STEMAcademiaAgriculture & FarmingHumanitiesSocial Sciences

African Americans in WW2: The Story of Sgt. Franklin Williams and Ellen Harden

Updated on June 23, 2017
"Sergeant Franklin Williams, home on leave from Army duty, with his best girl Ellen Harden, splitting a soda"
"Sergeant Franklin Williams, home on leave from Army duty, with his best girl Ellen Harden, splitting a soda" | Source

To me, this 1942 photo of “Sargeant Franklin Williams, home on leave from Army duty, with his best girl Ellen Hardin, splitting a soda” (that's the original caption, including misspellings) is one of the most iconic images of the World War II homefront ever produced. Franklin and Ellen seem to be such an appealing couple, she with her beautiful smile and he looking sharp in his uniform with sergeant’s stripes.

The more I looked at this photo, the more I wanted to know about these two young people. That desire sparked me to begin a fairly long quest to find as much information as I could about Franklin and Ellen, what their backgrounds were, and what the future would hold for them. I haven’t yet gotten the whole story, but I’ve been able to uncover quite a bit. I think it’s a story worth sharing.

Who was Sergeant Franklin Williams?

Born on March 30, 1915, Franklin H. Williams was 27 years old at the time the photo of him and Ellen was taken in May of 1942. He was a native of Baltimore, and graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, where he ran track and played football. According to the 1940 census, Franklin worked as a chauffeur for a “private family.” And he was a hard worker – in the week just prior to the census, he worked a total of 84 hours.

Some time between April 1940, when the census information was recorded, and March of 1942, when he was in the army, Franklin may have changed jobs. A July 1942 newspaper article announcing his graduation from Officer Candidate School lists him as having been a government employee in Baltimore.

Sergeant Williams in the library of the service club at Fort Bragg, NC
Sergeant Williams in the library of the service club at Fort Bragg, NC | Source

Franklin Williams becomes an ideal recruit

It’s not clear exactly when Franklin joined the Army. But since he was a volunteer, not a draftee, it’s not unlikely that he signed on in the wake of the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that catapulted the nation into WW2.

Assigned to the 41st Engineering Regiment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Franklin quickly demonstrated his aptitude as a soldier and a leader. Not only was he soon wearing the stripes of a sergeant, but he impressed his commanders as exemplifying everything a recruit in America’s new and quickly expanding military should be.

Sergeant Franklin Williams of the 41st Engineers
Sergeant Franklin Williams of the 41st Engineers | Source

The “model colored soldier”

The 41st Engineers was, like all U. S. military units at that time, a segregated outfit. Before the country began mobilizing for its entrance into WW2, there had been very few African Americans in the army, and practically none in other branches of the service. Now, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of black Americans were suddenly being enrolled as volunteers or draftees.

VIDEO: Black soldiers were required to prove themselves

The U. S. government felt the need to demonstrate to an American public that was not used to seeing blacks as good military material, that these new soldiers were capable of becoming quality fighting men and making a strong contribution to the war effort. To tell that story, they needed to put a face on what they considered “the model colored soldier.” They chose Sgt. Franklin Williams.

Sergeant Williams (left) in a jeep
Sergeant Williams (left) in a jeep | Source

This was going to be a major public relations effort, and the Office of War Information assigned not just one, but two of their best photographers to the project. Arthur Rothstein and Jack Delano are both highly regarded for their photographic records of life in the U. S. in the 1930s and 40s. With Rothstein taking the lead, their plan was to show Sgt. Williams as a typical American soldier, both in his military activities and in his relations with the folks at home.

Starting in March of 1942, Rothstein began photographing Sgt. Williams in all phases of his life with his unit at Fort Bragg.

Sgt Franklin Williams leading his platoon in a charge at Fort Bragg
Sgt Franklin Williams leading his platoon in a charge at Fort Bragg | Source
Sgt Williams showing a soldier how to handle his rifle
Sgt Williams showing a soldier how to handle his rifle | Source
Sgt Franklin Williams in the barracks at Ft Bragg
Sgt Franklin Williams in the barracks at Ft Bragg | Source
Sgt. Williams and friends with a USO hostess
Sgt. Williams and friends with a USO hostess | Source
Sgt. Williams in the color guard of the 41st Engineers
Sgt. Williams in the color guard of the 41st Engineers | Source

Were public relations campaigns to portray black soldiers in a positive light appropriate?

See results

Sgt. Williams goes home

In May of 1942, Franklin Williams was given a ten-day furlough, with all expenses paid, to go home and see the folks back in Baltimore. But this wouldn’t be just a social visit. Rothstein and Delano would be there as well to take the photographs that would show the country what the home life of a typical African American soldier was like.

The Williams family lived at 2025 McColloh Street in Baltimore. Their house, built in 1920, boasted 2780 square feet spread over three stories. And the family needed all that space. According to the 1940 census, the household consisted of nine people.

The Williams household in 1940

Name
Age
Relation
Occupation
Income in 1939
Annie Williams
54
Head of household
Seamstress
0
Thomas Williams, Jr.
29
Son
 
0
Franklin Williams
25
Son
Chauffeur
$684
Sarah Williams
15
Daughter
High school student
0
Annetta Hammond
21
Daughter
 
0
Ernest Hammond
22
Son-in-law
Waiter
$780
Ernest Hammond, Jr.
7 months
Grandson
 
0
William Taylor
35
Lodger
Orderly
$624
Elizabeth Taylor
24
Lodger
 
0

This census information provides a fascinating insight into what life was like for middle class African Americans as the nation was just coming out of the Great Depression.

First of all, it’s evident why the Williams family needed to take in lodgers. The head of the household was Annie Williams, Franklin’s mother. According to a newspaper article published in November of 1942, she was a member of Union Baptist Church and of the Modiste Club, an organization of dressmakers. The 1940 census lists her occupation as seamstress, but records her as having no income in 1939.

Annie’s oldest son, Thomas, is listed as having no occupation and no income. The census information shows him as having completed college, and I wonder if perhaps he was still a student in 1939. Or, with the country still in the last stages of the Depression, perhaps he just couldn’t find a job.

As the census information makes clear, the only direct family income reported for the Williams household in 1939 was the $684 contributed by Franklin, and the $780 brought in by son-in-law Ernest. The average income of an American worker in 1939 was $1,730.00. Franklin’s and Ernest’s income combined amounted to less than 85 percent of that amount. In fact, with the average cost of a new car in 1939 being $700, it’s unlikely the family could afford an automobile.

Where is dad?

One puzzling feature of this 1940 census snapshot of Williams family life is the absence from the household of Franklin’s father. He is certainly prominent in the photographs taken by Rothstein and Delano in 1942. A November 1942 newspaper article, speaking of Annie Williams, says “Her husband, Thomas A., Sr., is an insurance broker,” and several of Rothstein’s photos depict Franklin Williams “discussing insurance problems with his father.”

Sgt Franklin Williams discussing insurance problems with his father
Sgt Franklin Williams discussing insurance problems with his father | Source

What about Ellen Harden?

From Jack Delano’s photos, it’s evident that Ellen Harden fit quite comfortably into the Williams family circle.

Sgt Williams singing with his sister Sarah, his brother Thomas and his best girl Ellen Harden while his sister Annetta plays the piano
Sgt Williams singing with his sister Sarah, his brother Thomas and his best girl Ellen Harden while his sister Annetta plays the piano | Source

Ellen, born in 1919, was, like Franklin, a Baltimore native who had attended Frederick Douglass High School. In fact, it was at school that she and Franklin first met. The 1930 census lists her as living with her mother, Mrs. Leila Harden Scott, in a household headed by Leila’s husband, James Scott. Leila and James also had a baby daughter named Betty Scott.

A November 1942 newspaper article recounts that Ellen had attended Hampton Institute and Howard University, but does not say whether she graduated from either school.

A comprehensive photographic record of Williams family life

Intent on showing Americans all aspects of the ideal African American soldier’s family life, Rothstein and Delano photographed everything from Annie Williams cooking in the kitchen, to Franklin taking a bath.

Sgt Williams watching his mother cook
Sgt Williams watching his mother cook | Source
The Williams family at the dinner table
The Williams family at the dinner table | Source
Sgt. Williams taking a bath
Sgt. Williams taking a bath | Source
Sgt Franklin Williams hugging his mother before returning to Fort Bragg
Sgt Franklin Williams hugging his mother before returning to Fort Bragg | Source

I’m not sure the men of the Williams family always dressed in suits when there were no photographers around, but they certainly wanted to present the best possible picture to an American public that had for far too many years been exposed to only the most negative and demeaning stereotypes of African American life.

The Williams family
The Williams family | Source

Rothstein’s and Delano’s photographic chronicle of the life of the “model colored soldier” was completed in May of 1942, and was eventually distributed around the world. Some of the photos appeared in the October 6, 1942 issue of Look Magazine, in an article by Fowler Harper entitled, “Negro Solider, Sergeant Franklin Williams of Baltimore fights with distinction.”

What did the future hold for Franklin and Ellen?

Soon after his return to Fort Bragg from his home leave, Sgt. Franklin Williams was off again, this time to the Officer Candidate School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. As one newspaper account put it, he was intent on “exchanging chevrons for gold bars.”

And he did. Sergeant Franklin Williams was a sergeant no longer. He became 2nd Lieutenant Franklin Williams in July of 1942, and was assigned to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

The publicity he had received had made Franklin Williams a person of general interest. Thus it was that on November 20, 1942, The Lincoln Clarion (Jefferson City, Mo.), carried an article with the following headline:

Lieut. Williams Acquires Bride

Noting that readers may have seen in the Look magazine article a picture of Lt. Williams that “showed him with family and with his fiancée, Miss Ellen Harden,” the article went on to say:

“Lieut. Williams went to Baltimore recently on a nine-day leave and on the very last day he married Miss Harden.”

Franklin and Ellen
Franklin and Ellen | Source

I wish I knew more!

That’s all I’ve been able to find about Franklin and Ellen so far. I’d really like to know what happened to them after 1942.

Or maybe I wouldn’t.

I have come to regard the whole Williams clan as people I might have known and would have enjoyed having as friends. So it’s hard to realize that Franklin was born more than 100 years ago. Rather than reading obituaries and perhaps about other unwanted events that might have happened in their lives, maybe it’s best to just remember them as they were in 1942 – happy and excited about the great new prospects life was opening for them.

I sincerely hope all their dreams came true.

© 2015 Ronald E Franklin

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 19 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Stella. African Americans in the military during WW2 were very aware that they were fighting not just to defeat the Axis, but to defeat bigotry at home. And they won really big victories on both fronts. Many at that time wanted to deny them full citizenship. By being willing to put their lives on the line to carry out the responsibilities of citizenship for a nation that still treated them as 2nd class citizens, they demonstrated that they, and the community from which they sprang, had earned, and would not be denied, the full rights of citizenship.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 19 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      As a WWll History fan, I found this to be a very interesting article. It was very good, but I can't imagine working for a country to defend it and be treated so different. I had Italian and German grandparents and they were treated poorly in this country. They left to get away from it not live in it. Thanks, Stella

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 19 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Many thanks, Alexis. I'm glad you liked it.

    • Alexis Cogwell profile image

      Ashley Cogdill 19 months ago from Indiana/Chicagoland

      What an amazing member of American history! I love reading stories like this, thank you for sharing his with us.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thank you, aesta1. I definitely agree that the African American soldiers of WW2, who had to fight for liberty not only abroad, but at home, made a contribution it's impossible to overestimate. I'm always inspired by their stories.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 20 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      What an engaging story. I watched a documentary recently on these soldiers. It is time their contribution is recognized.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 21 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, RTalloni. All my diligent research hasn't been able to uncover what happened to any of the Williams family after 1942. Of course those records exist, but they don't seem to be online. Maybe one day more will come to light.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 21 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Kristen. This is another of those stories that really inspire me, even though they are practically unknown. I hope more people get to appreciate people like Franklin and Ellen.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 21 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thank you much, MsDora.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 21 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      word55, thanks much. I really appreciate that!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 21 months ago from the short journey

      Congratulations on your Hub of the Day award for this post that introduces us to this man and his family. It would be so interesting to know what happened next, surely children and grandchildren, and what the family members are doing now. Thanks for a neat read.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 21 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Ron, happy holidays and congrats on another HOTD! This was a great hub about Franklin Williams and his bride. Thanks for sharing his story and life in the military, before they became a loving couple and perhaps started a family. You do have a knack for these African-American military history hubs. Well done!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 21 months ago from The Caribbean

      Congratulations on your HOTD accolade. Well-deserved!

    • gerimcclym profile image

      Geri McClymont 21 months ago

      As a history buff (especially the WW II era), I enjoyed reading every detail of this article! It was fascinating and so interesting to read the story behind Sargeant Franklin Williams and also that of his "best girl", Ellen. It was also nice to know they ended up together. Such a well written article, well deserving of being chosen as hub of the day. Congratulations!

    • word55 profile image

      Word 21 months ago from Chicago

      Ron, this is an excellent story of a war hero, his love, family and others about him... Your writing is bonafide, something you cannot hide, you write so profoundly of humbleness without pride. Congrats my brother on Hub Of The Day! Feel triumphant in your every way!

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 22 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I'm glad you enjoyed it, Express10. At first I was disappointed at not being able to uncover anything about them after 1942, but now I'm content with not knowing the end story. But maybe someone who knows more will see this and weigh in.

    • Express10 profile image

      H C Palting 22 months ago from East Coast

      I enjoyed reading this hub about Sgt. Franklin Williams. The photos really bring his life and accomplishments to life. However, I am also on the fence about wanting to know what happened to he, Ellen, and the family and I do hope that it was positive.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 22 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Lawrence. I'm hoping that more info about Franklin and Ellen will come to light. If it does, I'll update this.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 22 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Ron

      A great story that deserves to be told! I would love to know what happened to them as Franklyn would have been one of the first African American officers in the Army!

      That in itself is a story worth telling!

      Lawrence

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 22 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, MsDora. What I really like about people like Sgt. Williams who served in the WW2 military under the debilitating weight of segregation and discrimination, is that they exemplified commitment and excellence in spite of all the adversity. I firmly believe we are as far along as we are today because of what they achieved 75 years ago.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 22 months ago from The Caribbean

      What a great honor for Sergeant Franklin Williams to be chosen "to represent" and from what you gathered, he made the family proud. I noticed that all the men in his household brought home some bacon; he came from a representative family also. This is such a good-feel hub! Thank you.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 22 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thank you, Elaine. As I think about my reply to emge, I probably should amend it to say there was definitely an undercurrent of bad faith and even subterfuge in the army's publicity campaign. An implicit message being conveyed was that the army valued its black troops in the same way it did whites, and that was far from the truth. I think it was a disgrace that such an effort was needed to counter pervasive prejudice; but I'm also glad that the photographic record was made.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 22 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      emge, I think the purpose of the photo project was not so much to fool people into thinking African Americans were being treated better than they were, as to give people a more favorable view of blacks in the military than they previously had. In doing so, they deliberately completely sidestepped the issue of the prevalence of racial discrimination both in and outside the military. In that sense it definitely gave a less than honest picture of how African Americans were treated in society and in the military. Thanks for reading.

    • Elaine Flowers profile image

      Elaine Flowers 22 months ago from Dallas, Texas

      Excellent article! I'm sure that photos are propaganda (and some photo opps) as emge suggests but it doesn't take away from the information you've provided here. Good job.

      On a side note: did emge refer to the black people as coloreds? I don't know whether to laugh or what...

    • emge profile image

      Madan 22 months ago from Abu Dhabi

      This is a fascinating account, but a lot of it looks like propaganda. The coloreds were really not treated as equals.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 22 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Ericdierker. I really appreciate that. I think "heroes" is a very apt word for so many who fought their fight on the homefront before even being allowed to confront the enemy overseas.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 22 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Denise, thank you. I have to admit I was a little taken aback to see that the photographers thought it necessary to show people that black folk take baths!

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 22 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks you, William. Franklin and the 41st Engineers had a lot to overcome before they ever got to a war zone. But, as you say, they beat the odds. IMO, we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 22 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      You are just great Ron. You bring it all together and down home when you write about folk. My daddy worked full time doctoring and my mom had us 6 to raise and be nurse in Dad's private practice. So we had a full time "care" taker for our near six acres. He was a proud Sargent and my hero. Emmet Dijon, "colored Cajun" to the core who helped raise me, and since I was adopted his cousin was my nursemaid. Thanks for reminding me of these heroes of the 40's and 50's.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 23 months ago from Fresno CA

      Ron, It is an incredible shame that they had to go to such extreme lengths photographing Franklin and his family for white America to accept his as a real person. It's almost as if people needed to be reminded that beneath the skin we are all the same. Maybe it's time to remind people again. What is wrong with the human race that we need so much reminding? I'm with you, thinking I may hate to find out what kind of America Franklin had to come home to after the war, if he got to come home at all. Thanks for the history lesson.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 23 months ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Great story and history, RonElFran. Franklin Williams worked very hard and beat the odds, but America and the world still have a long way to go.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 23 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thank you, Jodah. This was a project I really enjoyed because I got so interested in the people. As I said, I almost feel like I know them. It's another hidden part of our history that shouldn't be forgotten.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 23 months ago from Queensland Australia

      What a wonderful pictorial journey and insight into the life of Franklin Williams during WWII and on the homefront. He was obviously an exemplary soldier and human being. Even if many of the photos were set up to offer the best possible impression to the white American public it was probably something that was necessary at the time. You did a great job researching this and putting thi hub together Ron. Thanks for sharing this part of history.