Roy McKenzie

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Change Through Wartime
Roy McKenzie

Arkansas has often been a scene of major firsts throughout history, and during the 1940s and World War II, it proved especially true. Arkansas made many advances throughout the state and nation before, during, and after WWII. From electing the first woman to the U.S. Senate to permitting the first African American to attend a southern university since Reconstruction, Arkansas moved forward in many ways. Although the battles of WWII were several thousand miles away, Arkansas was instrumental in changing the social, political, and military climate in wartime America.

One way Arkansas changed the political climate of wartime America was with their advances in women’s rights. From 1931-1945, Arkansas elected the first woman to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate - Hattie Caraway. A strong southern Democrat, who originally replaced her late husband as senator following his death, Caraway was a strong supporter of Roosevelt and his New Deal plan. During WWII, she was extremely important in establishing the Japanese relocation centers in Arkansas at Rohwer and Jerome as well as creating POW camps at Camp Robinson and Fort Chaffee. In a region known for its traditionally strong southern men, Sen. Caraway proved to be an equal among all genders and a force for southern politics during wartime America.

Arkansas changed the social climate of wartime America by reforming its position on African Americans after the war. Silas Hunt, an Arkansan WWII veteran, was admitted to the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1948, the first African American in the historical south to do so. His acceptance marked a major moment in the desegregation of the southern colleges, something that had previously been unimaginable. Even though many disagreed with his admittance into law school, Hunt pioneered the fight of desegregation in Arkansas nine years before the infamous Little Rock Nine of Central High School in 1957.

Another way Arkansas changed the social climate of wartime America was with its rich drag show traditions. In the years before WWII, drag in Arkansas started out as “womanless weddings” staged in rural areas. It continued at the Rohwer Japanese Relocation Camp when employees staged womanless weddings for Japanese Americans interned there. Along with the drag shows at the relocation centers, many of the military camps throughout the state also staged similar drag shows to improve morale during the war. Eventually, drag moved away from Arkansas. But, in 1975, drag came back when Norman Jones, a famous southern drag queen, brought the Miss Gay America pageant, which he had previously won, and moved it to Little Rock. This social faux pas defied traditional southern life but was largely accepted due to the wartime conditions and the need for entertainment.

Arkansas also changed the military climate of wartime America through its leaders fighting in both the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns of World War II. In Europe, Arkansas sent Brigadier General William “Bill” Darby, a soldier who had graduated from West Point in 1933. During the WWII, he organized the First Ranger Battalion and performed many acts of valor that earned him two Distinguished Service Crosses, a Silver Star, a Combat Infantry Badge, and a British Distinguished Service Order. Sadly, he was killed in action in April of 1945, earning his final medal, the Purple Heart. In the Pacific theatre, Arkansas sent Medal of Honor recipient General Douglas MacArthur. Already one of the most decorated American soldiers from the first World War, he returned to active duty as the Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Theatre in 1941, which later allowed him to accept the surrender of Japan and oversee the allied forces during the occupation of Japan following the war. These two military heroes helped put Arkansas in the limelight for military leadership and inspired many back home to celebrate their service to our country.

There were many ways in which Arkansas changed the social, military, and political climate of wartime America. Arkansas became a southern anomaly by electing the first woman to the U.S. Senate as well as becoming the first southern state to admit an African American to a major university. Uniquely, Arkansas had an underground drag show heritage that began during WWII and continues to this day, a tradition that defied social mores for acceptable southern culture. In addition to these changes at home, prominent Arkansans led U.S. military efforts overseas to aid in the success in both the Atlantic and Pacific military campaigns. Arkansans were involved in many events before, during, and after World War II that changed the course of history forever.