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Black History’s Women at Work

Credit: Mississippi Public Broadcasting

For too long, the contributions of Black working women have been overlooked at best, and 

stifled at worst. Here are five stories of women at work that we all should know.


Fannie Lou Hamer

In 1969, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative. The former sharecropper purchased 40 acres in the Mississipi Delta, to economically empower poor Black farmers, whose families had been at the mercy of the local white landowners  for generations.

“The time has come now when we are going to have to get what we need ourselves,” she said. “We may get a little help here and there, but in the end, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

The cost of membership for the co-op was $1 a month. But even at that price, only 30 families could afford membership dues. Another 1,500 families belonged to the Freedom Farm in name. The co-op planted cash crops like soybeans and cotton to pay taxes and administrative expenses. The rest of the land was sowed with vegetables, like cucumbers, peas, beans, squash, and collard greens, which were distributed back to those who worked on the co-op.

Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

 

The co-op also started a “pig bank.” With funds from the National Council of Negro Women, the co-op bought 35 gilts (female pigs) and 5 boars (male pigs). Over the next three years, the pig bank produced thousands of new pigs to feed impoverished families.

While in existence, the Freedom Farm empowered Black people to take control of their economic livelihood. However, the Freedom Farm was unable to sustain itself. It never received the institutional backing that was necessary to make it a viable organization, and the federal funds that would have made survival possible. 

The Riveters

Propaganda whitewashed WWII’s working women, even though abundant photos of Black riveters’ efforts prove otherwise.

 

Credit: Bettina Hansen, Seattle Times
This photo from the Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum shows riveter Gladys Theus. According to the caption, she was “one of the fastest and most efficient welders at the Kaiser Company Permanente Metals Corporation yards near Oakland, Calif., and is sticking to her job until final victory is won…. She says: 'Everytime I put in one more day on a ship, I know we are moving one day closer to V-E and V-J Days.'" 

 

In segregated America before WWII, Boeing did not employ African Americans. Josie Dunn (right) got her chance after President Franklin Roosevelt ordered wartime federal contractors to end discrimination and Black leaders pressed Boeing to implement the shift.

Dunn was 18 years old, earning 62.5 cents per hour, when she started at Boeing, working with two older white men. She worked as many hours as they would give her, and used the money to bring her family west. She also recruited as many women as possible to work at Boeing. In a twist on the government’s famous symbol of women at work, Ms. Dunn was affectionately dubbed “Josie the Riveter.”

At the end of WWII, riveters were pushed to leave the workforce so the men coming home would have jobs, but some remained. The hard work of drilling and riveting swelled their fingers, eventually making them arthritic.

Josie worked at Boeing until retiring in 1981. After that, she participated in many “Rosie the Riveter” events. She was interviewed for oral and video history projects for the Library of Congress, the University of California at Berkeley, and Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry.

Josie holds her service pins from Boeing. Credit: Bettina Hansen, Seattle Times

Her niece, Lou Annie Charles (left in first pic) was fresh out of high school in Oklahoma when she joined the war effort with Boeing, as a riveter. She also remained with Boeing for her entire career. Her work became personal when her daughter, Brenda, became a flight attendant, working in planes her mother helped manufacture.

Lou Annie retired in 1988, when she was 65, after putting her two children through college, buying a car, a house with beautiful furnishings, and an epic wardrobe.

“I had more money than I ever had before I came here,” she says. “It gave me everything I’ve got — a car, everything. Things I never had before. My own things. Not my husband’s. Mine.”

Olivia Hooker

Via U.S. National Archives and Records AdministrationVia U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Though the Klu Klux Klan burnt her father's clothing store to the ground during the Tulsa Race Riots when she was a child, Olivia Hooker joined the coast guard after FDR opened all service branches to people of color and minorities.


After the war, Hooker attended graduate school on the GI Bill, achieving a Master’s degree from Columbia University and a Doctorate in psychology from the University of Rochester.


As a teacher, mentor, and clinician, Hooker devoted her life to helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Hooker turned lives around at the Albion Correctional Facility for women in Albion, New York. She offered therapy and support to children with learning disabilities as a director at the Kennedy Child Study Center in New York City. She also mentored students of color for 22 years as a senior clinical lecturer and an APA Honors Professor at Fordham University. Even after her retirement in 1963, Hooker continued to help children with developmental disabilities at the Fred Keller School for Behavioral Analysis until the age of 87.

In October 2019, the US Coast Guard announced the commission of their 61st Sentinel Class, fast-response cutter, the USCGC Olivia Hooker.

Georgette Seabrooke Powell

Via Archives of American Art
Via Archives of American Art

At 20 years old, Georgette Seabrooke became the youngest artist and only woman chosen as a muralist for the Federal Arts Project’s work at the Harlem Hospital.Her best-known work from the project was the 1936 mural, Recreation in Harlem, a 20 feet mural that depicts daily life in the late 1930s. Parts of the mural include women chatting with each other, a couple dancing, and a singing choir. 

Despite the fact that the design had been submitted and approved, Harlem Hospital superintendent Lawrence T. Dermody rejected Recreation and three other murals. Dermody claimed that the works were “not suitable for display in a hospital” because “the murals had too much Negro matter, that Negroes might not form the greater part of the community twenty-five years hence, that the Negroes in the community would object to Negro subject matter in the murals, and that the hospital was not a Negro hospital, but a city institution, and that it should not be singled out for treatment with Negro subject-matter.” 

A portion of the mural during its restoration. Credit: New York Times
A portion of the mural during its restoration. Credit: New York Times

The decision was reversed, and Recreation in Harlem was put on display, but the only viewers were staff members and patients. For decades, the mural was painted over, drywalled under, and even survived a fire. All that was visible of Seabrooke’s original work was her signature in the corner.  In 2012, the mural was restored and re-hung in Harlem Hospital's new Mural Pavilion, along with other works by Black artists.

After her time in the WPA, Seabrooke Powell began studying art therapy at the Metropolitan Mental Health Skills Center and the Washington School of Psychiatry. She then became a registered arts therapist, and taught art to mentally ill patients at D.C. General Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry, to promote skill building and self-esteem. In 1975, she founded and directed the Tomorrow’s Art World Center, Inc. to assist young aspiring artists.

Georgette Seabrooke Powell’s artistry appeared in seventy-two major national and international art exhibits between 1933 and 2003. Her exhibits include a one woman show, “Radiance and Reality,” at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington and a 1995 show, “Art Changes Things,” which was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute.

Sources

https://about.kaiserpermanente.org/our-story/our-history/slacks-not-slackers-womens-role-in-winning-world-war-ii

https://shadesofnoir.org.uk/black-rosie-the-riveter/

https://www.eomega.org/article/the-untold-history-of-black-farming

https://snccdigital.org/events/fannie-lou-hamer-founds-freedom-farm-cooperative/

https://www.besn.tv/post/black-history-month-georgette-seabrooke-powell

https://projects.seattletimes.com/2015/women-in-trades/#4


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