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How African American Women Broke Race and Gender Barriers to Help Win World War II
By Cheryl Mullenbach
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2013 Cheryl Mullenbach
All rights reserved.
"Negroes Cannot Be Accepted"
I stood in line with the others, but a guard came up and said it was no need to wait; that there was no hiring of colored women.
— Miss Ethel Bell
In August 1944, factories across the country were in dire need of workers to build guns, bombs, planes, and ships for the US military. The country had been at war for almost three years. The government contracted with factory owners to provide the military with critical supplies, but thousands of men had left their factory jobs to join the fighting overseas. With the urgent need for skilled workers, defense plants looked first to unmarried white women to fill the positions. As the war effort mounted and the need for defense workers increased, the plants began to recruit and hire married white women. Some plants hired black men. Last to be considered for employment were black women. But in some plants the hiring of "colored" women was never a consideration because racial discrimination was an accepted practice in the America of the 1940s.
When Ethel Bell responded to a newspaper advertisement seeking workers for jobs at a plant in St. Louis, Missouri, a guard made it clear to her that she wouldn't be considered for employment because she was black. In 1944 it wasn't against the law for a factory to refuse to hire someone because of race or gender. There was nothing Ethel could do to force the factory owner to look beyond the color of her skin and consider her skills and qualifications. Ethel went home without a job, and the factory owner continued with the profitable government contract.
The Negro Problem
Ethel was one of the many women who were eager to get jobs in the defense plants in the war years. The jobs paid well. Some of the jobs required special expertise and the workers were given opportunities to learn new skills. In addition, the women felt they were doing something to support the war effort at home while other family members were fighting the enemy overseas.
The idea of women of any color working in factories was new to Americans in the 1940s. It was a time when most married women stayed home and worked as housewives while their husbands went to work outside the home. Some women worked in professional positions — as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and writers, for example — but those professions were dominated by men. Women with high school educations or less who worked outside the home often worked in service jobs as store clerks, waitresses, or house cleaners. Many black women worked as maids or "domestics" for white families.
Life as a domestic included long hours and little pay. A typical workday was 12 hours, and most employers expected their domestics to be "on call" six days a week. The job duties included cooking, washing, ironing, cleaning, and serving meals. Sometimes domestics cared for the white families' young children, too. The typical wage for a domestic worker was $7 a week. Domestic workers in southern states made as little as $3 to $4 a week. So when black women who worked as domestics heard about war jobs in defense plants that paid as much as $35 per week, they were interested in applying for those positions.
The federal government created agencies to deal with issues related to war work. The War Manpower Commission was formed to deal with the labor shortage caused by the large number of men entering military service. The Office of War Information relayed news and information about the war to the public. The two agencies worked together to recruit women for the war industries.
A government official from the War Manpower Commission said in an interview with Time magazine that as the nation geared up for war it would need to look for workers in untapped sources. He predicted that over 7 million people outside the paid workforce in the United States — 92 percent of whom were women — could be convinced to "forsake kitchen or lounge for office and factory." He warned that such a move would "shake U.S. living habits." He explained, "More women in the war effort means fewer women in the home — as wives, daughters, or servants; it means eating more meals out, fewer socks darned, fewer guests entertained at home, and many another change in the American way of living." The same official cautioned that "the Negro problem" was "far from licked." With so many white men entering the military and creating vacancies in the workforce, he warned, "Employers had better get set for a big increase in pressure for jobs for Negroes." And some white people saw this as a problem. Many white business owners would not want to hire black workers, and they would resist pressure from anyone who tried to make them do so.
Wanted: Women Workers
Newspapers and magazines carried advertisements showing women working in defense plants. Radio ads also encouraged women to work in war jobs. The government printed posters and hung them in public places. They showed women happily working for the war effort. The posters carried slogans: THE MORE WOMEN AT WORK — THE SOONER WE WIN, DO THE JOB HE LEFT BEHIND, and WOMEN IN THE WAR — WE CAN'T WIN WITHOUT THEM.
However, the idea of women in nontraditional jobs was a new and very different idea for many Americans. The government published pamphlets that revealed the beliefs of the time — women were not equal to men in the workplace. The pamphlets — titled When You Hire Women, Safety Caps for Women in War Factories, Women's Effective War Work Requires Good Posture, and Washing and Toilet Facilities for Women in Industry — indicated that women required special handling. The pamphlets encouraged factory owners who were considering hiring women to first "sell" the idea to men. Although many women did work before the war, the pamphlets reminded those who were hiring that women were "without work experience of any kind." The pamphlets reinforced the sexist beliefs of the time by encouraging employers to hire women for "certain type of work that women do particularly well" — work that required "care and constant alertness," "good eyesight," and "use of light instruments."
The government also set up special divisions dedicated to black workers within the Labor Division of the War Production Board. The purpose of the division's Negro Employment and Training Branch was "to help qualified Negro workers participate in the employment and training opportunities of the national defense program." It helped place black workers in defense jobs by removing barriers put in place by some white employers or labor organizations. The duties of the Minority Groups Branch of the Labor Division of the War Production Board included making investigations into complaints involving minority groups that had been filed with the government.
Early in 1941, before the United States entered the war, black leaders had pressured President Franklin Roosevelt to do something about job discrimination against black people. The president issued a statement — Executive Order 8802 — that said, "It is the policy of the United States to encourage full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin." To help enforce this order at businesses and manufacturing plants that had government contracts, the president formed the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Although the United States hadn't yet entered the war, fighting was in full force in Europe, and factories in the United States were already providing the warring countries with supplies. Many black people saw this gearing up of industries and the establishment of the FEPC as signs of hope for their employment opportunities.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States entered the war. Leaders in black communities and women's organizations encouraged women to consider working in war-related jobs. They believed black women faced a brighter future with wartime employment. They urged women to enroll in free courses offered by the government to teach workers skills that would prepare them for work in defense plants. They could learn welding, drafting, riveting, drilling, radio construction, code receiving and sending, engine repair, and shipbuilding. Some factories offered on-the-job training, allowing women to learn skills while getting paid.
A government training center in Marcy, New York, offered a course to women in its Women Ordnance Workers (WOW) program. At the same center women trained in a program called Women in Ground Service (WINGS). The women could choose from among six areas in the aviation field: aviation engines; aircraft fabrication; welding; electrical equipment; repair and maintenance; or parachute repair, maintenance, and packing. After three to four months of training, the women were qualified to accept employment in any war industry related to aviation. While they were in training the women earned $49 a month and were provided a place to live. The training center offered a recreation facility, religious worship, hobby and hiking clubs, glee clubs, and theater groups. It was open to all races, and it all sounded very good to women who had been working as domestics.
A Baltimore employment agency reported that in 1941 over 23,000 individuals worked as domestics — cooks, maids, laundresses, gardeners, and chauffeurs — in the city. By October 1942 the number had dropped to 15,000. A spokesman for the agency said he had 500 openings for domestics and was unable to fill them. He blamed it on the war. A high school graduate working as a domestic earned $30 a month, while a high school graduate working in a war plant earned $35 a week with overtime. A cook/maid worked 70 hours a week for 20 cents an hour; women making gas masks at a war plant earned 42 cents an hour, while women assembling small machine parts earned 63 cents an hour. The situation was similar in New York. A private employment agency reported that it had 23 women on its list of domestic workers. Recently, 10 had left for night jobs washing airplanes for a defense plant. At their new jobs, they earned $18 for a 40-hour week and worked only five days a week. As domestics they earned $10 to $15 per week — and their "week" was six or seven days. A state-run employment agency reported it had 118 workers available to fill 667 unfilled orders. A Florida newspaper reported that housewives there were adjusting: "While agencies struggle toward a nationwide solution of the servant problem, the individual housewife turns mournfully toward her kitchen sink — and washes her own dishes."
Sweaty-Handed Women Need Not Apply
Many women — both black and white — answered the call to enter the workforce and help win the war through their work in the factories. But not all businesses were ready to hire black women, despite President Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802. All across the country black women met with open discrimination as they applied for work.
In Washington, DC, an employment agency ran an ad in a newspaper for women to apply as trainees for work in a war plant. The qualifications were: "Resident of D.C. Age: 21-40. Minimum height: 5 ft. 4 inches. 125 lbs. Must pass physical and rigid character investigation." Applicants were asked to report to the employment agency for an interview. When a black woman applied at the agency she was told that the company had "not yet started taking Negro women."
In June 1942 in Chicago, 40 women completed courses at a technology school that prepared them for work as ordnance inspectors, chemists, and draftsmen. The director of the program reported that the demand for workers was so urgent that all 40 women were placed in positions on the day they completed the course — "except for the five Negro women." They were three ordnance inspectors, one draftsman, and one chemist. The director boasted that since December 1940 close to 15,000 men and women had been trained for defense jobs at the institute — but he could remember only one black trainee, a female chemist, who had been placed in a job. Despite that, the director predicted that the five black women waiting for employment would eventually be placed "when the imperative need of utilizing all trained personnel is realized." In other words, when the situation got desperate enough — when no more white workers were available — the black women would be considered.
In 1943 an East Coast war plant explained its racist position on hiring black women. The statement represented a common belief that many white people had about black people at the time: black people are dirty. Representatives of the plant stated that black women who had applied for jobs could not be hired because the work required "handling of small mechanisms" and that the women were rejected because they "all had sweaty hands." And a Baltimore company reflected its racist reasoning — that blacks were less intelligent than whites — when it refused to hire black women even though they had completed a course through a government training center. A spokesperson at the company explained, "Colored women just do not have the native intelligence necessary to do highly skilled work."
In New Orleans, Louisiana, Hattie Combre and Burneda Coleman, two black women who had passed government tests as machine operators, received letters telling them to report to work at an army camp in a city 200 miles from New Orleans. When they arrived, however, they were told "Negroes cannot be accepted." The commanding officer of the camp told them that it was not known that they were black when officials sent the letters and that "Negroes could not be used in such a capacity to work." The two women had left their jobs in New Orleans for the defense jobs at the camp, and they asked for reimbursement for their travel expenses. Hattie and Burneda were told nothing could be done about their situation.
Two black women in Ohio in 1942 decided they would do something about their situations when they were faced with discrimination. Effie Mae Turner and Claretta Johnson brought lawsuits against the companies that refused to hire them. Turner had completed over 240 hours in a defense training center before she applied for a job with a plant that manufactured war munitions. She believed she had been denied a job based solely on her race, because the company had advertised for women war workers every day in the newspaper. Johnson sued one of the biggest aircraft plants in the country when she also was denied work for which she felt she was qualified. The plant owner had received money from the government to build the plant. The women's suits claimed the two companies did not believe in democracy and the principles for which the war was being fought and were therefore giving "comfort to the enemy."
A lower Ohio state court ruled against the two women. Although the lawyers for the two women had argued that the plants were required to hire the women under Executive Order 8802, the judge in the case said he didn't believe the order applied. He said that, during wartime, individual rights were outweighed by maximum production. In other words, the judge believed it was more important for the discriminating companies to keep producing products for the war effort than for Effie Mae and Claretta to enjoy their rights. The women appealed the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court. Their cases were dismissed because, the court said, "no debatable constitutional question" was involved. This confirmed what many believed at the time: Executive Order 8802 carried little legal weight — in the workplace or in the courts.
Toothless Government Programs
Gradually, as the war continued and fewer white workers were available for jobs, employers began to hire black women. Thousands found work in defense plants and other wartime industries. Sometimes it was only after intervention by the FEPC that jobs opened up for black women. A plant in Columbus, Ohio, agreed to hire black women only after months of negotiations with black community groups that had complained to the FEPC about the company's discrimination against black women. In February 1943 the Washington, DC, Navy Yard hired black women for the first time in its history. For the first time in its existence, the Brooklyn Navy Yard hired black women. In March 1945 a St. Louis plant that manufactured electrical equipment hired its first black women after the FEPC negotiated with the management at the plant.
Excerpted from Double Victory by Cheryl Mullenbach. Copyright © 2013 Cheryl Mullenbach. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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