Next week, some of the ASHP staff will be working with a group of New York City public school teachers at a week-long summer institute, where they will develop classroom activities on the U.S. homefront during World War II and the War in Vietnam. In gathering materials for them on the former topic, my colleague Frank Poje found this photo of workers leaving the Pennsylvania Shipyards in Beaumont, Texas. It was taken by an Office of War Information (OWI) photographer, and is part of an FSA/OWI collection of remarkable color photos.
Look closely-what do you notice?
It took me a few looks at first, but I finally noticed that the African-American men are all walking in a single, separate line from the other workers; closer inspection suggests that there is in fact a railing enforcing that single-file lane. This photographic evidence of Jim Crow on the job becomes even more striking when you learn that the photo was taken two weeks before a fifteen-hour riot in which white residents of Beaumont terrorized people and property in the city’s black neighborhoods. It was not the first incident of white on black violence in the city, where sudden wartime crowding brought black and white residents into contact in new ways.
A different branch of the U.S. government, the War Manpower Commission, produced this propaganda poster in 1943, the same year as the Beaumont photo and riot (and of numerous other incidents of racially-motivated violence in forty-six cities and towns around the country). The federal government understood that white racism had the strong potential to undercut black morale during wartime. When the OWI commissioned a public opinion study on “White Attitudes Toward the Negro” in 1942, it concluded “the task of making Americans generally see the importance of bringing the nation’s Negro minority more fully into the war effort is one of immense difficulty. . . . large numbers of people in all regions showed what must be regarded as an illiberal attitude toward Negroes.” Taken together, these pictures offer new insights and connections: about World War II, Jim Crow, the role of the federal government in social change, and the terrain on which struggles for racial equality played out in the twentieth century.