At 95, Black Army Veteran Seeks the Honorable Discharge he Was Denied After WWII Because of his Race

Client Nelson Henry with his family
Nelson Henry with His Family

Philadelphia, PA (March 12, 2019) — Legal Aid at Work and the Veterans’ Legal Advocacy Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law have filed a petition on behalf of 95-year-old army veteran Nelson Henry to rectify a seven-decade-old wrong: his receipt of a racially discriminatory “blue discharge” after World War II because he was African American. This “blue discharge”—so named because of the blue paper it was printed on—carried a powerful stigma for Mr. Henry throughout his life.  Technically neither honorable nor dishonorable, the blue discharge excluded Mr. Henry from many jobs.  It cut off his GI benefits.  And it resulted in him driving a cab for 13 years instead of enrolling in dental school, where he had already been granted a conditional acceptance before he had enlisted. Mr. Henry was not alone: 47,000 soldiers got blue discharges from the Army.  African Americans, like Mr. Henry, got about 10,000 of them—or 22.2%—even though black soldiers made up only about 6.5% of the Army.  “Homosexuals”—the term used at the time—also got a disproportionate share: about 5,000. “Blue discharges were ‘administrative,’ and therefore avoided the court martial process and all of the procedural protections that came along with it, like the legal rules of evidence and the right to be represented by an attorney,” said Legal Aid at Work attorney Elizabeth Kristen, who is one of the attorneys representing Mr. Henry in his petition.  “They were used to deny minority servicemembers their hard-earned benefits after they had served this country so honorably.” In 1945, the NAACP and the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper led a campaign to abolish blue discharges, and in 1946 a congressional report found them discriminatory and recommended they be ended.  The military eliminated them in 1947, but did not automatically upgrade blue discharges that had already been given.  And the Veterans’ Administration continued to deny GI benefits to servicemembers who had received blue discharges, even though the GI bill clearly guaranteed those benefits to all but those who had been “dishonorably” discharged.

(Nelson Henry, Jr., seated, along with Omega Psi Phi, Mu Omega chapter fraternity brother veterans at its inaugural Veteran’s Day recognition event in 2016.)

“Mr. Henry is now 95,” said Golden Gate Veterans’ Advocacy Clinic Professor Daniel Devoy, who is also representing Mr. Henry in his petition. “The Army doesn’t have much time to do right by him, or by the many other veterans who were wronged by this shameful practice.” # # # About Legal Aid at Work:  Legal Aid at Work advances justice and economic opportunity for low-income people and their families at work, in school, and in the community. Its Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program represents low-wage women workers subjected to unlawful sexual harassment in order to achieve some measure of justice and fair and safe workplaces. About the Golden Gate School of Law Veterans’ Advocacy Clinic The Golden Gate University School of Law Veteran’s Advocacy Clinic was founded in the fall of 2014 and represents military veterans that have been unjustly denied their proper discharge due to discrimination, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other injuries.  

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