Sunday, May 01, 2005

Great tour ... next stop the Galapagos Islands ...

Beautiful day on San Francisco Bay. The Delphinus (the Dolphin) was a sleek small boat that plies the waters on guided tours of the Pacific from Alaska to the Galapagos, year round. And what wouldn't I give for that trip to the magical land of the great stone heads, monstrous sea turtles, and wildlife found nowhere else on earth? Ronn Patterson, our skipper and owner of the charter service turned out to be a fascinating man who is an expert on whales. Look him up on the net. His resume is amazing. Sitting right behind him watching him expertly cut through the waters of what turned out to be a very shallow bay (12 feet for the most part with some places no more than five) was great. The channel deepeners are at work constantly keeping the lanes open for sailing. Listening in on his conversations with other guests made me want to sign up for the next trip. Maybe I could get used to the retirement thing, if I could spend the time traveling with these folks. Maybe that's for the second half of Octogenaria.

Among the guests was Steve Gilford, historian, author, filmmaker, with a long list of fine publications about Kaiser Permanente and the work of Henry J. We'd met before when I was working with the National Park Service last winter on that brief consultancy. It was Steve who did the research that turned up the fact that Kaiser had built and launched 17 ships, nationwide, that were named for African Americans of note. Three of those were built here in Richmond, the S.S. Robert S. Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender; the S.S. John Hope, a nationally-known educator; and the S.S. George Washington Carver.

In a free moment last November -- while eating a bagel I happened upon a log of the Kaiser launchings in the archives. In so doing, I discovered that there were actually several more that had escaped Gilford's scrutiny. There were three named for historically black colleges -- Fisk, Talledega, and Xavier. In addition I made the most exciting discovery -- that here in Richmond, at a time when racial segregation was for me a tragic and dismal fact of life, there was a ship named for the legendary black hero, Toussaint L'Overture -- the brilliant military strategist who, at the end of the 18th century led his people in a struggle that wrested Haiti from the control of the French in a bloody revolution. He was known as the black Napoleon. Oh to have been in the room when that decision was made! And where are the archives that would hold the documentation for that decision? What an intriguing story to explore, right?

I sent Gilford the new information so that he might add it to his research. I wondered how he'd missed it, and were there others that I'd missed? Then it dawned. Just as I had no knowledge of at least half of those named on his list because they were obviously named by whites and little known among western blacks, he would not have known some of those so honored because he was not black. For him those three colleges could easily escape notice, and unless one had some familiarity with Haitian history -- L'Ouverture also might easily be overlooked.

We'd not seen one another since that exchange of emails, so the chance to chat was a wonderful gift. We had a long talk over a picnic lunch at the end of the bay tour, and I learned a lot about Henry J. Kaiser that I'd not known previously.

Someone earlier in the day had asked whether I thought that Henry J was a racist? My answer was "no." He was an industrialist charged with the building of a great fleet of ships in order to fight a cruel war that threatened us all. He was not charged with conducting a social experiment. Much of what he created in the process brought enormous social change and altered lifelong attitudes -- and probably contributed to the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties, but that was incidental to ship-building. He needed hands -- any kinds of hands -- and there wasn't the time or the energy to change public policy or to legislate morality during the course of the war. He took many thousands of poor people from the southern states who hadn't yet shared drinking fountains, restrooms, lunch counters, or cemetary space -- brought them to Richmond by any means possible, and molded them into a virtual army of homefront workers who met the goals of turning out a completed sea-ready ship every 4-5 days, over 700 in all. Had we not been totally consumed by working around the clock in a kind of perpetual motion machine to supply the needs of the South Pacific, we might have killed each other!

I was working in that Jim Crow union hall filing cards at a time that has since been romanticized as the time when those on the home front set aside their racism for the good of the nation. Not so. There were lessons to be learned then as there are now, and only by being honest about where we've been and what we've lived can we begin to realize the promises of this nation or make democracy worthy of exportation to others. The fact that African Americans were working, fighting, and dying in defense of rights we would not realize for another 20 years must never be forgotten. That fact lifts the level of our patriotism ever higher, and places even greater demands for some expression of appreciation for debts unpaid for far too long. It was not only the Civil War that needs that conversation about reparations. There is the granting of psychological "reparations" from WWII that may hold the key to the nation's eventual gaining of racial peace and harmony. I can judge this by the close-to-the-surface anger that still rises when I remember. Most of those memories are dying now, with those who lived them. Perhaps this new park will become the repository for the entire untold story -- the story that will keep us aware of the great human drama that was lived out here and that provided the impetus for the great social movements that played out in Selma, Montgomery, at the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King stirred the nation's conscience, and that changed history.

Maybe that fact, alone, is justification for finally accepting the designation of being a "Rosie." I'm one of the carriers of that history, and this alone may be the real reason why spending this last part of my work life with the Park Service is important. Maybe such conversations in a natural setting without microphones or portfolios are far more important than might appear on the surface.

While representing the state I'd participated in several of the planning sessions with historians, architechs, engineers, designers, and park staff from other parts of the country. This was during the earliest stages of envisioning the completed Rosie the Riveter national park and moving it toward its eventual formation. My voice (small though it may be) has already helped to shape some of the attitudinal stuff -- break the stereotypes, and less in formal pronouncements or diatribes over race relations than casually over bagels and apple danishes shared during breaks.

Maybe this is one of the ways that the world gets changed, ultimately ... in tiny increments in many places by ordinary people like me -- being what we want to see in the world.

Maybe it's a bit more than simply having known Mable Kuss.

... and I'm sure it is on my more confident days.

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