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New Jersey National Guard pioneered segregation’s end

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Mark Olsen
  • New Jersey National Guard
Although history credits President Harry Truman with desegregating America’s military, the truth is that racial integration had already arrived in New Jersey, thanks to a governor and National Guard leaders who had stubbornly insisted on equality in their forces.

In the space of four months, from November 1947 to February 1948, the New Jersey National Guard changed history.

The story begins at a time when the New Jersey National Guard was growing.

World War II had been over for more than a year and the New Jersey National Guard was recruiting new members to fill the recently created 50th Armored Division. The National Guard Bureau, which fell under the War Department, had authorized New Jersey to organize the 372nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery group. Because integration did not yet exist in the military, the 372nd would reflect the United States Army’s policy toward Blacks – the unit was to be composed entirely of Black Soldiers.

“The organization of the National Guard with respect to colored units of the National Guard was governed by War Department policy as contained in the Gillem Report,” said Col. Donald W. McGowan, Deputy Adjutant General, New Jersey National Guard.

And this is where the story would have ended except for one event.

In 1947, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution which read in part: “No qualified person shall be denied any civil or military right, nor be discriminated against in exercise of any civil or military right, nor be segregated in the militia or in the public schools because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.”

This meant the 372nd’s creation was illegal based on New Jersey’s new constitution.

Numerous groups and civic organizations, including the New Jersey Military Affairs Committee, pushed back against the 372nd’s formation. And they had an allies in New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscoll, Maj. Gen. Clifford R. Powell, commander, NJNG, and Brig. Gen. James I. Bowers, the Adjutant General, NJNG.

Driscoll replied to the Committee on Oct. 24, stating “General Powell is organizing the headquarters of the Group as a mixed unit composed of both white and colored officers, and has also eliminated the segregation of Negro units in separate armories.”

On Dec. 3, Driscoll went further stating “All of our citizens must be given the opportunity to enlist in the New Jersey units of the National Guard and participate in any of its activities for which each individual is considered qualified.”

There was one obstacle; the United States Army and by default, the Air Force, followed the War Department regulation that stated “negro manpower will be employed in negro regiments or groups, battalions or squadrons, troops or batteries.”

Bowers wrote to the National Guard Bureau on Dec. 5, asking if the Army would authorize racially mixed units. The Guard Bureau did not immediately reply. The stakes were high, if the War Department rejected New Jersey’s request, the New Jersey National Guard would lose its federal recognition, which would result in losing funding for equipment, training, and payroll.

McGowan wrote to Driscoll’s executive assistant, Ransford J. Abbott on Dec. 8, recommending that the governor contact Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal directly for a decision. On Dec. 16, Driscoll sent Forrestal a telegram asking: “Does the Army Department Policy prohibit mixed companies and similar units of both white and negro soldiers?” Forrestal did not reply.

Maj. Gen. Kenneth F. Cramer, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, finally replied to Bowers’ letter on Jan. 5, 1948. He punted saying “The matter raised by your telegram may possibly affect not only New Jersey units but other units. Consequently this question requires a careful review before any action is taken.”

Forrestal in the meantime had delegated the issue to Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall who replied to Driscoll on Jan. 13.

“The organization of your state militia and the policies pertaining to it are wholly the responsibility of the state of New Jersey,” said Royall. “However the organization of the Army of the United States, of which the National Guard is a part, has been governed by established policies which have been applied uniformly to both regular and civilian components. An analysis of this important matter has been undertaken by the staff in order to produce a sound solution.”

Driscoll was unimpressed with Royall’s answer.

“Your telegram which I have just received does not suffice for my wire to Secretary of Defense,” said Driscoll. “It will be necessary for any National Guard units placed under the supervision of New Jersey authority to comply fully with both the spirit and the letter of our constitution.”
While this was happening, President Truman announced on Feb. 2 that he had "instructed the Secretary of Defense to take steps to have the remaining instances of discrimination in the armed services eliminated as rapidly as possible."

On Feb. 7, Royall finally replied: “I recognize the importance to a sovereign state of a constitutional provision such as yours, and I have determined that for the present, Army militia units of New Jersey, if otherwise qualified, will not be denied Federal recognition on the ground of non-segregation.”

The decision had three reservations: It did not change existing Army policy on integration; it applied only to New Jersey, and it was a concession to state sovereignty. The New Jersey Department of Defense immediately implemented the decision on Feb. 12, when General Order Number 4 was published stating: “no qualified person shall be denied any military rights, nor be discriminated against in exercise of any military rights, nor be segregated in the militia because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.”

There was still one nagging problem, the Air Force had not replied, so there was no desegregation policy for the New Jersey Air National Guard. The Air Force, barely six months old, was relying on pre-existing Army personnel regulations. So when Secretary of the Air Force W. Stuart Symington replied on March 17, he also referenced the Negro manpower recommendations.

“Inasmuch as the people of the State of New Jersey have, upon direct majority vote, indicated their opposition to the ruling mentioned above in its application to their state militia, Air Force units of the New Jersey National Guard will not be denied Federal recognition on the basis of non-conformance with that ruling if such units are in all other respects qualified for recognition.”
New Jersey had succeeded. Its success emboldened other states to end segregation in their National Guard units.

Looking back in 1949, Driscoll observed “Non-segregation in the New Jersey National Guard has now existed for approximately two years, and it is my observation that New Jersey National Guard has functioned fundamentally the same.”

“That this provision in our basic charter is working smoothly in the National Guard throughout the State, is due entirely to the intelligent understanding of the problem on the part of all our citizens, regardless of color.”