Crossing Gender and Color Lines at the Springfield Armory: Women and African Americans Changing the WWII Industrial Workplace

Rob Wilson, Consultant, Springfield Armory NHS

As the U.S. military was winning key battles during World War II, women and people of color working in American defense industries achieved different kinds of victories. Records from the Springfield Armory, in Springfield, Mass., attest to their workplace breakthroughs. Founded in 1794, the federally-run Armory made military weaponry and was the area’s largest WWII defense manufacturer. Before the war, one in ten of its workers were women (mostly secretarial) and three percent were black (practically all assigned menial jobs). By 1943, almost half of the facility’s 13,500 employees were women and 7.9 percent were African American. In wartime Springfield, as across America, significantly more women and blacks were in skilled defense jobs than ever.

A poster recruiting women to take wartime work at a federal Armory or defense plant and become a Woman Ordnance Worker (WOW). Posters with the iconic image of “Rosie the Riveter” also were employed to attract women into defense industries. This woman’s bandana is emblazoned with the WOW logo: a cannon ball with wings.

A poster recruiting women to take wartime work at a federal Armory or defense plant
and become a Woman Ordnance Worker (WOW). Posters with the iconic image
of “Rosie the Riveter” also were employed to attract women into defense industries.
This woman’s bandana is emblazoned with the WOW logo: a cannon ball with wings.

The Armory closed in 1968, but its labor and manufacturing legacies live on at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site (SPAR), a National Park Service facility in Springfield’s center. At SPAR— a frequent program collaborator with the UMass History Department— one finds archived documents that tell fascinating stories of the changing workforce and the experiences of these newcomers to the defense industry.  Detailed historical narrative about the Armory and its workers, digitized versions of documents, reports and photos from the Armory, recordings of 25 former Armory employees and more are available at SPAR’s Forge of Innovation website (www.forgeofinnovation.org).

Necessity more than a sense of fairness initially drove changes in industry hiring procedures. Under threat of war, America’s military needed more armaments. Simultaneously, droves of defense workers went into the military. Defense plants compensated, employing more women. Then, in early 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt bolstered hiring of African Americans with Executive Order 8802, barring discrimination in defense industries on the basis of “race, creed, color or national origin.” FDR was pushed to action by black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who had threatened to deliver to “the White House lawn” tens of thousands of protesters demanding unbiased employment practice.

Industry at first resisted change. Although harshest in the south, discrimination existed in many Northern workplaces. Harassed in his first job, in Lynn during the 1920s, black machinist Stanley Desmond remembered he often “shed a few tears” at day’s end.  Starting at the Armory, in 1940, he still struggled for acceptance. There “had never been a colored die and tool maker” at the Armory, he explained in a recorded interview. Doubts about women’s job capabilities also ran deep within the male workforce. According to Armory “draftsman” Harriet Atwood, many men were wary of women in her skilled job. Some black employees filed official complaints against superiors, one claiming she was physically threatened when challenging unfair treatment.

Charles C. Hill grinding a rifle barrel in an Armory machine shop, in 1943. Stanley Desmond said that when he started work as a machinist in 1940, he was the Armory’s first black tool and die maker.

Charles C. Hill grinding a rifle barrel in an Armory machine shop, in 1943. Stanley Desmond said that when he started work as a machinist in 1940, he was the Armory’s first black tool and die maker.

Despite these problems, women and African Americans gained skilled manufacturing jobs with growing frequency, finally working alongside and interacting with white employees. The following workers’ anecdotes reveal their memorable experiences in a newly-diversifying workplace.

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Growing up in an all-white West Springfield neighborhood, Nellie Doty had never known African Americans, nor envisioned working in a factory. That changed in 1940, when she became an Armory “Woman Ordnance Worker” (WOW) and formed a close friendship with black co-worker Marion Wimberly. On their last day on the job in 1945, she told me in an interview, Marion gave her a personally-composed poem. Its first verses:

The experience I’ve gained can ne’re be lost
The cross I’ve had to bear was worth the cost
You too, I know forgot, amid the fight
That we were different hues: I black, you white…

The poem’s remaining six stanzas about the young women’s experience, learning that “a man is judged by character, not by face,” ends with hope for “A world of Unity and Brotherhood/ A world in which all men are understood.” Nellie shared mostly positive Armory memories, a few tinged by encounters with the sexism and racism that Marion’s poem referred to as the “petty, mean things of the lowly [and] coarse.”

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Priscilla Bryant inspects ammunition clips, one of the many skilled labor jobs that opened to African Americans and women as defense production ramped up.

Priscilla Bryant inspects ammunition clips, one of the many skilled labor jobs that
opened to African Americans and women as defense production ramped up.

Ex-WOW Dorothy Pryor told an interviewer she grew up “po’. [That’s] P-O-apostrophe. Too poor to have the whole word.” She graduated top honors from Springfield Classical High School and, in 1940, went on scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville. Summers she worked in an Armory machine shop as a product inspector, earning school living expenses. Her father also got an Armory job and for the first time earned as much as his white co-workers. She remembered discrimination in many Springfield restaurants and businesses, yet only had positive memories of friendships with the white women in her department. Dorothy especially treasured receiving a surprise gift from an Armenian-American co-worker as she prepared to leave for her final college year. The woman had collected sixty seven dollars from her co-workers (a significant amount for the time) to help Dorothy with school expenses. “I think she let go of the machine long enough to hug me….I never forgot that,” Dorothy remembered.

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Margaret Barrett, a young woman who lived 25 miles north of Springfield in rural Hatfield, started a job in the Armory’s metal finishing department in 1943. Wilbur Ancrum, her boss, was one of the few black machinists at the Armory prior to the war. I had read about Wilbur on SPAR’s website, but it took a visit with Margaret’s sister Ruth to reveal Margaret’s WOW experience. Ruth called me to donate her deceased sister’s most treasured memento to the SPAR museum. It was a pair of heavy candlesticks— milled out of the brass used to make armaments— that Wilbur had made and presented to her when she left her job at war’s end. A gesture of comradeship and a job well done, the candlesticks seemed to me symbols of the spirit of workplace respect and fairness expressed in Marion Wimberly’s poem and the gift Dorothy Pryor received.

As WWII wound down, and armaments demand decreased, most female and many male African American workers hired for the Armory’s war effort were laid off. Many women left voluntarily. Some, including Margaret Atwood, went on to skilled positions in domestic industries or, like Stanley Desmond and Wilbur Ancrum (by now both respected managers), continued at the Armory. Regardless of layoffs, significant color and gender barriers were breached during the war, and negative racial and gender stereotypes challenged. Although American industry was far from discrimination free, it had taken a big step towards workplace diversity.

Black and white Armory workers worked together in factories and socialized in ways that were unimaginable before defense began expanding production in 1940.

Black and white Armory workers worked together in factories and socialized in ways that were unimaginable before defense began expanding production in 1940.

Ex-WOWs pose for a photo after giving a public presentation at the Springfield Armory Museum. Margaret Atwood (far right) and Nellie Doty (2nd from right) were among the women mentioned in this article.

Ex-WOWs pose for a photo after giving a public presentation at the Springfield Armory Museum. Margaret Atwood (second from the right) and Nellie Doty (third from the right) were among the women mentioned in this article.

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Photos courtesy of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site and Museum, Springfield MA

Rob Wilson, who works as a consultant to the Springfield Armory NHS education programs, is auditing Marla Miller’s graduate course “Writing History.” For more information on SPAR’s history, the technology it developed and its workforce, visit www.nps.gov/spar and www.forgeofinnovation.org. (Click on Site Map in the top of the left column for full access to the website’s digitized documents and images.) There is no admission fee to SPAR. The library/archive is open by appointment only: contact Museum Curator Alex Mackenzie alex_mackenzie@nps.gov. Dorothy Pryor’s oral history is at http://www.memorialhall.mass.edu/activities/oralhistory/pryor/index.html.

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Full text of Marion Wimberly’s poem, “From One American To Another,” written for Nellie Doty and given as a gift to her in 1945.

Full text of Marion Wimberly’s poem, “From One American To Another,” written for Nellie Doty and given as a gift to her in 1945.

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