Remembering The 'Rosie The Riveter' Of Black Baltimore

BACK STORY

November 01, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

A large, framed poster from 1943 hangs on the wall of Hermione C. "Hermie" Graham's Columbia home. It features a young African-American woman sitting at a telephone switchboard busily routing incoming and outgoing phone calls through a plug board. It is one of Graham's prized family treasures.

The young woman on the poster with the perfectly coiffed hair and carefully pressed summer dress is Albertine Hinkson Graham, Hermie's mother, who died this month at age 94.

The poster recalls a long-forgotten stop on the road to equality that happened in Baltimore more than 65 years ago.

Albertine Graham, the daughter of a Pennsylvania Railroad redcap who worked at Penn Station and a homemaker, was born in Baltimore. She graduated from Douglass High School in 1933 and sought work with the coming of World War II.

"She was among the many women who proudly supported our troops by working on an assembly line in a munitions factory at Fort Holabird," her daughter said. "She was our version of 'Rosie the Riveter.' "

With World War II, Baltimore's war industries boomed. Major industrial employers included the Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River; Bethlehem Steel Corp., which, in addition to its Sparrows Point steel mill, built and repaired ships in three area yards; and the Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. While the demand for wartime labor in Baltimore was apparent, need didn't always translate into opportunities for the city's African-American residents.

The Afro-American reported in spring 1943 that while "Baltimore is still far from a solution of its manpower problems, large gains in employment of colored workers were made in 1942, according to an Office of War Information report released last week."

While the newspaper further reported that many stores and businesses were hiring "colored workers for the first time," some plants were still biased.

While streetcars, trackless trolleys and buses of the Baltimore Transit Co. had been integrated for years, hiring practices worked against blacks who hoped to move up from menial shop jobs cleaning streetcars and buses or working on tracks to become motormen or bus operators.

They have been "refused employment as operators or conductors simply because of their race," wrote Lillie Mae Jackson, president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, in a letter to the transit company.

In January 1943, the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. relaxed its "heretofore iron-bound restrictive policy against hiring colored persons in white collar jobs," reported The Afro, when the phone company hired 15 black women as clerks, who were required to use separate restrooms.

This was only brought about by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Fair Employment Practice Committee, which declared the telephone company a war industry, thus outlawing discrimination in hiring practices.

In early 1943, when Frances Whims answered a C&P ad for switchboard operators, she was told, "We are not hiring any colored girls."

During the summer of 1943, Graham and several other young women successfully completed a switchboard training course sponsored by the Total War Employment Committee, a citywide interracial body that focused on gaining employment for black workers. Its slogan was "Total War Demands Total Employment."

Graham's picture adorned a poster inviting Baltimoreans to attend a rally held at Grace Presbyterian Church, Dolphin and Etting streets, on Aug. 18 to urge C&P to hire the newly trained operators.

"These Girls Are Tested Operators but the C&P won't hire them. Come out. Hear, See, and Encourage these Girls who are opening up opportunities on the Home Front while their relatives are Fighting on the Battle Front," the poster stated.

The young operators picketed for five weeks in front of phone company headquarters on St. Paul Street to no avail, as C&P refused to abolish its discriminatory hiring practices for operators.

Sgt. Donald Lopez, a white soldier from Baltimore who was home on furlough, observed the strikers and was so incensed that he wrote a letter to C&P officials.

"Thousands of young men from this city are today devoting every effort to stamp out Fascism," he wrote.

"How ironic it is that back in their hometown your company is sedulously practicing that very same Fascism. We are giving our lives to eliminate racial discrimination, one of the keystones of Fascist ideology - and you sit smugly at home and practice your own brand of it," Lopez concluded.

"The committee's effort was not successful, and my mother and the other 'colored' trainees were not hired by C&P," said Graham's daughter.

Jackson, who was co-chairman of the Total War Employment Committee, said, "Our campaign to break down this un-American policy of the telephone company is, therefore, a step toward winning the war by ensuring that this important service to the government, to war industries and the public is maintained at its highest possible efficiency."

Graham never did find work as a telephone operator. During the 1950s, she worked as a "matron," her daughter said, at Hahn Shoes and as an elevator operator at Hutzler's department store on Howard Street.

"She didn't talk much about it and didn't have much bitterness. She was a person who rolled with the punches. She was adaptable," said her daughter.

"She was one never to cry over spilled milk. She never allowed bitterness to harden her heart," Graham said. "She learned long ago to laugh and keep on going."

In 1974, Hermie Graham became the first black female communications representative assigned to C&P's York Road office in Govans.

"She was absolutely overjoyed," Graham said. "She thought that was the cat's meow."

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