In the Shadows:
African American Women on the Home Front
The history of the United States has been one where racial and ethnic minority
groups have been marginalized throughout all aspects of society. African Americans had
their start in this country as the cheapest, most effective form of labor. They were not
only used in the South for physical labor on plantations for cotton, rice, indigo, and other
staple crops, but they were also repressed in the north where they took marginal industrial
jobs such as manufacturing automobiles and food packing, even thought they were
viewed to be more “free” in the north. After the Civil War and post-Reconstruction, the
Anglo population still sought to marginalize the African American population through a
policy that came to be known as Jim Crow. This policy kept African Americans and
white Americans segregated in the workplace, in schools, and in most other public places.
This segregation even flowed over into the military before World War II; president
Eisenhower is credited with ending this segregation in the armed services. With the
advent of desegregation in the military services, the Home Front during World War II
began to slowly change form as women moved into war-time industrial jobs to replace
the soldiers at war.
The iconic figure of World War II was the image of “Rosie the Riveter”. Rosie is
a white American woman who looks proud to be where she is. This however, gives the
impression that all the Rosie’s were white. While this impression is real, it is inaccurate
because black women also fit in the Rosie image. African American women
experienced, for perhaps one of the first times in history, new economic opportunities and
freedom. African American women played vital roles in wartime production of aircrafts
and other goods needed to support the warring nation. This is not to assume that African
American women were able to overcome the nation’s policy of Jim Crow Laws.
Educated women did find ways during World War II to beat Jim Crow Laws. When the
United States entered in the Second World War, these previously displaced black workers
found new opportunities in the war industries. For example, Naiomi Craig was trained as
a stenographer, but before the war she was unable to find work as a legal secretary
because she was black. When the war arrived she was able to find employment with
Federal Products, a factory in Providence, RI. The photos of welders Alivia Scott, Hattie
Carpenter, and Flossie Burtos, and the domestic worker from Atlanta, Georgia are good
examples of the types of jobs that were readily available to African America women on
the Home Front. The recounting of these jobs by African American women is valuable to
the nation’s understanding of the Home Front during WWII. For example, Belle
Alexander talks about the lack of men at Boeing.
The experiences of these women workers differed according to their individual
jobs and job support systems, such as unions, which were very limited or nonexistent;
however, one thing remained constant, and it is that these women were still marginalized.
Actual participant accounts are hard to come by. This is true because even though
African American women were able to further themselves economically more so than
ever before, it is important to understand that these women had to fight to obtain and
keep their jobs. Due to the impact of Jim Crow Laws on the mindset of American
society, African American women were not interviewed as frequently and were not
photographed as frequently as white workers because they were not valued by society in
the same ways. There exist more documentation of African American industrial workers
in the form of photographs. Photos of African American women welding, and women
who are smiling give the impression that conditions were good, and that they were happy
to be there. However, in the photos, male supervisors are shown working with the
women who seem happy to have the assistance. Sometimes this can be misleading, and
oftentimes, blatant racial discrimination is the actual subject of the photo as in the
example of Juanita Gray. In this photo, the race of the male supervisor is unclear. Is this
done purposefully? Most would argue yes, so as to attract both white and black female
workers based on their individual interpretation of the photo. Even if he is of the same
ethnicity as the women, it is important to note that this would be a rare occurrence, and
it’s function would primarily serve to recruit blacks into the industry.
Did African American women experience the Home Front differently than white women?
Did their experiences have an effect on all Americans after World War II ended? Why
should we learn about the home front during World War II not only through the eyes of
white Americans like Rosie the Riveter but also through the view points of minorities
such as the African American women who were equally as vital to the American war
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are teacher education candidates at the University of Texas at Austin
completing our Students as Historian assignment in order to meet course
requirements for Secondary Advanced Social Studies Methods.
Created by Brittany Bussell and Amanda Hillmann on Novemeber 6,2007