BY SEPTEMBER 1942 there were 800 Black soldiers stationed at Grenier Field in Manchester. From then until the end of the war, hundreds of African Americans would be serving at the air base at any given time. They were responsible for carrying out essential support duties that assured the efficient operation of the air field.
The base was segregated, as the U.S. armed forces would not be desegregated until 1948. These soldiers lived apart from the White soldiers, and maintained little social contact with them.
While off base, the Black soldiers were not subject to the Jim Crow racial segregation laws that were enforced in the southern states. But they couldn’t necessarily feel at ease, either, as they were living in a community where the population was unaccustomed to the presence of Blacks.
A national civilian charitable organization, the USO supported the welfare of members of the armed forces and of workers in the defense industries. It operated two successful clubs in Manchester—the USO Club (called the Men’s Center), and the USO Women’s Center. The USO also collaborated with the local Jewish community to provide programs for servicemen of the Jewish faith. These operations depended on hundreds of local volunteers.
During World War II the USO proved to be vital in maintaining morale. The need for its services was particularly important to the Black troops. According to a national survey conducted in 1944, 44% of African American soldiers described the USO as “absolutely essential” compared to 30 percent of White soldiers.
African American servicemen dealt with racial segregation and prejudice on a daily basis. And they were often shortchanged by the military, which generally did not provide the same level and quality of off-duty programs that it provided to the Whites. So, in many places, African American servicemen found the USO to be an irreplaceable source of comfort and enrichment.
In her 2008 book, “Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II,” Meghan K. Winchell wrote “According to its policy, the USO made its services available to all soldiers and sailors regardless of race. It attempted to do this, however, within a national culture that segregated the military and public places throughout the country either by law or custom.” She wrote that the USO would “integrate its clubs only where public sentiment would allow integration and not in all situations…”
By 1944 there would be over 3,000 USO clubs in the United States. Each was organized, as much as possible, in a way that would meet community expectations. Most of these clubs exclusively (or almost exclusively) served White soldiers and sailors. There were some integrated clubs where both Black and White servicemen participated freely, but the hostesses were encouraged to associate only with men of their own race. Also, there were clubs that catered only to Black servicemen.
The staff of the USO Club in Manchester was eager to find ways to provide off-duty social activities for the Black soldiers. In early October the club requested permission from the USO regional administration to put on weekly dances for these men at the USO Club on Pleasant Street downtown.
To succeed, the club would need to bring in Black women to serve as dance partners. The club was able to make arrangements to bus only 60 Black USO hostesses from Boston and vicinity to Manchester for the dances.
A USO administrator wrote in an internal memo, “The provision of one dance per week, with 60 girls for 800 troops seems to be more of an irritation than a solution to the recreational needs for these Negro troops.” The dances were approved, but could only be held once every two weeks due to cost. The USO administration asked that an “…investigation be made and steps be taken, if possible, to provide more adequate recreational services for these troops.”
These segregated dances were held at least until the end of 1942. Reporting on one held Saturday, Dec. 26, the Manchester Union stated, “The semi-weekly dance for colored boys was sponsored by the USO last Saturday night when 60 colored girls from the Boston Area and a colored orchestra were brought from Boston.”
Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at email@example.com.