Black soldiers who fought victoriously in World War II returned to the U.S. only to face ceaseless racism and discrimination. The benefits they were promised as veterans through the G.I bill were denied to many because they were Black.
The G.I. bill was a means of rewarding veterans of World War II with benefits including low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business or farm, and payments for college or vocational tuition and living expenses while enrolled. However, many Black veterans could not obtain access to homeownership and education because of discrimination. In addition, many Veterans Administration (VA) officers often refused to process Black veterans’ claims.
Black WWII veterans continued renting apartments because of widespread Jim Crow laws and racial covenants that segregated them to under-resourced areas. Black veterans and their families would have benefited from owning a home in a district with well-resourced schools and amenities rather than areas where redlining resulted in limited investments.
Developments like Levittown, N.Y., and Daly City, Calif., built for WWII veterans and financed by the VA, completely blocked Black veterans from homeownership opportunities.
Levittown, a suburban area in Nassau County, N.Y., with 17,000 homes for WWII veterans, guaranteed service members mortgage rates at a fraction of the cost of rental properties. However, Black WWII veterans were denied those homes. The developers, the Levitts, justified the clause stating that it maintained the value of the properties, and the deeds prohibited homeowners from reselling their homes to Blacks.
“That’s outright discrimination, that’s for sure. They were denied because of their color, not because of their income,” said Lt. Col. James H. Harvey, III, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen.
Harvey said he didn’t know about veterans’ benefits until decades later. He purchased his first home without using the benefit and a second home later with a V.A. loan.
While he doesn’t “like to talk about discrimination,” he recalls his first encounter while serving his country.
“I joined the military and got to Washington, D.C. on the train. I was taken out of the [train] car and put in the car with the Negros . . . I was 17, and that was my introduction to racism. Prior to that, I hadn’t had any [experiences]. From that day on, it’s been downhill ever since,” said Harvey, now 98.
While he used a V.A. loan to purchase his second home, other Black WWII veterans never used the benefit. However, legislators today have been working to reinstate those unused benefits.
In November 2021, Congressmen James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), and Senator Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) introduced the G.I. Bill Restoration Act, allowing the transfer of educational and homeownership benefits to the spouses or children of WWII veterans interested in owning a home or attending college to build generational wealth.
“We all know the G.I. Bill lifted a generation of WWII veterans, but most Americans don’t know that many Black veterans were left out – denied benefits, denied homes, and denied the generational wealth that comes from going to college,” Moulton said.
“We can never fully repay those American heroes. But we can fix this going forward for their families,” Moulton added. “While our generation didn’t commit this wrong, we should be committed to making it right. This legislation honors our nation’s commitment to America’s vets.”
While younger Black veterans and service members have shown high homeownership rates at 17% compared to just 9% for whites from 2015 to 2019, older Black veterans were unable to benefit similarly.
“It took years for Black WWII veterans to experience equity in benefits. But the white veterans had such a huge head start that it created racial inequities that will take years to overcome,” said Rodney Brooks, author of Fixing the Racial Wealth Gap.
The Saga of Sgt. Woodward, Jr.
The November bill now in committee names two veterans for illustrative purposes: WWII Sgt. Isaac Woodard, Jr., beaten until blind by police five hours after being honorably discharged and denied veteran disability benefits, and Sgt. Joseph H. Maddox, who was accepted to Harvard University for a master’s degree program but denied VA assistance to “avoid setting a precedent.”
Woodard Jr., 26, returned home after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1946. Still in uniform while on the way home, the Greyhound bus driver and Woodard exchanged words after the driver refused to pull over at Woodard’s request for a bathroom break, although company policy required drivers to be amenable to such requests. The driver pulled over at the sight of the police. Police Chief Lynwood Shull, and another officer, beat Woodard, at one point striking him so violently that the stick broke. Woodard would later be diagnosed as legally blind.
The VA Hospital staff applied for VA benefits for Woodard because he had been discharged five hours before the incident, but the application was denied. Instead, Woodard was granted part-time benefits and $50 monthly, a less than adequate income, forcing him to move in with his parents, who would support him financially.
The NAACP raised awareness and funds for Woodard through a benefit concert that sold 20,000 tickets in one day. Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Milton Berle, and Orson Welles performed, and Woody Guthrie debuted his song, “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard.”
Due to advocacy efforts, including association leaders speaking with President Harry Truman, Woodard received retroactive payments for his service.
“If it had not been for the NAACP to come to his aid, I don’t know what he would’ve done,” said Laura Williams, a niece of Woodard. “Later on, he did own several properties, including a multifamily property, one with a funeral home, and other properties. But that came much later in his life.”
Williams later published an illustrated book about Woodard’s story, “I am Sergeant Isaac Woodard, Jr.: How My Story Changed America.”
“There were multiple episodes of Black veterans abused across the South,” said Judge Richard Gergel, a federal judge who began researching Woodard’s history in 2011.
Closing the Homeownership Gap
Veterans had to face other barriers, as well.
“We had to fight through all kinds of discrimination and redlining. In some of these places, the Klan would come and burn down even after you get through all that. White people didn’t like Black people doing better than they were doing,” said Frank Smith, founder of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum.
In 2019, Black veterans’ homeownership rate was 59%, while the rate was 78% for White veterans, according to Veterans United. For Black non-veterans, it’s 42 percent% compared to 70% for Whites, an even wider gap according to Census data.
Veteran homeownership rates have eclipsed those of Blacks because of more accessible access to V.A. loans. But in recent years, legislators have committed themselves to close the gap by advocating for the rollout of the G.I. Bill for Blacks who once faced discrimination.