Sunday, April 12, 2009

World War II’s Effect On Richmond

Real life ``Rosie the Riveter'' turns 100

Ernia Blackmon Jones has made her home in Richmond since arrival here in 1943 from her native Texarkana, Texas. Jones and her husband, the late Elbert Jones, had already been married more than 20 years when they came to work at Kaiser Shipyard No. 3 during World War II. Ernia Jones, an original Rosie the Riveter who has kept her home on Third Street not far from the shipyards, was with family April 7 when she celebrated her 100th birthday at Creekside Care Center in San Pablo After she left the shipyards at the end of the war, Jones worked at the Del Monte cannery in Emeryville until retiring in 1968. She has been an active member of Christian Home Baptist Church on Barrett Avenue since joining the congregation in 1949. (Contra Costa Times by Chris Threadway, 4/11/2009)

Kaiser yards 1, 2 and 3 in 1943

California’s Second Gold Rush

This little article in the Contra Costa Times brought home to me the importance of World War II on the City of Richmond. Wartime upheaval affected all of the U.S., but changed California and the San Francisco Bay Area profoundly. Some historians have called the WWII-era California's "Second Gold Rush" for its role in transforming the population, economy and even physical landscape of the state. No city felt these effects more than Richmond, which went from a small town to a booming city hosting the largest number of defense industries and war housing projects in the country. To fill these industrial jobs, employers needed to hire a broader range of workers, including women and people of color. Women of all ages and ethnicities came to Richmond to find new, better-paying jobs throughout the war. Their labor on "Liberty" and "Victory" ships played a role inAmerica's remarkable productivity during the war years.

African American women were some of those most affected by the need for women workers. It has been said that it was the process of whites working along blacks during the time that encouraged a breaking down of social barriers and a healthy recognition of diversity.  African-Americans were able to lay the groundwork for the postwar civil rights revolution by equating segregation with Nazi white supremacist ideology.

Former Richmond Naval shipyard welder Phyllis McKey Gould's original ID badge. 

The Greatest Internal Migration In the Nation’s History 

Thus began the greatest internal migration in the nation's history. More than 1.2 million Southern black workers migrated to Western and Northern cities for industrial defense jobs. More than 46,000 African Americans moved to the Bay Area between 1941 and 1945. No city in the U.S. was more affected than Richmond, a small town with a population of 23,000 people before the war started. By war's end, the city grew to 100,000. Industry grew virtually overnight as well. In response to the war, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser decided to build four shipyards from scratch in Richmond. Eventually, the Richmond Kaiser shipyards employed 90,000 people. Nearly one-third were women.

Kaiser grew famous for introducing mass-production techniques, reducing the fourteen-month time period it took to build a cargo ship to eight weeks. Workers at the four Richmond Kaiser shipyards built 747 ships for the United States Navy and Merchant Marines, outperforming every other shipyard in the country.

After 1941, shipyards and factories operated around the clock, with workers organized into one of three eight-hour shifts. The last one from midnight to morning was called the swing shift. Recreation changed as well. Movie theaters, nightclubs, and restaurants stayed open as well. Companies instituted cafeterias and on-site food service programs. Kaiser built on-site day care centers and health maintenance organization for his employees.

By 1945, more than 18 million U.S. women worked in defense industries and support services. Shipyards in the San Francisco Bay Area employed more than 240,000 people. By wars end these shipyards built 4,600 ships-nearly half of all the cargo vessels and warships delivered for the war effort.

Although Rosie the Riveter was a fictitious character, the image of a muscle bound woman in overalls became an enduring wartime icon, embodying the nation's can-do spirit, and was popularized in posters, war- bond promotions and the 1942 song, "Rosie the Riveter."

But in Richmond, Rosie was real. "After they bombed Pearl Harbor, the next thing you heard was, `There's shipbuilding in California,' " said Bethena Moore, now 83, who moved from Derrider, La., where she had been a laundry worker, to become a welder. A diminutive 110 pounds, she was given the dangerous task of climbing down a narrow steel ladder, tethered to a welding machine, four stories into the ships' double-bottoms.

Wendy the Welder

The sight of women donning overalls and hoisting heavy equipment inspired the 1942 song "Rosie the Riveter," a nickname for female workers that spread across the country. Northern California newspapers referred to their

own shipyard-working women as "Wendy the Welder."

The War Profoundly Changed Richmond

The war also profoundly changed Richmond (population 94,000), one of the Bay Area's least-affluent communities. It was transformed practically overnight from a sleepy rural community of 23,600 to an industrial metropolis of more than 100,000, where the wartime production included tanks and torpedoes.

Over the years the city has suffered from a variety of urban ills, including high poverty and crime rates, and industrial pollution. The closing of the shipyards after the war left a host of issues with which the city is still grappling. Fifteen percent of the city's population, which is 44 percent African-American, 36 percent white and 12 percent Latino, lives below the poverty level.

"In some respects," notes Charles Wollenberg, a historical consultant with The Oakland Museum, "It's taken Richmond until now to recover from World War II."

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