December 21, 2010

Laid-off shipyard workers dilemma: Should I stay or should I go?

Lon Van Brunt Kaiser Richmond Shipyard worker 1945 from "Fore 'N Aft" newsletter

As the holiday season of 1945 approached, Kaiser shipyard workers faced an uncertain future on the West Coast. Interviews with workers in the "Fore ‘n’ Aft," the Richmond shipyard newsletter, reflected some anxiety: “What do I think about the end of the war?” said laborer Lon Van Brunt. “Let’s study about that: I look for it to be hard times.”

Bernice Rarick, Portland shipyard worker, 1945, from "Bosn's Whistle" newsletter

The local press reports, often tinged with sentimental hope, insisted that the Dust Bowl migrants were tossing mattresses back on their cars, packing up pots and pans and leaving wartime housing in droves.

“Many couldn't wait to get ‘back home’ after the war, but they found they didn't like it back there anymore,” said native Richmond resident Marguerite Clausen in 1985 in an interview conducted with Judith Dunning for the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office. “They turned around and came back again. And they brought all their families with them.” *

Bernice Rarick, a Portland worker reflected that ambivalence when she told the “Bosn’s Whistle,” the northwest Kaiser shipyard newsletter, she was going right back to her ranch in Idaho yet wondered, “It doesn’t seem possible that everyone can go back to normal living again.”

Transplants try to find their place

The women were the first to go despite the fact that some 70 percent in a December 1944 Yard Two survey said they wanted to work. Black migrant workers also struggled to find new employment with the unemployment rate for black men in 1948 about 15 percent, three times the state average.

“News came over that the contracts were cancelled, and that was it,” recalled Margaret Cathey who came from Iowa and worked as a welder. “You didn't get two weeks notice or anything like that, no. You were just finished.” She was lucky because she found a job with the telephone company, anxious to hire women operators.

A welder at the Kaiser shipyards, Willie Stokes earned $10 a day but, after the war, was only able to find unskilled labor at $6 and was unemployed by 1947. “One day you are an essential worker in a vital industry and the next you were a surplus unskilled laborer essential to no one,” he said in an article, “Willie Stokes at the Golden Gate,” by Cy W. Record published in “The Crisis Magazine,” June 1949.

It took a while for many ex-shipyard workers to find their footing. In an article in “Salute Magazine” in June 1946, writer William Hogan called Richmond, “hangover town” because so many were still living there or had returned in hopes of finding work.

Mostly from rural areas with ways that seemed backward, these workers and their families had been lifted out of poverty working for Henry Kaiser and were destined to prove themselves, especially to long-time Richmond residents.

The Richmond Field Hospital continued to serve Permanente patients after the shipyards closed in 1946.

“I said, ‘Well, here these people are. They're not going to leave here. This is Mecca,’ ” recalled Clifford Metz, a former Richmond school official who had insisted the notion that the migrants would go back was an illusion.

“I think we went down maybe ten or fifteen thousand people in a short time. Most of them, well, they had learned that they liked it here. Some of them, with the money they had, they could invest. They were not unintelligent people.”

Selena Foster, who came from Fort Worth, Texas, in early 1944, and her husband, Marvin, were among those with that precise idea.  “My husband said to me, ‘We have no home to go back to.’ We had a little money and we found property was fairly reasonable if you could find something to buy,” she said in 1992.

The Fosters did make a trip back to East Texas in a shiny new car that made quite an impression on their family, but they returned to Richmond and within months had bought a home on Hoffman Boulevard and 29th Street, one of the first African-American families to do so after the war.

The uncertainty of that holiday period 65 years ago was soon eased by a postwar economic boom in both the Bay Area and the Northwest. The upturn raised the fortunes of many who arrived back then with little but hope. Over the decades they have become woven inextricably into the cultural fabric of both regions.


*Marguerite Clausen, “A World War II Journey: From Clarkesdale, Mississippi, to Richmond, California, 1942,” an oral history conducted in 1985 by Judith K. Dunning, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1992.