Sunday, November 09, 2003

Another Veterans Day...

It's Sunday and the "Rosie" big media day of interviews and oral histories is less than 48 hours away. I'm so ambivalent around participating ... .

Let me tell you about those years:

I married on May 24, 1942. Mel was a student at the University of San Francisco and I became a stay-at-home wife. We'd met when I was about 13 and he, 17, at Berkeley's San Pablo Park when Papa George and I were spending a Sunday afternoon while he watched the traveling Negro Baseball team and I watched the boys.  Mel and I belonged to the same social group of youngsters who grew up together and whose parents were friends.

But now we were young married couples and our friends were being called into the service, and, we were (as I've told you) surely more American than Black. Having grown up in the Bay Area -- being together racially by choice and not by segregation, for the most part, our world had undergone a complete change. The context of our lives had been altered by the war and the great in-migration of southern America.

It was in those first years after Pearl Harbor that I heard James Weldon Johnson's "Negro National Anthem" for the very first time. It sounded subversive. I now hear "Lift Every Voice And Sing!" as a beautiful tone-poem of great power, but it took some time to embrace it as relevant to me. It arrived with African Americans who were the products of segregated schools in the South, where even the national anthem was "other."

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, I became a file clerk in the basement of the Civil Service Commission in San Francisco. That meant spending endless days comparing blue (flag) cards and pink (bar) cards with cards on records. Everyone who took an examination for any civil service position had a card on file among the millions in that huge basement. There were two other sets of cards. Those were gathered by the FBI and represented "suspicious" test takers. For instance, my brother-in-law had a blue card that I found myself having to check. It said, "car seen parked within a block of a known Communist cell in Vallejo, California." When I compared the two cards, his original card was removed for further investigation. My brother-in-law was never a communist, but did have a sister who lived in Vallejo.... Had that card been pink, his original card would have been removed and he would have been barred from ever working for the government -- and would never have known why. This work was being done by a very ordinary young file clerk -- along with thousands of other very ordinary young file clerks. We were tiny pieces of a huge mosaic, but all were doing the work of "War."

At some point I learned that the Air Force had taken over a huge office building in Oakland (on my side of the Bay) and that would be far more convenient since I lived in Berkeley at the time. I was concerned about being caught across the Bay during blackouts, anyway. Oakland felt safer. I applied for a transfer from the Civil Service Commission to the Air Force offices and it was granted.

There was one other (AA) friend working somewhere in the building but we never seemed to connect. She seemed to be avoiding me, but since we were not close friends, it was easy to ignore. One day we found ourselves alone together in the woman's restroom. She then asked what I was "passing" for, followed by a comment that -- since her last name was Newman, she was passing for German. This was the first indication that I had been transferred into a position that African Americans could not hold. When I walked back to my huge department and looked around, it became obvious that there were no other "colored" people, either male or female, service or civilian in view. The only people of color were those who worked in the Canteen or who provided janitorial services. This was only a few days into my new job, and I was feeling panicked. This was new. It was certainly possible that I'd been in situations where my race had simply not raised questions (maybe at the Civil Service Commission?) but I'd never consciously made a decision to cross the color line.

Meanwhile, Mel had volunteered himself into the Navy, was sent to Seattle for induction where he found himself in a group of young black men that had been separated out from the other inductees to be prepared for duty at Great Lakes, Illinois, where he found that he was going to be placed in the Messmen's Corps. The commanding officers told these men that the reason was because they would avoid the competition that other branches of the services would impose on them. The only role for a black sailor was to cook for the white sailors. And he'd left college for this?

He rebelled. Refused to serve under those circumstances and consequently lasted a mere 3 days before being mustered out of the service with a check for $45 and an honorable discharge. The psychiatrist who examined him asked why he'd chosen to enter the service as a colored man when he could have avoided all this by "crossing over." Mel said, " ... he told me that he didn't doubt that I'd make a fine sailor but that they couldn't afford to put a natural leader like me in with a bunch who might be easily led. That would be mutiny!" Mel was playing quarterback on the University of San Francisco varsity when he volunteered. He was a very well known proud Black athlete, though fair-skinned. This added insult to injury. The stupidity of the situation made him even more angry. This was his first trip out of the state of California where racism was subtly acknowledged but hardly a serious problem. He returned home feeling both disappointed in himself and lacking in patriotism as well. Within a few days he applied for work in the home front effort as a "trainee" boilermaker at the Richmond Kaiser shipyards.

All black shipyard workers were working under the trainee classification because the unions were racially segregated at the time, into "Jim Crow" auxiliaries. White union members feared having to compete for jobs with black workers at war's end. The unions could simply disband the auxiliaries and de-legitimize anyone of color. It was the hope that the black war-workers would return to the cotton fields and tenant farms from whence they'd come. We were already at home, and had been for several generations in some cases, especially in Mel's ancestors. The Reids arrived in the West before the Civil War. The wonder is that he survived the changes at all.

Over that same three day period, back home, I noticed that the young blond girl (another local Californian) whose desk abutted mine had been called up front by the Lieutenant in charge of our section. I could see her head shaking from side-to-side over a very red face. We'd had lunch together a time or two, and shared the work load. I had just learned from Havens Newman that I was "passing" or completely out of context.  My antenna was raised and ready. When I asked if that conversation was what I thought it was, she looked down obviously embarrassed and confused and said, "yes." The Lieutenant had told her that she was working with a colored girl. Our supervisor had thought this wise since we seemed to be becoming friends, according to my co-worker. Someone had informed on me. And this happened before I could even decide how I felt or what I wanted to do about it. After all, I was a transfer from the Civil Service Commission and hadn't applied for this particular job at all. The "error" was not of my making.

That was the day that I "fired" the government. Walked to the front of the room aware of eyes following me. The officer was obviously embarrassed at what was sure to be some ugliness to deal with. Before I could speak, he said. "It really doesn't matter, Betty. I've been told by your supervisor that your work is fine and that no one minds working with you ." My response, "... but what happens when my next upgrade comes up, will they be willing to work under me?" He answered, "you'll probably get the appropriate pay raises." I walked out never to return. No severance. Envisioned a little pink bar card slipping into place in my Civil Service File. Didn't give a damn!

That evening a wire came from Mel telling me that he would be home by Greyhound in a few days. "It didn't work out." He was deeply embarrassed. He'd been washed out of service to his country.

For the sake of country and the war effort, I, too, became a Rosie. Went to work at Boilermakers A-36, Jim Crow Auxiliary union -- about two miles away from the shipyards. Never saw a ship. Went back to filing cards into trays for all of the Black shipyard workers. Since this was under Kaiser Permanente and not the federal government (I suppose), the blemish on my work record for walking out on the Air Force didn't follow me. I've not had a federal position since, though I've worked in both city and state government since that time. Could be that the Lieutenant was as embarrassed by the incident as I was, and buried the paperwork. I would hope so.

Would be surprised if you don't understand that being used as a "Rosie" at this point in my life would bring some ambivalence. On the other hand, having put it into words may free me to turn up on Tuesday and find a way to forgive retroactively ... if that's really possible.

Photo:  Beside Mel and me, my late sister, Marjorie is my Maiden of Honor.  Our dresses are made of cotton, a far cry from today's opulent wedding gowns.  Marjorie made them lovingly by hand of white organdy, piqué, and cotton lace.