During World War II, the city of Richmond quadrupled in size when about 70,000 workers flocked to work at the shipyards that dotted the bay’s shoreline.
At the height of the war, women made up more than a quarter of the Richmond shipyard workforce. For the first time, women were allowed to work in high-paying trades, previously only done by men.
Betty Reid Soskin was four years old when she moved to the East Bay – she grew up there in a Creole and Cajun community from New Orleans. Soskin says the Bay Area quickly became a hub of wartime shipbuilding.
“It took seven people to support every one on the front. Workers were in demand, but there was a hierarchy.” Soskin says. First hired at the Richmond shipyards were men who were too old to fight and boys who were too young to go, then single white women, then married white women.
“Then black men to support the Rosies – to do the heavy lifting. Eventually black women, but that wasn’t until 1944. Though there were some exceptions.” When Soskin was looking for work as a 21-year-old, African-American woman in 1942, her options were limited.
“I was seen as only fit to be a domestic servant or work in agriculture, which means picking cotton.” In fact, Henry Kaiser recruited workers for the shipyards from cotton growing southern states such Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.
Prior to this great migration, Soskin says racial discrimination in the Bay Area was more subtle than Jim Crow segregation. So when people came from the South, they changed the racial dynamics of Richmond.
“White people even at that that economic level expecting a continuation of white privilege. Black people expecting a better deal,” Soskin recalls. While many African-Americans did find a better life in the Bay Area, Soskin says they didn’t exactly find an equitable one. Black workers weren’t allowed into the shipyard’s Boilermaker Union and in 1943, the Auxiliary A-36 was established for black workers. That union hired Soskin to work in the administration office.
“All those people who worked out of our union hall had helper or trainee on their union cards. That would mean that they would not be in competition with white workers after the war ended,” says Soskin. Having a union card – even as a helper or trainee– usually meant better wages, and while Soskin never saw a ship, other black women fought to get jobs as welders or burners in the shipyard.
Margaret Archie, who followed her husband to the shipyards from Texas, was one of those women.
“Mostly they wanted women to sweep, but my husband said, 'No! You’re not gonna sweep. You swept all your life. So you gonna weld.'" The person her husband knew charged them twenty dollars to admit her into the union so she could become a welder in the shipyards. Archie says it was a rare accomplishment for a black woman in the forties. By the end of the war, Archie and her co-workers had built 747 ships in just under five years.
Now at 88-years-old, Soskin has had time to process her role on the home front during World War II.
“This was an amazing undertaking by extraordinary ordinary people. And that’s the story that I relate to because I’m one of the extraordinary ordinary people.” Despite the great social changes of that time, Soskin still remembers the pain of the discrimination she faced as a black woman.
“We were forced to hire men too old to fight, boys to young to go, women out of their homes disrupting the entire American mystique of what it means to be a man or woman in order to gear up for that great mobilization. Even at that time we were willing to sacrifice on the altar of racial segregation, human potential of a huge, huge percentage of people based upon color,” Soskin says. But she worries that we have not learned from this history, and she fears we still hold people back because of race, class or gender.
“I am concerned that as an American there are still practices that are sacrificing African-Americans, Latinos – that are crippling the country. I think that’s a tragedy. And maybe that is the lesson of the mobilization that I take away."
And now she has a platform to share those lessons.
Betty Reid Soskin is a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Memorial Park in Richmond. At 92-years-old, she is the oldest park ranger in the nation.