Wars within wars
Sweet Georgia Brown , documentary, not rated, New Mexico History Museum, 2.5 chiles
As America’s disturbing history of institutional, casual, and fundamental racism continues to show itself in a gathering drumbeat of news stories, filmmaker Lawrence E. Walker comes along with a documentary that brings a little-known chapter of this history to light. In World War II, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC; later called the Women’s Army Corps) put women in uniform to serve behind desks and in support roles so that men could be freed for combat duty. As with their male counterparts in the armed services, African-American women were kept strictly segregated from their white peers. As one of them recalls in this documentary, they were not even allowed to use the swimming pool at the same time as white women.
Walker’s documentary is, an opening credit tells us, “inspired by the story of Major Charity Adams Earley.” Earley was a twenty-three-year-old graduate of Wilberforce University when the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war. The following June she received an invitation to join the WAAC, and after completing basic training, she became the first black woman commissioned as an officer. Walker uses Earley’s story (and passages from her memoir, One Woman’s Army ) as the touchstone for his examination of the challenges, opportunities, and restrictions placed before African-American women in the military at a time when Jim Crow was still the law of much of the land.
The forceful and charismatic educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, was a driving force in the establishment of the WAAC and the campaign to attract young black women to the corps. And Walker introduces us to other African-American women who served in a military ruled by segregation until President Harry S. Truman ended the practice by executive order several years after the war’s end.
Walker’s telling of the story is hampered by what appears to be a paucity of available visual material, and even at a modest one-hour running time, the documentary sags under the burden of repeated images, both still and film clips. The soundtrack provides some lift, but it could have been more robust. What is compelling is the subject matter — the corps of dedicated, patriotic women who served a country that treated them like second-class citizens, discriminating against them on the basis of their race and gender.
“Sweet Georgia Brown” screens at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 29, at the New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Ave. By museum admission. Call 505-476-5152 for reservations.
Army auxiliaries Ruth Wade and Lucille Mayo service a truck