Imagine a time before cell phones
…when telephone communication simply didn’t exist outside of one’s own country.
Imagine a time before cell phones
…when telephone communication simply didn’t exist outside of one’s own country.
It began a few years ago with a handful of old, unlabeled photos. Images of workers who placed the bricks and the cinder blocks for the Museum’s walls and also installed the statues on Lions Bridge and in the Park. They were literally part of the very foundation of our Museum. Then the questions began. What were their names and their stories? Why were they so important to our Museum, but we didn’t know who they were? What we found, and are still finding, has evolved into one of the most interesting, impactful, heartbreaking, joyous, and eye opening projects we have ever worked on. A project we named “Hidden Histories.”
The earliest beginnings of the project actually started from several other initiatives. A quest to gather as much information about our Park and grounds as possible, and a look forward to our 100th Anniversary coming up in 2030. The emphasis on our Park is part of a long term project focused on issues like conservation, sustainability, ecology, preservation and the history of the area. This work has helped with the formation of our new Park Department which was announced earlier this month. The 100th Anniversary project is taking a look back at our history and also a look forward to see where we are headed in the future.
Both projects led to the discovery of photos showing the men who did the construction on our Museum and Park. As well as a number of images showing members of our Museum team dating from the 1930s and beyond. The photos are part of our Institutional Collection that documents what happens here. They include famous visitors, parties, exhibitions, large artifacts arriving, personnel photos, and just about anything else related to our day to day activities. While we knew what types of photos we would find in the collection, we didn’t anticipate finding out what we didn’t have. The men’s identities and a realization that despite our Museum’s focus on inclusion and connections within our community, we hadn’t made a connection with ourselves. In the 91 years since the first of those photos were taken, we hadn’t made a connection with the men who were the very foundation of our success. And the hard truth is that because of who they were, no one in the 1930s thought it important enough to label these images and ensure they would be known by their names and faces. The time was way overdue to correct this.
When the United States Navy’s Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia needed to ramp up their labor force in early 1918, it began to train and employ women. According to William F. Trimble, author of Wings for the Navy: A History of the Naval Aircraft Factory, 1917-1956, the factory’s first female factory worker was Marion Elderton, already on staff as a secretary. That transition happened in December of 1917, and by June of 1918, the labor force included 218 women. One year later (Dec.1918), NAF female employment reached 890, which was 24.5% of the work force.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect that the writer of the captions on these photographs was male, perhaps referencing the novelty of the subject. Trimble’s use of female and women is fitting for 1990, the time of his publication. Not so in 1918, when women were still fighting for the right to vote.
My mental picture when I see the word “girl” is a pre-teen. Luckily, that is not what the Navy’s caption writer meant. Check out the faces in these photographs and count how many of them fit “girl” in your mind’s eye.
But, I digress. We’re reflecting on the unprecedented opportunities women were given as part of the war effort. That these women were trusted with building aircraft is a testament to their value.
Here, a “girl” is in the process of painting a flying boat, the Curtiss Model F-5-L. The NAF’s assembly line approach increased efficiency dramatically.
Although many tasks were less demanding, skilled work performed at the NAF by women included drill press operation and machinist positions.
Women worked the same forty-nine hour workweek as men, but were paid less, based on the assumption that “their output had not equaled” that of their male counterparts (Trimble, pg. 32). The Navy attempted to compensate women in other ways, such as expanding restrooms and adding female nurses.
The bottom line: these female factory workers were trailblazers as well as patriots. By wedging themselves into this male-dominated field, they proved that women were capable of much more than had been expected of them in 1918.
Trimble, W. F. (1990). Wings for the Navy: A History of the Naval Aircraft Factory, 1917-1956. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute.
I don’t know about you, but I’m always up for a behind-the-scenes tour! It wasn’t so common in the 1950s to photograph the waitstaff and working areas of an ocean liner. This, combined with the African Americans pictured in a group of photographs I discovered in our Collection drew my attention.
Photographer Albert Durant approached the opportunity to be on board the SS United States during its trial run to focus on fellow people of color whose service made the passengers’ journey pleasurable. I’ve since learned Durant was a trailblazer right here in our backyard.
Entrepreneur Albert Wadsworth Durant (1920-1991) is credited for several “firsts,” including being the first licensed black photographer, first black Justice of the Peace and Bail Commission, and the first black magistrate of the General District Court, all in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Durant operated his own limousine and chauffeur business and frequently served distinguished guests to the area like the Queen of England and the Prince of Japan. To provide his customers with background information on sites they saw, he took various American history courses at the College of William and Mary.
Alongside operating his limousine business, Durant also conducted a photography business for both Black and white citizens. He would take formal and candid shots of anything, but his focus was on documenting the African American experience in Williamsburg during his lifetime.
The Mariners’ Museum has a collection of photographs that Albert Durant took when the ocean liner SS United States underwent its initial trials in 1952. This luxurious vessel was in operation from 1952-1969, and hosted many famous political and social figures. Durant gives us a behind-the-scenes look at its waitstaff and crew, who were primarily African American.
This collection of 39 photos came to the Museum from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which holds most of Albert Durant’s photographs. To learn more about Durant’s life, follow this link: https://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=cw/viwc00100.xml
While the most recognizable way for individuals to serve their country at times of war is through the service branches, there have historically been many other ways in which people served their country abroad and at home. For example, the United Service Organizations, better known as USO, a nonprofit-charitable organization which provides leisure facilities and shows to United States Armed Forces was founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1941, to “unite several service associations into one organization to lift the morale of [the] military and nourish support on the home front” (USO.com/about).
In fact, during World War II, there were estimated to be about 3,000 USO clubs worldwide, and Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation was no exception. USO clubs helped soldiers feel at home and gave them the opportunity to step away from the job and the realities of war. They provided leisure, like dances, ping pong tables, and other games; entertainment, sometimes local bands or even Hollywood celebrities would make an appearance (!); and they often had a snack bar, too, selling sandwiches, smokes and soda (but not liquor!) to service people.
During WWII the US military was, unfortunately, still a segregated institution. This included not only the US service branches, but their various volunteer and women’s groups (some of which we’ve already written about) like the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), Army Nurse Corps (ANC), Women’s Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), and Semper Paratus Always Read (SPARS); USO clubs were no exception. Many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color served and supported the war effort despite these discriminatory regulations, though. But that did not mean their work was not hard, or in many cases even unsupported. This also meant that African American service-people and civilians had to work to open an African American USO Club at HRPE.
“African American women found themselves not only providing all unpaid labor for the USO Colored Division staff but also finding money to provide facilities for the soldiers. However frustrating it was, helping with the USO provided a real center of power by enabling black women to provide important infrastructure for housing and entertaining millions of troops. Because the USO and Red Cross considered black troop morale an after thought in their recreation programs, women raised money to start troop centers in their own cities” (Shockley, 42-43).
USO clubs also provided a valuable way for women to help the war effort. They were often run and coordinated by civilian women local to the area, in the roles of Senior or Junior Hostesses. Senior Hostesses were married women over 35, usually with some standing in the local community. They organized and coordinated social events and dances, as well as the food supply for the snack bar. All in all they made sure every event ran smoothly and served as the backbone of USO Clubs. Senior Hostesses also served as chaperones for Junior Hostesses.
Junior Hostesses were single young women who volunteered to entertain soldiers and host social events. They were chosen under very stringent qualifications. A Detroit reporter wrote “We learned in our visit to the servicemen’s center that the young women known as junior hostesses are only selected after careful and painstaking appraisal … they undergo a training which consists of lectures on personality, appearance, topics to be discussed and those to be avoided…” (Shockley, 43). They had to follow a strict set of rules as a part of the USO. Junior Hostesses were not allowed to date servicemen that they met at USO clubs, and they were not allowed to drink on the job. They were also required to take a yearly class on charm, etiquette, and the duties of USO Hostesses.
A Junior Hostess also had a bit of a uniform to follow-no slacks allowed! In the image below, you can see the Junior Hostess to the right is in a USO Hostess Uniform, styled after women’s military uniforms of the time. Wearing the uniform was not a requirement; however, as shown below by Hostesses to the left, who are dressed in their nicest “civilian clothes”.
All of these rules were vital in protecting these young women and retaining the respectability of the USO program. Even while recognizing that these women provided a significant morale boost, “there was no getting around the fact that having eighteen- to twenty year-old unmarried women provide entertainment made tenants of ‘respectability’ questionable” (Shockley, 42). And in a day and age where women were particularly critiqued for their femininity and sexualization (both too much or too little), these trainings, rules, and the chaperone program became integral to the hostess program.
While Senior and Junior Hostesses mainly worked at USO clubs to sell snacks, attend dances, play cards, and help entertain soldiers, they came up with other creative ways to support the war effort, too. At some clubs, Junior Hostesses would set up button sewing or uniform mending stations. At other clubs, hostesses helped soldiers write and organize their letters home. Creativity was also implemented in dance admission by “charging” scraps for scrap drives or collecting cigarettes to send overseas.
Senior and Junior Hostess worked together to help entertain service people and bring some levity to their lives during a serious time. By providing a place of community and joy, USO Hostesses helped keep service-members connected to family, home, and country during service.
At The Mariners’ Museum, we are lucky to have a fair number of HRPE images that show both Black USO personnel and involved service members. This may be in large part because Hampton Roads had several USO Clubs including an African American Service Club. Since Black, Indigenous, and People of Color’s contributions are, frankly, under-represented in our HRPE photo collection, we are excited to share this story illustrated purely by images of these men and women.
To all the USO staff, volunteers, and contributors – thank you.