Before the all-black female band was formed to raise funds and morale for the U.S. military, it had to fight against segregation. Generally, the concept of women in uniform was difficult for the American society of the 1940s to accept. In fact, American women were only allowed to serve in the U.S. Army during the First World War. Many of them were nurses and staff who cooked and catered for injured soldiers, having joined in a non-combatant role but with the same rank and status as men.
These were largely white women as at the time slavery and racism prevented black women from giving their services to America. But with the need for more personnel in case of emergency, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was formed in May 1942, and women of all races were allowed to serve in the war officially after bodies including the NAACP had argued for integrating the military for years.
However, the first WAAC Training Center and Officer Candidate School at Fort Des Moines came with segregated barracks, service clubs and basic training until protests by civil rights leaders including Mary McLeod Bethune forced the school to become integrated in 1942.
The enlisted women performed their military duties excellently while in the school, and as the army needed more WAACs for administrative work and medical support, women were given full benefits in the military, and the word “auxiliary” was removed from their name in July 1943. The Corps became known as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), giving women military status and rank.
One of these women, Maj. Charity Adams, who later became the African-American training supervisor at Fort Des Moines, would make history in 1945 when she led the first all-black female battalion to serve in parts of Europe during the Second World War.
But before this, she also took care of the military’s first and only all-black female band which would later be known as the 404th Armed Service Forces band. The band was formed in 1942 after black women at Fort Des Moines were not allowed to join the already all-white female band (the 400th Army Service Forces Band) which was touring across North America on war bond drives, bringing communities together and rallying morale and patriotism, Smithsonian reported.
Black servicewomen tried to join the all-white female band which had been formed that same year, but as Rachel Mitchell, a French horn player wrote: “Colonel McCoskrie said that the two races would never mix as long as he was on the post.”
Fort commandant Col. Frank McCoskrie, in order to quell discrimination complaints among black servicewomen and civil rights leaders, asked Sgt. Joan Lamb, director of the all-white female band, to start an “all-Negro company” but warned that the band wouldn’t survive unless it could play a concert in eight weeks.
With limited time, Lamb and Adams selected 28 black servicewomen, many of whom had limited musical training or experience but were willing to learn, and began private lessons with them. As they waited for instruments to arrive from the army, these women held music classes in the black barracks with support from some white musicians from the all-white female band.
By the end of the ultimatum given them, they had formed an all-female black band, known then as WAC Band #2, as the all-white band was WAC Band #1.
And on December 2, 1943, the band didn’t disappoint when it performed a concert for McCoskrie and other officers. With black officer Lt. Thelma Brown becoming its conductor and with regular rehearsals, the band started performing in parades and concerts, toured throughout Iowa and the Midwest attracting interracial audiences and sometimes stepped in for the all-white band when it was on a war bond drive, according to the Smithsonian.
It also performed during the opening parade of the 34th N.A.A.C.P. conference in Chicago on July 15, 1944. It was one of the band’s biggest moments and members were so elated that they had wowed thousands of fans only to return days later to hear from McCoskrie that the band would have to be deactivated as the War Department were no longer going to fund for two bands.
But with protests from black communities and civil rights activists, including the NAACP which argued that deactivating the band would be a serious blow to the morale of black troops, the decision was reversed. The all-black female band was reactivated in September 1944 as the 404th ASF Band and it continued to perform concerts on base while touring communities and performing throughout the Midwest.
Before it was deactivated permanently in December 1945 at the end of the war, the band traveled to Chicago for the Seventh War Bond Drive where for the rest of the week it performed at various platforms while raising funds. It is documented that at the end of the day, the Seventh War Bond tour raised over $26 billion across the U.S. in six weeks for the U.S. Treasury.