Saturday, September 25, 2004


and the upcoming Centennial ...

My work with the National Park Service (NPS) ended yesterday. After completing my 60-day assignment, it ended appropriately enough at a luncheon at the newly revived Port of Richmond where the AutoWarehousers (from Korea) entertained Bay Area officials and members of the industry -- along with Park personnel. The elaborate luncheon for about 200 dignitaries was simulcast to the home port in Spokane, and video-conferenced to other sites. Huge social event, and the introduction of this new industrial enterprise to the world.

The reactivated port is now the home of the 4400 brand new imported autos at any one time and that arrive on ships about 4 times each month. They're warehoused here at the port where they're prepped for shipment by rail, water, or truck throughout the country. They've brought a significant number of jobs to a city that needs them. It's an exciting operation.

Under an agreement with the National Park Service, this actively-working port co-exists with the emerging national park. Kaiser Shipyard #3 holds many of the historic landmarked park structures (the huge machine shop recently restored to historical landmarked criteria, the supply storage facility, and the slips where the 743 victory ships were launched). There is a brand new roadway that allows tourists and other park visitors to drive through to see those structures and renew the sense of the frantic 24-hour-a-day shipbuilding operations that brought women into the workforce for the first time and that contributed critically to the winning of the war against Fascism.

In addition to the restored port and waterfront, there is the continuation of the 400-mile long Bay Trail that -- when completed -- will encircle the bay for hikers, cyclers, and kayakers. The Bay Trail is incorporated into the new national park. This piece is a critical part of Richmond's 32 mile scenic shoreline, and brings us closer to completion of our part of the trail; connecting us to Alameda, Solano, and Marin county trails.

I learned so much while "running barefoot" through those studies and articles and ...

Spent lots of time being quietly enraged to discover that -- though credited with advancing racial integration by many years through his hiring policies at the shipyards -- it is also true that Henry J. brought racial segregation to the West Coast in all of its ugliness. Though by bringing the races together in Richmond's shipyards -- Kaiser may well have accellerated the move toward racial equality by a good many years -- if only as an unintended consequence of those policies.

Discovered that -- though the shipyards introduced the concept of 24-hour daycare for his workers (which enabled Rosies to enter the workforce), it is also true that those facilities were not open to African American families, who may have introduced the world to the latch-key child. And, though the federal government (HUD) hastily constructed housing on marshlands where none had been before, that housing was racially segregated, with structures built to house African Americans destroyed within 3 weeks of war's end. This in the hope that black sharecroppers would return to the south from whence they'd come. The only war housing still standing within the park boundaries are those built for white workers (Atchison and Nystrom Villages).

Being a Librarian-Technician allowed the time to spend hours reading studies produced by many historians. The collected stories and artifacts that came as a response to a national media campaign by the Ford Motor Company -- paint a fascinating picture of life in that era. I'm grateful for having had the chance to explore that. Among the lessons learned over the past 60 days:

There was some recognition by the government of the need to reward the African American workers in some significant ways. By that time the Tuskeegee Airmen; the Pearl Harbor naval hero, Dorie Miller; and the heroic tank division that fought so valiantly in Southern Europe, had earned an indisputable place in the lore of the country. In response, there were 17 victory ships named for famous black citizens. Three that were built and launched to great celebrations here in Richmond were the SS George Washington Carver, the SS Robert S. Abbott (Publisher of the Chicago Defender), and the SS John Hope (black educator). In addition there were three victory ships named for historically black colleges; the SS Fisk, the SS Xavier, and the SS Talledega.

By far the most intriguing find in the log of ships launched in Richmond in March and April of 1944, the SS Ethiopia and the SS Touissaint L'Ouverture (the latter named for the great black revolutionary leader who led Haitians against the French. What I wouldn't give to be able to unearth records of the discussions that led to these choices! When we recall that these honors were conferred at a time when segregation was still full-blown and when the country was still locked in the grip of Jim Crow, it seems miraculous that -- even then -- there were those who were trying desparately to "get it right." And, there still are.

This suggests an important rationale for the teaching of Black History to African American children. Embedded in such teachings is the invisible pride-builder of self-respect. "We, too, have heroes and I, too, can be one" comes from knowing what's gone before. I learned as a small business owner in Berkeley -- in a very low-income community -- that people learn to respect only by being respected, and that it is rarely otherwise.

Richmond was incorporated in August of 1905. This will be our Centennial year. That year begins in little more than 3 months -- and I see little preparation for what should be a monumental opportunity to share some of this history -- and to re-visit the era of the re-birth of Richmond when it grew -- almost overnight -- from a sleepy little industrial town of 20,000 to 108,000 at the beginning 1942.

Coming together in the back of my brain are some seemingly unrelated but surely connected events:

A few weeks ago we reeled from the senseless killing of a 17 year-old African American honor student, Terrance Kelly. He was only 2 days away from escaping a questionable future in a crime-ridden corner of the community. He'd received an athletic scholarship and was leaving for Oregon to enter college. The 16 year-old youngster who wielded the gun that ended Terrance's life's only defense was that he'd been "Dissed." (i.e., disrespected.) I'm not sure that any of us is aware of just how important that word has become in communities where -- since slavery, Jim Crow, (yes) and the struggles for equality in this city following WWII -- there has been so little respect to draw upon.

Due to inadequate education from revisionist textbooks that left out all references to meaningful black history until recent years and despite the efforts of a few enlightened teachers ... with little opportunity to understand the why of it, the lack thereof may have become lethal in some frightening way. "Dissing" is the word used by youth, but the feeling expressed by the word is universally recognizable ... a feeling that crosses the generations and robs us all of some immutable something that we can rarely define, that by now is buried deep in the DNA of our children, that bleeds out of our pores, restricts our vision, and profoundly limits opportunities to gain and live a lifestyle worthy of achieving it.

My work with the National Park Service has ended far too soon. I was just getting into the rhythm of it. Now I'm seriously considering ways to get this city to engage me to oversee a yearlong centennial celebration. Far fetched? Of course it is. They have no idea that they even need one, or that they need me to give it life. As has been true many times in the past, I'm running around with answers to questions that nobody is asking!

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