Black History Timeline: 1940–1949

Portrait Of Hattie Mcdaniel
Hattie Mcdaniel.

John D. Kisch / Separate Cinema Archive / Getty Images

In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802, which desegregates war production plants and also establishes the Fair Employment Practices Committee. This act sets the stage for a decade filled with Black firsts in the U.S. Armed Services.


Richard Wright
Richard Wright. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

February 23: Hattie McDaniel (1895–1952) becomes the first Black person to win an Academy Award. McDaniel wins the best supporting actress award for her portrayal of an enslaved woman in the film, "Gone with the Wind." McDaniel has worked as a singer, songwriter, comedian, and actress and is well-known as she was the first Black woman to sing on the radio in the United States. She appears in more than 300 films during her career.

March 1: Richard Wright (1908–1960) publishes the novel, "Native Son." The book became the first bestselling novel by an African American author. The website for the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education says of Wright:

"(He is the) most influential African-American writer of the twentieth century....paving the way for the Black writers who followed him: Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, John Williams."

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 Black person to hold the position.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is established in New York City. The fund becomes "America's premier legal organization fighting for racial justice," according to the LDF website, which adds:

"Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans."


The Tuskegee Airmen
The Tuskegee Airmen. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

March 19: The Tuskegee Air Squadron, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen, is established by the U.S. Army. The squadron is led by Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who goes on to be the first four-star general in the U.S. Air Force.

June 25: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802, desegregating war production plans. The order also establishes the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which works to ban "discriminatory employment practices by Federal agencies and all unions and companies engaged in war-related work."

November 12: The National Negro Opera Company is established in Pittsburgh by opera singer Mary Lucinda Cardwell Dawson. The company provides "opportunities for countless other Black opera performers when few other options existed," according to the website Black Past.

The Great Migration continues as Black Americans from the South relocate north and west to work in factories. Between 1910 and 1970, an estimated 6 million Black people migrate from southern states to northern and Midwestern cities to escape racism and Jim Crow laws of the South as well as poor economic conditions.


James Farmer
James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality at the World's Fair in New York. Bettmann / Getty Images

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 in Chicago. James Farmer, the group's first national director, says that CORE will use "Gandhi-like techniques of nonviolent resistance—including civil disobedience, non-cooperation, and the whole bit—in the battle against segregation.”

June: The Montford Point Marines are established by the U.S. Marine Corps as the first Black men accepted into a segregated training camp. later says of the effort:

"The men who enlisted in response (to the creation of the corps) completed recruit training at Montford Point, North Carolina during a time and place where racism and segregation were a part of everyday life."

July 13: Charity Adams Earley (1918–2002) is the first Black woman commissioned officer in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. "You don't know you're making history when it's happening," says Early of the commission. "I just wanted to do my job."

September 29: Hugh Mulzac (1886–1971) is the first Black 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.


Tuskegee University Tompkins Hall
Tuskegee University Tompkins Hall. jaredjennings / Flickr

March: The first Black cadets graduate from the Army Flight School at Tuskegee University. The cadets at the facility—which is segregated—have completed rigorous training in subjects such as meteorology, navigation, and instruments, says the National Park Service, which operates the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.

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

July 23–28: An estimated 34 Black people are killed during the Detroit Race Riots. The violent confrontations between residents of Black neighborhoods and the city's police department last five days.

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


Clayton Powell Jr
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. urges President Richard Nixon to reactivate the Warren Commission to investigate the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr. Bettmann / Getty Images

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

"The Court reasoned that the rule restricting primary voters to whites denied (Lonnie E.) Smith (a Black voter) equal protection under the law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. By delegating its authority to the Democratic Party to regulate its primaries, the state was allowing discrimination to be practiced, which was unconstitutional."

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. The fund would go on to provide resources and support that help more than 500,000 students earn college degrees over the next three-quarters of a century.

November: The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908–1972), the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, is elected to the U.S. Congress, where he would serve until 1970. Powell serves long enough that he is able to urge then-President Richard Nixon to reactivate the Warren Commission to investigate the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr.


Benjamin O. Davis in a flight suit and helmet standing in front of a P-51 Mustang fighter.
Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. during World War II. US Air Force

June: Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (1912–2002) is named commander of Goodman Field in Kentucky, becoming the first Black person to command a military base. The U.S. Air Force Academy would later name its airfield in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after Davis, who received the Silver Star for a strafing run into Austria and the Distinguished Flying Cross for a bomber escort mission to Munich on June 9, 1944.

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. The magazine, which focuses on news, culture, and entertainment, would grow to a circulation of more than 1.3 million.


Nat 'King' Cole Portrait
Nat 'King' Cole. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

June 3: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregation on interstate bus travel is unconstitutional in Morgan v. Virginia. The case involves Irene Morgan, who was riding a Greyhound bus from Hayes Store, in Gloucester County, to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1944—more than a decade before Rosa Parks— when she was arrested and convicted in Saluda for refusing to give up her seat to a White person.

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." The 15-minute program would continue through 1948.

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


Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

April 11: Jackie Robinson becomes the first Black person to play major league baseball when he is signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson would go on to endure intense discrimination and rise above it to serve as a symbol of the civil rights movement and win both the Rookie of the Year at the end of the season and the International League MVP Award in 1949.

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. The document's introduction, written by Du Bois, begins with these words:

"There were in the United States of America, 1940, 12,865,518 citizens and residents, something less than a tenth of the nation, who form a largely segregated caste, with restricted legal rights, and many illegal disabilities."

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


Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman. MPI / Getty Images

July 26: President Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces. The order not only desegregates the U.S. military but helps pave the way for the civil rights movement, along with other events that occur during the decade.

August 7: Alice Coachman Davis (1923–2014) wins the high jump at the Olympics in London, England, becoming the first Black woman to win an Olympic Gold medal. After her victory, the Olympic Games website declares:

"Coachman (came) from a poor background in Georgia with little parental support for her sporting ambitions, while segregation in America had also restricted her access to top-quality training facilities. Undeterred, she relied on the support of others to develop her strength and technique. She knew she wanted to compete and so made a high jump crossbar out of rope and sticks, while she developed her stamina by running barefoot on hard dusty roads."

September: "Sugar Hill Times," the first Black variety show 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 14th 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 Black president of the American Sociological Society.


Harvard University's Harvard Yard
Harvard University's Harvard Yard.

Getty Images

June: Wesley A. Brown (1927–2012) becomes the first Black person to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. According to the Naval Institute, Brown would go on to have an active and stellar career in the Navy, including a temporary assignment at the Boston Naval Shipyard, postgraduate study in civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, as well as postings to Bayonne, New Jersey; Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 in the Philippines and Port Hueneme, California; the headquarters of the Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington, D.C.; the Construction Battalion Center in Davisville, Rhode Island; the public works department at the Barbers Point Naval Air Station in Hawaii; temporary duty in Antarctica; a tour at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; and final active duty service, 1965–1969, at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

October 3: Jesse Blayton Sr. (1879–1977) launches WERD-AM, the first Black-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 at the Harvard University Medical School, making him the first Black professor in the history of the university. Harvard Medical School would eventually honor Blayton by renaming its Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ state laboratory after him. At the September 10, 2019, ceremony, HMS Dean George Q. Daley declares:

"Professor Hinton was indeed a pioneer. A brilliant thinker, experimentalist and a force for good in the service of humankind. He changed the world and made Harvard Medical School a better place in the process. We proudly honor him here today."
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Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1940–1949." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Femi. (2023, April 5). Black History Timeline: 1940–1949. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1940–1949." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).