By Stanley Solomillo
When it comes to remembering World War II, we usually think of African American men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces, often with distinction despite extremely racist conditions, and who achieved the highest military honors. Over 990,000 African Americans served in the military during World War II and they comprised the largest minority in the United States to participate in the war effort.
We should however, also recall their estimated 400,000 civilian counterparts, whose often forgotten contributions provided no less distinguished but largely unrecognized service in the war industries on the home front. Subjected to conditions that mirrored the racism of the military in the 1940s, African American workers contributed to the war effort in factories at home that included the construction, manufacture, and assembly of ships, aircraft, vehicles, and munitions.
The often lauded persona of “Rosie the Riveter,” who worked tirelessly to ensure that her brother, boyfriend, or husband was sufficiently supplied and armed while maintaining a home or minding the children was largely portrayed during and after the war as Euro-American. The myth has continued into the twenty-first century. However, thanks to a handful of researchers, who during the last decade of the twentieth century, began searching through records that were produced during the conflict, we now know that this image is not quite true. “Rosie the Riveter” wasn’t always White. In fact, she may have been Black.
The entrance of African American women and men into the war industries did not occur easily. U.S. government contracting for the defense industries began in 1940 and although there was a huge need for workers, there was initially great resistance from both industry and labor to the hiring of Blacks for anything beyond menial service positions. This was challenged in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph and the powerful Black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who demanded that at least ten percent of the war manufacturing jobs be set aside for Black workers. Supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or “NAACP” and the Black press, Randolph coupled his request with the threat of a march on the nation’s capital.
When appeals from Eleanor Roosevelt and New York City Mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia failed to dissuade him, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in order to avoid the march. The act banned discrimination in the hiring for government contracts and established the Fair Employment Practice Committee or “FEPC.” Although the new entity had no enforcement power and was hampered by a lack of sufficient funding and staff, it could review reports of complaints, hold public hearings, and recommend the cancellation of government contracts in order to effect compliance from business and labor.
Despite the formation of FEPC, however, employment opportunities for Black women and men remained tenuous and were sometimes accomplished at great peril. There were companies who chose to violate Roosevelt’s 1941 order. One Michigan corporation refused to hire Black women purportedly because White women thought they had to share toilet facilities. Another Arkansas company denied employment to Black workers altogether because its White workers threatened to stop work or quit. On at least one occasion, Federal troops were brought in to quell a strike of 20,000 White workers at an Alabama shipyard who resented the hiring of Black welders.
Not to be deterred from opportunity, from 1941-43, 700,000 African American families relocated from farms and rural towns in the South to cities with factories and plants in the North as well as shipyards and factories on the West Coast. For those who were hired, the new industrial work environments were in most cases as racist as those they had left and were also physically dangerous due to the nature of the work performed (especially in munitions plants). In addition, no provisions were made by the Federal government for new defense worker housing and conditions were often overcrowded and unsanitary because of segregation. Their arrival was often resented as well and purported to be the cause of an increase in racial tensions. In 1943 alone, there were 242 riots in 47 cities across the U.S.
Ultimately, however, Black workers were hired to fill eight percent or 400,000 of the 5 million defense jobs that were created during World War II. Black women may have been employed in an estimated 10-20 percent of those positions although the actual numbers remain unknown. Despite working conditions that exposed them daily to insult or injury, Black women were often more willing to work than their White counterparts and aggressively acquired new skills when given the opportunity. Domestics became clerks or stenographers; laundresses were qualified as welder trainees, welders and riveters; and hairdressers trained as machinists and mechanics. Their achievements were recorded by government photographers, in a small collection of images like the one above that were later archived in the Library of Congress, forgotten, and then rediscovered by researchers.
In addition to their achievements in factories, assembly plants, or shipyards, Black women also demanded equality and fairness. They reported to the FEPC or directly to the White House corporations that failed to hire Black workers and filed complaints against companies for unfair and dangerous working conditions. With the war’s end in 1945, however, their employment advances evaporated as defense plants were shuttered across the nation and jobs were lost. However, it has been conjectured that their experiences laid the groundwork for the organized activism of the Civil Rights movement that occurred during the next two decades.
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Bussell, Brittany and Amanda Hillman. “In the Shadows: African American Women on the Home Front.” Austin: University of Texas, 2007. https://www.edb.utexas.edu/faculty/salinas/students/student_sites/Fall2007/Brittany_Amanda/ Accessed May 24, 2015
Craig, Naomi. “Minorities and Women During World War II.” Brown University, n.d. https://cds.library.brown.edu/projects/WWII_Women/RA/NCraig/Minorities.html
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Library of Congress. “Rosie Pictures: Select Images Relating to American Women Workers During World War II.” Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Prints and Photographs Division, n.d. https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/126_rosi.html Accessed May 24, 2015.
New Jersey Resources Digital Collection. “Unit 12 World War II: Struggle for Democracy at Home and Abroad, 1940-1945.” New Jersey State Library, n.d. https://www.njstatelib.org/research_library/new_jersey_resources/digital_collection/unit_12_democracy/ Accessed May 24, 2015
Taylor, Clarence. “Patriotism Crosses the Color Line: African Americans in World War II.” Gilder Lehrmann Institute of American History, 2014. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/world-war-ii/essays/patriotism-crosses-color-line-african-americans-world-war-ii
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