The First GI Bill and the Disparity for Black Veterans

Best Intentions

Black veterans from the South benefited least from the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (GI Bill), which aimed to help World War II military personnel return to civilian life with low-interest mortgages and loans. The bill did not discriminate expressly but the application was different for blacks than for whites, and some historians say the law intentionally accommodated Jim Crow. Non-whites took out fewer than 100 of the first 67,000 mortgages the bill insured.

Southern banks and mortgage agencies refused loans to minorities. Most southern public universities refused black students admission. Segregation was the law in that region. Southern colleges that were accepting black students were of low academic quality, and some sub-baccalaureate. Only seven states offered post-baccalaureate education to black students, and no accredited engineering or doctoral programs were available to them.

After their admission to universities, many black veterans  were not prepared for academic study on the college level. By 1946, only one-fifth of the 100,000 black applicants for Veterans’ Administration (VA) educational benefits had registered in colleges. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), already the poorest academies, came under pressure as rising enrollments strained their limited resources and forced them to turn away thousands of applicants.

The bill increased the number of black veterans attending HBCUs from 1.08 percent of total US college enrollment in 1940 to 3.6 percent in 1950, but the educational and economic gaps between white and black veterans nationally widened nevertheless.

The Damage

The GI Bill was race-neutral in its plain language. More than a million black veterans who served in World War II were eligible for tuition payments and stipends for up to four years, yet the actual availability of educational VA benefits differed by race and geography as black men from the South returned to segregated systems of education with fewer opportunities at HBCUs.

Limited collegiate opportunities for black students from the South explain why this group did not make the same gains in collegiate attainment as did white students or their counterparts in the North. Few post-secondary institutions for black students offered degrees higher than the baccalaureate, and many were junior colleges offering only certificates or associate degrees. Small in scale and short in resources, the HBCUs in the South were not well prepared to accommodate the returning servicemen.

Access to information about veteran benefits and counseling services differed between the races. Lack of black counselors was worst in the deep South states, which included only about a dozen black counselors for Georgia and Alabama and none for Mississippi. The availability of benefits to black veterans had some substantial impact on their educational attainment outside the South. For black veterans in the South, however, the bill made the economic and educational differences between black veterans and white veterans even worse.

Education and Wealth Creation

The 1944 legislation had truly remarkable effects in helping millions to attend college and buy homes. Unfortunately, the darker side of this story is how so many black veterans lost out on the VA benefits they deserved. This side of the story is important to remember because it exemplifies the ongoing obstacles facing black veterans as they try to build wealth and obtain intergenerational upward mobility.

Most black veterans could not make use of VA housing benefits because most banks would not make loans for mortgages in predominantly black neighborhoods, and a combination of deed covenants and tacit racism kept black people in general out of suburban areas.

The bill did help many black veterans go to college and graduate school. Although often able to choose among only overcrowded HBCUs, they eventually forced white universities to open their doors to minorities and thus began the great integration of higher education.

Segregation Ends

The bill offered college tuition and low-interest home loans to millions of veterans and significantly expanded the middle class after the Second World War. The VA’s clinical training program transformed psychology. But not everyone profited equally, and some profited not at all. For black veterans alone, one huge social barrier was lack of access to higher education. Significant access issues for black veterans made a difference in their ability compared to that of white veterans to profit from the benefits.

Nineteen states maintained separate HBCUs for black students, and many private colleges and universities outside the South either excluded specifically black students as a matter of policy or maintained informal quotas that admitted very few. States with segregated primary education systems failed to allocate equal resources to black schools. When the Supreme Court of the United States decided Brown v Board of Education in 1954, fewer than one-quarter of black students finished high school. Equal access to higher education started to open up in the 1960s, and not until the 1970s did more than a very few black students attend formerly restricted institutions.

Despite the barriers, HBCU enrollment almost doubled from 43,000 in 1940 to 76,600 in 1950.

Unexpected Benefits for Black Veterans

The sponsors of the bill probably never anticipated nor even imagined the vast impact their legislation would have on American society. Millions of World War II servicemen and their families joined the middle class and drove the largest economic expansion in history. The political leadership crafted the legislation to avert social unrest that they feared might ensue if millions of military personnel returned home to find no jobs.

Thanks to the GI Bill, more than two million obtained education at colleges and universities after World War II. A grand total of 7.8 million, 50.5 percent of the World War II military population, received academic education or vocational training under the bill, but other unanticipated benefits were the foundation of much of the black middle class and the education of the generation that led the black civil rights movement.

Today, the USA grapples with how to help thousands of veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. This struggle isn’t exclusive to any one race or ethnicity. Veterans across the country are fighting to get the benefits the need to get by.

The VA has been plagued with backlogs and inefficiencies for years now, and despite major shake-ups and policy changes this trend doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. This is why we at Jan Dils Attorneys at Law take great pride in working with veterans of all races.


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