by Douglas Bristol
When I was conducting research at LSU-Alexandria last summer, I had the good fortune to interview Dr. Haywood Joiner, Jr., Chair of the Department of Allied Health Programs, about his father’s military service during World War II. The stories that he told me illustrated what a significant impact the war had on black GIs. Since Joiner had very negative experiences during the war, it appears at first that the overall impact of his military service was very negative. However, in the long-term, the impact was very positive.
For Haywood Joiner, Sr., the impact of World War II was often visceral. He saw combat, feared for his life, and fell in love. Like all black soldiers during World War II, Joiner was assigned to a segregated unit. He served at the heart of the war in the Pacific—at Guadalcanal. Even before shipping overseas, Joiner knew what it was like to fear for his life because he survived the Lee Street Riot in Alexandria, Louisiana. Alexandria was surrounded by three large military bases, which brought as many as 30,000 black and white soldiers downtown to mingle with the local residents on Saturday nights. On January 10, 1942, a black soldier said to a white woman driver honking at him while he crossed Lee Street: “Would you hit a veteran?” The woman called over a city policeman, who arrested the soldier. Then a group of black soldiers crowded around the white policeman. In very short order, white M.P.s, state troopers, and National Guardsmen from nearby Camp Beauregard reinforced the Alexandria police and began firing into black-owned businesses on Lee Street. Joiner told his son that his life flashed before his eyes because he thought he was going to die. He also said the Army sealed off the neighborhood, set up a temporary morgue, and buried the victims of the riot near the site. According to Dr. Joiner, his father had nightmares about the incident for the rest of his life. Yet Joiner also had good memories about Alexandria because, on a different Saturday night on Lee Street, he met his future wife.
Aside from the nightmares, the war’s long-term impact on Joiner was positive. He joined the huge wave of black migration in the 1940s. His marriage convinced him to come back to Rapides Parish after the war and live in Boyce, Louisiana. Joiner had grown up in Water Valley, Mississippi, and despite the Lee Street Riot, he thought Louisiana had a better race relations. Dr. Joiner said when visiting family in Water Valley as a child, he had to get off of the sidewalk when a white person approached, which he did not have to do in Boyce. His father was part of a vast migration of young black men set in motion by the war. Between 1940 and 1950, Alabama and Georgia lost nearly one-third of their black population aged 14-34, and Mississippi lost nearly half.
Military service in particular had long-term benefits for Joiner and his family. He used his GI benefits to go to trade school and build a house. Afterwards, he opened his own upholstery shop. His son said he had fond memories of his military service, which induced his sons to follow his example. Dr. Joiner served in the Air Force, and his brother served in the Navy. His father’s experience in the military also gave him the confidence to be a leader of black community. Like so many other black veterans, Joiner participated in the Civil Rights Movement, helping to register black voters. He later became the first black member of the Boyce City Council. So, while the short-term impact of the war on Joiner was discriminatory and harrowing, the long-term impact was very beneficial.
Douglas Bristol, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is a specialist in African American history. He is the author of Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Dr. Bristol is currently working on a book about African Americans and the U.S. military during World War II.