Mobile, Alabama, before the war, was a sleepy southern town of 112,000, whose only real industry was shipbuilding, as it had been since the Great War a generation earlier. Discovered by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, colonized by the French, taken over by the British, then by the Spanish and finally incorporated into the United States in 1812, the city boasted a diverse, cosmopolitan population.
“The pace of life was slow,” Katharine Phillips said. “On a hot summer evening, of course there was no air conditioning, so daddy would load us in the car and we’d drive downtown to Brown’s Ice Cream and he’d buy us an ice cream cone and then we’d drive out to Arlington and park out by the bay. And all sit there and enjoy the sea breeze. And when we’d cooled down enough, he’d bring us home and everybody could go to bed and go to sleep. But we just, oh, we sat on our porch in the evening and the children played in the yard. It was a wonderful way to grow up. And we were completely away from the rest of the world down in Mobile.”
The city’s elite, “Old Mobile,” consisted of the hundreds of families who traced their roots back to the city’s prosperous antebellum era when it was both the cotton and slave trading capital of Alabama. Mobile was a city deeply divided by race.
“You had a white water fountain and a black water fountain,” John Gray said. “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.”
Jim Crow segregation rules severely curtailed the rights of African Americans to partake of Mobile’s bounty. In 1939, only 224 blacks qualified to vote. A local branch of the NAACP struggled to respond to a litany of problems: lynchings, the denial of due process, employment discrimination, wage disparities, and separate and unequal pubic facilities. Mobile’s black community centered on Davis Avenue, where black-owned businesses, theaters and a public library served the needs of an African-American population that was often excluded from other parts of town.
All Mobilians had suffered terribly from the dislocations and privations of the Great Depression. Businesses failed, shipyards closed, industrial plants laid off workers and city services were slashed. World War II utterly transformed the city and its economy.
“Everything just blossomed out so fast,” Clyde Odom said. “And the Maritime Commission, they moved in, built us a new shipyard and all that stuff and then we had to have thousands of people to man that thing.”
The explosion actually began in the late l930s, when local companies such as Alcoa began producing war materiel for Japan and European countries. Local shipyards won contracts to build Liberty ships and destroyers in l940, and by the time America entered the war in late 1941, Mobile was already booming. The Alcoa plant processed millions of pounds of alumina used to build many of the 304,000 airplanes America produced during the war; the Waterman Steamship Company boasted one of the nation’s largest merchant fleets, and Mobile became one of the busiest shipping and shipbuilding ports in the nation. In 1940, Gulf Shipbuilding had had 240 employees; by 1943, it had 11,600. Alabama Dry Dock went from 1,000 workers to almost 30,000. Brookley Field provided 17,000 civilian jobs.
“Mobile was crowded and all the old homes were turned into rooming houses,” Emma Belle Petcher said. “My father went to Mobile to work at the shipyard. He was a mechanic from way back. He could build things from scratch. And he found limbs and body parts in some of these ships and he couldn’t take it. And he came back home. But he recalls being in a rooming house – I was living at the Y at the time – and he said the room they rented him had a person who worked at night. And when he would work at night and go there in the morning to go to bed, the bed was still warm. It was a desperate situation. People were renting everything that they could, anything, and put a bed in it and rent it to someone who had worked at Brookley or the shipyard.”
During the war, Mobile became the second largest city in Alabama, as tens of thousands of people streamed into the area from small towns and farms all over the south. By March 1944, Mobile County’s population had grown to 233,000, up 64 percent from 1940. The population explosion caused severe overcrowding, housing shortages and overburdened schools that were pronounced the worst in the nation by the U.S. Office of Education. The federal government made a documentary film, “Wartown,” about what was happening in Mobile and the steps begin taken to help the city cope with the challenges it faced.
“Mobile became so crowded in six months that people were living in vacant lots,” Katharine Phillips said. “They put up tents in vacant lots. People went into the boarding houses and one room would hold as many as four men. They would sleep for so many hours; get up and leave the bed; go to work and another man would take the bed.”
“I was astounded when I saw how much change had come to the city,” Sidney Phillips said. “The change in the city was just overwhelming. It was so crowded and so much hustle and bustle I hardly recognized the place.”
Thousands of African Americans also streamed into Mobile in search of defense work and a fresh start. They found both. But they also found the same kind of discrimination they had known at home.
“Mobile was a pretty fair-minded city,” Gray said. “And before this time, whites and blacks got along pretty good as long as you had the status quo. But when blacks began to get homes, to buy homes and to ride in big cars, it turned some people off. The broad-minded person just thought it was by the grace of God and they thought nothing of it.”
In the spring of 1943, in response to a presidential order requiring defense contractors to engage in non-discriminatory hiring practices, as well as years of pressure from local black leaders and the NAACP, the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company reluctantly agreed to promote 12 black workers to become welders. Shortly after the new welders had finished their first shift, white shipyard employees attacked any black workers they could find.
“You can’t imagine how you feel when you see a riot,” Odom said. “People actually hurting each other. Well, it was war right there on that island, I’m telling you. It was real rough.”
“The riot upset the whole community,” Gray said. “The 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’d have monkey wrenches and tire irons and stuff like that. So they were afraid to go. And they would not go back until they had some protection. And when they went back, this is when you had to separate them.”
In the aftermath of the riot, the company created four separate shipways where blacks were free to hold every kind of position — except foreman. African Americans working in the rest of the shipyard remained largely confined to the kind of unskilled tasks they had always performed. More violent confrontations between whites and blacks would take place in Mobile throughout the war years.
Public pronouncements encouraged women to work in war industries, and a series of articles in the Mobile Register featured both women war workers and those who joined the auxiliary military forces. Two-thousand-five-hundred women worked at Alabama Dry Dock, 1,200 at Gulf Shipbuilding and 750 at Brookley Field.
Like all Americans, Mobilians who remained at home supported the war effort through bond drives, clothing drives, fundraising campaigns for the Red Cross and a host of other charitable activities. In 1942, with Germany’s “Operation Drumbeat” underway, Mobile residents responded to the threat of U-boat attacks on merchant and military ships by dimming their lights and holding blackout drills.
After the war, returning black veterans, who had fought for freedom overseas, found themselves facing the same segregation they had left behind.
“It would be a matter of disgust and distaste with you when you found out that the fruits of victory were not yours,” Gray said. “That there were still elements of the status quo and people who fought to keep the status quo.”
The war had made Mobile into a boomtown. But when the war ended some 40,000 defense jobs quickly disappeared. Some workers left the city for the small towns where they’d been living when the war began. Others moved north and west to bigger cities in search of work. However, Mobile had been transformed from a regional port town serving the cotton trade to a major industrial and commercial center. The changes that occurred in Mobile during the war years would continue to reverberate during the post-war civil rights era, the rise of the “New South” and the emergence of the Sunbelt in the decades after the war.
More than 15,000 people from Mobile served in the armed forces; 300 died in action.
Women would hold nearly a quarter of defense-related jobs in Alabama during the war years.
A $26-million defense contract transformed the municipal airport into Brookley Field, a major Army Air Force supply depot and bomber modification center that provided 17,000 civilian jobs
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.
World War II was the single greatest coordinated effort in American history and every citizen got involved.
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