Memorial Day Remembrance: Lynching of Black Veterans After World War II

By the end of the summer of 1945, World War II had come to an end. Over the next several months, many of the twelve million veterans returned home; 880,000 of these were black Americans. They had gone overseas to put their lives at risk in the fight for freedom and democracy, and they came home to find these ideals were not meant for them in their own country.


Ironically, the Ku Klux Klan became reenergized by the returning black veterans, who wore their uniforms and seemed to know no fear, and thought they could assert their equality. The response of the KKK was a renewal of violence. Some of the more egregious examples:

Sergeant Isaac Woodward, a twenty-seven-year-old black veteran, upon being honorably discharged from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, was pulled from a public bus (still in his uniform), incarcerated, and during the night, he was beaten so badly that he was blinded in both eyes (one was gouged out).

In Alabama, when a black veteran removed the Jim Crow sign on a trolley, an angry streetcar conductor unloaded his pistol into the ex-Marine. The Chief of Police found him staggering away and administered a single bullet to his head, finishing the job.

In South Carolina, another veteran complaining about Jim Crow transportation had his eyes gouged out with the butt of the sheriff’s billy club.

In Louisiana, a black veteran who defiantly refused to give a white man a war memento was dismembered, castrated, and blow-torched.

In Monroe, Georgia, two black men (one a veteran who did not show proper obeisance and the other accused of flirting with a white woman) and their wives were surrounded by a lynch mob of over thirty who tied the victims to trees and then fired close-range into their faces. One of the men was also castrated. One of the women had her spine severed by force of the sixty bullets that entered her body. The other woman was seven months pregnant. Outrageously, newly released files in 2007 reveal that the FBI investigated suspicions that the three-term governor of Georgia, Eugene Talmadge, sanctioned the murders to sway rural white voters during a tough election campaign. No one was ever arrested.

In Florida, four young black men were arrested for the rape of a young white girl, in spite of the fact that no semen was found in her, or that two of the boys weren’t even in the area that night. Nevertheless, a conviction and death penalty for all four boys was a foregone conclusion. Two of the young men were in the area, and they were World War II veterans, the object of particular rancor among white southerners since these veterans no longer were acting subservient enough.

Monroe, Georgia coroner with two of the lynching victims

Monroe, Georgia coroner with two of the lynching victims

In all these cases, if there were witnesses they were loathe to testify, but even when there were detailed confessions the all-white juries declined to issue convictions.

As Fred Jerome summarizes, “In the first fifteen months after Hitler’s defeat, a wave of anti-black terror, mostly but not only in the southern states, killed fifty-six African Americans, with returning veterans the most frequent victims.” (Fred Jerome, “Focus: The Elusive Icon: Einstein, Race, and the Myth of the Cultural Icon” in ISIS: A Journal of the History of Science Society, 95:4, 2004, 628-629.)

In February, 1946, an altercation between a black and a white vet in Columbia, Tennessee that turned into a riot ended with the arrest of more than a hundred black men. Two were shot and killed inside the jail. Of the others, twenty-five were indicted for “attempted murder.” A young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall led a team of attorneys to Columbia to represent the prisoners. This was the occasion when Marshall barely escaped getting lynched himself. After arriving in town, he and other NAACP lawyers quickly found their lives were in danger. Racing to escape from an angry white mob, they took off in one direction, and a decoy car was sent on a different route. The mob caught up with the decoy car, and when they found Marshall wasn’t isn’t it, they beat the driver so badly he was in the hospital for a week. But Marshall got away, and went on to become one of the leading black figures of the Twentieth Century.

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

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26 Responses to Memorial Day Remembrance: Lynching of Black Veterans After World War II

  1. Marie says:

    that’s tragic and horrible
    The recent novel Mudbound has for its subject the racism that African American GIs endured on their return to America.Shameful.

  2. It’s unbelievable how cowardly and brutal those acts were.

  3. Margot says:

    A very fitting memory for this Memorial Day. We can’t forget that these despicable acts happened and happened right here in “the land of the free.”

  4. Tina says:

    Thanks so much for bringing this important work to the forefront. I will definitely look for it.

  5. Mary says:

    Damn. Shameful indeed. Agree with all the other commenters before me.

  6. Michele says:

    Well there went my blood pressure right through the roof. I know we all need to be reminded about this, but my anger and frustration know no bounds when I read this.

    What in the hell is WRONG with people?????? It makes me absolutely ashamed of the human race.

  7. Doret says:

    Thanks for this b/c they don’t teach it in school. The thought of lynching makes me cry deep down hard. All those generations stolen. All the things they don’t teach you in school, I am begiining to think what’s the point. Now I understand how Michael felt in Good Times.

    • If you’re interested in reading some accounts of black veterans and what they went through, Timothy Tyson has a couple of books that are just excellent: “Blood Done Sign My Name” and “Radio Free Dixie.” (I have reviews on this blog for them.) Each goes into great detail about what happened to a particular man, and they are instructive, infuriating, and sad to think of the lives derailed. But so important to know about and add to our understanding of the present.

      • Does anyone know the details of the murder of the Alabama marine? Since it involved a streetcar in 1946, would that mean it had to be Montgomery or Birmingham?

        • I suspect you are thinking about Isaac Woodard. You can read about him here.

        • Ke says:

          Timothy Hood
          On February 8, 1946, U.S. Marines Veteran Timothy Hood, a 23- year-old, honorably discharged veteran, was killed because he removed a Jim Crow sign from a crowded public bus in Bessemer, Alabama.

          Hood reportedly moved the Jim Crow sign shortly after boarding the streetcar because of congestion in the back of the bus. When the streetcar conductor, William R. Weeks, ordered him to replace the sign, Hood allegedly refused and a fight broke out between the two. Weeks fired his gun and shot Hood, who nevertheless managed to get off of the bus and find cover.

          Immediately thereafter, Hood was arrested by Police Chief G.B. Fant of Brighton. Following his arrest Hood, already injured, was placed in the back of the police car, where Fant shot him again, this time in the head, killing him.

          Reports indicate that Officer Fant responded to the sound of gunshots immediately after the bus driver shot Hood. Fant was at home at the time. He later claimed he shot Hood in his vehicle because he thought he was reaching for a weapon.

          Legal Status
          Jefferson County Coroner T.J. McCollum ruled the shooting a “justifiable homicide.”

          Case Details
          Killed: February 8, 1946
          Bessemer, AL

          Case Files and Resources
          Hood Death Certificate
          Media Reports
          “Ex-Marine Slain For Moving Jim Crow Sign: Alabama Police Chief Fires Fatal Bullet Claim Veteran Removed Sign in Streetcar,” The Chicago Defender, February 23, 1946.
          “Finding in Negro’s Slaying is upheld,” Birmingham News, February 12, 1946.
          “Chief is Exonerated of Death of Negro in Finding by Coroner,” Birmingham News, February 10, 1946.
          Timothy Hood – Reflections on a Soldier’s Story and a Quest for Government Documents

  8. Toni says:

    Thank you for this.

  9. Rei says:

    As others said, this made my blood boil. The stories are so enraging, that as an American minority, it’s tempting to head down the wrong path into racism and intolerance for whites. But we all–hopefully–know that education is the answer and not more blind hatred. I will look into these books asap. Thank you so much for sharing!!

    • earl says:

      B.S.,the only answer is the so called law being enforced,thats the only answer.The problem lies in the hands of our so called judges ,district attorneys and police enfforcement officers who wont do their jobs.The politics of the court and the racism together dis-allow us an equal opportunity to the american judicial system.So until we as a nation can stand together against the police state of which we live in we as a nation are screwed.Just imagine that all americans were trated equaly how much better this nation could be.Just imagine that this nation had never knew racism how much further we a head in technology ,the fight against so many crippling,debilitating and deadly diseases we may have concoured.By mearly equipping our future with the ability to see which so many have bee blinded by ,which is plain an simply the in equality.

  10. VA veterans says:

    It’s a sad we remember the Word War II out come, but it this case we still remain strong for them. An intriguing discussion is worth comment. I do believe that you should publish more on this subject matter, it might not be a taboo matter but typically people don’t talk about such subjects. To the next! Cheers!!

  11. juju says:

    being black myself Since the age of 12 i have always asked myself why we never see any black veterans everytime we get to such subjects.
    i do understand that north-american soldiers were predomiantly whites
    but yea.. alot of blacks also participated in that war not only were mal-treated and mal-fed they were also poorly equipped but still they had the same goal as the whites “living the american dream” they loved america 99% of them joined the war willingly because of hope and trive
    for their future generation to flourish…. this is really sad and heart aching. i think the government should have protected every single veteran no matter whatever the color he or she is.. seems that everything was planned out to wipe out all this people so it would seem that blacks never participated in the war..same thing goes for that ancient nonsense that goes debating is egyptians are black or white..

  12. KD says:

    This is the type of America that Republicans L. Graham, Jeff Duncan, Mo Brooks, Rand Paul and John Boehner and all Tea Party leaders want to return.

  13. Xena says:

    As a line in the script of the movie “Tuskegee Airmen” goes, “Are we Americans only when it suits you?” Thanks for this excellent article.

  14. Marlon says:

    As the Son of a WWII & Korean Wars, I am so happy to finally see these actions being spoken of, As a child I had found an old scrap book, It contained photo’s of dead African American Soldiers, When my father came in the room & saw what I had found, He made me continue looking at those photos, Even though I could not believe what I was seeing, It was burned into my memory, That happened in 1974 & Now 41 years later The truth is being revealed, To the other families of African American Vets, This should help explain How they felt, God Bless them.

  15. Andre Havard says:

    This is The untold American history left out of all of the schools history books and the memories of most American citizens both White and Black citizens this was before today’s racial issues but sadly it’s what has lead our Nation to them for which no American citizens can deny.

  16. My Father is a Huge Veterans Advocate and Commissioner in Shreveport, Louisiana. My father is also a veteran as well as myself. I’m so messed up from seeing the things that happened then and no justice ever materialized. I almost feel used as a veteran, because we see more of the same today, just less severity and more hypocrisy.

  17. I am a 74 “white” (I pass actually, Chippewa Indian) adopted by white farmers in Lacey, Iowa when 4 and moved to Fayette, Mo. as a freshman in high school and confronted Jim Crow! What a way to treat people. No Christian love values just plain old white people are superior. Some would say not right but it was the law but I never knew of any attempt to change the law or practice! I become a history major and much information has been slow to come out. I have always been disappointed in even the black writers sometimes. Maybe the publishers would decide what information would be allowed. College not much embarrassing history allowed until graduate courses and even then it only comes out gradually over time, Continuing reading books and researching on computer, I tell a black woman’s grand daughter that she would be shocked at the tar paper shacks blacks lived in at Fayette and other small towns. The school children did not have much for clothes and girls not much for make up and jewelry that white girls had. Integrated schools a year before I came down,, 1955. Black school closed and only went to 8th grade. Bused out of town of 2500 pop. if wanted to go to high school. Could not use swimming pool. eat in any restaurants or play in two pool halls. Their park not much. No separate but equal! Got worse as you headed south! Made me a Civil Rights activist! Glad those days are no more! Poor people , both white and black seem to be a permanent group with no intention of doing much for them. I work at GM auto assembly plant for 44 yrs, I call it the Privileged Layer of the Working Class! Went through college in history while working.

  18. Pam says:

    I am telling a few family members that isis is just like kkk dont want to see them but they will not belive me the kkk killed hung and did horrible things as well as isis where would i find pictures to back up the articals of what kkk did ?

  19. Troy A. Hilderbrand says:

    The savagery shown these AMERICANS is unforgettable and nearly unforgiveable. As sure as there is a God I pray that on the day of judgement justice will be served for these stolen souls.

    Nowadays, everyone wants to us to FORGET about how badly people of color were and ARE treated. I say NEVER forget. Keep it front and center! Maybe as a sentinel of sorts reminding us that we are all created EQUAL in the eyes of the Most High. Not ONE better than the other and we all deserve to be treated with decency and respect.

    To our fallen. May the Creator grant your souls eternal peace and know that we proud few HONOR your sacrifice and memory EVERY DAY and work diligently to make you and the ancestors PROUD!

    Peace be upon you!
    1SG (Ret.) Troy A. Hilderbrand

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