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"Jim Crow" Shipyards: Black Labor and Race Relations

Black Labor and Race Relations in East Bay Shipyards During World War II

Cuahutémoc Arroyo
Faculty Mentor: Professor Leon F. Litwack

The shipbuilding industry in the United States was inundated during the Second World War with more than one million workers new to the expanding defense industry. The U.S. Maritime Commission, in dire need of workers to produce large numbers of "Victory Ships" for the war effort, required shipbuilding companies to extend job opportunities to women and to racial minorities who had previously been excluded from employment. As many white Americans went to fight overseas, racial and gender barriers were lifted, allowing thousands of black and women workers entry into the shipbuilding industry. However, in mandating defense industries to open facilities to blacks, the federal government was also responding to increasing pressure from the black community. Black leadership's activism against federal Jim Crow policies forced the federal government to reconcile black grievances by issuing Executive Order 8802, which required federal defense industries to finally employ previously excluded black labor.

Expansion of the shipbuilding industry on the Pacific coast had a profound effect in certain cities, changing demography and population dramatically. The East Bay community--Richmond and Oakland in particular--experienced a rapid influx of blacks from the South who came to work in the Kaiser and Moore Dry Dock shipyards. Many came with the intention of making better lives for themselves, because Jim Crow laws throughout the South severely restricted the possibility of social and economic mobility for blacks.

Although the shipbuilding industry on the West coast provided relatively better economic opportunities than the Jim Crow South, blacks were still forced to adhere to a subservient role in society. They still had to confront the realities of being black. They were racially discriminated against within the workplace and in their communities. Within the shipyards blacks were confined to menial, unskilled positions. Blacks were forced to settle into segregated neighborhoods in the East Bay. Redlining and restrictive covenants kept blacks in the older and most deteriorated sections of the East Bay.

This paper will examine black labor at Moore Dry Dock in Oakland and Kaiser shipyards of Richmond, providing a microanalysis of race relations in the East Bay during World War II. Despite the improved economic opportunities the West and the shipbuilding industry offered, blacks still had to confront racial discrimination. In fact, it can be argued that blacks in the West were expected to maintain modes of racial behavior enforced in the Jim Crow South. Blacks were still seen as inferior and not worthy of equal status with whites. The shipbuilding industry allows us to examine the complexities of race relations as many blacks and whites were forced to work alongside one another for the first time. Therefore, it is critical to examine the treatment of black workers in the shipyards to gain a better understanding of race relations within this major federal defense industry and in the East Bay.

Life in the Shipyards

As thousands of black migrants streamed into the East Bay to fill labor demand, shipyard managers had to integrate these newcomers into their industrial plants. The Kaiser Company, which opened up its facilities in Richmond during World War II, led the nation in shipbuilding innovation as it instituted a new system production known as prefabrication. Under this system, certain construction processes were performed at different sites. For example, Kaiser shipyards had four industrial sites in Richmond, each specializing in one area of production. Prefabrication allowed for more efficiency in the production of ships, which meant more jobs and accommodation for the blacks, women, and other newcomers who would work in the shipyards. This new form of production proved to be effective and was soon instituted at other Kaiser yards in Portland and Vancouver; in the Bechtel yards in Marin County, California; at Calship in the Los Angeles harbor area; and in other war-born shipyards as well (Johnson, 1993, 62-63). Older shipyards, such as the Moore Dry Dock in Oakland for example, would adopt certain prefabrication techniques in their yard to increase production and would then need to expand their labor pool, bringing in new workers.

Prefabrication also meant specialization and the de-skilling of certain trades. For example, some trades such as the boilermaker trade required 17 different job classifications (Johnson, 1993, 62). Under prefabrication, workers began to specialize in specific levels of production. For example, historian Marilyn S. Johnson (1993) writes, "Welders were confined to specific kinds of welding, and electricians were assigned specific wiring jobs, such as control panels or cabin lighting." While this system of production eliminated certain trades it also made job advancement more rapid. Unskilled newcomers could advance from trainee to journeymen within a short period of time.

This new system had other implications, because blacks were subject to discriminatory practices. Blacks often occupied the most unskilled and menial jobs in the shipbuilding industry. Many blacks performed the most arduous tasks, such as cleaning the yards and other outdoor work, which required hard physical labor (Johnson, 1993, 62). At the Moore Dry Dock Company, blacks were employed for maintenance work, rigging, welding, plate-hanging, and other crafts of shipbuilding, in contrast to those of outfitting and repair which were regarded as more skilled and received higher wages. However, some trades excluded blacks as a whole; for example, steamfitting and pipefitting were reserved for white workers only (Archibald, 1947, 61).

Although the expansion of semiskilled positions offered newcomers job advancement, black workers were restricted in occupational mobility compared to their white counterparts. Blacks were most often excluded from leadership roles and supervisory positions. There were a very few black foremen to be found in the Kaiser and Moore Dry Dock shipyards, but they functioned only to supervise other black workers and had no authority over white workers. As one historian points out, "Foreman, leaderman, and other supervisory positions were dominated by old-timers and other white male workers" (Johnson, 1993, 63). Management- operated apprenticeship programs were often closed to black applicants at the Kaiser and Dry Dock shipyards. Other shipbuilding firms such as the Newport News Shipbuilding Company banned blacks completely from their apprenticeship programs (Rubin, Swift, & Northrup, 1974, 42). Instead blacks were channeled to fill other areas of shipbuilding such as welding, burning, shipfitting, and other semiskilled trades (63).

For most blacks in the shipbuilding industry there were few prospects for meaningful promotion. Although there were the same number of operatives as laborers in the total shipbuilding industry, there were fewer than one-half as many black operatives as there were black laborers; and, although there was a large proportion of blacks who worked in the shipbuilding industry, they were paid lower wages than whites doing the same work. For example, Rubin, Swift and Northrup (1974) cite a 1949 study of yearly median incomes for white male laborers and black male laborers showed that white laborers' average wages were approximately $635 more per year than those of black laborers (46).

At Moore Dry Dock, blacks often worked different jobs than whites throughout the year. Although blacks represented over 20 percent of the shipyard work force, they were underrepresented in highly skilled and managerial positions.

Blacks and whites worked together in almost every trade but rarely mixed socially. Most blacks and whites lived in different parts of the city, and so rarely came in contact off the job. The arrival of migrant white workers, many of whom refused to work alongside blacks, increased the level of racial tension. As sociologist Archibald (1947) has noted, stated "The typical white worker preferred death . . . to working under a Negro" (64).

Black Women Workers in the Shipyards

The expansion of the shipbuilding industries on the Pacific coast also altered gender traditions as black women workers were allowed entry to the defense industries that had once excluded them. Their experience was shared with black men as both encountered racial discrimination at Moore Dry Dock, Kaiser, and other shipyards. Black women and men alike were looked down on by white coworkers and supervisors who regarded them as inferior.

Black women were often concentrated in the most physical and labor-intensive jobs. A Department of Labor study revealed that 63% of black women were engaged as welder's trainees and laborers. In contrast, only 6% of white women worked as laborers, 9% as welder trainees, and 9% as electrician trainees (Lemke-Santangelo, 1996).

Black women's problems were compounded beyond those experienced by black men because of gender differences. Prior to World War II, white males dominated the shipbuilding industry. Shortly after the war began, a manpower shortage brought women into the industry, where they encountered an unfamiliar and hostile environment. As women worked alongside the opposite sex, men openly expressed their resentment about women working in the shipyards. For example, one foreman at Moore Dry Dock during the war years expressed his feelings about women workers by shouting, "Women are no good at all in the shipyards." He elaborated:

They're lazy and shiftless, and they have to make all the men around them useless, too. I've finally got rid of the women in my department, and I don't want any of them back. It's too bad every skirt in Moore Dry Dock can't be given her quit slip right now (Archibald, 1947, 31).

These thoughts were shared and expressed by most males in the shipyards where women were employed in large numbers. Most males regarded women as incapable of doing labor-intensive work. They thought women should the home exercise their talents for taking care of the home and children. One male worker, expressing a common male view, said, employee "A married woman's first duty is to her home and family. . . . And you can't have a job and keep a home as well" (Archibald, 1947, 34). Males also thought that women working outside the home were overstepping the bounds of traditional marriage. One craftsman expressed this view by asking, "Do they call a woman who works a wife?" (34). Men simply were not willing to accept women working outside the home.

Male egotism resisted the advance of women into the shipbuilding trades. Men persisted in viewing women as incapable of assuming work roles traditionally filled by men. One employee at Moore Dry Dock commented, "They can't do the work as well as a man. . . . They don't have the brains of men, and they don't have the strength" (Archibald, 1947, 25). But, as Archibald states, beneath the men's stated objection to women crossing traditional sex role boundaries, "more obvious, persistent, and perhaps more basic was the fear of women as competitors . . ." (34). Men were unwilling to accept women on an equal level in shipbuilding work, which paid relatively better than other occupations. For many male shipyard workers, women represented another level of competition Not only did they have to compete with other males and blacks for promotion, but with women as well.

Life for black migrant women who worked in the shipyards was indeed stressful. For many, work did not end after their shift was done at the yards; they still had to take on domestic responsibilities of the household, which meant cooking for the family, cleaning the house, and taking care of the children and husband. Clearly migrant black migrant women endured not only physical but emotional stress as they were overburdened with homemaking responsibilities that extended beyond their daily shifts of shipbuilding work.

The shipbuilding industry represented better economic opportunities for black women than what they had previously had experienced. Working in the defense industry provided better wages than most other domestic jobs that were open to them. For many black migrant women working in the shipyards was a great accomplishment. But despite these gains, black women still remained at the bottom of the occupational ladder.

Shipyard Unions

The rise of the shipbuilding industry on the Pacific coast was accompanied by the growth of union membership. The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders and Helpers of America represented the majority of west coast shipyard workers. Boilermakers union membership grew by several thousand on a national level, expanding from 28,609 in 1938 to 352,000 by November 1943 (Archibald, 1947, 24). The union represented 65 percent to 70 percent of all west coast shipyard workers (Johnson, 1993, 69). At the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, Boilermakers Local 513, which originated during the war, had a membership exceeding 35,000.

However, black workers seeking union membership were blocked by outright exclusionary policies by the trade unions. Instead of integrating the new black workers into the union with other white workers, the unions established separate, auxiliary locals specifically for blacks. This type of practice was common in the Jim Crow South but had spread throughout the nation during the war years. Johnson writes, "In the East Bay, there were three active auxiliaries: A-26 (Oakland), A-36 (Richmond), and A-33 (San-Francisco-based Shipfitters)" (1993, 78). These auxiliaries were controlled by their parent locals of the boilermakers' and steamfitters' unions. The black auxiliary locals exercised no power. They had no union vote or representation at national conventions.

The boilermaker auxiliaries established to represent black shipyard workers were intended to maintain the status quo of black inferiority, and were in a subservient position compared to the white unions. In 1943, in a series of hearings conducted before the Committee on Fair Employment Practices against the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Professor Herbert R. Northrup testified, "As a whole, black auxiliaries exercised policies of racial discrimination against blacks. By-laws of the Boilermaker auxiliaries, developed by the executive council of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, contained the following ten major discriminations:"

  1. Each Negro local was subservient to the nearest White local.
  2. The auxiliaries had no democratic participation in the control of the International Brotherhood of the union. In fact, its members were not admitted to the International Brotherhood.
  3. Negro locals were denied the right to have business agents. White local agents represented the auxiliaries.
  4. Auxiliaries were denied their own grievance Committees, having to accept the committee of the nearest white local to which it could send but one representative.
  5. A severe limitation was placed upon the ability of the Negro to advance from helper to mechanic; such advancement requiring the approval of the auxiliary, the governing white local, and the International president.
  6. Insurance programs paid less benefits to the Negro. Negroes could not subscribe to increased insurance as could whites.
  7. Negroes were denied the right to transfer except to other auxiliaries.
  8. Negro apprenticeships were excluded.
  9. Negroes were punished for creating disturbances in lodge rooms; no such restriction appeared in the white by-laws.
  10. Negroes were discriminated against due to age; whites could be admitted between 16-70 years of age, while Negroes could be admitted between 16-60 years of age (Rubin, et al., 1974, 39).

White union members applauded union officials for implementing exclusionary policies against blacks, and often openly expressed the resentment they felt against black workers. The comments of one white worker at a union meeting during the war expressed what many white union members thought about black coworkers joining their union:

The officers of this union can do what they want about a lot things so far as I'm concerned.... But I sure will be here shouting if they try to let those niggers in. It's all I ask of them--that they keep those black boys out (Archibald, 1947, 82).

Such outbursts served to reinforce the racial prejudice against blacks in the shipyards and extend it to all areas of the defense industry.

Jim Crow Shipyards

In the South blacks were subject to Jim Crow laws that began in the 1880s prohibiting racial intermarriage and mandating segregation in public schools, hospitals, streetcars, restaurants and other public places. Many of these practices were regulated by custom rather than by law. Custom dictated a certain racial etiquette blacks had to abide by. Blacks were expected to practice this behavior in the presence of whites to preserve white supremacy. Some of these racial codes included never suggesting that whites were inferior or equal to blacks, never demonstrating superior knowledge or intelligence in comparison to whites, never cursing or badmouthing a white person, and never commenting on the physical attractiveness of a white person of the opposite sex. These customs were enforced to maintain black inferiority in the South. Violation of this racial etiquette was punishable by various measures of discipline up to and including death by lynching.

World War II and the rise of economic opportunities in places like the East Bay provided blacks with a motive to leave the South. Blacks who chose to migrate West did so as a form of resistance against the Jim Crow practices of the South. The shipbuilding industries in the East Bay represented for many blacks a chance to make a new life for themselves and their families in the absence of racial humiliation and violence. But as westward migrating blacks discovered upon arriving at the East Bay shipyards, Jim Crow had not been left entirely behind. Blacks were still subject to various levels of discrimination, including segregated housing, consignment to menial jobs, and exclusion from full-fledged trade union membership.

Whites in the shipyard industries regarded blacks as an inferior race, and imposed exclusionary labor codes and demeaning racial etiquette conventions very similar to those applied in the South. Although Jim Crow policies did not have the backing of legislation in the West, as they did in the South, racist attitudes opposing black equality persisted in the shipyards of Moore and Kaiser, where Blacks were presumed to inherently be of lower status than whites. Blacks were seldom accorded the same recognition as whites, but were judged and talked about in a category of their own. Whites would never wholly express satisfaction with the workmanship of blacks, but instead would allow only grudging acceptance in such comments as "Well, a nigger may be as good as you are, but he sure ain't as good as me" or "Well, for a nigger, he's pretty good"(Archibald, 1947, 65-67).

Whites tended to regard blacks as morally inferior beings, and this perception served to justify in the white mind the dehumanizing ways whites treated blacks. White migrant workers from the South who still held to their racist mentality commonly used analogies comparing Negroes to animals. One white worker at Moore Dry Dock, whom Archibald overheard in a conversation about blacks, said "Niggers, morally and in every other way, are beasts" (1947, 69). Typically, whites tended to ascribe to blacks a propensity for theft and other crime. At Moore Dry Dock blacks were more likely to be singled out for suspicion when white workers misplaced their tools or lunches.

It was the white migrant workers who also made the trek out of the South to the West during World War II who were most resistant and resentful about accepting coequal status with blacks. Having come from areas of the South where Jim Crow and white supremacy were so prevalent, many of these "Okies" and "Arkies" (as they were dubbed by native westerners) brought their racist mentality with them to the places they settled. Their contempt for blacks could be felt at the Kaiser and Moore shipyards as they disparagingly referred to their black coworkers as "niggers" and "zigaboos." Coming from a region that sanctioned the subjugation of blacks, white migrants tried to maintain the racial caste system they had known in the South, and in conversation frequently alluded to the way things were done back home. These white migrants would sometimes allow that there were some blacks whom they were more comfortable with because they displayed the proper deferential attitude and knew their place. "I've known a couple of Niggers who were all right enough. I don't mind any of them if they keep their place," said one white worker at Moore Dry Dock (Archibald, 1947, 63).

But most blacks relocated to the West were not inclined to perpetuate the Jim Crow system. Blacks openly resisted racial discrimination in the shipyards. The most vivid example of black resistance to racial exploitation occurred was the historic incident involving black Navy workers at the Port Chicago shipyard near Antioch, who were indicted on charges of mutiny for refusing to work under dangerous conditions, following an ammunition explosion that killed many of their fellow black workers. In other, more everyday instances, blacks confronted their white coworkers when racial slurs were directed at them. White shipyard workers considered this type of assertive behavior "sassy." White workers from the South had a prescription for this kind of improper behavior. Said one, "What you need round here is a good old-fashioned lynching. Back in home state we string a nigger up or shoot him down, every now and then, and that way we keep the rest quiet and respectful" (Archibald, 1947, 75).

The fear of miscegenation or any type of contact between white women and black men was a powerful element of the racist, segregationist mentality transplanted from the South to the East Bay shipyards. Any form of contact between white women and black men was interpreted in sexual terms by white workers, who viewed black men as aggressive sexual beings who lusted after white women. White men truly believed that they needed to protect their women from men of inferior blood. Some white men became so enraged just talking about this topic that they would recount stories from the South about swift punishment for such violations. As one white native of Missouri working at Moore Dry Dock stated, "Back where I come from, We've got a right and proper kind of law, and if one of them black fellows even so much as talks smart to a white gal, we hang him dead" (Archibald, 1947, 75).

Even if white women wanted to associate with black men, they couldn't because of these strictures. If a white woman were seen talking to any black man, she would be quickly labeled a "nigger-lover." The same opprobrium was applied to any white man who showed personal interest in any black woman. However, white male workers were quicker to defend their racial and patriarchal system of honor in matters of contact between white women and black men. As jealous males, white men felt they had to defend their women from black "sexual animals," and as whites they firmly believed that miscegenation would pollute their white bloodline.

The Limits to Prosperity

The end of World War II brought a halt to war-related shipbuilding and large-scale cutbacks in the shipyard work force. Shipbuilding employment fell from 1,033,900 jobs in 1945 to 155,000 in 1950 (Shipbuilders Council, 1960), and black workers were the hardest hit. In the East Bay by 1950 unemployment among nonwhites had soared to 29 percent, compared to 13 percent unemployment among whites. Unemployment among black women was even higher at 39 percent (Lemke-Santangelo, 1996, 108-109). While whites were able to find other work in newly developing service sectors of the economy, and move to new homes in the burgeoning suburbs, blacks competed for a dwindling supply of manufacturing jobs and could afford only the cheap housing found in deteriorated sections of the East Bay.

In conclusion, black migrants who came to work in the shipbuilding industries of the East Bay during World War II encountered forms of racial discrimination that had characterized the Jim Crow South. Although more ample economic opportunities for blacks existed in the West, blacks were still expected to accept a second-class position in society, whether at work in the shipyards of Richmond and Oakland or at home in segregated, substandard neighborhoods. Unlike their white Southern counterparts, newly arrived black migrant workers found few doors open to them. For blacks, the years during and after the war were a time of constant struggle for acceptance as a race in a new environment harboring an old form of prejudice.

In the East Bay urban core and in the suburbs that grew up around it, the social contours of postwar Bay Area society were already taking shape during the war years. The "shipyard ghettos," as one historian later described them, that grew up adjacent to the Moore Dry Dock and Kaiser shipyards in Richmond and Oakland, became home to black workers who had migrated out of the South seeking better economic and social conditions in the wartime shipbuilding industry. Policies enacted and social attitudes practiced by shipyard employers, federal and local government, and white residents resistant to black settlement in their communities, were responsible for the creation of the impoverished black neighborhoods that are common throughout the East Bay to this day.

In reaction to the growing black population in the central cities of the East Bay, white residents took flight to the affluent suburbs that began developing following World War II. Along with this white flight went large numbers of jobs as manufacturing firms closed East Bay plants and relocated to the outer suburban periphery, abandoning the core cities of the East Bay to a new urban majority, primarily black and poor. As a result of this drain of capital and jobs from the urban core, black unemployment and poverty would continue to rise throughout the following decades. The black residents left behind, descended from the migrant wave of black wartime shipyard workers, would continue to be regarded as temporary, disposable outsiders, undesirable and menacing to the predominantly white society of the region.


Archibald, K. (1947).Wartime shipyard: A study in social disunity. San Francisco: University of California Press.

Johnson, M. S. (1993).The second gold rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II. Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Lemke-Santangelo, G. (1996).Abiding courage: African American migrant women and the East Bay community. Raleigh, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Rubin, L., Swift, W. S., & Northrop, H. R. (1974).Negro employment in the maritime industries: A study of racial policies in the shipbuilding, longshore, and offshore maritime industries. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shipbuilders Council of America. (1960). Annual report.


This article is an abridged version suited for publication in The Berkeley McNair Journal. The expanded version includes a more specific discussion about black labor and race relations in the East Bay shipyards. It also includes the emergence of the black ghettos in the East Bay and the defense industry which played a major role in this development. Any comments or questions may be addressed to the author at P.O. Box 4027, Berkeley, CA 94704.