Received this note yesterday from a sister-friend --
from another old California family who took the time to confirm some of these uneasy feelings I've been writing about. It isn't a figment of my imagination. There were others who noticed the same emotionally disfiguring events in those war years that I did. History has so romanticized that period ("The Good War" as reported by Studs Terkel and "The Greatest Generation" as told by Tom Brokaw) that my own history appears to have been erased completely. Not so. Gerri describes her own memories of Richmond and a tragic variation on the home front stories that coincides with my own.
September 4, 2004
I've been having a debate with myself about filling out another form. I haven't sent for a packet for that reason. I would be happy to contribute some anecdotal information for your project, but I just cannot do it that way. I throw away forms or surveys I receive. :-( I guess I have a phobia. I'm sorry about it. I am really torn, because I would like to help you. I hope you will understand.
I can give you one example:
When I was in the Supply Officer's office, the man who was responsible for scheduling the trains to bring workers from the South used to come in and vent his frustrations to me. I think he felt I was the only person he could talk to honestly. He said the recruiters for the shipyards would promise anything -- pie in the sky -- a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow -- to get them to leave home and come to California. They were given no preparation for the life they would have here, and they were disillusioned at what they found on their arrival. He said they were crammed into cattle cars, under sub-human conditions, for the trip. He was very upset that no one would listen to him. He could do nothing.
That may not be the heroic story you are looking for, but it happened.
All my best, Gerri
Met this morning with the editor of a local weekly newspaper (Black). Have decided that this unwritten history is desparately in need of being included in the record of the times. She and I are going to combine efforts, add another interested cohort or two, and begin to plan what will be a series on the homefront stories of the African Americans who lived it. It will be published shortly after the elections -- when we won't be distracted by current events. Have discovered some remarkable photos of African American members of the armed forces, launchings of the SS Harriet Tubman and the SS Booker T. Washington online that are available through the Library of Congress, and downloaded some of the most interesting.
When I let myself dwell on the fact that the present black population of this city are the descendants of those heroic sharecropper "come-westers," I'm so touched. The word "toleration" comes to mind and brings up the bile to the back of my throat. These struggling under-educated and hard-working people didn't have a chance. Due to the prevailing racism, they were abandoned without the ability to climb out of the poverty as had their equally poorly-educated and hard-working white counterparts. It is ironic that -- in future years they would be blamed for their inability to move into the mainstream with little consideration of the root causes. Despite unequal status in all avenues of life; segregation in the unions and in housing and lack of education in most cases -- they nonetheless picked up the tools to help to build the ships and went to war on the back of the damned bus! Most would be consigned to be the chambermaids and cooks and valets with no opportunity to rise above their stations in life in or out of the Armed Forces. Black men fought the war in racially segregated units headed by white commanding officers. Black women stepped in to earn 35-50 cents an hour as housekeepers and babysitters so that white women could become the Rosies of the day. They would not be allowed into the war plants until 1944. None of the Aircraft plants were ever racially-integrated, though the shipyards did so with some important caveats, like working out of Jim Crow powerless union auxiliaries.
Since existing history is dominated by the white experience, I'm seeing the need to contact members of the Japanese community, the Italian-Americans whose lives were impacted uniquely, and the German immigrant community that was forced to move 100 miles from the coastline. These, too, are important homefront stories. These are American stories. It was in those years that the seeds of discontent were planted that would burst forth 15-20 years hence in the greatest social revolution of the century -- the days of Dr. King and Malcolm X, the Kennedys and Fanny Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Party.
I have to keep reminding myself of just how recent in time all that was. And -- that the first African American school teacher hired in the state of California, U.C. Berkeley-educated Mrs. Ida Jackson, wasn't hired until 1944!
The Rosie story is being well covered after years of neglect, and that's just fine, I think. These stories well worth the re-telling. But the truth is that that heroic generation of African Americans should not be tolerated but celebrated! These were extraordinary human beings, and their children and grandchildren should be made aware of their dedication to the cause of freedoms they would not, themselves, enjoy for 15-20 more years, and in many cases are still dreams unfulfilled.
Maybe through this new national park we can begin to confront our history in ways that are transformative and life-sustaining. I've sat in with my friend, Donna, a historian who has worked for many years with the Rosie Memorial and the oral history project of the Bancroft Library of the university. It was Donna who headed up the project that did my oral history and those of members of each of the Japanese, Italian, German and Italian communities. I've attended presentations by the Japanese seniors who many years ago created the many plant nurseries that still stand in some areas of North Richmond. Japanese-Americans who were interned in relocation camps during those years. I heard their stories at a recent presentation, and wondered at how much I'd missed in my concern over my own perceived inequities. One had the feeling in listening that day, that most had suffered in silence, and that maybe -- through this new opportunity -- that conversation, too, can be opened to outsiders.
The catharsis might be wonderful for us all. Perhaps it could not have happened until now. Maybe we're ready to revisit those times, bolstered by the experience of the Sixties, Seventies, the Vietnam War, and current tragic misadventures in far off lands.
This is a tall order. I'm with the National Park Service for a very limited time -- an emergency hire -- that will end mid-month. But that's no reason to not start the process, right? Someone else can pick it up and move it across the board later on. In a way, that may describe all of life. Taking care of your leg of the journey as well as you can, trusting that another will pick up the strings when you drop them ... .
In reading back for corrections, I noticed that I've rarely said "we" in referring to the African American population of the time. Wondered about that until I realized that -- I'm sure that I've been waiting all these years for ALL those strangers who invaded MY state to go home. My WE is that population that existed before World War II, up to December 7th. Gerri (white) would have been a part of my world, though we'd hardly have known it then. She was a Junior Leaguer, living for the most part in the most affluent part of the East Bay (in Piedmont), while I lived in the flatlands in a blue collar community (integrated) of other rag-tag "Amurricans." But I suspect that we'd have found a way to bridge the gaps between -- given another generation of uninterrupted progress in human relations. My "we" was made up of those sturdy black pioneers who preceded the two world wars by many years -- more closely related to the Civil War, actually. That's changed since the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties, and my "we" has become broadened to include a host of cultures and peoples, and for that I'm grateful. Having re-invented myself decade by decade, my "we" now seems to encompass the entire planet!
I've come full circle, I think. My Black pride fuels my efforts these days, and for that I'm grateful. Living off my black edge is where the richness is for me. Wish I could explain that better. Maybe someday the words will come.