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On October 20, 1943, Theresa Waller stood in the colored waiting room in the Houston, Texas, train station. Dressed in her Sunday best, this tall, dignified twenty-four-year-old felt an odd mixture of fear, expectation, excitement, and uncertainty. Her strong will and poise--traits that marked her as a person who "wanted to go somewhere and be someone"--had propelled her to this embarkation point. In a few moments there would be no turning back. A young woman who "wanted to do something good and big but couldn't name it" was about to leave everything that she had known as a child for the promise of a new life in the San Francisco East Bay Area.
In Houston, Theresa had worked as a domestic servant; each morning she left her home in the predominantly black Fifth Ward for the rich white neighborhoods in the heights. As she worked at jobs that "didn't amount to much," she endured the dangers and humiliations of segregation. Struggling to describe her experience, Theresa remarked, "You just don't know what it was like. They [white people] would try to make you feel like you weren't human." Facing a future limited by Jim Crow, she began to dream about leaving the South. And when a kind white employer described California, Theresa's dream assumed a more concrete form.
Early in 1943, Theresa met a man who worked on the Houston waterfront. Through a network of fellow workers, he learned of plentiful, high-paying jobs in the East Bay Area. Their relationship flourished on shared dreams, and soon they married. Within weeks he moved to the East Bay, found housing and a job, and sent for his wife. Theresa, about to embark on a journey that would reunite her with her husband and profoundly change her world, felt small and alone on that October day in the Houston train station. But as her personal journey unfolded, it would bear striking resemblance to the journeys made by countless other women during the World War II years.
Between 1940 and 1945, thousands of African Americans migrated from the South to the East Bay Area in search of social and economic mobility associated with the region's expanding defense industry and reputation for greater racial tolerance. Prior to World War II, the black population in the East Bay was small and highly insular. But the wartime economic boom, fueled by federal investment in shipbuilding, changed this whole demographic landscape. African Americans from the South who heard about defense jobs from labor recruiters, from railroad workers, at employment bureaus, from newspapers and, most important, by word of mouth joined thousands of white workers in a westward exodus. As a consequence, the East Bay's black population grew significantly--by up to fivefold in many communities across the bay from San Francisco. In Richmond, for example, the African American population grew from 270 in 1940 to 10,000 in 1945. Similarly, Oakland's black population grew from 8,462 to over 37,000 during the same period. Of the African Americans who joined the migration to the East Bay, most came from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and roughly half were women.
This study examines the migration and community-building efforts of African American women who moved from the South to the East Bay during World War II. Drawing on fifty oral interviews with former migrants, it details who these women were, how they experienced the migration, and how they used their southern cultural traditions to keep their families together and establish new communities in the East Bay. The study emphasizes migrant women's activism, describing how they built community-supporting institutions that contributed to social and political change in the East Bay cities of Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond--cities that underwent major demographic changes as migrants were drawn to the region's defense industries.
Migration has long been a feature of the African American experience. Since Reconstruction, African Americans have been highly mobile, moving from farm to farm, from the rural South to southern towns and cities, and from southern cities to northern and western metropolitan areas. For migrants, these journeys have served as imagined or actual passages to something better. As such, they provide examples of African American agency and resistance, and they offer insight into how new communities are established and maintained. Historians, who have long recognized the incredible drama and poignancy of these mass population movements, have produced a rich and varied migration literature.
A number of excellent studies document black migration during the first two decades of the twentieth century and describe the impact of male migrants on the economic, political, and social institutions within receiving communities. However, migration during World War II, and the particular experience and contributions of black women, have received little attention. By placing women like Theresa at the center of analysis, this study generates new perspectives on where and how social change takes place and how community is established and maintained.
Similarly, the literature on women and World War II discusses labor force participation, employment discrimination, and shifting gender roles, but it only partially reconstructs how African American women experienced the war. In defense centers across the nation, most black women were workers and migrants. As they made the transition from field and domestic work to jobs in an industrial economy, they struggled to keep their families together, establish new households, and create community-sustaining networks and institutions. Though white women too negotiated the double burden of wage labor and housework, African American women shouldered substantially more. Filling defense jobs and caring for their families, they also performed many of the tasks associated with relocation and community-building: finding schools and housing; locating markets, churches, and medical services; establishing new institutions; building reciprocal relationships with other migrants; and maintaining ties to those back home. Moreover, black migrant women facilitated chain migration by encouraging friends and family to join them and by providing newcomers with food, shelter, and emotional support until they found their own jobs and housing. Though white migrant women faced some of these same challenges, they did not have to contend with racial discrimination--a burden that forced black migrant women to create new institutions and multiplied their housing and employment difficulties.
Indirectly, this work contributes to an increasingly lively debate on the origins of postwar urban poverty. Nicholas Lemann, whose work The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America revived the "culture of poverty" thesis, argues that the contemporary black "underclass" shares an "ethic of dependency" fostered by the southern sharecropping system and transplanted to urban centers by migrants from the South. The women whose lives are told in these pages tell a different story. Whether raised on farms or in the urban South, all came from poor or working-class families that shared a common regard for economic autonomy, hard work, education, worship, family ties, charity, and independent self-help institutions. When they left the South, motivated by self-determination rather than dependency, women drew on these values to establish new communities and resist the prejudice and discrimination that greeted them.
Following the war, the economic vitality of East Bay migrant communities was severely undermined by poorly planned redevelopment projects, capital flight, and continuing residential segregation and employment discrimination. In the absence of sustained societal commitment to providing jobs and housing for black communities, working-class migrants like Theresa Waller fought to stabilize their neighborhoods in the hard economic times of the postwar era. Their helping ethic, desire for economic independence, and commitment to institution-building--all pieces of a southern cultural legacy that allowed their forebears to resist the economic and social costs of Jim Crow--were turned to helping their communities resist chronic unemployment and its accompanying dislocations.
Before, during, and after the war, migrant women's lives reveal an extraordinary level of self-determination. Indeed, their efforts to provide for their families and neighbors support historian Jacqueline Jones's contention that "embedded in the historical record of ordinary families . . . is a powerful refutation of the culture of poverty or culture of dependency thesis." The experience and contributions of women like Theresa Waller thus challenge generalizations about inner-city communities--generalizations that obscure both the residents' diversity and agency and the historical processes that led to urban poverty.
Finally, this work details change and continuity within a specific geographical area: the San Francisco East Bay region. However, many of the same changes took place elsewhere, with similar consequences. Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle also experienced wartime growth and simultaneous cultural, political, and economic transformation. The East Bay thus provides a lens through which to view interracial conflict, civil rights activism, class formation, and urban change in various parts of the country during and after the war.
In the opening chapters, the book proceeds chronologically, describing women's childhood years in the Jim Crow South; their young adulthood; and their decision to migrate to the East Bay. Most of the women in my sample came from deeply religious, two-parent, working-class families. These findings are consistent with several wartime studies that have characterized migrants as predominantly urban, relatively well-educated, and highly skilled members of an expanding black southern working class.
Church and family formed the center of migrant women's girlhoods. There they learned how to create and sustain the reciprocal relationships that were vital to community and individual survival. This ethic of care--rooted in an awareness that survival was linked to the well-being of relatives and neighbors--coexisted with a fierce desire for economic independence from white people. Migrant women recalled how their parents counseled them to "own your own," and they often went on to reflect that it was all-black institutions that insulated them from the hardships and humiliations of Jim Crow.
This generation, schooled to be independent, came of age just as the wartime boom was transforming the East Bay into a virtual Canaan for both skilled and unskilled workers. Not surprisingly, most of the women in my sample were neither bitterly poor nor middle-class. Unlike their poorer neighbors, they had the resources to leave. And unlike the middle class, they had little if any economic stake in their communities of origin. Had working-class migrant women remained in the South, few could have expected more than a domestic service job paying two dollars or less a week. And since many had recently married and started families, the personal desire for a better life was now charged with the added responsibility of parenthood.
Once women made the decision to migrate--a decision usually made jointly with other family members--they viewed the migration as a rite of passage, a major life transition that they frequently described in biblical terms. However, many women made the journey alone or with small children. For this group, excitement was often overshadowed by fatigue, loneliness, and fear of the unknown. Nevertheless, women played a central role in the migration process, often remaining behind to sell property while male family members searched for work and housing in the East Bay. Women then packed belongings, made travel arrangements, and safely conveyed children across the country on crowded, poorly equipped Jim Crow cars. Women also maintained contact with friends and family who had already moved west. These contacts allowed migrants to make informed decisions about what to pack and what to leave behind and helped insure that newcomers would receive temporary shelter and assistance finding employment when they arrived.
Following this discussion of migration, the book examines women's efforts to create homes for their families in the East Bay, their wage labor and workplace resistance during and after the war, and their commitment to institution-building, cultural preservation, and social change. As young wives and mothers, women performed most of the orientation tasks associated with a major move: creating comfortable living quarters in an impossibly tight and discriminatory housing market; locating essential services; building friendships with other migrants; and maintaining ties to those back home. Finding housing was particularly daunting; initially, most migrant families doubled up with friends, relatives, or new acquaintances in crowded, older housing in existing black neighborhoods. Lacking privacy and adequate cooking and laundry facilities, women struggled with routine chores as they attempted to transform substandard housing into reasonably comfortable accommodations.
Fortunately, most migrants eventually moved from these temporary quarters into one of several war housing projects. Although war housing was poorly constructed and maintained, migrant women expressed satisfaction with indoor plumbing, space heat, hot and cold running water, modern cooking facilities, and greater degree of privacy that it offered. Above all, government housing was woman-centered, spatially conducive to the formation of helping networks. The projects, in addition to housing large numbers of newcomers, contained common yards and laundry facilities that women defined as shared space. In these common areas women assisted each other with such tasks as finding markets, churches, and social services. There women watched children, made friends while doing laundry, and exchanged garden produce and recipes.
Greater residential stability also supported the growth of migrant communities and institutions. While living in war housing, women facilitated chain migration by encouraging friends and relatives to come west and by providing temporary shelter to newcomers. They also began to establish new churches and mutual aid organizations that addressed migrants' needs. This process of institution-building, which continued after women moved from war projects into more permanent housing, contributed to the stability of new communities and the formation of a common identity.
On their arrival in the East Bay, most migrant women entered the wartime labor force at the lowest level of the occupational ladder, filling jobs that were circumscribed by both race and gender. But however bad these jobs were, women relished the fact that "we were at least getting paid to put up with it. In the South it had been nothing but hard work and bad treatment. Here I was making more in a day than I made back home in a month." After the war, migrant women were the first fired. Some found relatively secure, high-paying jobs with the federal government, the single largest employer of East Bay black residents during the postwar years. Most, however, were forced into the low-paying institutional service sector as cooks, custodians, and nurse's aides, a variation of the domestic service jobs many had held in the South.
Because they filled the lowest-paying jobs in the labor force both during and after the war, migrant women created an alternate source of status and identity as homemakers, church women, and community workers. By defining their labor on behalf of family and community as "real work," migrant women resisted categorization as menial or marginal laborers. At the same time, however, much of their community work directly challenged employment discrimination and complemented their workplace resistance; this suggests that their labor force participation was, in fact, an important source of identity and self-esteem.
After securing employment, migrant women created the exchange relationships and institutions that sustained migrant communities. In the racially hostile climate of the East Bay, where established white and black residents regarded migrants as unassimilable guest workers, migrant women made homes for their families, helped other migrants find jobs and housing, founded community-supporting institutions, and organized other newcomers to demand better schools, housing, jobs, and recreational facilities. Women's organizing skills and leadership abilities were part of a black southern cultural inheritance passed from mother to daughter. Rather than being ashamed of where they came from, migrant women used their traditional values and resources to establish permanent communities and counter the destructive impact of racial discrimination on their friends and family. Viewed as undesirable outsiders, newcomers found a sense of solidarity with other migrants and drew on their southernness as the currency of group identity and cohesiveness.
This discussion of migrant women's political and institution-building activities often moves between the war years and the present. In contrast to the linear way in which they described their childhood, migration, housing, and employment, these women characterized their activism in more fluid terms, with less attention to fixed boundaries of time and place. This revealing habit may suggest that activism was an organic, continuous aspect of their lives, one that blurred the division between public and private spheres and transcended both youthful idealism and mature ambition. But continuity and fluidity create difficulties for the historian: when to end the story, and whether to make distinctions or impose structures that are irrelevant to informants. These questions, which are still unresolved, create an opening for dialogue between reader and writer.
Finally, the reader should also be aware of my theoretical choices. Male migrants, when they appear in the following pages, fill supporting roles as spouses, siblings, children, and parents, much as women have in previous migration studies. This work, then, is intended as a corrective to scholarship that privileges or universalizes male experience. However, it is a playful corrective rather than a vindictive one. Although the work emphasizes women's experience, it in no way suggests that men were insignificant participants in the migration and community-building process or that men and women had vastly different expectations and experiences. It simply adopts an alternate orientation to the subject and invites the reader to decide whether gender significantly shaped the drama of wartime migration.
Feminist theory not only informed this study's orientation but also shaped its methodological framework. From the beginning of this project I was deeply committed to a participatory model that allowed women to tell their own stories using their own narrative structures. I was also concerned about the potential power imbalance between respondent and interviewer, and I looked for ways to shift control to the respondent. As the interview process began, many of these concerns fell by the wayside. These were strong individuals who had two or three times my life experience. Moreover, they voluntarily agreed to participate in this study and knew that it depended on their willingness to divulge their life stories. Ultimately, the interviews were fluid exchanges where power and control shifted between informant and respondent. To deny migrant women's power in the research process--power stemming from their status as elders and as owners of valuable information--is to adopt a patronizing stance, one that uncritically accepts and perhaps reinforces assumed hierarchies.
In the end, I presented the women's stories much as they were recorded. Not surprisingly, the women represented themselves and their communities as self-determining, existing in opposition to and in spite of white control, but also as independent, true, and whole. They did not feel "tragically colored" or stripped of their agency, despite their long and painful association with white racism. Nearing the end of the project, I began to care less about the accuracy of the women's memories, whether they were flawlessly recalling "what really happened." What mattered more was how they used the past to create their own counternarrative, one by which the women claimed the truth of their experience despite the efforts of outsiders to portray them as victims or failures.
Oral history is notably unreliable. As a product of memory it is easily warped by trauma, forgetfulness, and the all-too-human temptation to selectively recall or embroider past events. But these "problems" also provide a different way of examining history, one that shifts the focus from "what really happened" to how people use the past to produce individual or collective meaning and identity. Just as memory shapes identity, identity also shapes the meaning we draw from the past. Migrant women, for example, drew on Old Testament metaphor to tell their life stories, reaching into their southern religious heritage to construct narratives that clearly resemble morality plays. This device was both an unexpected marker of their collective identity and evidence that their shared history generated a common perceptual orientation toward the past. The limits of oral history thus produced surprising interpretive possibilities.
This study was based on fifty oral interviews--ranging from two to five hours in length--and supporting documentation from more conventional sources. All of the interviews were used to compile aggregate statistics such as place of birth, date of birth, parent's occupation, age at migration, and frequency of return visits home. Roughly half of the interviews--those that were most richly detailed and personally revealing--are presented as migration narratives. Finally, care was taken to select narratives that revealed differences as well as similarities in the women's experiences.
I met most of my informants at East Bay senior centers and churches. After introducing myself and describing my project, I asked if anyone wished to be interviewed. Some interviews were conducted on the spot, and others in women's homes at a later date. All of my informants can be characterized as successful migrants. They were proud of their lives and willing to share their stories. They had worked hard at blue-collar or service-sector jobs, raised families, and managed to save for modest but comfortable retirements. None had given up on the East Bay and returned to the South, although most retained strong connections to friends and family back home. A majority of black migrants did, in fact, remain in the East Bay, and many who left returned to the South to start businesses or buy land with wartime savings. Nevertheless, my sample does not include those who, broken and bruised, returned home or slipped into poverty and anonymity in East Bay inner cities. As we delve into the world of Theresa Waller and her cohort, the existence of those less fortunate migrants should be held in mind and used to temper any unintentional generalizations about the migrant experience.
1. Waller interview.
2. Wenkert, Historical Digest of Negro-White Relations, 1-20; Hubert Owen Brown, "Impact of War Worker Migration," 40, 117, 118; Nash, American West Transformed, 3-14, 66, 69; Sokol, "Richmond during World War II," 13-14; Marilynn S. Johnson, Second Gold Rush, 51-55; Charles S. Johnson, Negro War Worker in San Francisco, 4-6; France, "Some Aspects of the Migration of the Negro," 24; Moore, "Black Community in Richmond, California," 80-82; Cy W. Record, Characteristics of Some Unemployed Negro Shipyard Workers, 9.
3. See, for example, Gottlieb, Making Their Own Way; Grossman, Land of Hope; Marks, Farewell We're Good and Gone; Trotter, Black Milwaukee.
4. Marilynn S. Johnson's Second Gold Rush is one of the first published studies detailing the demographic, cultural, and political transformation of the San Francisco East Bay area during World War II. Although this is a more general study of wartime migration to the East Bay, emphasizing the experience of white migrants, it contains richly descriptive sections on black migrant labor, housing, and civil rights activism. Shirley Ann Moore's forthcoming history of African Americans in Richmond, California, which contains sections on wartime migration, will also contribute to our knowledge of this subject.
5. For an overview of women's experience during World War II see Chafe, Paradox of Change; Anderson, "Last Hired, First Fired"; Anderson, Wartime Women; Hartman, Home Front and Beyond; and Gluck, Rosie the Riveter Revisited.
6. Jones, "Southern Diaspora," 38.
7. Aggregate statistics from fifty oral interviews with former migrants conducted by the author; Shyrock "Wartime Shifts of the Civilian Population," found that the majority of migrants to the West Coast were from towns and cities. His findings are supported by Charles S. Johnson, Negro War Worker in San Francisco, 8, 80, and Wilson Record, "Willie Stokes at the Golden Gate," 176. Other studies point to the relatively high skill levels of migrants: Cy W. Record, Characteristics of Some Unemployed Negro Shipyard Workers, 33; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Labor Force in Durable Goods Manufacture," 718; and Charles S. Johnson, Negro War Worker in San Francisco, 8, 15, 16.
8. McAllister interview.
9. Oakley, "Interviewing Women"; Geiger, "What's So Feminist about Doing Women's Oral History?"; Finch, "'It's Great to Have Someone to Talk To'"; Personal Narratives Group, Interpreting Women's Lives.
10. Wilson Record, "Willie Stokes at the Golden Gate," 187.
Lemke-Santangelo, Gretchen : Saint Mary's College of California
Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo is assistant professor of history and director of women's studies at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California.
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