The forgotten story of Black soldiers and the Red Ball Express during World War II

The forgotten story of Black soldiers and the Red Ball Express during World War II

Shown here in May 1945.These black soldiers were attached to the 666th Quartermaster Truck Company that was part of the Red Ball Express. National Archives
Matthew Delmont, Dartmouth College

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a problem. In June 1944, Allied forces had landed on Normandy Beach in France and were moving east toward Nazi Germany at a clip of sometimes 75 miles (121 kilometers) per day.

With most of the French rail system in ruins, the Allies had to find a way to transport supplies to the advancing soldiers.

“Our spearheads … were moving swiftly,” Eisenhower later recalled. “The supply service had to catch these with loaded trucks. Every mile doubled the difficulty because the supply truck had always to make a two-way run to the beaches and back, in order to deliver another load to the marching troops.”

The solution to this logistics problem was the creation of the Red Ball Express, a massive fleet of nearly 6,000 2½-ton General Motors cargo trucks. The term Red Ball came from a railway tradition whereby railmen marked priority cars with a red dot.

From August through November 1944, 23,000 American truck drivers and cargo loaders – 70% of whom were Black – moved more than 400,000 tons of ammunition, gasoline, medical supplies and rations to battlefronts in France, Belgium and Germany.

These Red Ball Express trucks and the Black men who drove and loaded them made the U.S. Army the most mobile and mechanized force in the war.

Black soldiers are seen filling up gasoline tanks for dozens of trucks used to transport military supplies.
In this October 1944 photograph, Black soldiers are filling up gasoline tanks for the Red Ball Express. AFP via Getty Images

They also demonstrated what military planners have long understood – logistics shape what is possible on the fields of battle.

That’s a point well known in today’s war in Ukraine: As the Russian invasion stretches into its second month, logistics have been an important factor.

Supplying the front lines

The Red Ball Express gave the Allies a strategic advantage over the German infantry divisions, which were overly reliant on rail, wagon trains and horses to move troops and supplies.

A typical German division during the same period had nearly 10 times as many horses as motor vehicles and ran on oats just as much as oil. This limited the range of the vaunted Blitzkrieg, or lightning attacks, because German tanks and motorized units could not move far ahead of their infantry divisions and supplies.

Driving day and night, the Red Ball truckers earned a reputation as tireless and fearless troops. They steered their loud, rough-driving trucks down pitch-black country roads and through narrow lanes in French towns. They drove fast and adopted the French phrase “tout de suite” – immediately, right now – as their motto.

Gen. George C. Patton “wanted us to eat, sleep, and drive, but mostly drive,” one trucker recalled.

A convoy of trucks carrying military supplies is seen on a narrow road.
A convoy of U.S. trucks heads toward the front lines loaded with military supplies from the Belgian port of Antwerp in spring 1945. Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

James Rookard, a 19-year-old truck driver from Maple Heights, Ohio, saw trucks get blown up and feared for his life.

“There were dead bodies and dead horses on the highways after bombs dropped,” he said. “I was scared, but I did my job, hoping for the best. Being young and about 4,000 miles away from home, anybody would be scared.”

Patton concluded that “the 2½ truck is our most valuable weapon,” and Col. John D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander’s son, argued that without the Red Ball truck drivers, “the advance across France could not have been made.”

Fighting Nazis and racism

The Red Ball Express was a microcosm of the larger Black American experience during World War II. Prompted by the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential Black newspaper at the time, Black Americans rallied behind the Double V campaign during the war, which aimed to secure victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home.

Many soldiers saw their service as a way to demonstrate the capabilities of their race.

The Army assigned Black troops almost exclusively to service and supply roles, because military leaders believed they lacked the intelligence, courage and skill needed to fight in combat units.

Despite the racism they encountered during training and deployment, Black troops served bravely in every theater of World War II. Many saw patriotism and a willingness to fight as two characteristics by which manhood and citizenship were defined.

A Black solider stands near a sign that says Red Ball Highway.
In this Sept. 5, 1944, photograph, Cpl. Charles H. Johnson of the 783rd Military Police Battalion waves on a Red Ball Express convoy near Alenon, France. National Archives

The boundaries between combat roles and service roles also blurred in war zones. Black truck drivers often had to fight their way through enemy pockets and sometimes required armored escorts to get valuable cargo to the front.

Many of the white American soldiers who relied on supplies delivered by the Red Ball Express recognized the drivers’ valor at the time.

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An armored division commander credited the Red Ball drivers with allowing tankers to refuel and rearm while fighting. The Black drivers “delivered gas under constant fire,” he said. “Damned if I’d want their job. They have what it takes.”

A 5th Armored Division tank driver said, “If it wasn’t for the Red Ball we couldn’t have moved. They all were Black drivers and they delivered in the heat of combat. We’d be in our tanks praying for them to come up.”

Logistics in Ukraine

Days into the war, Ukraine’s armed forces destroyed all railway links between Ukraine and Russia to thwart the transport of Russian military equipment and tanks.

Relying on trucks and road networks, Russian convoys encountered fuel shortages and counterattacks from Ukrainian military and civilians.

Dozens of trucks with Russian military supplies are seen on a highway.
A convoy of Russian military vehicles moves toward the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on Feb. 23, 2022. Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Russian military’s ability to move supplies across extended distances – as well as Ukraine’s ability to disrupt those supply lines – is pivotal in determining the future direction of the war.The Conversation

Matthew Delmont, Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History, Dartmouth College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How 18th-century Quakers led a boycott of sugar to protest against slavery

How 18th-century Quakers led a boycott of sugar to protest against slavery

English Quakers on a Barbados plantation. Image courtesy of New York Public Library
Julie L. Holcomb, Baylor University

Buying items that are fair trade, organic, locally made or cruelty-free are some of the ways in which consumers today seek to align their economic habits with their spiritual and ethical views. For 18th-century Quakers, it led them to abstain from sugar and other goods produced by enslaved people.

Quaker Benjamin Lay, a former sailor who had settled in Philadelphia in 1731 after living in the British sugar colony of Barbados, is known to have smashed his wife’s china in 1742 during the annual gathering of Quakers in the city. Although Lay’s actions were described by one newspaper as a “publick Testimony against the Vanity of Tea-drinking,” Lay also protested the consumption of slave-grown sugar, which was produced under horrific conditions in sugar colonies like Barbados.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, only a few Quakers protested African slavery. Indeed, individual Quakers who did protest, like Lay, were often disowned for their actions because their activism disrupted the unity of the Quaker community. Beginning in the 1750s, Quakers’ support for slavery and the products of slave labor started to erode, as reformers like Quaker John Woolman urged their co-religionists in the North American Colonies and England to bring about change.

In the 1780s, British and American Quakers launched an extensive and unprecedented propaganda campaign against slavery and slave-labor products. Their goal of creating a broad nondenominational antislavery movement culminated in a boycott of slave-grown sugar in 1791 supported by nearly a half-million Britons.

How did the movement against slave-grown sugar go from the actions of a few to a protest of the masses? As a scholar of Quakers and the antislavery movement, I argue in my book “Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy” that the boycott of slave-grown sugar originated in the actions of ordinary Quakers seeking to draw closer to God by aligning their Christian principles with their economic practices.

The golden rule

Quakerism originated in the political turmoil of the English civil war and the disruption of monarchical rule in the mid-17th century. In the 1640s, George Fox, the son of a weaver, began an extended period of spiritual wandering, which led him to conclude the answers he sought came not from church teaching or the Scriptures but rather from his direct experience of God.

In his travels, Fox encountered others who also sought a more direct experience of God. With the support of Margaret Fell, the wife of a wealthy and prominent judge, Fox organized his followers into the Society of Friends in 1652. Quaker itinerant ministers embarked on an ambitious program of mission work traveling throughout England, the North American Colonies and the Caribbean.

The restoration of the British monarchy in 1660 and the passage of the Quaker Act in 1662 brought religious persecution, physical punishment and imprisonment but did not dampen the religious enthusiasm of Quakers like Fox and Fell.

Quakers believe that God speaks to individuals personally and directly through the “inward light” – that the light of Christ exists within all individuals, even those who have not been exposed to Christianity. As Quaker historian and theologian Ben Pink Dandelion notes, “This intimacy with Christ, this relationship of direct revelation, is alone foundational and definitional of [Quakerism]. … Quakerism has had its identity constructed around this experience and insight.”

This experience of intimacy with Christ led Friends to develop distinct spiritual beliefs and practices, such as an emphasis on the golden rule – “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” – as a fundamental guiding principle.

Quakers were to avoid violence and war-making and to reject social customs that reinforced superficial distinctions of social class. Quakers were to adopt “plain dress, plain speech and plain living” and to tell the truth at all times. These beliefs and practices allow Quakers to emphasize the experience of God and to reject the temptations of worldly pleasures.

Stolen goods

In slave traders’ and slave holders’ minds, racial inferiority justified the enslavement of Africans. By the 18th century, the slave trade and the use of slave labor were integral parts of the global economy.

Many Quakers owned slaves and participated in the slave trade. For them, the slave trade and slavery were simply standard business practice: “God-fearing men going about their godless business,” as historian James Walvin observed.

Still, Quakers were far from united in their views about slavery. Beginning in the late 17th century, individual Quakers began to question the practice. Under slavery, Africans were captured, forced to work and subjected to violent punishment, even death, all contrary to Quakers’ belief in the golden rule and nonviolence.

Individual Quakers began to speak out, often linking the enslavement of Africans to the consumption of consumer goods.

John Hepburn, a Quaker from Middletown, New Jersey, was one of the first Quakers to protest against slavery. In 1714, he published “The American Defence of the Christian Golden Rule,” which cataloged, as no other Quaker had done, the evils of slavery.

Although the publication of Hepburn’s book coincided with statements issued by the London Yearly Meeting, the primary Quaker body in this period, warning of the effects of luxury goods on Quakers’ relationship with God, “The American Defence” did not result in any significant outcry among Quakers against slavery.

A portrait of man with a white beard, wearing a hat and a long coat.
Portrait of Benjamin Lay. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; this acquisition was made possible by a generous contribution from the James Smithson Society

Quaker Benjamin Lay also published his thoughts about slavery. He also refused to dine with slaveholders, to be served by slaves or to eat sugar. Lay also dressed in coarse clothes. When smashing his wife’s dishware, he claimed that fine clothes and china were luxury goods that separated Quakers from God. Lay’s actions proved too much for Philadelphia Quakers, who disowned him in the late 1730s.

Quaker antislavery and sugar

Like Lay, Woolman too was shocked when he saw the conditions of enslaved people. For Woolman, the slave trade, the enslavement of Africans and the use of the products of their labor, such as sugar, were the most visible signs of the growth of an oppressive, global economy driven by greed, an evil that threatened the spiritual welfare of all. Consumed most often in tea, sugar symbolized for Woolman the corrupting influence of consumer goods. Soon after his travels through the South, Woolman, who was a merchant, stopped selling and consuming sugar and sugar products such as rum and molasses.

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The sweetness of sugar hid the violence of its production. Caribbean sugar plantations were infamous for their high rate of mortality and deficiencies in diet, shelter and clothing. The working conditions were brutal, and tropical disease contributed to a death toll that was 50% higher on sugar plantations than on coffee plantations.

Until his death in 1772, Woolman worked within the structure of the Society of Friends, urging Quakers to abstain from slave-grown sugar and other slave-labor products. In his writings, Woolman envisioned a just and simple economy that benefited everyone, freeing men and women to “walk in that pure light in which all their works are wrought in God.” If Quakers allowed their spiritual beliefs to guide their economic habits, Woolman believed, the “true harmony of life” could be restored to all.

Eighteenth-century Quakers’ attempts to align religious beliefs and economic habits continued into the 19th century. Woolman, in particular, influenced many who believed it possible to create a moral economy. His journal, published in 1774, is an important text about religiously informed consumer habits.

In the 1790s and again in the 1820s, British consumers, Quaker and non-Quaker alike, organized popular boycotts of slave-grown sugar. Although the boycott of sugar and other products of slave labor did not bring about the abolition of slavery on its own, the boycott did raise awareness of the connections between an individual’s relationship with God and the choices they made in the marketplace.


This article is part of a series examining sugar’s effects on human health and culture. Click here to read the articles on TheConversation.com.The Conversation

Julie L. Holcomb, Associate Professor of Museum Studies, Baylor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

11 Must-Read Books for Black History Month

11 Must-Read Books for Black History Month

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As Black History Month commences, here are a few must-have books from Black authors, spanning time periods, themes and genres. However, one thing they have in common is critical acclaim and a strong command of tackling the Black experience with grace, courage, originality, and historical context, making them essential reads during Black History Month and throughout the year.


1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel is frequently included on the list of must-read American books by one of the most prolific Black authors. The story follows an African American man whose color renders him invisible. It’s a groundbreaking take on a racially polarized society and the struggle to find oneself through it all.


2. Home by Toni Morrison

The 2012 novel by Morrison tells the story of a 20-something Korean War veteran and his journey home from an integrated army to a segregated society. The book was named one of the best novels of 2012 for its careful consideration of mental illness, race relations, family, history, and the concept of home.


3. How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston, a longtime writer for The Onion, serves up laughs with this collection of comical essays, such as “How to Speak for All Black People” and “How To Celebrate Black History Month.” Thurston covers social interactions and media portrayals with an insightful and satirical perspective.


4. God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson, creator of the Black National AnthemLift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” first published God’s Trombones in 1927 as a book of poems. The poems take on the structure of a traditional sermon and tell several different parables and Bible stories, some of which specifically focus on the African American story. Dr. Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates have called this collection one of Johnson’s most notable works.


5. The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates

From the best-selling author comes a poignant tale of life and race in the inner city. Coates explains how his father worked for his sons to obtain a free education and escape Baltimore’s drug culture. This inspiring book tells a powerful narrative about community and honoring your history across generations.


6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen is an award-winning collection of literature blurring the lines between poetry and criticism. Divided into seven chapters, it provides a powerful meditation on race that creates a lyrical portrait of our current social and political climate. Hailed as “a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of Black life in America,” according to the Washington Post. Citizen is said to feel like an “eavesdropping on America.”


7. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

You may think you know Malcolm X, but you’ve never read anything like Marable’s highly-regarded biography, which provides new perspectives and information on the controversial leader. Marable connects Malcolm’s life with other leaders, faith, and Black Nationalism in a masterful, historical context and call for social change.


8. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

In this novel, an African American teenager spends a summer with his brother in 1985 Sag Harbor. The work is more personal than most of Whitehead’s books and explores race, class, and commercial culture in light of a newer generation of Black Americans who are less marked by their color.


9. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

In a classic tale, Wilkerson chronicles the journey of three African Americans who took part in the massive movement from the South to the North, Midwest, and West that millions of Black families took in the 20th century. The Warmth of Other Suns is an acclaimed historical account that studies a definitive period in American history.


10. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes

This extensive collection of poems was hand-picked by Hughes, himself, prior to his death in 1967 and span his entire career. They offer a breathtaking look at being Black in America that is contemplative, celebratory, gut-wrenching and praiseworthy. From “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “The Weary Blues,” to “Still Here” and “Refugee in America,” this collection directs us to fight, believe, dream, and claim our self-worth.


11. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals

In this riveting memoir, Beals recounts her time on the front lines of school desegregation as a member of the Little Rock Nine – the group of African-American students who famously integrated Arkansas’ Central High School. Her account of the harrowing experiences that forged her courage will stick with you long after the last page.


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Are there other titles that you’d like to add to the list? Share them below.