Local social justice and affordable housing advocates are praising Congressman Seth Moulton’s bill to restore GI Bill benefits to surviving Black World War II veterans and their descendants who did not benefit equally after the war due to systemic racism.
“We at the Marblehead Racial Justice Team applaud this effort as an attempt to make up for a historical wrong that perpetrated a legacy of segregation,” said Rev. Jim Bixby with the MRJT. “It is unfortunate that even this kind of legislation is too little too late. The Black GIs missed out on investment opportunities during our most productive years of economic development, the post-war years. White Americans got to be at the forefront of home ownership and education. Black Americans were left in the back seat.”
The GI Bill was signed into law in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, offering a range of benefits to veterans, including low-cost mortgages and low-interest loans to start a business or farm, unemployment compensation and education assistance. These loans were regularly denied to Black veterans due to racism at the time.
“In 1947, out of 67,000 VA mortgages in the New York and New Jersey suburbs, less than 1% went to non-whites,” Moulton told the Marblehead Current. “In Mississippi, only two out of over 3,200 home loans administered by the VA went to Black borrowers. And these are just a couple examples. There are many others that illustrate the injustices faced by Black veterans at the time. Those actions had generational consequences.”
Decades later, the impact is dramatic. In Boston, the median net worth for White families is $247,500. For Black families, it is $8.
“We all know the GI Bill lifted up a generation of World War II veterans and built the American century,” Moulton said. “It’s been called the most successful piece of legislation ever. But most Americans don’t know that many Black veterans were left out — denied benefits, denied homes, denied the generational wealth that comes from going to college.”
Moulton added, “We can never fully repay those American heroes. But we can fix this going forward for their families. While our generation didn’t commit this wrong, we should be committed to making it right.”
Moulton co-sponsored the bill with South Carolina Democratic Congressman James Clyburn. If passed, it will:
— Extend access to the VA Loan Guaranty Program to the surviving spouse and certain direct descendants of Black World War II veterans who were alive at the time of the bill’s enactment.
— Extend access to the Post-911 GI Bill education assistance benefits to the surviving spouse and certain direct descendants of Black World War II veterans alive at the time of enactment.
— Require a Government Accountability Office report outlining the number of individuals who received the educational and housing benefits.
— Establish a “blue-ribbon panel” of independent experts to study inequities in the distribution of benefits and assistance administered to female and minority members of the armed forces and provide recommendations on additional assistance to repair those inequities.
Honoring the legacy of Black GIs
Marblehead attorney Kurt James is an affordable housing advocate and serves on the town’s Housing Production Plan Implementation Committee. He calls Moulton’s legislation “really interesting news.”
“This is something that is discrete, fair, reasonable and measurable,” James said.
Bixby agrees and is hoping for its passage.
“This honors the legacy of all the Black GIs who fought so bravely for our country and are owed a lot more than they received,” he said.
Moulton’s bill is officially called the Sgt. Issac Woodard Jr. and Sgt. Joseph H. Maddox GI Bill Restoration Act. It is named after two Black veterans.
Woodard, a decorated vet, was traveling home on a Greyhound bus in 1946 to Winnsboro, South Carolina, when a local police chief forcibly removed him from the bus and blinded him with his nightstick. Still in his uniform after being honorably discharged, Woodard was thrown in jail rather than given medical treatment. The police chief was ultimately charged but acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury.
Maddox, after facing injury and receiving a medical discharge, was accepted to a master’s degree program at Harvard University. He was denied tuition assistance that he was rightfully due under the GI Bill by his local Veterans Affairs office to “avoid setting a precedent.”
After seeking assistance from the NAACP, the VA in Washington, D.C. ultimately promised to get Sgt. Maddox the educational benefits he deserved.
This is the third time Mouluton has introduced this bill, and he is hoping it passes this time.
“We didn’t create this legislation because it would be politically easy to get passed; we did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said. “When we reintroduced the bill in the last Congress, we were able to get even more support for the bill than we got the first time. We are confident we can build on this and expand the coalition of support even further with the help of my colleagues in the Congressional Veterans Caucus. We will be having conversations with colleagues and exploring other possibilities to make an impact.”
Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.