Meet Jean Byrd Stewart

Jean Byrd grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, right across the George Washington Bridge from New York City. She would become one of the first African American WAVES during World War II.

Jean’s father had his degree in chemistry, and worked for a chemical company in nearby Maywood. During the Depression, things were tough for everyone, but Jean remembers things being doubly difficult for African American families. Her father was paid less than the white workers at the chemical company. Still, she said, the family did well enough – her father had a job and most of the time was working full time.

Aside from the lack of parity on on-the-job, Jean doesn’t remember any overt prejudice in her neighborhood.

I never paid any attention because where we lived was a mixed area.  I mean, mixed. So you were a person there who had to qualify and be as up as you could so that you would blend with others and would show that you had intelligence and keep up with people.  My mother and father went to school and they passed along a lot of things. So as one lady said later on in life, her parents didn’t raise any dummies.  I was surprised to hear her say it. She was a white girl, but that was the way she expressed it. So you live up to what you know, and have learned and picked up watching by seeing others. You just kept on moving.

This photograph comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.

Why We Fight

The U.S. National Film Registry announced its latest selections late yesterday, and included on the list is a World War II-era documentary propaganda classic. The film is called The Negro Soldier. It follows soldiers from pre-enlistment through basic training.

What was remarkable about the film wasn’t that it included African American soldiers in training (though that was indeed unusual at the time). But what was really incredible is that the filmmakers were specifically instructed to avoid Hollywood stereotypes about African Americans. So the men featured were shown coming from a variety of jobs (lawyers, musicians, athletes). According to film historians Thomas Cripps and James Culbert, the cautions included to:

Avoid stereotypes such as the Negroes’ alleged affinity for watermelon or pork; also avoid strong images of racial identity (‘play down colored soldiers more Negroid in appearance’ and omit ‘Lincoln, emancipation, or any race leaders or friends of the Negro’).

While initially intended for African American military audiences, people who saw the film thought the film should be shown to African American and white audiences, civilian and military, a response which surprised the filmmakers.

The Negro Soldier was directed by Frank Capra, who also directed the famous “Why We Fight” series of propaganda films (1942-1945). These films were designed to raise morale in the U.S. film audience and help people understand the complexities of the war. Capra began working on the films shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Capra saw them as the American answer to German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s powerful Triumph of the Will. He used footage mostly produced by the U.S. Office of War Information to craft his seven-film series.

The first film in the “Why We Fight” series, 1942′s Prelude to War, won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in 1943.  The “Why We Fight” series became part of the National Film Registry in 2000. With the addition of The Negro Soldier, this means that another important part of World War II-era domestic propaganda will be restored and preserved in the Library of Congress for future generations.

World War II women didn’t get the Capra treatment. However, this OWI film Glamour Girls of 1943 does show how the government was trying to get women to participate in the war effort as well.