Memorial Day is about honoring our war dead. As many will be celebrating again this year with backyard barbecues and perhaps even a trip to the beach, May 31 is the day set aside to remember the men and women who lie in eternal rest who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today. It is appropriate to also remember the workers who made those overseas victories possible. The Black women who worked in our defense industries during World War II – and those who served as nurses, postal clerks, and members of the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WAC) – must be included in the pantheon of heroes that we celebrate as “The Greatest Generation.”
World War II is perhaps our most celebrated war. Due to the war’s easy-to-identify objectives, there was little opposition to it at home after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. African Americans saw this war as an opportunity to improve their lot in life, while at the same time striking a blow to Hitler and fascism overseas and fighting discrimination at home. This view became popularized in the famed “Double V” campaign by the legendary Pittsburgh Courier.
African American men and women migrated by the millions to work in the industrial factories in the north and leave behind the cotton fields and kitchens of the South as part of the Great Migration. One of the little known stories of this saga is the contribution of African-American women. This is a story that must still be told.
Life for African Americans in 1940’s America was governed under a rigid system of institutionalized racial oppression. We were still years away from the Brown v. Board of education decision and two decades away from Civil Rights laws. Segregation was entrenched in the South and enforced with violence and intimidation. In the North discrimination was by custom with redlined neighborhoods. Black women faced the twin problems of being both black and female, with all the exploitation and terror that it entailed. They had few opportunities beyond sharecropping or working as maids and domestics.
Once the war industry kicked into high gear in 1941 and 1942, women entered the factory floors and shipyards as their husbands, boyfriends, and brothers went to fight Hitler and Japan. Doors were opened that were once closed to Black women, but they did have to pry it open in many cases.
World War II was arguably the best jobs program in American history, and African Americans were determined to get their share of that pie. After nearly 10 years of the nation being in an economic depression, the war provided millions of jobs in the defense industries almost overnight. Indeed, the productivity of American workers produced enough ships, planes, tanks, guns and ammo not only to supply our armies but that of our allies. African American women demanded access to these jobs.
As early as 1940, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, women called for the integration of the defense industries. African American Civil Rights activists such as Mary McLeod Bethune and A. Phillip Randolph brought to President Franklin Roosevelt’s attention the discriminatory practices in these industries. Randolph even threatened a march on Washington. This compelled Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, which banned racial discrimination in the defense industry. Even though the order had very little enforcement power, it did open the door to one million African American workers, 600,000 of them women.
These Black women workers were known as “Black Rosies.” Often assigned the dirtiest jobs, they worked in factories doing sheet metal work, assemblers of munitions and explosives, shipyards, railroads, and in administrative offices. Despite these advances women workers in general were paid less than men with black women being the lowest, and black workers were barred from union membership. Some factories still stubbornly refused to hire them and, in some cases, white workers walked off the job to protest their presence.
Regardless, many Black women spoke fondly of their service on the home-front and contribution to American victory in World War II. As Ruth Wilson, one of the “Black Rosies” from Philadelphia, exclaimed, “It made me feel good because my husband was over there in Europe fighting, and here I was doing my part.”
African American women also were admitted grudgingly into the WAC after the insistence of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune. Segregation would still be the prevailing policy, but out of this development came the storied 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
In February 1945, the first part of this battalion sailed for England. They faced an important mission. There was a backlog of undelivered mail of more than 17 million letters and packages to be sorted through and delivered to the appropriate servicemen. The women clearly understood how important receiving letters was to the morale of the troops, with their motto being “No mail, low morale.”
Despite the unheated facilities in the dead of winter, and rodents trying to eat spoiled food in some of the packages, these women created a system that allowed them to clear a six-month backlog within three months.
America’s segregationist policies followed the women to England, with segregated facilities offered by the Red Cross. Led by the fearless Major Charity Adams, the women boycotted these accommodations and ran their own mess halls, salons, and R&R facilities. The women were often invited into British homes for tea. After their work was complete in England, these women were redirected to war-torn France, where they continued to serve with excellence.
As we recognize and memorialize the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform made, let us never forget the important contributions of the “Black Rosies.”
Dante R. Brizill has 17 years of teaching experience in Delaware and Maryland. He is the author of “Dorie Miller: Greatness Under Fire” and “Red Ball Express: Greatness Under Fire”