Bitter Fruit: African American Women in World War II

By Maureen Honey | Go to book overview

War Work

African American magazines were upbeat as they advertised war jobs for women, as is illustrated in war plant supervisor Ida Coker Clark's essay “Negro Woman Worker, What Now?” but the reality was that most black women ran into serious obstacles in their efforts to obtain skilled blue- collar or clerical and other kinds of work. Employers hired them only as a last resort, after white female and black male labor supplies were exhausted, and many war contractors refused to hire them at all. Frequently, they were relegated to night shifts, janitorial positions, or both. This discrimination is illustrated by George E. DeMar, a National Urban League field reporter, in his essay “Negro Women Are American Workers, Too, ” which describes all the occupational categories in Pittsburgh in which not one African American woman could be found at the height of the labor shortage in 1943. Another essay in this section, “Overly Sensitive, ” by the African American employment counselor Robert Jones, details the subterfuges employers used to avoid hiring black workers through the U.S. Employment Service.

Two personal essays by factory workers in this section, both entitled “What My Job Means to Me, ” illustrate the hardships such prejudice created. Hortense Johnson was a munitions worker who describes the considerable physical demands of her job as well as the constant threat of explosion; Leotha Hackshaw, an inspector in a war plant, must take a modeling job to make ends meet. Both complain about the long commutes to their jobs, a problem for most black women who were confined to racial ghettos in the urban areas that drew vast numbers of migrants to manufacturing jobs. The discrimination faced by black women in war work is reflected in Chester Himes's “The Song Says `Keep on Smiling.' ” It concerns a fictional shipfitter's helper whose cramped boardinghouse room over a San Francisco bar diminishes the quality of her life, as does the racism of her coworkers. Basing his story in part on his own experiences as a shipfitter in Los Angeles during the war, Himes fictionalizes the hurtful fractures in home-front unity for black workers, even those who managed to penetrate racial barriers to skilled employment.

Shirley Graham's “Tar” also details the impact of racial bars on African American women when she focuses on a young southern migrant to New York, Mary, who cannot get hired as a sheet-metal worker after taking a government training course. Forced back into domestic work, Graham's protagonist can only get hired by a war plant when her white employer

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Bitter Fruit: African American Women in World War II
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Bitter Fruit *
  • Bitter Fruit - African American Women in World War II *
  • Contents *
  • Illustrations xi
  • Acknowledgments xiii
  • A Note on the Text xvii
  • Introduction 1
  • Section I - Woman Welder, the Crisis, April 1942 *
  • War Work 35
  • Section 2 - A Wac, the Crisis, September 1942 *
  • Racism on the Home Front 127
  • Section 3 - Riveters, Opportunity, Spring 1945 *
  • The Double Victory Campaign 257
  • Section 4 - Singer Lena Horne, the Crisis, January 1943 *
  • Popular Culture and the Arts 317
  • Appendix 381
  • Bibliography 383
  • Index to Authors 391
  • Index to Titles 395
  • Credits 399
  • About the Editor 401
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