Blacks Faced Resistance on Home Front Barred From Baltimore Blood Drive, Given Lesser Roles in War Effort

December 04, 1991|By James Bock

Maryland blacks couldn't even give their blood to the defense effort in December 1941. Baltimore's quota in the national emergency blood drive was put at 15,000 donors. However, the Afro-American, a twice-weekly national newspaper published in Baltimore, reported that blacks' blood would not be accepted.

It was the ultimate insult for Maryland blacks (and the ultimate irony, since a black surgeon, Dr. Charles Drew, organized the blood bank system during the war), but certainly not a surprise. Neither the U.S. armed services nor the nation's burgeoning war industries had open arms for blacks. Black soldiers often served in "colored" units with white officers. The Navy took blacks only as messmen.

The National Youth Administration was building housing in Reisterstown for youths enrolled in defense training classes. But the NYA chief in Maryland said the first week of December that he wouldn't let white and black youths be housed together.

The United Service Organization's programs for black soldiers were confined to the Druid Hill YMCA. "Filling the gymnasium with cots and packing soldiers in like vagrants isn't the answer to the pressing problem," the Afro lamented.

Blacks were largely invisible in the pages of The Sun, except for a long-standing "woman's page" feature called "Aunt Priscilla's Recipes." The column, bearing a trademark caricature of an Aunt Jemima-style figure, offered cooking tips in purported Southern black dialect -- "Go ober de ra'sins keerful to make sho' no seeds ain't lef' in. . . . "

Maryland was about 16 percent black in 1941, with blacks about evenly divided between farm and city. Rural blacks worked the land of the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland, often as sharecroppers.

Blacks in Baltimore were concentrated in the corridor along fashionable Pennsylvania Avenue on the west side and in low-rent East Baltimore neighborhoods near Johns Hopkins Hospital. Segregation was such in both rural and urban settings that when blacks' labor was not required, the white majority could ignore their existence.

... GLIMMERS OF LIGHT poked through the gloom for blacks in December 1941. President Roosevelt had ordered plants holding defense contracts to halt racial discrimination. As a result, Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards said they would train blacks as 70-cent-an-hour welders. The Glenn L. Martin Co. said it would hire black assembly helpers at 65 cents an hour.

On exclusive Charles Street, a group called the Interracial Fellowship sponsored a three-act drama, "Night Must Fall," at the Sparks Guild Auditorium. It was one of the few public places in Baltimore where whites and blacks mingled. Among the cast members was Parren J. Mitchell, then 19. A year later, he was in the Army, bound for Italy. Three decades later, he was elected to Congress from Baltimore's 7th District.

... READING THE ADS (culled from The Sun and other Maryland newspapers):

Mr. Defense Worker -- Are Your Feet Killing You? -- Hess Arch Preservers.

Yoo Hoo! Look what the draft just blew in! Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in "Great Guns," Regent Theatre.

Eight-piece Lone Ranger cowboy suit, $1. Plaid shirt, khaki chap trousers, cowboy hat, holster, belt, neckerchief, clicker six-shooter, Lone Ranger mask.

The Gift to Please Him -- 50 Brown Havana Beauties, All Wrapped Up in Holiday Dress. Monument Square Cigars.

PEOPLE DRESSED WELL in 1941, even criminals. Three

teen-age runaways from Virginia stared out of a front-page photo in The Evening Sun on Dec. 4. The young man, 16, looked dapper in suit and tie. He got 12 years in the Maryland Penitentiary after pleading guilty that day to second-degree murder in the slaying of a man near Conowingo. The two young women, in sweaters and pearls, were fetching. They were sent to reform school.

The talk was, as always, of sports and the weather. The minor-league Baltimore Orioles announced a working agreement with the major-league Cleveland Indians.The other Baltimore Orioles, an ice hockey team, struggled in the Eastern League against the likes of the Johnstown Blue Birds.

The fog was the worst in five years. At the airport, weather observers said "even the sea gulls are grounded on the ramp."

...

AND THERE WAS TALK of coming war, for those willing to listen.

War correspondent Vincent Sheean, just back from the Far East, told a Baltimore audience Dec. 4 that the positions of the United States and Japan were "irreconcilable. . . . We are on the verge of war with Japan because we oppose her 70-year-old plan of conquest in China."

Mr. Sheean warned that the United States might encounter "some surprises" in Asia and that "the hour may come when we will find ourselves unprepared, psychologically and otherwise."

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