“All they told me to do was mix plaster,” said Matthews, who had been trained to do more technical work with the molds, which would have paid better. “I said to hell with this damn job, and I left and went back to the G.I. people,” he said. “I told them: ‘Hey, look, I can’t make it out here. They aren’t paying me any money in that jive job.’”
Matthews, who had dropped out of high school to earn money for his family before joining the service at 16, decided to get his high school diploma and then enrolled at New York University, where he studied business administration for the remaining three years on his G.I. education benefit. “I couldn’t afford to pay for the rest of N.Y.U., but I read everything I could get my hands on concerning everything I wanted to learn,” he said.
Unlike Matthews, many Black veterans were denied access to a college education, largely relegated to vocational programs. According to the journalist and historian Edward Humes, in his article “How the G.I. Bill Shunted Blacks Into Vocational Training,” 28 percent of white veterans went to college on the G.I. Bill, compared with 12 percent of Blacks. Of that number, upward of 90 percent of Black veterans attended historically Black colleges and universities — institutions mainly in the South that were already underfunded with limited resources. In his book “When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America,” Ira Katznelson wrote that the enrollment of veterans at historically Black colleges and universities was 29,000 in 1940 and 73,000 in 1947. And 20,000 to 50,000 were turned away because of limited capacity, Humes wrote.
After studying at N.Y.U. and working more menial jobs, Matthews heard a radio announcement about selling life insurance. He became a general agent for a number of years, but was denied a small-business loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs when he wanted to open his own insurance office. “I know Black veterans who couldn’t get loans and had real problems,” he said.
African-Americans were routinely denied mortgages, and Black veterans were no exception. During the summer of 1947, Ebony magazine surveyed 13 cities in Mississippi and discovered that of the 3,229 V.A. home loans given to veterans, two went to African-Americans. According to Humes, in the postwar years, two out of three whites owned a home, whereas Black homeownership stayed around 40 percent. And it wasn’t just in the South.
“There were planned communities like Levittown in Long Island that didn’t allow Blacks,” said Jeffrey Sammons, a history professor at N.Y.U., whose research focuses on African-Americans in the military and sports. Many of these communities were developed specifically for white veterans.