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World War II and the Black West
This chapter explores the momentous changes
brought about by the wartime migration of thousands of African
Americans to western cities. The first vignettes, The March
on Washington, 1941 and Can Negroes Really Fly, provide the
context for the civil rights challenges that would come in the
West and throughout the nation. Japanese Internment--One Black
Newspaper Responds shows how the Northwest Enterprise (Seattle)
reacted to the growing anti-Japanese sentiment right after Pearl
Harbor. African American Soldiers Defend Hollywood details the
new roles blacks soon found themselves in after the War began.
The next five vignettes: The Growth of Black San Francisco,
1940-1945, Black Women Migrate to the East Bay, Lyn Childs Confronts
a Racist Act, Etta Germany Writes to the President, and Northeast
Portland: The Growth of a Black Community, all reflect on various
aspects of the migration and its aftermath. The vignettes Black
Women in the Portland Shipyards and Black Portland Women and
Post-War Discrimination focus on the experiences of women in
the largest city in Oregon while Sex and the Shipyards and White
Women and Black Men in the Portland Shipyards describe sexual
tensions between black and white shipyard workers. Black Builders
of the Alcan Highway describes the efforts of black soldier-construction
workers to create one of the engineering marvels of the 20th
Century. In Blacks, Whites, Asians in World War II Hawaii, we
see how African Americans fare in a territory that, unlike the
mainland United States, is not predominately white. The 1944
Port Chicago explosion and mutiny are profiled in The Port Chicago
Tragedy. Finally, African American settlement in Southern Nevada
is described in Las Vegas: The "Mississippi of the West."
Terms for Week Eight:
- Executive Order 8802
- Fair Employment Practices Committee
- Harlem Hellfighters
- The Committee for the Defense of Negro
Labor's Right to Work at Boeing Airplane Company
- Christian Friends for Racial Equality
- Fort Lawton Riot
- Lyn Childs
- "hot bed"
- Charlotta Bass
- Nickerson Gardens
- Thelma Dewitty
- James v. Marinship
- Hunter's Point
- Sue Bailey Thurman
- Alcan Highway
- Westside (Las Vegas)
THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON, 1941
In 1941 A. Philip Randolph, President of the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a black political activist
since 1917, proposed a March on Washington to protest discrimination
in the defense industry. Six days before the march was to take
place President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802
which outlawed discrimination in defense plants and, in the
process, opened jobs for all non-white groups except for the
incarcerated Japanese Americans. Part of Randolph's call for
protest is printed below.
We call upon you to fight for jobs in National
Defense. We call upon you to struggle for the integration of
Negroes in the armed forces....This is an hour of crisis. It
is a crisis for democracy...It is a crisis of Negro Americans....
While billions of taxpayers' money are being
spent for war weapons, Negro workers are being turned away from
the gates of factories, mines and mills....Some employers refuse
to give Negroes jobs when they are without union cards and some
unions refuse Negro workers union cards when they are without
What shall we do?
We propose that ten thousand Negroes MARCH
ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS IN NATIONAL DEFENSE AND EQUAL INTEGRATION
IN THE FIGHTING FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES.
But what of national unity?
We believe in national unity which recognizes
equal opportunity of black and white citizens to jobs in national
defense and the armed forces, and in all other institutions
and endeavors in America. We condemn all dictator¬ships,
Fascist, Nazi and Communist. We are loyal, patriotic Americans,
But, if American democracy will not defend
its defenders; if American democracy will not protect its protectors....if
American democracy will not insure equality of opportunity,
freedom and justice to its citizens, black and white, it is
a hollow mockery and belies the principles for which it is supposed
Abraham Lincoln, in times of the grave emergency
of the Civil War, issued the Proclamation of Emancipation for
the freedom of Negro slaves and the preservation of American
Today, we call upon President Roosevelt, a
great humanitarian and ideal¬ist, to follow in the footsteps
of his noble and illustrious predecessor and take the second
decisive step in this world and national emergency and free
American Negro citizens of the stigma, humiliation and insult
of discrimina¬tion and Jim Crowism in Government departments
and national defense.
The Federal Government cannot with clear conscience
call upon private industry and labor unions to abolish discrimination
based upon race and color as long as it practices discrimination
itself against Negro Americans.
Source: Thomas R. Frazier, Afro American History:
Primary Sources, (Chicago, 1988), pp. 291 294.
EXECUTIVE ORDER 8802
Following a dramatic meeting with civil rights
activist A. Philip Randolph, President Franklin Roosevelt issued
Executive Order 8802 which appears below.
Whereas it is the policy of the United States
to encourage full participation in the national defense program
by all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, creed,
color, or national origin, in the firm belief that the democratic
way of life within the Nation can be defended successfully only
with the help and support of all groups within its borders:
Whereas there is evidence that available and
needed workers have been barred from employment in industries
engaged in defense production solely because of considerations
of race, creed, color, or national origin, to the detriment
of workers' morale and of national unity:
Now, Therefore, by virtue of the authority
vested in me by the Constitution and the statutes, and as a
prerequisite to the successful conduct of our national defense
production effort, I do hereby reaffirm the policy of the United
States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment
of workers in defense industries or government because of race,
creed, color, or national origin, and I do hereby declare that
it is the duty of employers and of labor organizations, in furtherance
of said policy and of this order, to provide for the full and
equitable participation of all workers in defense industries,
without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national
And it is hereby ordered as follows:
1. All departments and agencies of the Government
of the United States concerned with vocational and training
programs for defense production shall take special measures
appropriate to assure that such programs are administered without
discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin;
2. All contracting agencies of the Government
of the United States shall include in all defense contracts
hereafter negotiated by them a provision obligating the contractor
not to discriminate against any worker because of race, creed,
color, or national origin;
3. There is established in the Office of Production
Management a Committee on Fair Employment Practice, which shall
consist of a chairman and four other members to be appointed
by the President. The chairman and members of the Committee
shall serve as such without compensation but shall be entitled
to actual and necessary transportation, subsistence and other
expenses incidental to performance of their duties. The Committee
shall receive and investigate complaints of discrimination in
violation of the provisions of this order and shall take appropriate
steps to redress grievances which it finds to be valid. The
Committee shall also recommend to the several departments and
agencies of the Government of the United States and to the President
all measures which may be deemed by it necessary or proper to
effectuate the provisions of this order.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
THE WHITE HOUSE,
June 25, 1941
Source: Thomas R. Frazier, Afro-American History:
Primary Sources (Chicago, 1988), pp. 296-297.
"CAN NEGROES REALLY FLY AIRPLANES"
This was the question posed facetiously by
Eleanor Roosevelt in April, 1941. The answer to her question
appears in the vignette below, taken from an account of the
black World War II era Tuskegee Airmen, described by Omar Blair,
a Denver resident who became a member of the elite group.
Omar Blair likes to tell the story about Eleanor
Roosevelt and the Tuskegee Airmen. He particularly likes the
part in which the peripatetic outspoken wife of the president
stood on a grass strip in April 1941 near Tuskegee Institute
in Alabama and asked an outrageous question: "Can Negroes
really fly airplanes?"
Months earlier four black schools--Tuskegee,
Hampton Institute, Virginia State, and Howard University--had
been named as the schools to offer the Civilian Pilot Training
Program to black college students. With the increased threat
of U.S. entrance into World War II, the War Department was being
pressured to use black officers and pilots in the newly established
Army Air Corps. The choice for this training was between Tuskegee
and Hampton institutes. Eleanor Roosevelt had been chosen to
evaluate their qualifications, to meet with Charles ("Chief")
Anderson, the project director of the program, and to ask, as
it turned out, the right question. As Anderson told it, he answered:
"Certainly we can fly. Would you like to take an airplane
ride?" When the Secret Service realized where she was going
this time, they first forbade it, and when that did not work,
they called her husband. FDR replied with the wisdom of long
experience: "If she wants to, there is nothing we can do
to stop her."
Thirty minutes later, Eleanor Roosevelt climbed
down from the back seat of Anderson's Piper J-3 Cub, posed for
photographers, and with a broad grin reassured everyone that,
yes, Negroes could fly. Her return to Washington was followed
by the birth of the Tuskegee Airmen, a victory in the history
of participation of blacks in the military--except for one glaring
failure: this unit, like all others, would be segregated and
commanded by white officers. Blair, a former Tuskegee Airman
and an imposing figure who led Denver's Board of Education during
the 1970s, said with some delight: "But this failure is
where the Establishment made its mistake--they put us on our
Why was this considered a victory? Because
for the first time there was a real crack in the armor of white
supremacy within the military--only a crack, but destined to
Source: Joan Reese, "Two Enemies to Fight: Blacks Battle
for Equality in Two World Wars," Colorado Heritage 1 (1990),
JAPANESE INTERNMENT--ONE BLACK NEWSPAPER RESPONDS
Most of the press in the United States, and
particularly on the West Coast, viewed the Japanese (both citizens
and aliens) as a potential threat and eventually applauded the
internment of the Japanese. One black Seattle newspaper, the
Northwest Enterprise, however, challenged that view and immediately
after Pearl Harbor, urged its readers not to succumb to the
already growing anti-Japanese hysteria. It printed a rare front-page
editorial on the subject which appears below.
For more than three long years, Japan and
the United States have been at sword's point. It was a case
of watchful waiting. Japan never ceased her vigil. Somehow,
somewhere we have faltered. If we slept, it certainly was a
rude awakening. The manner of attack, the loss of lives, the
loss of ships and ammunition will always find a foremost place
in the annals of our history.
As costly as was this treacherous attack,
it served a higher purpose: A united nation meets the challenge.
130,000,000 Americans welded into an unbreakable unity. Not
a man, not a woman will falter. The have but one determination,
to do and to die.
Among these Americans are 15,000,000 Negroes,
none of whom in their long and glorious record in wars, has
ever smeared or fired on the flag. Nor have we ever spawned
a Quizzling [sic] or a Benedict Arnold.
This war finds us in the midst of a glorious
fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Today
we call a truce to answer a higher duty, our country's call.
If the Axis wins, we have no need for life, liberty or happiness.
It will be beyond our reach.
The probability is that we have not heard
the worst. But as long as war lasts, men, ships, and air planes
must be lost.
Don't lose your head and commit crimes in
the name of patriotism. As treacherous as was this unheralded
attack on our country, it should bring no reprisals [against]
innocent Japanese citizens on our shores. The same mob spirit
which would single them out for slaughter or reprisal, has trailed
you through the forest to string up at some crossroad.
These Japanese are not responsible for this
war. They certainly are good citizens, they attend their own
business and are seldom if at all found in court. Especially
is it tragic that these native born should be singled out for
abuse, insult [and] injury. Only when mob spirit abounds can
they be made to suffer. Mobs and mad dogs spew their venom without
And right here is where our vaunted Christian
religion may make it's final stand. In your treatment of them
ask yourselves: "What Would Jesus Do?"
The secret agents of this government will
do a better job in ferreting out its enemies than you, and do
it more efficiently.
Set an example for these un-American labor
unions by your truce and unitedly tell them they too should
suspend their strikes and direct their blows against the enemy,
not their country and their homes in its hour of peril.
Lets' keep our record clear.
Source: Northwest Enterprise, December 12,
1941, p. 1.
AFRICAN AMERICAN SOLDIERS DEFEND HOLLYWOOD
In perhaps one of the most unlikely developments
of World War II, African American soldiers who were part of
the 369th Coast Artillery, and elite New York National Guard
regiment dubbed "the Harlem Hellfighters," found themselves
stationed in the backyards of Hollywood celebrities, as part
of the defense of the West Coast against the anticipated Japanese
attack on the mainland in the first months following Pearl Harbor.
Here is a brief account of their experiences and reception by
The 369th was supposed to go home after a
year's training. But a little more than a month before their
hitch was up, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. A few months
later they were sent to defend the Southern California coast
and American race relations took another odd turn.
The 369th was ordered to set up their anti-aircraft
guns in the backyards of some of the wealthiest white people
in American, including a few of Hollywood's biggest stars. There,
in the midst of elaborately coiffed lawns and landscaped gardens,
twelve black troopers set up their tents in each yard and settled
in for who knew how long.
Some residents were appalled by the Army-style
integration of Burbank, California. William De Fossett, Regimental
Sergeant Major of the 369th, remembers hearing someone complain:
"We've never had negroes living her and now they're in
our backyards with those horrible guns." The men thought
the comments funny, particularly since some prominent members
of the community--stars like Humphrey Bogart and Rosalind Russell--welcomed
their defenders. Bogart told a group of the men that they were
welcome to use his house and gave them the keys to show he meant
it. And black celebrities like Lena Horne, Leigh Whipper, Eddie
"Rochester" Anderson, and Hattie McDaniel came around
to visit the troops.
In Burbank...the flexible identity of the
369th was emphasized. Their racial identity was, in the military
command's eyes, subordinated to their role as coast artillery,
anti-aircraft combat soldiers. The treatment they received from
white and black Hollywood stars strengthened their sense of
themselves as elite black soldiers...
Source: Beth Bailey and David Farber, "The
'Double-V' Campaign in World War II Hawaii: African Americans,
Racial Ideology, and Federal Power," Journal of Social
History 26:4 (Summer 1993:824.
THE GROWTH OF BLACK SAN FRANCISCO, 1940-1945
In the vignette below, historian Albert Broussard
describes the rapid increase in San Francisco's African American
population during World War II.
The Second World War was a demographic watershed
in the history of black San Francisco. Although the city's black
population had grown slowly throughout the twentieth century
in relation to other black urban communities, it swelled by
more than 600% between 1940 and 1945. And in the five-year interim
between 1945 and 1950, black migrants continued to steam into
San Francisco. By 1950, 43,460 blacks lived in the city where
fewer than 5,000 had lived a decade earlier. Few northern or
western urban communities had ever experience such rapid growth
in a comparable period. With the phenomenal increase in the
city's black population, San Francisco suddenly faced demographic
change on a scale it had not experienced since the 1849 Gold
When the United States entered World War II,
the nation's economy was transformed... High-paying jobs had
become available, and despite the distance, blacks from across
the nation, particularly form the South, were eager to move
to San Francisco. It was the immediate availability of jobs,
particularly in defense industries and in the Bay Area shipyards,
that provided the major impetus for this demographic shift.
By 1943, according to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce,
the Bay Area was the "largest shipbuilding center in the
And so they came by the thousands, each month,
crowding into established black settlements and creating new
ones. Sue Bailey Thurman, who would later organized the San
Francisco chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, recalled
that blacks were "scattered all over the city" in
1942, when she visited San Francisco for the first time. When
she returned to San Francisco two years later she stated that
"upwards to 40,000 blacks" were living in the city.
"It had changed in just that time... The wartime black
migration pushed the city's black population far ahead of the
Chinese, Japanese, and other nonwhite races in absolute numbers...
San Francisco was not the only black community
in California to register impressive increases in its black
population. Six Bay Area counties made relatively large gains.
Oakland, for instance, recorded an increase of 37,327 blacks
between 1940 and 1945, a 341% gain. The East Bay community of
Richmond, profiting from defense contracts and shipyard employment,
registered an increase of 5,003% in its black population between
1940 and 1947. Fewer than 300 blacks had lived in Richmond in
1940, but the lure of shipyard employment had swelled that number
to nearly 14,000 by 1947. Similarly, blacks flocked to Southern
California, particularly to Los Angeles, in large numbers. The
black population of Los Angeles was 63,774 in 1940, already
the largest black community in California. Between 1940 and
1946 it increased 109%. Clearly, blacks were migrating to cities
throughout the state in search of employment, but the San Francisco
Bay Area registered the largest increases in percentages of
its black population.
Source: Albert S. Broussard, Black San Francisco:
The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 1900-1954 (Lawrence,
1993), pp. 133-136.
BLACK WOMEN MIGRATE TO THE EAST BAY
In the following passage Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo
describes the experiences of black women in the World War II
era migration to Northern California.
Migrant women...perceived California as a
place of relative freedom for black people, a refuge from the
harshest manifestations of Jim Crow. And since most migrant
women were at a point in their lives where the limits imposed
by the white world were particularly painful, California became
a symbol of liberation... Filled with such images and expectations,
migrant women began their journey in shabby "Colored"
waiting rooms of train stations throughout the South. There,
they encountered discrimination and indifference from white
ticket agents who charged unfair rates, refused to give information
regarding arrival and departure times, or ignored black customers
until all white travelers had been waited on. From there they
boarded Jim Crow cars located at the end of trains, and crowded
with servicemen, baggage, and other migrants. Many women believed
that this would be their final encounter with Jim Crow, of at
least a final brush with this particular type of humiliation.
They expected the West to offer them the opportunity to be "somebody,"
a place where they would be treated like human beings.
The journey, then, was perceived as a passage
to a better place. Indeed, migrants who traveled by rail, referred
to their carriers as "Liberty Trains." As these trains
left the station, however, migrant women were forced to observe
segregated seating and dining arrangements. This changes after
the train crossed the Mason-Dixon line, the boundary dividing
the "zone of racial separation" from that part of
the country with an informal...system of segregation.... Ruth
Gracon left Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1940 to join her husband
in Oakland... Alone with a new baby, Ruth boarded a Jim Crow
car. "I remember crossing the Mason-Dixon line and being
able to sit in a coach instead of the Jim Crow car. I think
it was Kansas City. The Pullman porter was really nice--said
that I could sit anyplace now..." Bertha Walker left Houston
in October, 1943 to join her husband who had found work on the
San Francisco waterfront. Bertha "rode out of Texas on
the Jim Crow car...packed with military people." In El
Paso, Bertha changed trains, and a soldier who rose to give
her his seat said, "you can relax now, because we're at
the Mason-Dixon line, and the Great White Father has to look
up to you now."
The journey, while exciting, was also emotionally
and physically exhausting. Many migrant women had never left
the towns and cities where they were raised. And California,
despite its golden image, raised fears as well as hopes... The
East Bay grew significantly during the war years, taking on
characteristics of a boom town. Richmond, in particular, looked
wild and unkempt, with government housing projects, trailer
parks, cafes, bars, and clubs springing up on swampy vacant
lots north and west of the city. New arrivals, unable to find
housing, were sleeping in cars and parks. And everywhere, at
all hours, people in work clothes...were going back and forth
from the defense plants.
Ruth Cherry arrived in Oakland while her husband
was at work. At the station....she called a cab to take her
to the room her husband had rented. He came home in work clothes,
and she started crying when she saw him. "I had never seen
him in coveralls and dirty. He was a barber by trade, and always
clean." Migrant women, who expected a land of sunshine
and orange groves, were immediately disenchanted with the weather.
By most...accounts, the years between 1940-1945 were unusually
cold, foggy, and rainy. Willa Henry, who drove out with relatives,
sent her only winter coat by train with her other belongings.
"The night we got there my uncle took us out to eat at
Slim Jenkins [an Oakland nightclub] and I thought I would freeze
to death coming out of that warm climate.... Canary Jones remembers
the rain and mud... "I can remember the hills above Richmond
looking so dismal. It was raining a lot then. We were upstairs
in the project and the wind would blow and blow, and I would
cry and cry..."
Source: Gretchen J. Lemke-Santangelo, "A Long Road to Freedom:
African American Migrant Women and Social Change in the San
Francisco East Bay Area, 1940-1950," (PhD. dissertation,
Duke University, 1993), pp. 96-102.
BLACK WOMEN IN THE PORTLAND SHIPYARDS
The following account describes the workplace
that greeted African American women who entered the Portland
shipyards in World War II. The account below indicates that
these women faced greater discrimination than black men in the
In April 1944 Margaret Bernard, an Alabama
black woman, wrote to the Fair Employment Practices Committee
complaining about racial discrimination in southern shipyards.
"I would like to go to Tuskegee to learn Welding and Burning,"
Bernard wrote, "but I know if I did I would have to go
up North in order to Weld or Burn." Margaret Bernard would
have been disappointed if she had come north to the Portland
and Vancouver shipyards. Racism pervaded the shipyards and the
community. Black workers were attracted to the promise of shipyard
jobs, but while the black population of Portland grew from 1,934
in 1940 to 22,000 at its wartime peak, racial discrimination
remained a problem throughout the war.
Discriminatory practices limited the number
of black workers who gained access to skilled jobs. While the
unions of unskilled workers admitted blacks, the International
Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was the only union representing
skilled workers that admitted black workers on an equal basis.
The Boilermakers union established a separate black auxiliary
whose members were not entitled to full union privileges, and
the Kaiser management cooperated in firing workers who refused
to join the black union...
Statistics for the distribution of black women
by craft and grade are available only for Kaiser Vancouver,
which the Kaiser management highlighted during the FEPC trials
since it hired the most black workers of the three Kaiser yards.
Evidence from the shipyard newspapers, oral history interviews
and the files of the FEPC strongly suggest that black women
had even more difficulty penetrating the skilled trades than
black men. Even the statistics of the Kaiser management for
the Vancouver yard, which make no distinction between helper
and journeyman, show that while women composed 31 percent of
the black work force in 1943, they composed only 20 percent
of black welders, 21 percent of black electricians, and a tiny
percentage of other skilled trades.
Virginia Lemire, the coordinator of women's
services for the three Kaiser yards and the assistant personnel
manager at Swan Island, claimed at the FEPC Hearings in November
1943 that black women were concentrated in unskilled jobs because
most of them were unqualified and unsuited for skilled work.
Both oral history recollections and the records of the Fair
Employment Practice Committee demonstrate however, that black
women were barred from skilled work regardless of qualifications
Beatrice Marshall, her sister, and her two
friends were trained as steel-lathe and drill-press operators
in a National Youth Administration (NYA) program in South Bend,
Indiana, one of the several thousand NYA training programs that
had been geared to meet the demands of defense industries for
trained workers. Marshall loved learning to use machines. "I
feel like I was a champion on the drill press, and I really
did like it," she commented. The NYA paid the four women's
train fare to Portland and put them up for the first night at
the YWCA. They had brought their papers certifying that they
had passed their tests in Indiana, and they were looking forward
with excitement to working as shipyard machinists. Their hopes
however, were soon dashed. "When we got to the shipyards,
ready to apply for the work," Marshall recalled,
They told us that they didn't have any openings
lathe or drill-press operators; and that we would have
to either accept painter's helper or a sweeper...And
we complained because that wasn't what we was trained
for. And we asked for a job with what we was trained
for. And they said it wasn't any available.
After some persistence, Marshall and her friends
got the personnel office to admit that there were openings in
the machine shop but they were not accepting black workers.
Statistics collected in 1943 show fifty black machinists working
in the shipyards, but none of them were women. Marshall and
her friends complained to the newly organized chapter of the
Urban League but were unsuccessful in gaining admission to the
machine shop, so they worked for a while as unskilled laborers
and then left the shipyards. Marshall was hurt, angry, and confused.
"They was doing all this advertising and wanting us to
do this, and here I am spending time and getting trained and
qualified and couldn't get it...I was real mad."
Source: Amy Kesselman, Fleeting Opportunities;
Women Shipyard Workers in Portland and Vancouver During World
War II and Reconversion, (Albany, NY 1990), pp. 40, 41-42.
SEX AND THE SHIPYARDS
In the following vignette, Katherine Archibald,
a University of California researcher, recounted her white shipyard
worker fears about interracial sex clouded any attempted friendship
between white women and black men in the yards.
The ancient fear of despoliation of women
of the privileged race by men of inferior blood, which has played
so large a part in the establishment and elaboration of caste
systems in all societies, prevailed in the shipyard as well.
A rumor was almost always afloat of some attempt by a Negro
to satisfy his presumably constant sex hunger for the woman
of white skin. There were tales of surreptitious pinchings and
maulings in the secluded corners of the hulls, and of successful
sexual attacks in the dark streets of the Negro section and
in the housing units where Negroes and whites lived in close
proximity. I was never able to verify these accounts, but they
were invariably accepted as factual and worthy of repetition
for their salacious interest and inflammatory value. The Okies
were especially disturbed and found it hard to accept the casual
contact between Negro men and white women to which Northern
custom had long been indifferent--sitting together on streetcars
and buses, standing together before lunch counters or pay windows,
working side by side in the same gangs. Ordinary association
enforced upon the two races by shipyard work and living was
actively disapproved by those who were accustomed to rigid lines
of separation, and open protests were occasionally made by an
Few insults in shipyard parlance were more
searing than "nigger-lover." A white man who sought
the company of Negro women was exposed to scorn and partial
ostracism. But the scorn was immeasurably multiplied when it
was a white woman who desired or passively admitted the Negro’s
amorous attentions. With startling swiftness the anger of a
race would gather and concentrate upon this one instance of
desertion and betrayal. Just such fury spread over the hull
on which I chanced to be at work one quiet afternoon when two
young white girls, who were stringing cable next to a group
of Negro machinists, chose to be as friendly with them as they
would have been with a similar neighboring group of white boys.
From mouth to mouth the story ran; probable objectors were hurried
to the spot to observe for themselves and in turn to stoke the
flames of indignation. Threats of public disgrace for the girls
were becoming loudly vocal, and expressions of intent to expel
them from the hull by force or to subject them to more memorable
and brutal violence were crowding on the verge of positive action,
when the decisive summons of the quitting whistle put a fortunate
end both to the flirtation and to the clamor for punishment.
In the face of these attitudes no white woman,
even if she wanted to, could establish normal friendly relations
with a Negro man, or even talk with him at length on any topic.
Contact of this type, no matter what its actual substance, was
immediately translated by the onlooker into sexual terms. On
the one occasion when I chanced to have a long and public conversation
with a Negro man, the reaction of the shipyard audience was
immediate and unequivocal. "Well, when's the wedding going
to be?" a bystander inquired of me, and for days a trail
of insinuation followed after the simple occurrence. White workers
would admit no halfway point between the Negro's allotted role
of servile, silent distance from the white woman and the intimacies
of sexual union...
Source: Katherine Archibald, Wartime Shipyard--A
Study in Social Disunity, (Berkeley 1947), pp. 70-71, 72-73.
WHITE WOMEN AND BLACK MEN IN THE PORTLAND SHIPYARDS
In the following account historian Amy Kesselman
describes sexual as well as racial tensions in the Portland
area shipyards during World War II.
The emphasis on female sexuality heightened
the undercurrent of tension about relations between white women
and black men that lurked near the surface in both the shipyard
and the community. Business Week, in reporting the discovery
that fifty women were working as prostitutes in a Portland shipyard
in 1942, cited a Portland policeman who was concerned that if
white prostitutes consorted with Negro workers they might encourage
black workers “to take liberties with white women,”
which might lead to "serious race complications."
When Clarence Williams, a black worker at Swan Island, gave
a Christmas card to a white woman on his crew, his foreman said
to him, "I am going to show you about buying white women
presents," and had him discharged.
At the FEPC hearings, Elmer Hann, general
supervisor at Swan Island, testified that white women were afraid
to work with black male workers. "They really don't know,
I guess, what they are afraid of, it just seems to be the inborn
nature of a woman and lack of social contact, perhaps, that
makes them just a little reticent to be isolated with these
people." But white women attempting to increase their social
contact with black men in the yards or the community raised
eyebrows and could provoke repercussions. After an interracial
dance in Vanport, one of the few racially integrated housing
projects in the city, the police issued a warning to white women
who had been seen dancing with black men that continuing this
practice might lead to a race riot. Doris Avshalomov often had
lunch with a friend from Reed College and some black students
from a southern college.
Some of the white workers would sort of come
by and make comments at us--noises. And one night they pulled
the lights out of the place where we were sitting. You know,
just real annoying things. And finally, my crew leader told
me that his superior wanted to talk to me. And his superior--I
will give him credit, he was embarrassed, but he said that some
people misunderstood the fact that I was just having lunch with
these people, and that he just thought we should all just join
hands and put our shoulder to the wheel and avoid any kind of
disturbance of that sort. And I was just furious....It was just
sort of comradely thing. The only people who ever made unwelcome
advances to me were white men in the shipyards--but I didn't
see my leaderman talking to me about that!
Source: Amy Kesselman, Fleeting Opportunities;
Women Shipyard Workers in Portland and Vancouver During World
War II and Reconversion, (Albany, NY 1990), pp. 61-62.
LYN CHILDS CONFRONTS A RACIST ACT
In the following vignette, black San Francisco
shipyard worker Lyn Childs, describes how she came to the defense
of a Filipino employee on the ship she was repairing. Her account
also discusses the reaction from her supervisor.
I was working down in the hold of the ship
and there were about six Filipino men...and this big white guy
went over and started to kick this poor Filipino and none of
the Black men that was working down there in the hold with him
said one word to this guy. And I sat there and was getting madder
and madder by the minute. I sprang to my feet, turned on my
torch, and I had a flame about six to seven feet out in front
of me, and I walked up to him and I said (you want me to say
the real language?) I said to him,
"You so-in-so. If you go lift one more
foot, I'll cut your guts out." That was my exact words.
I was so mad with him.
Then he started to tell me that he had been
trained in boot camp that any national group who was darkskinned
was beneath all White People. So he started to cry. I felt sorry
for him, because he was crying, really crying. He was frightened,
and I was frightened. I didn't know what I was doing, so in
the end I turned my torch off and I sat down on the steps with
About that time the intercom on board the
ship started to announce,
"Lyn Childs, report to Colonel Hickman
So I said, "I guess this is it."
So I went up to Colonel Hickman's office, and behind me came
all these men, and there lined up behind me, and I said,
"Where are you guys going?"
They said, "We're going with you."
When we got to the office [Colonel Hickman]
said, "I just wanted to see Lyn Childs," and they
said, "You'll see all of us, because we were all down there.
We all did not have the guts enough to do what she did, [but]
we're with her."
Colonel Hickman said, "Come into this
He had one of the guards take me into the
office real fast and closed the door real fast and kept them
out, and he said,
"What kind of communist activity are
you carrying on down there?"
I said, "A communist! What is that?"
He said, "You know what I am talking
about. You're a communist."
I said, "A communist! Forget you! The
kind of treatment that man was putting on the Filipinos, and
to come to their rescue. Then I am the biggest communist you
ever seen in your life. That is great. I am a communist."
He said, "Don't say that so loud."
I said, "Well, you asked me was I a communist.
You're saying I am. I'm saying I'm a...
"Shh! Shh! Shh! Hush! Don't say that
so loud." Then he said, "I think you ought to get
back to work."
"Well, you called me Why did you call
"Never mind what I called you for,"
he said, "Go back to work."
Source: Paul R. Spickard, "Work and Hope:
African American Women in Southern California During World War
II," Journal of the West 32:3 (July 1993):74-75.
ETTA GERMANY WRITES TO THE PRESIDENT
African American migrants who found work in
west coast shipyards encountered the hostile unions which after
unsuccessful attempts to bar their employment, resorted to segregating
them (and white women) into auxiliary locals. Etta Germany,
a black shipyard worker in Richmond wrote directly to President
Franklin Roosevelt to protest the discrimination directed against
her and other African American shipyard workers. Her letter
is reprinted below.
I wish to call your attention to a very disgraceful
and UnAmerican situation that now exists in the Boilermakers
and Welders Union Local 513 of Richmond, California. I am a
Negro girl. Three weeks ago I and lots of others enrolled in
the National Defense Training Classes to become welders. I applied
for a job at the yards several times. But each time myself and
others of my race were give the run around.... [Be]cause of
being Negro I was not allowed to join the Union. Now Mr. President
there are a great many Negroes in Defense Training as myself
who upon completion of the course will be subjected to the same
treatment as myself... We are all doing what we can to assist
in winning the war. I sincerely feel that this is no time for
our very own fellow citizens to use discrimination of this type....
Mrs. Etta Germany
Source: Selected Documents from the Records
of the Committee on Fair Employment Practice Field Records,
Region XII, Reel 108, Complaints Against Boilermakers File.
NORTHEAST PORTLAND: THE GROWTH OF A BLACK
When historians discuss the rise of segregated
northern black communities they understandably focus on the
largest cities--New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. But many of
the trends in such cities were evident in smaller locales such
as Portland, Oregon. Portland's black community dates back to
the 1850s but by World War II it along with other west coast
cities saw an influx of African Americans. By 1945, Portland
had 22,000 blacks who overwhelmed the pre-1940 black population
of 1,931. The following vignettes trace the rise of the 20th
Century black community in Portland. The first two vignettes
are part of editorials which appeared in local African American
newspapers, the Portland Advocate, and Portland Observer. The
third is from a special report on black Portland published in
the Portland City Club Bulletin.
We all know what residential segregation means.
It means poor housing, bad streets, deficient lighting. It also
means separate schools, and their attendant shortcomings....
It is segregation that is the root of all interracial troubles.
We think that many of us will live to see in Portland the spectacle
of separate schools and all the rest of the segregation as practiced
now in the South. It is reasonable to expect it in the wake
of residential segregation.
Portland Advocate, July 12, 1930
* * *
In Portland the Negro people are passively
witnessing the development of a first rate ghetto with all the
potential for squalor, poverty, juvenile delinquency and crime...
It is obvious that the herding of Negroes into the district
extending from Russell Street to the Steel Bridge and from Union
Avenue to the river front portends economic and social problems
of far reaching significance for this city. The struggle to
get a more equitable housing arrangement for all minorities
will require the undivided attention of all socially conscious
minority group leaders.
Portland Observer, July 20, 1945
* * *
Over fifty percent of Portland's 11,000 Negroes
are concentrated in census tracts 22 and 23, better known as
the Albina district....one small area in the city which is about
two miles long and one mile wide.... Living conditions in the
Albina district are more crowded today than ten years ago....
In confining a majority of its Negroes to a restricted section
of the city, Portland has forced them to live in crowded, ancient,
unhealthy and wholly inadequate dwellings.... Confinement to
an inferior and relatively unattractive neighborhood is a daily
reminder of the prejudice of the white majority, and constant
reinforcement of feelings of inferiority and resentment.
Portland City Club Bulletin, April 19, 1957
BLACK BUILDERS OF THE ALCAN HIGHWAY
The vignette below describes the black soldiers
who helped build the Alaska Highway during World War II.
The construction of the Alcan (now called
the Alaska Highway) has been likened to the building of the
Panama Canal. Most experts predicted it could not be done. Its
route through the unmapped Canadian Rockies spanned some of
the coldest, toughest, least explored country in North America.
Yet the Corps of Engineers pushed through a 1,500 mile pioneer
road linking Alaska to the outside world in just eight months
and twelve days.
One-third of the 10,607 soldiers who built
it were black. The Alaska section was built solely by black
troops of the 97th Regiment under white officers. The 388th,
another Afro-American regiment of about 1,250 Corps of Engineer
recruits was employed building a spur road off the Alcan near
Whitehorse to [the] Norman Well oil fields in the Northwest
Territories. And the 93rd and 95th regiments of black troops
worked on the road north from Dawson Creek. Yet black troops
were, for the most part, invisible and the considerable mark
they left on American history was--until recently--unrecorded.
Building the Alcan was considered crucial
because the Japanese Navy threatened American's west coast shipping
lanes and there was no land link to important U.S. military
bases in the north. So Brig. General Clarence Sturdevant was
apologetic when he broke the news that he was sending black
regiments north to Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., all powerful
head of the U.S. Army in Alaska: "I have heard that you
object to having colored troops in Alaska and we have attempted
to avoid sending them. However, we have been forced to use two
colored regiments and it seem unwise for diplomatic reasons
to use them both in Canada since the Canadians also prefer whites."
Buckner, son of a Confederate general who
surrendered to Grant, detailed his objections in writing and
they had little to do with worries of competency: "The
thing which I have opposed...has been their [black troops] establishment
as port troops for the unloading of transports at our docks.
The very high wages offered to unskilled labor here would attract
a large number of them and cause them to...settle after the
war, with the natural result that they would interbreed with
the Indians and Eskimos and produce an objectionable race of
mongrels which would be a problem from now on." To placate
Buckner, it was agreed that black troops would not be allowed
near any Alaskan settlements. The promise was adhered to so
strictly that very few residents in Fairbanks and Big Delta,
Alaska's two major Alcan outposts, ever realized blacks were
in the area and press coverage of the sticky situation was not
[The troops'] first winter (1942-43) was one
of the worst on record... Alexander Powell remembers days as
a crane operator for the 97th when temperatures dropped to seventy
below. "We wore three pairs of socks at time, with rubber
galoshes instead of shoes because the leather would freeze.
We had adequate cloth-lined parkas, pants, mittens and heavy
underwear, but it still was mighty cold," he recalls. "But
I was a young man who felt he had a job to do, and I did it.
Walter E. Mason's A company of the 97th built 295 miles of road
through stunted forest from Slana, across the Tanana River and
then south into Canada. Eighty-five miles of that was corduroy
road topped with felled trees--in some places five layers deep
to counter the permafrost. Mason and his men bucked winter temperatures
as low as seventy degrees below zero, living in tents, existing
mainly on dehydrated potatoes, Vienna sausage, Spam and whatever
game they could shoot. Mail delivery was infrequent. They worked
seven days a week, around the clock in summer, and many went
a year or more without leave. Yet morale was high according
to the Virginia engineer: "We made about five miles a day,
had to move camp every two or three days. Ours was the first
cat (bulldozer) to cross the border and everybody climbed on.
We were supposed to meet the 18th [Regiment] coming up from
the south. When they didn't show it, we kept on going."
Source: Lael Morgan, "Writing Minorities
Out of History: Black Builders of the Alcan Highway," Alaska
History 7:2 (Fall 1992):1-2, 5-6.
BLACKS, WHITES, ASIANS IN WORLD WAR II HAWAII
The following vignette, taken from a 1993
article authored by Beth Bailey and David Farber, describes
the complex racial order that African Americans found themselves
in when they served as soldiers, sailors and war workers in
Hawaii. Their experience profoundly reshaped thinking about
race among whites, blacks and Asians on both the islands and
In Hawaii during the war, there was a volatile combination of
extreme state power, a complex system of race relations that
was not bi-polar and had no established place for African American...
Some would use this liminal landscape to construct new paradigms
of race and new possibilities for struggle as yet unexplored
in mainland America...
Well over a million service personnel and
civilian employees of the military...were brought to Hawaii
by reason of war. Among those men and women were approximately
30,000 people of African descent--soldiers, sailors, war workers.
They came to a place that, before World War II, had no "Negro
Problem," in part because few people on the islands recognized
that "Negroes" lived in Hawaii. In 1940, according
to one estimate by the territorial government, approximately
200 "Negroes of American birth" lived on the islands...
Most people on Hawaii did not bring the racist ways of the mainland
into there daily lives. They did stereotype one another: many
Americans of Japanese ancestry looked down on the Chinese, and
often upon the haoles [whites]. The Chinese looked down on the
Filipinos. Round and round it went. Each ethnic group had its
suspicions of the others and definite hierarchies existed. But
such prejudices were not the white heat of the mainland's rigid
caste society. The lines were less absolute... It helped that
no one group held a majority... Hawaii was much more progressive
on the issue of race than the rest of the U.S.
The men and women who came to Hawaii from
the mainland were uniformly shocked by what they found. On the
streets of Honolulu or in small towns on the Big Island, "white"
ness was not the natural condition. All newcomers were surprised,
but reactions varied. Some praised what they saw...others were
mightily upset by it; still others just confused...
Writing home in private letters to family
and friends, wives and sweethearts, black men who had come to
Hawaii as servicemen or war workers discussed the possibilities
of Hawaii's wartime racial liminality. A shipyard worker wrote:
"I thank God often for letting me experience the occasion
to spend a part of my life in a part of the world were one can
be respected and live as a free man should." Another young
man tried to explain to his girlfriend: "Honey, its just
as much difference between over here and down there as it is
between night and day." He concluded: Hawaii "will
make anybody change their minds about living down there."
"Down there" was the Jim Crow South, the place about
which a third man wrote, "I shall never go back."
White men and women from the mainland also
saw the possible implications of Hawaii's racial landscape:
"They have come as near to solving the race problem as
any place in the world," wrote a nurse. "I'm a little
mystified by it as yet but it doesn't bother anyone who had
lived here awhile." A teacher found it world shaking: "I
have gained here at least the impulse to fight racial bigotry
and boogeyism. My soul has been stretched here and my notion
of civilization and Americanism broadened."
Not everyone was so inspired. One hardened
soul, in Hawaii with her husband and children, wrote the folks:
"Down here they have let down the standards, there does
not seem to be any race hatred, there is not even any race distinction...
I don't want to expose our children too long to these conditions."
A white man wrote back home: "Imagine that the South will
have some trouble ahead when these black bastards return. Over
here they're on the equal with everyone... They're in paradise
and no fooling." Others made it clear they did not believe
the trouble would keep: "Boy the niggers are sure in their
glory over here...they almost expect white people to step off
the streets and let them walk by... They are going to overstep
their bounds a little too far one of these days and those boys
from the South are going to have a little necktie party."
If Hawaii was "paradise"...there
was a snake in this paradise, too. "As you know,"
one man wrote back to the mainland, "most sailors are from
Texas and the South. They are most[ly] Navy men here, and they
have surely poisoned everyone against the Negro..with tales
of Negroes carrying dreadful diseases, being thieves, murderers
and downright no good."
* * *
When the 369th Coast Artillery Regiment (The
Harlem Hellfighters) were transported to their initial base
camp on the little sugar cane railroad, people reacted to them
as if they were some kind of invading force. People ran away,
frightened of the train full of black men. It didn't take long
to figure out what had happened. Local people had been repeatedly
warned by white soldiers and sailors from the South that blacks
were literally dangerous animals. Local women, in particular,
refused to have social relations with African American men.
Ernest Golden, a war worker at Pearl Harbor, remembers that
women would never sit next to him--or any other black man--on
buses. "They had been told by the Southerners...that, first
of all, Blacks were not to be trusted. [They] went so far as
to say that Blacks had tails, and if they had a baby, the baby
would be a monkey and all that sort of garbage. So...you'd get
on the bus and sit down and she would make sure that she just
got up and left. She just wouldn't let you sit next to her..."
In letters back home, black servicemen fumed
about the spread of racial hatred. "They preach to the
natives a nasty, poisonous doctrine that we must fight like
hell to overcome. They tell the native that we are ignorant
dumb, evil, rapers, and troublemakers. They have the native
women to a point they are afraid to even speak to our Negro
The responses of the local people to the black
malihini (newcomers) were complex and somewhat unpredictable.
Although some sociologists at the time speculated that the local
population would not accept negroes...in fact local men often
lent their support to blacks against whites....
This is not to say that the propaganda of
African American inferiority had no effect... Local women wrote
frequently of their fears. "I am very scared of these Negro
soldiers here in Honolulu. They make my skin shrivel and myself
afraid to go near them," wrote a Chinese girl. A young
Japanese woman wrote in almost identical terms: "They are
so big and dark...Seeing them around while I'm alone gives me
the 'goose-flesh.'" Another Japanese woman was a little
more reflective about her feelings. After sharing a perfectly
uneventful bus ride with four black soldiers she wrote a friend:
"Gee, I was very frightened... Funny isn't it how I am
about them. One would be that way after hearing lots of nasty
things about them."
Some local women recognized the unfairness
of local fears. One young woman of Japanese ancestry, writing
in a private letter, criticized her peers: "They are going
to have a dance for colored boys...only 18 girls are willing
to go--such cooperation. Imagine us here talking about color
equality and when it come to those things, not enough cooperation.
I sure would like to have gone to it...but you know Mother."
Source: Beth Bailey and David Farber, "The
'Double-V' Campaign in World War II Hawaii: African Americans,
Racial Ideology, and Federal Power," Journal of Social
History 26:4 (Summer 1993:818-821, 825-827.
The Port Chicago Naval Base, completed in
1942 and located about thirty-five miles northeast of San Francisco,
quickly became the major west coast facility for the loading
of ammunition for the Pacific Theater. Almost from the beginning
of the base, African American naval personnel were the majority
of the workforce. On the evening of July 17, 1944, about half
of the black stevedores stationed at the facility were loading
two ships, the Quinalt Victory and E.A. Bryan when an explosion,
the equivalent of a small earthquake, destroyed the ships and
dock and leveled the nearby town of Port Chicago. Three hundred
twenty men, 202 of them African American, were killed instantly
in the explosion. The black sailors killed and wounded at Port
Chicago accounted for 15% of all African American naval casualties
during World War II. Following the explosion 50 black sailors
were put on trial for mutiny when they refused to resume loading
the ammunition. The following account, eyewitness Cyril Sheppard,
an enlisted man in the barracks during the explosion, describes
the first moments of the tragedy.
I was sitting on the toilet--I was reading
a letter from home. Suddenly there were two explosions. The
first one knocked me clean off... I found myself flying toward
the wall. I just threw my hands up like this, then I hit the
wall. Then the next one came right behind that, Phoom! Knocked
me back on the other side. Men were screaming, the lights went
out and glass was flying all over the place. I gout out to the
door. Everybody was... that thing had...the whole building was
turned around, caving in. We were a mile and a half away from
the ships. And so the first thing that came to my mind, I said,
'Jesus Christ, the Japs have hit!' I could have sworn they were
out there pounding us with warships or bombing us or something.
But one of the officers was shouting, 'It's the ships! It's
the ships! So we jumped into one of the trucks and we said let's
go down there to see if we can help. We got halfway down there
on the truck and stopped. Guys were shouting at the driver,
go on down, What the hell are you staying up here for? The driver
says, 'Can't go no farther.' See, there wasn't no more docks.
Wasn't no railroad. Wasn't no ships. And the water just came
right up to...all the way back. The driver couldn't go no farther.
Just calm and peaceful. I didn't even see any smoke."
Source: Robert L. Allen, The Port Chicago
Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval
History (New York: Amistad Press, 1993), p. 58.
BLACK PORTLAND WOMEN AND POST-WAR DISCRIMINATION
In the following account historian Amy Kesselman
describes the difficulties African American women faced when
the Portland-Vancouver shipyards closed immediately after World
Among the women who had most difficulty adjusting
to reconversion were black women and women in the higher age
brackets (over thirty-five). In her study of women wage earners
in four cities, Lois Helmbold demonstrated that during the Depression
younger women who were black and/or over thirty-five were displaced
by younger, white workers. During the war older women moved
back into the work force, and black women of all ages moved
from domestic and service work to industrial work. In the reconversion
period, these women...confronted the restoration of prewar conditions.
About half of the black population left the
Portland-Vancouver area after the war, and those that remained
faced widespread discrimination by employers and unions. The
United States Employment Service (USES) did not force employers
to hire black workers, because employers threatened to find
workers elsewhere. USES officials concluded that it was "unwise
and the wrong approach to attempt to force employers to hired
colored workers against their will" after thirty firms
stopped using USES during the war when they were pressured to
hire black workers. Members of the Portland chapter of the Urban
League, which had been established during the war, thought that
USES workers themselves lacked "racial tolerance"
and were not doing enough to change the policies of local industries.
Portland, according to Urban League members, was the most bigoted
city on the West Coast.
Black women, of course, faced double discrimination.
Only two Portland area manufacturing establishments registered
with the USES would employ black women: a garment factory and
a bag factory that operated two segregated buildings, one for
white workers and the other for black workers. The Urban League
tried to improve employment prospects for black workers by pressuring
unions and employers to end discriminatory practices and by
reluctantly acting as an employment agency for black workers.
Black women seeking the help of the USES or the Urban League
were often urged to take work in domestic service, which "most
of them are reluctant to do...because they object to the wage
scales and the working conditions." According to the USES,
many of the black women looking for work were married and unable
to live at their place of employment, a requirement for many
Margaret Kay Anderson, field secretary for
the Women's Bureau reported that "many of the colored women
who worked during the war are out of the labor market because
they had no intention of working when the war was over."
She did not explain how the USES knew that these women had been
planning to retire from the work force and were not discouraged
by the limited opportunities for black women workers...
Despite efforts to find alternatives, two
of the three black women worked as domestics in the postwar
period. Audrey Moore, who was the sole support of her child,
reported having difficulty finding jobs--a difficulty compounded
by being female and black, and by not having a high-school education.
Housecleaning, poultry work, and seasonal cannery work were
all she could find. Marie Merchant cleaned Pullman cars for
a while and then did domestic work for private families. Beatrice
Marshall...who had been trained as a machinist but was a victim
of racial discrimination in the shipyards, worked at the bag
factory until it closed in 1946, when she got a job as a page
in the public library...
Source: Amy Kesselman, Fleeting Opportunities;
Women Shipyard Workers in Portland and Vancouver During World
War II and Reconversion, (Albany, NY 1990), pp. 114-115, 118.
LAS VEGAS: THE "MISSISSIPPI OF THE WEST"
Las Vegas, the 20th Century gambling Mecca
of the nation, was a quintessential boom town. Founded in 1904,
by 1960, its population reached 64,405. If Las Vegas appeared
different to Americans because it was the "city that never
sleeps," it was all too familiar to black Americans as
a locality that practiced racial discrimination. Indeed race
relations by the time of a World War II influx of African Americans
had deteriorated to a point where local residents, many of whom
were from the South, dubbed the city, the "Mississippi
of the West." In the account below historian John Findlay
describes both the rise of racial segregation and discrimination,
and its eventual decline in the nation's leading resort city.
Since World War II, southern Nevada had a
significant black population. In 1960 the minority accounted
for 15% of the people inside the Las Vegas city limits. Virtually
all blacks lived in an impoverished section of town known as
Westside. For them, there was little chance to escape to outlying
subdivisions. During the 1940s and 1950s the segregation of
blacks and their relatively low standard of living served as
a counterpoint to the glitter and prosperity of the gambling
Contemporary observers tended to explain local
racism as an import from the Deep South. Relations between blacks
and whites in southern Nevada, however, actually followed the
same cycle of accommodation and conflict that characterized
earlier frontiers in the United States. Minorities had traditionally
encountered less hostility on relatively new and open frontiers,
but as each new West became more crowded, tensions between ethnic
and racial groups increased. Whites were more likely to invoke
prejudices as frontier societies grew more complex and competitive....
All across the American West, blacks, Indians, Latinos, Asians,
and other minority peoples had been relegated consistently to
less rewarding jobs and less desirable lands once whites began
to crowd into frontier regions. Blacks suffered something of
the same fate in Las Vegas during the mid-twentieth century.
Blacks coexisted relatively easily with whites
in southern Nevada from the founding of the railroad town in
1905 until whites began to throng to the boom town of the 1940s.
A quite small percentage of the population before World War
II, blacks resided not in a sharply defined district of their
own but rather in close proximity to whites in downtown Las
Vegas during the 1920s and 1930s. The relative harmony broke
down briefly in the early 1930s when blacks began to compete
for jobs on Boulder Dam, but after completion of the project
relations returned to normal until the tremendous influx of
both whites and blacks during the Second World War. Blacks generally
lost the ensuing competition for the best jobs and more comfortable
housing. Whites, faced with more blacks than ever before, increasingly
practiced policies of discrimination and segregation that cemented
the plainly subordinate status of the minority. When blacks
and whites kept arriving in southern Nevada after the war, amid
fears of economic slump and housing shortages, whites continued
to restrict their minority to the less rewarding jobs and the
most run-down residential district. By 1950 Las Vegas had become
a tightly segregated city.... Blacks remained concentrated in
an area that was so impoverished that in 1965 it became one
of the very first targets of VISTA, the Great Society's domestic
Peace Corps program.
At the same time that they confined the minority
to Westside residences, whites closed off the resort city to
blacks by erecting rigid racial barriers that earned the city
comparison to the Deep South. Downtown and Strip establishments
generally did not admit black patrons until the late 1950s and
early 1960s, so black Las Vegans had to gamble at their own
clubs in Westside. Black entertainers like Nat King Cole and
Sammy Davis, Jr., when they were permitted to stay in Strip
hotels at which they were performing, were sometimes discouraged
from mingling with whites or having black friends accompany
them on the grounds. Segregation was extended to other public
places as well, including theaters, restaurants, swimming pools,
* * *
The prospects for black Las Vegans began to
brighten during the late 1950s and early 1960s at the same time
that conditions improved around the country. The quality of
life in Westside started to change in 1955 as banks began to
lend money to black homeowners and government agencies invested
additional funds for rebuilding the run-down district. The coincidental
opening of the first interracial hotel, the short-lived Moulin
Rouge, indicated a growing interest in black tourists as well.
Even greater strides were made, however, once Las Vegans realized
that their racial policies tarnished the image of the city in
the eyes of a county that was increasingly responsive to demands
for civil rights. Exclusionary policies no longer seemed appropriate
for a city hoping to be regarded as cosmopolitan. Las Vegans,
who had previously been largely unmoved by protests organized
by civil rights activists, were much more sensitive to the possible
repercussions of a demonstration scheduled for March 1960, by
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Major hotels and casinos averted the protest, and the certain
bad publicity, by agreeing to desegregate facilities quickly.
Conditions for blacks did not improve overnight in Las Vegas,
as evidenced by riots that rocked Westside in 1969, but positive
changes had been started. Racial barriers would not be permitted
to stand in the way of the continuing boom in southern Nevada.
Source: John Findlay, People of Chance: Gambling
in American Society from Jamestown to Las Vegas (New York, 1986),