African-American History Timeline: 1940 to 1949

Portrait Of Hattie Mcdaniel
John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive / Getty Images

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. 

1940

February 23: Hattie McDaniel (1895–1952) 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.

March 1: Richard Wright (1908–1960) publishes the novel, Native Son. The book became the first bestselling novel by an African-American author.

June: Dr. Charles Drew (1904–1950) graduates from Columbia University and his doctoral thesis, "Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation" is published. Included is Drew's research discovering that plasma can replace whole blood transfusions; he would go on to set up the first blood banks.

October 25: Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr. (1880–1970), is appointed a general in the U.S. Army, becoming the first African-American to hold the position.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is established in New York City.

1941

March 19: The Tuskegee Air Squadron, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen, is established by the U.S. Army.

June 25: Franklin Delano Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802, desegregating war production plans. The Order also establishes the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC).

November 12: The National Negro Opera Company is established in Pittsburgh by opera singer Mary Lucinda Cardwell Dawson.

The Great Migration continues as African-Americans from the South come North and West to work in factories.

1942

January 1: Margaret Walker (1915–1998) publishes her poetry collection For My People while working at Livingstone College in North Carolina, and wins the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition for it later that year.

James Farmer Jr., George Houser, Bernice Fisher, James Russell Robinson, Joe Guinn, and Homer Jack found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago.

June: The Montford Point Marines are established by the U.S. Marine Corps as the first African-American men accepted into a segregated training camp.

July 13: Charity Adams Earley (1918–2002) is the first African-American woman commissioned officer in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs).

September 29: Hugh Mulzac (1886–1971) is the first African-American captain in the U.S. Merchant Marines when he is made captain of the SS Booker T. Washington, after he insisted it should include an integrated crew.

1943

March: The first African-American cadets graduate from the Army Flight School at Tuskegee University.

April: The Tuskegee Airmen fly their first combat mission in Italy.

June 20–22: An estimated 34 African-Americans are killed during the Detroit Race Riots.

15 October: The largest concentration of African-American military personnel is stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. In total, there are 14,000 African-American soldiers from the 92nd Infantry as well as 300 women from the 32nd and 33rd companies of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.

1944

April 3: The U.S. Supreme Court declares that white-only political primaries are unconstitutional in the Smith v. Allwright case.

April 25: The United Negro College Fund is established by Frederick Douglass Patterson (1901–1988) to provide support to historically black colleges and universities and well as its students.

November: The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908–1972), the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, is elected to the US Congress, where he would serve until 1970.

1945

June: Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (1912–2002) is named commander of the Goodman Field in Kentucky, becoming the first African-American to command a military base.

November 1: The first issue of Ebony magazine is published, founded by John H. Johnson (1918–2005), and developed by his Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company.

1946

June 3: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregation on interstate bus travel is unconstitutional in Morgan v. Virginia.

October 19: After a 13-week gig hosting the Kraft Music Hall radio program, Nat King Cole (1934–1965) and his trio begin the first African-American network radio series, "King Cole Trio Time."

October: Fisk University appoints its first African-American president, sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1893–1956). That same year, Johnson becomes the first African-American president of the Southern Sociological Society.

1947

April 11: Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American to play major league baseball when he is signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

October 23: W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) and the NAACP submit an appeal for redress for racism entitled An Appeal to the World: A Statement of Denial of Human Rights to Minorities, to the United Nations.

Historian John Hope Franklin (1915–2009) publishes From Slavery to Freedom. It will become the most popular African-American history textbook to be published and still highly respected.

1948

July 26: President Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces.

August 7: Alice Coachman Davis (1923–2014) wins the high jump at the Olympics in London, England, becoming the first African-American woman to win an Olympic Gold medal.

September: Sugar Hill Times, the first African-American variety show, an all-black, hour-long variety program, debuts on CBS. Comedian and bandleader Timmie Rogers (1915–2006) leads the cast.

October 1: In Perez v. Sharp, the Supreme Court of California finds the law banning interracial marriages violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and strikes it down. It is the first court in the 19th century to do so.

E. Franklin Frazier (1894–1962) becomes the first African-American president of the American Sociological Society.

1949

June: Wesley A. Brown (1927–2012) becomes the first African-American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

October 3: Jesse Blayton Sr. (1879–1977) launches WERD-AM, the first African-American owned radio station in the United States. The station is broadcast out of Atlanta.

American bacteriologist William A. Hinton (1883–1959) is promoted to Clinical Professor att he Harvard University Medical School, the first black professor in the history of the University.