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Segregation: Its impact
Color made a difference at the recruiting office and to the general population, but things were changing. On Tuesday morning, May 25, 1943, tensions explode at the Alabama Dry Dock shipyard.
From THE WAR Episode 3:
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: I went down to the recruiting office,
the navy and volunteered. I volunteered in response to the call that
they made specifically for men to man the offices. The recruiter for
the navy said, “What can you do?” I said, “Well, I can, uh, run an
office. I can type. I can take shorthand if that’s needed.” I
said, “And, oh, yes, I have a Ph.D. in history from Harvard.” I
wondered what he was gonna say. He said, “You have everything but
color.” And, uh, I said, “Well, I thought there was an emergency,
but obviously there’s not, so I bid you a good day.” And I vowed
that day that they would not get me, because they did not deserve
me. If I was able – physically, mentally, every other kind of way,
able and willing to serve my country – and my country turned me down
on the basis of color, then my country did not deserve me. And I
vowed then that they would not get me.

NARRATOR: John Hope Franklin would keep that pledge and never serve
in the armed forces. He would go on to become one of the country’s
most distinguished historians.

MUSIC: Music for Movies, Aaron Copland

NEWSREEL: By January 1st, Congress had appropriated over two billion
dollars for emergency housing in America’s war boomtowns. Here is how
some of it was spent in Mobile: These are the slums that we have
seen. Slum clearance projects had been the local, private enterprise
of a few high-minded, far-sighted individuals. But in Mobile, such
projects as these have become one of the obligations of good
government. They are rented only to certified, colored war workers.
And are equipped with auditoriums, playgrounds, and day nurseries to
take care of children while their parents are working in the war plants.

NARRATOR: To relieve the desperate overcrowding in Mobile, the
National Housing Agency provided 14,000 units for white workers– but
fewer than 1,000 for blacks. There were 30,000 African Americans in
the city now – and just 55 hospital beds that would take them.

MUSIC: Echoes of Harlem, Duke Ellington

JOHN GRAY: You had white water fountain, and a
black water fountain. And a black would get into trouble if he went
and drank at the white water fountain. My friend at Brookley Field
had his head busted wide open because he drank at the white fountain.

NARRATOR: Sixteen-year-old John Gray of 407 Royal Street was working
as a carpenter’s helper at Alabama Dry Dock before the war began.
There had been then no way for a black employee to be upgraded to the
ranks of skilled workers. Similar discrimination was found in defense
industries throughout the Jim Crow South and in other parts of the
country, as well. But black leaders had insisted on more jobs for
black workers, and President Roosevelt had established a Fair
Employment Practices Commission to combat discrimination in defense
plants. Things were beginning to change even for the African-American
citizens of Mobile.

JOHN GRAY: A lot of black people who used to work in homes, private
homes as cooks and chauffeurs and maids got jobs at Brookley Field.
And it created some tension. One white person asked a black person,
“Do you know where I can find me a good girl? I’ll give her twenty-
five dollars a week and car fare.” And the black woman told her, “If
you can find one, I’ll give her thirty-five dollars.”

MUSIC: Traveling Sad, Wynton Marsalis

NARRATOR: With change came trouble. In August of 1942, a city bus
driver named Grover Chandler shot and killed Henry Williams, a black
private in uniform, after he refused to move to the back of the bus.

JOHN GRAY: And they put the bus driver in jail. But they boasted
that he never stayed in a cell. They let him sleep on the cot that
the sheriff used. And then they let him out eventually. It died
down, but nothing was done to the man actually.

NARRATOR: Tensions continued to rise. On Tuesday morning, May 25,
1943, they exploded at the Alabama Dry Dock shipyard, after
management gave in to a Federal directive and agreed to let twelve
black workers become welders.

CLYDE ODOM: We were training them to be burners
and welders and become mechanics. And the white people was resenting
it.

NARATOR: Shortly after the new welders had finished their first
shift, white shipyard employees set upon the first blacks they could
find, shouting, “no nigger is going to join iron in this yard.”

CLYDE ODOM: I'm standing up there watching, and I never saw people so
mad and agitated in my life. And they'd have sticks, like three-foot
long, they would knock them down to their knees. I saw men and women,
bleeding, blood running down their face and they didn’t stand a
chance coming down that gauntlet, men and women on each side, beating
them with sticks. And a good many of the blacks went out and jumped
off the piers and tried to swim the river. The Coast Guard was out
there picking them up.

MUSIC: Traveling Sad, Wynton Marsalis

JOHN GRAY: The riot upset the whole community. Most people who
worked were afraid to go back. Because there would be a bunch
standing outside and they would have their cars parked. And in their
cars they had monkey wrenches and tire irons and stuff like that.

NARRATOR: More than 1,000 black workers formally requested transfers
to other defense jobs. The requests were denied. Some left Mobile
altogether, but most were persuaded to stay on the job.

CLYDE ODOM : We had to send out and get them and haul them back
because we needed them to do the work. And they came back because we
begged them to come back.

JOHN GRAY: And they would not go back until they had some
protection. When they went back, this is when you had to separate
them. Normally one ferryboat would take whoever came. But after the
riots, they had a ferryboat to take blacks over and a ferryboat to
take whites over.

NARRATOR: In the end, the shipyard itself was segregated. Four
separate shipways were created where blacks were free to hold every
kind of position – except foreman. Blacks working in the rest of the
shipyard remained largely confined to the kind of unskilled tasks
they had always performed. The African-American newspaper the
Pittsburgh Courier denounced the compromise as a victory for “Nazi
racial theory and another defeat for the principle embodied in the
Declaration of Independence.”

MUSIC: Echoes of Harlem, Duke Ellington

NARRATOR: In the following months, there were racial confrontations
in industrial areas all across the country – Springfield,
Massachusetts and Port Arthur, Texas; Hubbard, Ohio and Newark, New
Jersey; and in Detroit where 34 people were killed and more than 200
wounded. Despite the violence, the war was profoundly altering life
for African-Americans. Membership in the NAACP increased nine fold.
The Committee of Racial Equality demanded the desegregation of
restaurants, theaters, bus lines. And the Pittsburgh Courier
campaigned for Double Victory – over the enemies of freedom at home
as well as overseas.