Following Up: A Veterans Day Story on the G.I. Bill

Today’s Veterans Day edition of the Minneapolis StarTribune features a story on the 70th anniversary of the G.I. Bill, including some comments from me on that legislation’s impact on Bethel College and Seminary in the years after World War II.

Cover of the July-August 1945 "G.I. Number" of the Bethel Bulletin

The cover of the July-August 1945 “G.I. Number” of the Bethel Bulletin

Reporter Kevyn Burger contacted me after coming across this blog — specifically, my late June post on the actual anniversary of the G.I. Bill. (I have to say, I hadn’t foreseen this benefit of keeping a research blog!) Our half-hour chat ranged across the history of Bethel, its denomination, higher education in America, and the difficult experience of transitioning from combat to civilian life.

While I was happy to see Bethel get a mention in the story as an example of how private colleges benefited from the G.I. Bill, it was just as interesting to learn more about effects at the University of Minnesota, which enrolled 25,000 veterans — more than any other college or university. Burger reports:

To accommodate the crush of new students, the U added temporary buildings, expanded class sizes and offered night courses. Housing was tight; students doubled up in dorms, and bunks lined the lower level of Memorial Stadium. Trailers and Quonset huts were hastily constructed for married students. Still, the lack of space spawned the first commuter students.

It didn’t make it to the final draft of the story, but in our interview I mentioned that something similar happened at Bethel. With construction of a new men’s dorm running behind schedule, the overload of new and returning students was eased by housing some of them across Snelling Avenue on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds — in a poorly heated building that Bethelites called “Hotel El Barno.”

I’m also glad that Burger pointed to one important limitation of the G.I. Bill:

The benefits of the bill, however, didn’t necessarily extend to the 1 million African-American GIs who fought. In the era before the civil rights movement, Southern colleges were closed to black students, and only a small number of black veterans were admitted to the nation’s desegregated universities.

“The bill had inequality built into it,” said Rose Brewer, who teaches African-American studies at the U. “The GI Bill was fundamental in moving the white working class into the middle class. Only a tiny number of African-Americans saw their prospects change.”

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