Last Updated: Apr 27th, 2015 - 11:04:56

Island of Integration
By Ashley McLeod, Staff Writer
Mar 4, 2014, 15:34

U.S. ARMY WOMEN’S MUSEUM A company of Women’s Army Corps members, both black and white, march in formation down Sycamore Street in Petersburg in the summer of 1951 The installation became the first permanent home of the WACs School in 1948 and became fully integrated by 1950.

FORT LEE — The mid-1960s saw the end of a long and important era in the racial history of the armed forces in America. But the journey to integrate the United States Army began during World War II with the help of the Women’s Army Corps located at Fort Lee.

In 1942, women were finally able to join the Army. Women had taken the place of men in the workplace, so that the men could join and fight in the war. Congress released a bill that allowed the establishment of a Women’s Army Corps.

“These women came into the Women’s Army Corps and they were not fighting on the front lines, they were mostly in support roles,” said Amanda Vtipil, education curator at the United States Army Women’s Museum, located at Fort Lee. 

“The idea was that they could teach these women to do these support roles, and then more men could go out and fight,” she said.

The WAC had both white and black units, which at first were segregated. At the time, the Army used a quota system for soldiers. Only 2 percent of the Army could be women, and only 10 percent of the women could be African-American. This quota was in place because it was Army policy that to not participate in any major social change during wartime.

At the time, African-Americans were allowed to serve in the military, but there was still no integration of the races, although both blacks and whites were allowed to train together in Officer Candidate School. 

Women in the training were handpicked, and the first class was 440 women, 40 of which were African-American. This group of black female soldiers helped to lead the fight for integration, in race and gender.

“In those 40 women were individuals who really led World War II into thinking about segregation and proving that they could handle this immense issue within the Women’s Army Corps,” said Vtipil.

In the ranks of the first class of women officers was Charity Adams, who retired from the Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel. Adams led the first group of African-American women to go overseas. African-American women were not allowed to do this until her group ventured to Europe as a postal battalion.

Following the end of the war, the number of women in the Army, both white and black, fell drastically.

“By the time we get to 1947, there were only four black WAC officers, and about 121 enlisted women,” said Tracey Bradford, also an education curator at the museum.

But in 1948, everything changed. Two major policy changes occurred under President Harry Truman and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

“Our leaders realized the incredible, significant contributions these women had made,” said Bradford.

In June, the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act is passed, which established a permanent WAC. 

A month after this, Executive Order 9981 is signed by President Truman, which says that there will no longer be discrimination in the United States Armed Forces.

“Both of these policy changes are based on equality and opportunity,” Bradford said. ”One is for women, and one is for minorities. These two things actually come to reality at Camp Lee, Virginia.”

At the time, there were only temporary WAC training centers located in the country. A permanent training center was needed to train all of the new female soldiers enlisting in the Army. Fort Lee, which at the time was known as Camp Lee, was chosen for the task.

The quota system used prior to integration was still policy, even though legislation was passed to stop segregation. Every fifth class of WAC’s coming into Fort Lee was African-Americans, and they were placed in Company B. This is when a change occurred.

“Things were segregated, but the women themselves chose to disregard the social norms. They started on their own intermingling,” Bradford said.

“Even though some of the policies were still in place, the women were choosing a different path,” she said.

This was the path of integration. The women began spending time together, as one group, no longer segregated. This only occurred in the WAC training centers. The rest of post was still segregated, as well as the areas outside of the military walls. Because of this, the WAC training center at Fort Lee became known as the “Island of Integration.”

A story published Aug. 4, 1951, in the “Journal and Guide to Virginia” described the WAC camp at Fort Lee as “an integrated island in an otherwise sea of segregation.”

The women at the WAC training facility at Fort Lee marched together, drilled together, and traveled together. In 1949, the first integrated inauguration was held. President Truman invited women from the WAC at Fort Lee to march in the inaugural parade, so the camp sent a group of 50 women, both white and black, to the event.

The same year that Camp Lee became Fort Lee, the last basic class graduation was held. From this point on, both white and black female soldiers lived, trained, and served together.

The United States Army Women’s Museum, located at Fort Lee, contains information on the integration in the WAC training camps, including artifacts and photos of this important change in history. Last February the museum created an exhibition for Black History Month showcasing the practices of integration in the women’s camps. The exhibit is a permanent part of the museum.

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