It could be a huge shock for black army women from Northern states to report for duty south of the Mason Dixon Line. They knew prejudice but had not experienced the brutality of Jim Crow Laws.
When Women's Army Corps member Ernestine Wood was sent to Ft. Oglethorpe, GA, she feared for her safety.
“When we would parade down the streets, the whites would throw rocks at us and the adults would jeer," she said. "When it was time for me to order my officers uniform, I had in a squad car and the manager of the store had to meet me at the door and escort me from counter to counter to pick out my clothes."
As Black History Month comes to a close, I've pulled out my research for the book Standing Up Against Hate to tell you more of the story of Ernestine Woods. She figures in Chapter 4, Black Women Persist.
She was sworn into the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps with a group of recruits from the Washington Military District at a public ceremony at the Cordoza High School January 7, 1943.
Ernestine went through basic training at Ft. Devens, MA. Afterward, she was disappointed not to be assigned to the motor corps or administrative school. At her first duty post she initially worked "activating" barracks.
That meant going to the warehouse loading beds and bedding onto trucks, then setting them up in barracks. Her cohort of Black WAACs activated three barracks, including unloading, setting up and making 60 beds in each barrack.
She had not signed up for manual labor and was happy later when sent to Ft. Oglethorpe for officer candidate school. There she found herself one of nine black women among 900 WAACs.
White civilian employees at the base had walked off the job when the black women arrived. They refused to serve blacks, and so the black WAACs were banned from the PX, service club, theater, telephone bar and chapel. They were to go directly to and from their classes.
“It was hard to swallow and as we walked back to our barracks, we wanted to cry. We felt so helpless, and this is my first time being in the South," Ernestine said.
"When My mother found out I was in Georgia, she told me to come home because I did not know how to act in the south. Bless her heart, she did not realize I could not leave."
Many of the white WAACs on base supported the black women and shopped for them at the PX. However, by the end of officer training school, Ernestine was the only black women who remained and graduated.
"When I walked up on stage to receive my commission, the crackers [sic] in the audience stood up on their chairs." Ernestine said, "I just knew I was going to be lynched. I was so frightened and so alone. I never wanted to experience anything like that again."
Black women persevered at posts throughout the country and made significant contributions to the war effort. They learned skills and leadership they later put to use in civilian life. But serving in a segregated army, they had to find ways to survive the constant feeling they were second class citizens.
Ernestine was one of a small group able to find a sense of belonging through music.
White WAACs had a marching and concert band at Ft. Des Moines, Iowa, but no black women who auditioned were ever selected to join. Even those who had worked as music teachers and performers at the graduate school level and others who were professional musicians.
A group of black women got permission to organize their own band, though it would be all volunteer and unlike the white band members, each woman would continue her regular duties.
An amateur musician, Ernestine became one of the commanding officers of the 404th American Forces Service marching and concert band.
“I don’t think anybody ever heard of a black women’s military band before, and that to us was really something," Ernestine said. "As a matter of fact, most people had never seen black women in uniform before.”
The women of the 404th rode in an uncomfortable Army bus with instruments piled in the back, crisscrossing the state of Iowa. They played music in the bandstands of small-town squares, sometimes three concerts in one day.
As the musicians’ tune-up notes soared into the air, townspeople emerged from nearby buildings or drove up and parked to listen. After noontime concerts citizens shared a picnic lunch with band members. Many of the towns where black band played had no black residents.
Later in the war, the 404th traveled throughout the Midwest, performing in Chicago, Sioux Falls, Omaha, Kiwanis, Chamber of Commerce, American Legion Auxiliaries and churches who requested them.
The bands largest audience gathered in July 1944, during the Thirty-Fourth Annual Conference of the NAACP in Chicago. The women proudly marched in a parade down South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive) and performed an outdoor concert downtown. Up to half a million people watched and listened to their music.
After their trip to Chicago, they received the shocking news that the African American WAC band would be dissolved, its members reclassified and sent to different units. The army claimed there were not enough personnel stationed at Fort Des Moines to warrant two bands.
Band members started a letter-writing campaign protesting deactivation of the band. They targeted both black and white leaders at the local and national level. For fear of reprisals, they left the fort to mail their letters in the city of Des Moines.
Black newspapers supported their efforts. Letters and phone calls flooded the war department demanding the army reactivate the band and restate its members or allow black WACs in the white band. Unwilling to integrate musicians, the war department re-activated the black WAC band, mentioning its importance in boosting morale.
Along with raising morale, the 404th raised funds to support the war. Wherever they played there were speeches asking citizens to purchase war bonds. When the band appeared in Chicago, 450,000 worth of war bonds sold.
Band members said audiences all over the Midwest received them graciously.
“They made us feel like celebrities. Many of the young girls sought our autographs as if we were famous,” said Clementine McConico Skinner of Illinois, who played the French horn and trumpet.
"You learn to do your best, and you learn how to honor whatever it is that you’re doing," said Ernestine.
After leaving the army at the end of WWII, Ernestine spoke enthusiastically about her service, saying it was good preparation for life.
Bands of Sisters: U.S. Women's Military Bands During World War II by Jill M. Sullivan
NABWH_038 Series 4 Box 2 folder 1, Memo
NABWH_038 Series 3 Box 2 Folder 7, Letter from Ernestine Woods to Putney, August 4, 1992
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