African-American History Timeline: 1940 to 1949

Portrait of Richard Wright
Richard Wright wrote "Native Son," which became the first bestselling novel by an African-American.

In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which desegregated war production plants and also established the Fair Employment Practices Committee. This act set the stage for a decade filled with African-American firsts in the U.S. Armed Services. 


  • Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African-American to win an Academy Award. McDaniel wins the best supporting actress award for her portrayal of a slave in the film, Gone with the Wind.
  • Richard Wright publishes the novel, Native Son. The book became the first bestselling novel by an African-American author.
  • Dr. Charles Drew's thesis, "Banked Blood" at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Included is Drew's research discovering that plasma can replace whole blood transfusions.
  • Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr., is appointed a general in the U.S. Army. With this appointment, Davis becomes the first African-American to hold the position.
  • The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is established in New York City.


  • The National Negro Opera Company is established in Pittsburgh by Mary Lucinda Dawson.
  • The Tuskegee Air Squadron, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen, is established by the U.S. Army.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802, desegregating war production plans. The Order also establishes the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC).
  • The Great Migration continues as African-Americans from the South come North and West to work in factories.


  • Margaret Walker publishes her book, For My People while working at Livingstone College in North Carolina.
  • James Farmer Jr., George Houser, Bernice Fisher, James Russell Robinson, Joe Guinn and Homer Jack found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago.
  • The Montford Point Marines are established by the U.S. Marine Corps as the first African-American men accepted into a segregated training camp.
  • Charity Adams Earley is the first African-American woman commissioned officer in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs).
  • Hugh Mulzac is the first African-American captain in the U.S. Merchant Marines.


  • An estimated 34 African-Americans are killed during the Detroit Race Riots.
  • The first African-American cadets graduate from the Army Flight School at Tuskegee University.
  • The largest concentration of African-American military personnel is stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. In total, there are 14,000 African-American soldiers as well as 300 women from the 32nd and 33rd companies of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.
  • The Tuskegee Airmen fly their first combat mission in Italy.


  • The U.S. Supreme Court declares that white only political primaries are unconstitutional in the Smith v. Allwright case.
  • The United Negro College Fund is established by Frederick Douglass Patterson to provide support to historically black colleges and universities and well as its students.
  • The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, is elected to the US Congress.


  • Benjamin O. Davis Jr. is named commander of the Goodman Field in Kentucky, becoming the first African-American to command a military base.
  • Nat King Cole becomes the first African-American to have a radio variety show.
  • Ebony magazine is published. The magazine is developed by the Johnson Publishing Company.


  • Fisk University appoints its first African-American president--Dr. Charles S. Johnson. That same year, Johnson became the first African-American president of the Southern Sociological Society.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregation on interstate bus travel is unconstitutional in Morgan v. Virginia.


  • Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American to play in the major league baseball. He is signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
  • The NAACP issues an appeal to racism entitled An Appeal to the World. The petition is presented to the United Nations.
  • Historian John Hope Franklin's text, From Slavery to Freedom is published. It will become the most popular African-American history textbook to be published.


  • President Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces.
  • Alice Coachman becomes the first African-American woman to win an Olympic Gold medal when she wins the high jump competition.
  • The law banning interracial marriages in California is banned by its state supreme court.
  • The first African-American variety show, Sugar Hill Times is aired on CBS. Performer Timmie Rogers leads the variety show's cast.
  • E. Franklin Frazier becomes the first African-American president of the American Sociological Association.


  • June Wesley Brown becomes the first African-American to graduate from the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
  • Jesse Blayton Sr. launches WERD-AM, the first African-American owned radio station in the United States. The station is broadcast out of Atlanta.
  • William A. Hinton becomes the first African-American professor at the Harvard University Medical School.