On the Trail of History: My Trip to the National Archives

Apr 2020
10-minute read

We discuss the issue of bias–both of the source creators and of us as we read the sources–and we discuss problems we can encounter with evidence.  In looking at history, there are many issues with evidence.  One of the problems I discuss with my students is evidence that no longer exists.  Sometimes it’s the result of natural processes of decay and entropy.  Sometimes it’s willful destruction or omission.  I try to teach my students that sometimes what isn’t present in the historical record is just as telling as what is present.

When I first applied for the Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP as a Faculty Fellow, I specifically wanted to look at a riot that happened in El Paso in 1943.  I knew one had happened because I had come across references to it while doing research for my dissertation on race riots in Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles in the same year.  In fact, El Paso was included in a political cartoon about the wave of riots across the United States in the summer of 1943, titled “The Shame of the Cities.”1  Having researched other riots across the U.S. already, I was hopeful that the historical record would provide a lot of information on this riot.

ShameofCities

My research assistant, Malia Nelson, started looking at local and national newspaper records for the El Paso riot.  These news stories confirmed the basic facts about the riot.  The riot had taken place on 19 June 1943, a holiday in Texas known as “Juneteenth,” which celebrated the official abolition of slavery in Texas.  African American soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Bliss had heard a rumor of a riot targeting African Americans in downtown El Paso, a rumor that proved unfounded.  Wanting to go to the aid of their fellow African American citizens, the soldiers tried to leave Fort Bliss, and clashed with sentries who were charged with keeping them on-base.  In the ensuing violence, one African American soldier was killed, and a white sentry died later of injuries.  This was the most we could establish from the newspaper accounts.  We looked in secondary sources, like articles, books, and unpublished theses and dissertations about El Paso during World War II.  We looked at archival holdings and oral histories at UTEP.  And we kept coming up blank.

Thanks to support from the Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP, I was able to travel to the National Archives branch in College Park, Maryland, in early January 2020.  This branch of the archives houses World War II-era records of the armed forces and military installations and thus had records from Fort Bliss during the time period.  I was specifically looking for the official report on the riot from the Army.  Malia and I knew such a report had to exist, since two soldiers had died in the incident.  I had already contacted the Archives staff and knew that Fort Bliss was mentioned in a collection of records dealing with on-base riots involving African American soldiers.  So on the first day, I went straight to those records.  And I found . . . no riot report from Fort Bliss.  I found a document discussing the general problem of on-base riots that mentioned Fort Bliss as an example of one of many such riots.  I found reports on issues facing African American servicemen during a time when the armed forces were still racially segregated.  I found official reports from other on-base riots.  But no such report on Fort Bliss was to be found.

WarArchiveIMG1

After striking out with the first collection, I worked with archivist Eric Van Slander to see what other places I could look for the information.  The Army used a system called decimal files to keep records during World War II, with each decimal number representing a topic.  So we started pulling records related to 291.2–Race: Negro.  We also specifically pulled up records from Fort Bliss, and tried searching for the names of the soldiers killed in the riot as well.  In one decimal file that was formerly classified, I found a report on conditions in El Paso from early June 1943, mere weeks before the Juneteenth riot on Fort Bliss.  The report stemmed from incidents between African American soldiers and whites at Mission Theater on Alameda.  R.E. Thomason, then the representative in Congress for El Paso, had requested the Army investigate these incidents and conditions in El Paso more broadly.  Malia and I had not found any trace of this in Thomason’s papers, which are kept at theC.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department at UTEP .  The report gave useful contextual information and hinted at a period of high tension immediately preceding the riot.  I also found a report on conditions for African American servicemen at Fort Bliss from February 1944.  This report proved that conditions on base and in El Paso had not sufficiently improved, even following the riot.  But still, the riot report itself remained elusive.

After exhausting all possible collections, I did not find the official report on the riot at Fort Bliss at the archive.  Perhaps it was mis-filed, in which case it would be near impossible to find.  It may simply have not survived to have been entered into the official historical record.  A copy of the report may still be sitting somewhere in obscurity.  I have two more places to look, so I have not given up yet.  But the absence of the report in the official historical record of World War II, housed in the National Archives, is puzzling.

What did become clear while researching at the National Archives is that the riot on Fort Bliss is a missing piece of El Paso’s World War II history.  The experience of African American soldiers stationed at Fort Bliss is frequently left out of the narrative histories of our city and region during World War II.  But it was clear from the archival record that those soldiers at Fort Bliss were part of a larger national narrative about discrimination in the armed forces.  The records of this discrimination, and of on-base riots, were classified.  In one case, a collection of records relating to racial tensions in the Army was kept in Secretary of War Harry Stimson’s personal safe in his office along with other records he regarded as highly sensitive.  The records I discovered at the National Archives can help us have a better picture of how El Paso and Fort Bliss contributed to the struggle to desegregate the armed forces, which would eventually be achieved by executive order in 1948.

Written by Dr. Melissa Esmacher, El Paso Community College
Faculty Fellow, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

Bibliography
1.  MacGovern, “The Shame of the Cities.”  The New York Post, 1943.

(All images courtesy Dr. Melissa Esmacher.)

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