When Baltimore's War Effort Tripped Over Race

RODERICK N. RYON

August 11, 1993|By RODERICK N. RYON

Detroit auto plants shut down, Mobile shipyard workers riotedand Philadelphia was paralyzed with transport workers' strikes. The so-called hate protests of World War II -- walk-outs of white workers angry at the hiring and upgrading of African-Americans -- swept a score of American cities.

Fifty summers ago -- July-August 1943 -- white riveters at Sparrows Point shipyards touched off Baltimore's own ''hate'' strikes. Racially motivated walk-outs were to disrupt defense production on and off again until the spring.

As war clouds loomed over Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Maritime Commission combed the country for shipyards capable of converting to war production. Baltimore yards soon won contracts for Liberty ships -- big, unglamorous but indispensable cargo carriers, the ugly ducklings of war-time fleets.

After Pearl Harbor, production soared at Bethlehem's Fairfield, Key Highway and ''Point'' plants. By 1943, new vessels assembled by 30,000 or more workers splashed down each month in the Patapsco like children on a hot summer day.

Jobs as welders, riveters, and acetylene burners lured young white men from the rural upper South and West Virginia as war conversion began. Newcomers crowded industrial suburbs east of Highlandtown and the staid, all-white, row-house neighborhoods of Baltimore City.

A section of Bolton Hill -- its town houses carved into small workers' flats -- was even known as ''Little Appalachia.'' Eutaw Place was a summer-time, hot-weather sleeping quarters, a respite from stifling apartments nearby.

Federally-set production quotas, and a presidential executive order in 1942 that forbade discrimination, also prodded defense industries to hire African-Americans.

Sparrows Point yards employed 1,000 in a work force of 7,000 by 1943. Most were long-time city-dwellers excluded from shipyards during the Depression, new migrants from the upper South, or skilled men from northern cities lured by hopes of high defense pay. They crowded densely populated African-American neighborhoods along Gay Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and commuted by streetcar to the Point.

Hiring policies notwithstanding, racial exclusion reigned inside the yards. Novices and experienced alike were put in Bethlehem's notorious Y Department, and classified and paid as laborers, or confined to hazardous work which whites turned down, like crane-operating. African-Americans got temporary assignments to high-demand and better-pay departments but were rarely upgraded or re-classified.

Short on skilled riveters -- stitchers of ship-side horizontal seams -- Bethlehem opened a riveters' school on Monday in the last week of July. Experienced riveters, over-worked and on extended shifts in the steamy July heat, would have relief. Twelve students -- eight whites and four African-Americans -- would be trained and then promoted.

On Tuesday, riveters walked away from the half-assembled ships and demanded the school be made white-only or shut down. The yard supervisor closed it at once, but African-Americans staged their own walkout. Managers back-tracked again and promised to re-open the school, but a gathering of nearly every African-American from every shift in the center of the yard demanded the school be started up before they returned to work.

On Thursday, whites throughout the yards stopped work. A march began from the south end of the yard, got fresh recruits as it passed the slips, and congregated 2,000-strong, 50 feet from assembled African-Americans.

Union organizer Philip Van Gelder claimed a single hurled stone, or roughness by a policeman, would have touched off violent riot. One hundred fifty Sparrows Point police escorted African-Americans from the yards.

City civil rights leaders and the CIO Marine and Shipbuilders Union got involved on Friday, after white riggers and erectors led a new walk-out.

Clarence Mitchell, then a lawyer with the Washington-based Fair Employment Practices Commission, and son-in-law of local NAACP president Lillie Jackson, spoke to rallies of African-American workers in the city. Go back to work and join the union, he told them. The union and the FEPC stand behind you; both support the riveters' school and job upgrading.

But whites eked out concessions through the rule of departmental seniority. Men qualified through experience in the riveting department (whites) got cracks at new jobs before school-trained outsiders (African-Americans).

Full production resumed after eight days. But at the end of August, African-Americans complained again. Even senior blacks were bypassed for white workers and African-Americans were being removed from riveting, welding and ship-fitting departments.

On Aug. 12, twenty-two white women walked away from work at Western Electric's Point Breeze plant. One African-American had been assigned to their department.

In the fall, petitions circulated for segregated bathrooms there, and in December, a minority of non-union whites in an employees' association at Western Electric called a strike for separate facilities. Five plants shut down before President Roosevelt sent in Army troops just before Christmas. Full civilian control was not restored until March.

Hundreds of white workers stayed away during the winter, and workers' ditties circulated inside. ''This is the Army, Franklin D./You and your soldiers don't scare me/It won't be long before they go away/ But we'll remember you on Election Day.''

In the spring Western Electric put in new, segregated, toilet and locker rooms. Cafeterias stayed integrated.

Bands played, parades marched, and speakers exulted at Baltimore's annual Labor Day celebration in 1943.

But hosannas to the fraternity of labor rang false. Angry defiance, not camaraderie, infused defense plants in the city.

Roderick N. Ryon is a professor of history at Towson State University.

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