied or prevented from take full advantage when they return home. of the war.

The new legislative effort would benefit surviving spouses and all living descendants of black World War II veterans whose families were denied the opportunity to build wealth with housing and education benefits by through the GI Bill.

Since 1944, these benefits have been offered to millions of veterans transitioning to civilian life. But due to racism and discrimination in the way they were awarded by local Veterans Affairs offices, many black WWII veterans were given far less money to buy a house or continue their education. .

A House version was introduced by Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the Democratic majority whip, and Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts.

“This is an opportunity for America to right a blatant fault,” Clyburn said of the bill introduced last week. “I hope this can also begin to lay the foundation that will help break the cycle of poverty among those people who are the descendants of those who made sacrifices to preserve this democracy.”

Moulton, a Navy veteran who served four times in the Iraq War, said: “There are many black Americans who are feeling the effects of this injustice today, even though it was perpetrated 70 years ago. years.

“I think restoring the benefits of the GI Bill is one of the biggest racial justice issues of our time,” he said.

A Senate bill was due to be introduced later this month by Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock of Georgia, the son of a World War II veteran.

“We have all seen how these inequalities have reverberated over time,” Warnock said, adding that the bill “represents a major step towards redressing this injustice.”

The legislation, drafted by Moulton, would extend the VA loan guarantee program and GI Bill education aid to black WWII veterans and their living descendants at the time of the bill’s enactment. It would also create a group of independent experts to study inequalities in the way benefits are delivered to women and people of color.

The daughters of Private Sam Hairston believe their father was one of the countless black WWII veterans who were denied benefits due to the color of his skin.

“He didn’t have that opportunity to get a loan from the VA. He didn’t have the help of the VA to build a house for his family,” said Benita Hairston.

Back then, banks weren’t lending money for mortgages in black communities, and suburban living wasn’t an option due to redlining and other discriminatory practices. This left Private Hairston with no choice but to use his own money to build a house for his wife and five children.

“Five bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, a kitchenette, a bathroom, a basement and it had a garage in the back,” said Marjorie Hairston.

The GI Bill’s promise of the American Dream kept thousands of black soldiers from getting rich.

According to William Darity, professor of public policy at Duke University, this played an important role in creating the middle class.

“Unfortunately, this has created a white middle class due to the discriminatory application of the law. It has been disproportionately beneficial for returning white veterans,” Darity said.

He said society is still feeling the effects today, as the racial wealth gap persists.

As Veterans Day draws to a close, Private Hairston’s three daughters remember their father as a man who loved to serve. His legacy has continued through his children and grandchildren.

“It’s a way of honoring them to say that we give back not only to you, but to your descendants,” Hairston said.

Lawrence Brooks, who at 112 is the oldest living American veteran, was drafted into WWII service and posted to the predominantly black 91st General Engineer Service Regiment.

The Louisiana native, who has 12 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren, always believed serving his country was the only way to leave his life as a tenant farmer behind him, his daughter, Vanessa Brooks, said.

But after being released in August 1945 as a private first class, he didn’t realize his dream of going to college, instead working as a forklift driver before retiring in his sixties. “He always wanted to go to school,” his daughter said.

And when he bought his house, he used his retirement fund, not GI Bill’s benefits, she said.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the Military Readjustment Act in 1944, providing generous financial grants to 16 million World War II veterans pursuing higher education and purchasing their first home. Regardless of race, veterans who served more than 90 days in the war and were honorably released are entitled to benefits.

But after returning from the war, black and white veterans faced two very different realities.

Because the benefits of the GI Bill had to be approved by local VA officers, few of whom were black, the process created problems for veterans. This was particularly acute in the Deep South where Jim Crow segregation imposed racist barriers to homeownership and education.

Local VA officers there made it difficult for black veterans to access their benefits or diminished their value by diverting them from predominantly white four-year colleges and into vocational and other non-degree programs. Meanwhile, historically black colleges and universities across the country have seen such a surge in enrollments among black veterans that schools have been forced to turn away tens of thousands of potential students.

Sgt. Joseph Maddox, one of the two World War II veterans whose Bill Moulton and Clyburn named their bill, has been denied tuition assistance by his local VA office although he has been accepted into a master’s program at Harvard University.

“When it came time to foot the bill, the government just said no,” said Moulton, who himself attended Harvard on the GI Bill. “It’s actually quite moving for the vets who have been through this themselves and, like me, know what a difference the GI Bill has made in our lives.”

The bill is also named after the sergeant. 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 from the war. The acquittal of his attacker by an all-white jury helped spur the integration of the US armed forces in 1948.

Unlike the treatment of black veterans, the GI Bill helped skyrocket homeownership rates among white veterans in a post-war housing boom that created a ripple effect that their children and grandchildren continue to benefit today.

Of the more than 3,000 VA home loans that had been made to Mississippi veterans during the summer of 1947, only two went to black veterans, according to an Ebony magazine survey at the time.

The racist housing policies of the Federal Housing Administration also impacted black WWII veterans, no doubt fueling the current racial wealth gap. Commonly referred to as redlining, real estate agents and banks would refuse to show homes or offer mortgages to qualified homebuyers in certain neighborhoods because of their race or ethnicity.

Preliminary analysis of historical data suggests black and white veterans accessed their benefits at similar rates, according to Maria Madison, director of the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University, who studied the impact racial inequalities in the administration of GI Bill benefits. .

However, due to institutional racism and other obstacles, black veterans were more limited in how they could use their benefits. As a result, the cash equivalent of their benefits was only 40% of what white veterans received.

After adjusting for inflation and market returns, that equates to a difference in value of $ 170,000 per veteran, according to Madison. His current research aims to assess the loss of wealth of black families caused by the racism and inequalities of GI Bill.

Black World War II veterans who were fortunate enough to have full access to GI Bill’s benefits managed to build good lives for themselves and their families, said Matthew Delmont, professor of history at Dartmouth Middle School. It’s a clear argument, he said, as to why the new legislation is needed.

“Because the benefits of the IG were not distributed more evenly among black veterans, we lost an entire generation of black wealth builders,” Delmont said. “After the war, we could have had even more doctors, lawyers, teachers and architects.”

Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a black woman who was a WWII veteran, attended Howard University Law School with the benefits of GI Bill. She went on to become a nationally recognized Washington criminal defense attorney who played a central role in the desegregation of bus travel.

And World War II veteran Robert Madison, who served as a second lieutenant in the United States Army, credited his benefits to the GI for his success as a renowned architect.

AARON MORRISON and KAT STAFFORD of the Associated Press contributed.

Copyright © 2021 ABC11-WTVD-TV / DT. All rights reserved – The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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