The Stage Door Canteen and African Americans in WW2
For thousands of servicemen from all over the world who found themselves passing through New York City during World War II, the Stage Door Canteen was a magical place. From the moment you walked through the door, you were treated like royalty. There was free food, and top-notch entertainment from the biggest stars of radio, Broadway, and Hollywood. And best of all, there were scores of pretty young women falling all over themselves to dance with you or sit with you to share a few moments of conversation.
The purpose of the Stage Door Canteen was to provide servicemen, who might be returning from or heading into combat, a place where they could just relax and enjoy themselves. Except for the fact that no liquor was served, and that patrons didn’t have to pay for anything, the canteen was like a high class nightclub with top-tier entertainment. And from the perspective of the visiting servicemen, the best part was that you didn’t have to find a girl to take to the club – they were already there waiting for you, and would even seek you out.
A place where everyone was accepted, regardless of background
It didn’t matter where you came from. As long as you were an enlisted soldier or sailor or airman (no officers allowed) in the armed services of any of the “United Nations,” you were welcome. So, on any given night you could see vivacious young hostesses dancing or chatting with Brits or Frenchmen or Greeks or Americans. And in the canteen, unlike almost anywhere else in the United States during that era, the term “Americans” included African Americans.
In a nation that was still highly segregated, the way the Stage Door Canteen handled issues of race seemed almost revolutionary. At that time, separation between blacks and whites, especially in social situations, was the norm in the North as well as the South, enforced by tradition, and often by law. But at the Stage Door Canteen, the policy was that the black servicemen who visited the club, as well as the African Americans who volunteered their time there, would be treated exactly like everyone else.
A place where show business stars came out for the boys
In large part that commitment to racial equality flowed out of the traditions of the theatre. The canteen was started and run by the American Theatre Wing, an organization consisting of actors, musicians, and others involved in the entertainment industry.
Because of that connection, the servicemen who visited the canteen could see shows featuring Broadway stars like Helen Hayes and Ethel Merman, big bands like the Count Basie and Bennie Goodman orchestras, and featured performers like Marlene Dietrich and Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz), all for free. And when the stars were not on stage, they might be serving sandwiches, or bussing tables, or meeting and greeting the boys as hostesses. Lauren Bacall, at that time an aspiring young actress just starting her career, spent her Monday nights volunteering at the canteen. She would later recall in her autobiography that “Many a time I found myself in the middle of a circle…being whirled and twirled by one guy, then passed on to another, non-stop, until I thought I would drop.”
A place where blacks were treated the same as whites
Although Bacall doesn’t say so, it’s quite possible that some of the guys she “whirled and twirled” with on the dance floor were African American. That was the policy at the Stage Door Canteen. Hostesses were told up front that if they couldn’t treat everyone the same, regardless of race, they shouldn’t volunteer.
Most of the volunteers who staffed and ran the canteen were proud of the lack of race consciousness among theatre people. In a speech reported in the November 27, 1943 edition of the Pittsburg Courier, the “First Lady of American Theatre,” Helen Hayes, put it this way:
Race equality is practically an unwritten law of the theatre. Negroes have always shared equally in the work of the theatre . . . Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, Canada Lee, I could name hundreds of Negroes whose place in the theatre has never been questioned. We of the theatre, regardless of race or color, work together in the same casts without so much as thinking about it. . . Race equality can become a reality, if only it can be tried completely without prejudice, with mutual respect on both sides. In the new world that is to arise from this war it must be tried . . . and it will succeed.
According to a report in the People’s Voice newspaper, in the beginning there were some behind-the-scenes battles among canteen staff about just how far this commitment to racial equality should go in practice. But in the end, they all fell in line and presented a united front to a skeptical world. When one staffer suggested opening a separate canteen in Harlem so that black soldiers could be served there, the idea was soundly rejected. The Stage Door Canteen would remain an oasis of racial democracy in a desert of segregation.
The canteen considered that a Negro serviceman who was good enough to die for a white girl was good enough to dance with her.— Margaret Halsey
Some white hostesses are forced out of their racial comfort zones
Of course being colorblind didn’t come easily to some of the volunteers, especially those from the South. Many of them had never spoken to or touched a black man in their entire lives. And now they were expected to chat with them, and even dance with them, without regard to color. Margaret Halsey, a writer who served as the captain of a crew of 15 junior hostesses (younger girls, usually in their late teens or twenties), recalled how impressed she was with one of her team who was from the South. This young lady was “desperately frightened” of dancing with black men. But she did it, and did it with such commitment to good manners, if to nothing else, that she never let her trepidation show.
A memo to white hostesses about black men
But Margaret Halsey realized that some of the junior hostesses were giving in to their fears, and had “side-stepped their responsibilities to Negro servicemen.” Determined to uphold the principles of the canteen, she decided to do something to combat the prejudices that had been instilled in some of the young women by their upbringing. First, she held a meeting with the white hostesses of her shift in order to openly talk about and dispel the “insistent folk myths about the Negro” that some of them believed. Then, to amplify and reinforce the message, she composed a memorandum that she mailed to each member of the group.
In that memorandum Halsey started by explaining that the canteen’s policy regarding Negro servicemen was firmly based in American ideals. She cited the Declaration of Independence ("We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal…”) and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution which state, as Halsey put it, “that nobody is to be denied the rights, privileges, and immunities of American citizenship on account of race, creed, or color.”
It was true, she said, that some of the hostesses were “very deeply prejudiced against accepting Negroes” as social equals. But they couldn’t be blamed for that because those ideas had been drilled into them when they were too young to properly evaluate them. Now, however, they were old enough to know better. What’s more, their service at the canteen provided “a golden opportunity to come into contact with Negroes under the best possible circumstances and find out what they are really like.”
After refuting the myth that blacks were less intelligent than whites, Halsey got down to what she considered to be the real issue:
Actually I don't believe any of you are very deeply concerned with Negro intelligence. What worries you more is the fear of rape. You unconsciously, but very arrogantly, assume that no male Negro can so much as glance at you without wanting to get you with child. The truth is, that while you are an extremely attractive group of young women, there isn't one single one of you who's that good.
Negro males react to you no more and no less than white males. As women, you know in your hearts that men of any description respond to you pretty much as you intend them to respond.
Senator Bilbo objects!
In addition to the reassurance it provided to the hostesses she worked with, Halsey’s memorandum got a lot of reaction, both positive and negative, outside the canteen. On the one hand it was reprinted in the black press as a well stated, soundly reasoned defense of racial equality. Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, called it “the clearest, most unequivocal statement of human decency and democracy” he had seen in a long time.
On the other hand, there were those who were not quite so approving. One of them was Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi. In his book Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, Bilbo could hardly contain his indignation:
Action which could only be designed to promote the mongrelization of this country has been demanded of the Junior Hostesses at the Stage Door Canteen in New York City. In the summer of 1943, Margaret Halsey, captain of the Junior Hostesses, ordered the white girls serving as hostesses to the service men at this canteen to dance with Negro soldiers and to accept them as their social equals... Any white woman who would give such advice, as did Miss Halsey, to the young girls of her race, should forever be ostracized from the people of her own blood.
Despite the fulminations of Senator Bilbo and his ilk, most of the hostesses in the canteen took exhortations like Halsey’s to heart. The canteen management made it clear that if a hostess couldn’t bring herself to dance and converse with black servicemen in the same way she would with anyone else, she should resign. None of them did.
I can remember dancing with a black man for the first time in my life, and nobody did or said anything about it.— Phyllis Jeanne Creore, former Stage Door Canteen hostess (see video below)
Don't miss this video!
White hostesses confront the shyness of many black soldiers
In fact, it turned out that many of the white hostesses, determined to fulfill their responsibility to make all visitors to the canteen feel welcomed, found themselves taking extraordinary measures to encourage some of the African American servicemen. That was because, as Halsey would note after the war, many of the black soldiers were actually shy around white women. This was especially true of those from the South.
Osceola Archer, an African American actress and director who was a member of the canteen’s executive committee, tells of one ploy that was used to help black soldiers get past their shyness with the white hostesses. Here’s how the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper reported the story in its February 8, 1944 edition:
Miss Archer said that several techniques have been developed to bring colored soldiers out of their reticence. A colored hostess will sit with him. Finally, at a pre-arranged time, a white girl will walk past.
The colored hostess will introduce her and suggest that they dance while she runs off to do something. The whole thing is so casual and appears so spontaneous that the boy is involved in the spirit of the canteen without his knowledge or consent. That is why colored groups can’t isolate themselves.
As the Afro-American reporter noted, many of the white hostesses were so committed to ensuring that segregation wouldn’t rear its ugly head in the canteen, they simply wouldn’t allow black soldiers to keep to themselves.
Before reading this were you aware of the Stage Door Canteen's non-discrimination policy?
Discrimination arises from an unexpected source: black hostesses
Ironically, there was one group of hostesses who had to be especially dealt with in order to break their pattern of refusing to dance and spend time with black soldiers. These were, as Margaret Halsey put it, “very light-colored Negro girls who were popular with white servicemen and tried to avoid dancing with boys of their own race.”
This caught just about everyone by surprise. As one white canteen executive told the Baltimore Afro-American:
I have to admit that I once held all the usual prejudices…I have overcome these petty prejudices. My experiences at the canteen have helped. I never thought that when I came here two years ago I’d have to tell some fair colored girl that she should dance with a darker colored soldier. I was only prepared. to educate whites to accept colored people.
Given the social stigma attached to being identified with blackness in those days, it’s not surprising that some light-skinned young women gravitated more toward whites than toward their darker-hued brethren. But that kind of discrimination, whatever might be the reason for it, was no less a violation of the spirit and the rules that governed the canteen than if it had been practiced by a white woman. At least one black hostess was dismissed from the canteen because of her pattern of avoiding black soldiers.
I am dancing with the uniform of my country.— Reply of white hostesses when asked why they danced with black soldiers
Some white soldiers try to shield white hostesses from association with blacks
Of course the canteen’s commitment to treating everyone equally did not mean that race-based hostility never intruded itself. To the contrary, because visitors brought their prejudices with them, tensions around race were not infrequent. Some white American soldiers, especially those from the South, were highly offended to see blacks dancing with white women. They would often cut in on such couples (cutting in was an accepted practice by which a man could legitimately displace another man in order to dance with his partner) in an attempt to rescue the white hostess from her supposed degradation.
Such attempts at defending racial purity inevitably produced some scenes that would be hilarious if they were not so sad. Ellen Tarry was a very light-skinned African American journalist who served as a hostess in the canteen. In her memoir, The Third Door: The Autobiography of an American Negro Woman, she recalls that:
Several times white servicemen cut in and asked me why I was dancing with Negroes, but when the colored boys saw what was happening they started cutting in on the white boys and it all passed off in a spirit of fun.
The white hostesses developed a standard reply to inquires about why they were dancing with black soldiers: “I am dancing with the uniform of my country.” According to the Baltimore Afro-American, many white soldiers said they never thought of it that way before.
Some whites can’t contain their anger at seeing black men with white women
At times, though, the angst among white soldiers at seeing blacks in friendly conversation with white women spilled over into outright verbal belligerence. Vitriolic and even threatening comments were sometimes made. Margaret Halsey tells the story of one such incident in which the sight of a white hostess sitting and conversing with several black soldiers at a table led a nearby group of whites to make their displeasure loudly evident. When the junior hostess captain saw what was happening, Halsey recalled, she took some quick and creative action:
With the speed of light, she rounded up every white hostess she could lay her hands on, and then she and the other white girls descended on the Negroes’ table like rooks coming home at twilight. The Negro soldiers virtually disappeared from view in a cloud of white girls.
The hostile white soldiers were apparently dumbfounded by this amazing display. After a few moments of stunned silence, they got up and meekly left the canteen.
Blacks serve in leadership positions
Another area in which the canteen’s practice ran counter to the conventions of the day was that blacks were placed in positions of authority over whites.
Not only was Osceola Archer on the canteen’s governing committee, she also served on Thursdays as “officer of the day.” That meant she had complete charge of the entire facility, and all the workers, white and black, reported to her. In addition, there were two black junior hostess captains overseeing white hostesses.
One of those black captains, Dorothy Williams, recalls an incident that shows just how disorienting it was for some whites to see black people in positions of authority. A soldier from the South needed some information and was referred to a junior hostess captain. He was shocked to find that the captain was black, and showed it. Williams calmly talked with him until he regained his equilibrium. Before the conversation was over, the soldier told Williams that he was shipping out soon and would like to write to her when he reached his overseas post. He actually did so, apologizing for his behavior, and telling her that as a result of meeting her, he had become friends with some black soldiers.
The legacy of the Stage Door Canteen
The story of the New York Stage Door Canteen quickly became a patriotic inspiration to the nation. Soon there were similar canteens in Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, Newark, Cleveland, San Francisco, and most famously, Hollywood. In 1943 a well received film recounting the story of the original canteen, appropriately entitled “Stage Door Canteen,” was released and became one of the best grossing films of the year. There was also a popular radio show of the same name.
But the New York canteen’s non-discrimination policy was not so widely emulated. Although the Hollywood Canteen, led by Bette Davis and John Garfield, fought fiercely and successfully to adopt racial practices similar to those in New York, canteens in other cities did not necessarily embrace that policy. In Philadelphia, for example, when a white junior hostess asked a black soldier to dance and he accepted, two white hostess captains complained to an Army major who happened to be on the scene that evening. The black man was told that the canteen “was no place for a colored soldier,” and he should go to the “Negro Canteen.” The soldier’s protest that he had been fighting overseas for three years and thought he was fighting for democracy didn’t convince the officer. Ordered again to leave the facility, this soldier’s audacity in dancing with a white woman caused him to became the first serviceman to ever be kicked out of a Stage Door Canteen.
Still, the example of racial democracy pioneered by the original Stage Door Canteen was widely reported in the black press, and became a source of hope for African Americans. Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell called the canteen “one of the few strongholds of practicing democracy.” And Osceola Archer was confident that the canteen was helping many African American servicemen visualize what democracy really meant. “Many of them are experiencing it for the first time in their lives at the Stage Door Canteen,” she said.
For African Americans during WW2, the test of democracy was the extent to which all Americans were treated as full citizens, with the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities as any other citizen. By that standard there were not a lot of institutions in the country that qualified as being truly democratic. To its everlasting credit, the Stage Door Canteen was one that did.
NOTE: Special thanks to Katherine M. Fluker whose comprehensive Master's thesis, Creating a Canteen Worth Fighting For: Morale Service and the Stage Door Canteen in World War II, was the source for several incidents shared here that I couldn't find anywhere else.
© 2015 Ronald E. Franklin