For Veterans Day, a group of Democratic lawmakers is reviving an effort to pay the families of Black service members who fought on behalf of the nation during the second world war for benefits they were denied or prevented from taking full advantage of when they returned home from war.
The new legislative effort would benefit surviving spouses and all living descendants of Black war veterans whose families were denied the opportunity to build wealth with housing and education benefits through the GI bill.
Since 1944, those benefits have been offered to millions of veterans transitioning to civilian life. But due to racism and discrimination in how they were granted through local Veterans Affairs offices, many Black veterans received substantially less money toward buying a home or continuing their education.
The Senate bill was to be introduced Thursday by Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, the son of a wartime veteran.
“We’ve all seen how these inequities have trickled down over time,” Warnock said, adding that the bill “represents a major step toward righting this injustice”.
A House version was introduced last week by Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the Democratic majority whip, and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts.
The legislation would extend the VA loan guaranty program and GI bill education assistance to Black veterans and their descendants who are alive at the time of the bill’s enactment. It would also create a panel of independent experts to study inequities in how benefits are administered to women and people of color.
Lawrence Brooks, who at 112 years old is the oldest living US veteran, was drafted to serve during the war and assigned to the mostly Black 91st Engineer General Service Regiment.
The Louisiana native, who has 12 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren, always believed that serving his country was the only way he could leave behind his life as the son of sharecroppers, said his daughter, Vanessa Brooks.
But after he was discharged in August 1945 as a private first class, he did not realize his dream of going to college, working instead as a forklift driver before retiring in his 60s. “He always wanted to go to school,” his daughter said.
And when he bought his home, he used his retirement fund, not GI bill benefits, she said.
President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act into law in 1944, making generous financial subsidies available to 16 million second world war veterans pursuing higher education and buying their first homes. Irrespective of race, veterans who served more than 90 days during the war and had been honorably discharged were entitled to the benefits.
But after returning from the war, Black and white veterans faced two very different realities.
Because the GI bill benefits had to be approved by local VA officers, few of whom were Black, the process created problems for veterans. This was particularly acute in the deep south, where Jim Crow segregation imposed racist barriers to homeownership and education.
Local VA officers there either made it difficult for Black veterans to access their benefits or lessened their value by steering them away from predominantly white four-year colleges and toward vocational and other non-degree programs.
In contrast to the treatment of Black veterans, the GI bill helped home ownership rates soar among white veterans in a post-war housing boom that created a ripple effect their children and grandchildren continue to benefit from today.
Of the more than 3,000 VA home loans that had been issued to veterans in Mississippi in the summer of 1947, only two went to Black veterans, according to an Ebony magazine survey at the time.
The Federal Housing Administration’s racist housing policies also affected Black veterans, undoubtedly contributing to today’s racial wealth gap. Realtors and banks would refuse to show houses or offer mortgages to qualified homebuyers in certain neighborhoods because of their race or ethnicity, a tactic referred to as redlining.
Preliminary analysis of historical data suggests Black and white veterans accessed their benefits at similar rates, according to Maria Madison, director of the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University, who has researched the impact of racial inequities in the administration of GI bill benefits.
However, because of institutional racism and other barriers, Black veterans were more limited in the ways in which they could use their benefits. As a result, the cash equivalent of their benefits was only 40% of what white veterans received.
After adjusting for inflation and for market returns, that amounts to a difference in value of $170,000 for every veteran, according to Madison.