African American Women and the War Effort

When World War II started, one out of four African Americans lived in the South, where their lives were restricted by “Jim Crow” laws; they went to separate schools, rode in the backs of streetcars or buses, lived in separate neighborhoods, drank from separate water fountains, were banned from “whites only” swimming pools and parks, and were kept from voting by literacy tests and poll taxes. The Ku Klux Klan beat and lynched many black Americans to keep them from opposing segregation. The North had no official segregation, but most black Americans lived in separate and poor neighborhoods and went to poorly funded schools. Because of job discrimination, there were few career opportunities.

With the coming of World War II, African American men enlisted or were drafted into the army, but they served in segregated units. African Americans were also not being hired for the high-paying defense jobs, so they protested and insisted that they be treated equally. When 50,000 black protesters threatened to march on Washington, President Roosevelt issued an executive order: “It is the policy of the United States to encourage full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the U.S., regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin.” The Fair Employment Practices Commission was set up to see that this order was carried out; it applied only to defense plants, however, and it was not always enforced. Some black activists wanted to extend the order to prevent all discrimination in hiring practices, but this would not happen until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

Most African American women in the United States had worked in low-paying jobs as domestic servants; now many got war jobs, although these were often the hardest and most dangerous.  Black women worked in munitions factories, handling explosives, and they kept up the fire and steam in locomotives at Pennsylvania Railroad.  They were also hired by Detroit’s meat-packing industry and they often did jobs no one else would do – for instance, they were hired by Baltimore as city street cleaners. Some African American women did work as welders and riveters.  One example is Sybil Lewis, who riveted small airplane parts at Lockheed:

The women worked in pairs.  I was the riveter and this big strong white girl from a cotton farm in Arkansas worked as the bucker.  Bucking was harder than shooting rivets.  It required more muscle.  Riveting required more skill.

Between 1940 and 1944, the percentage of Black women in industry rose from 6.5 percent to 18 percent of the workforce and wages rose as much as 1000 percent over their pre-war work.  The number of black skilled workers doubled in those years, as did the number of African Americans holding federal government jobs.  The wages of Black families increased from 40 percent to 60 percent of white families’ wages.  By 1945 there were 1.4 million black union members, six times more than in 1940.

Lyn Childs, a shipyard worker, commented, “We’d never had any opportunity to do that kind of work.  Do you think that if you did domestic work all your life, where you’d cleaned somebody’s toilets and did all the cooking for some lazy characters who were sitting on top, and you finally got a chance where you can get a dignified job, you wouldn’t fly through the door?”

To get these jobs, however, African Americans often had to move away from family, friends, and neighborhoods they had always known to where the jobs were. They moved west and they moved to northern cities. Precious Mack, a welder at Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California, told the story of her migration from the South:

I had read about California in my geography books and seen all the lemon trees.  I thought it was out of this world. We came to Richmond where we took the bus.  We had to stand for so many miles, the bus was so crowded.  The bus was segregated until we got to some part of Texas.  There were empty seats in the front at one time, but we didn’t dare sit up there, ‘cause we were raised in the South and we knew better.  We knew to stay in the back half of the bus. When the bus stopped in town for lunch, we had to go round to a little back window, and the whites would go inside.  I don’t remember ever sitting at a table.  The restrooms were the same way, colored and white. . . .Things weren’t much better when we got to California. 

My first impressions were terrible!  We lived in this one-room trailer.  One room, honest, and no facilities – no running water, no inside toilet.  And, boy, when we first got here, it rained every day.  We had twelve people in our family, and we all lived in that trailer.  Four of us went to work at the Kaiser Shipyards.  Some of us worked swing shift or graveyard, while mother was home all the time with the six young kids.  We’d take turns sleeping, sharing the beds.

 It was not much better than home, but at least we had jobs and were making some money.

Most African American defense workers were not allowed to move into the skilled job categories, and when work at the factories began to decline, black workers were fired at a rate two and a half times greater than white workers. In 1946, the Fair Employment Practices Commission was canceled, and the federal government ended its commitment to employment of black workers on equal terms with whites. All the same, many African Americans’ expectations had changed because of what happened to them during the war; their experiences helped spark the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s.