One of the excellent offerings of the American Library in Paris, is the opportunity to join one or more bookclubs. I tend to veer towards Mystery Book Clubs. This year, I decided to challenge myself and joined a Book Club entitled “The Home Front during WWII: USA, France and Germany”. Our first book was Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman.
The second half of the book centered on the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California. I found myself reading about my own backyard and a bit embarrassed not to already know this history. When our Book Club leader, Philippe Melot, learned I had lived in Oakland, he asked if I had visited Rosie the Riveter Nat’l Historical Park. I had to respond “No”. I knew that a Rosie memorial statue had gone up a year before I moved to Paris and that was the beginning and end of my knowledge.
Now I’m on my yearly trip to Oakland. Yesterday I visited the museum/Nat’l Park. The website opens with this: “An unusual urban national park, the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park (RORI) is located on the waterfront in Richmond, CA. It is the flagship national park for telling stories of the home front efforts across the United States. Park sites you can visit include the Oil House Visitor Center, the Rosie the Riveter Memorial, the historic Ford Assembly plant, Maritime Childcare Center, and more. Visit us and learn!”
And it took a Frenchman to tell me what an extraordinary museum was less than 15 miles from me!! He also advised that I look at the website and go when some of the Rosies were there so I could hear their stories. I chose an afternoon talk by Betty Soskin. The website said she is so popular that one should arrive an hour early to ensure a seat. Now 96 years of age, Betty was a young African-American during WWII. She became a Park Ranger at 85 years of age. Some people just never stop grabbing opportunities as they pass!!!
After I arrived and got my seating ticket, I was shown the theatre room where Betty would talk. Movies were playing. I saw one entitled Blossoms and Thorns that told the history of the Japanese-Americans who were sent to camps. The fear and hate that drove that decision is a lesson we have not learned. We are doing the exact same thing only the country and religion has changed. What I find most amazing is that I/we did not learn about these events in High School history classes. I knew about Mr. Kaiser and was fairly sure that the Kaiser Permanente Health Care plan had something to do with him. Now I learn that he was the first employer to make sure that men, women and children were insured when they worked for him. The city of Richmond grew from 23,000 inhabitants to 130, 000 people when the shipyards were working. Maybe not every adult worked for him but the majority did.
“Rosie the Riveter is a cultural icon of World War II, representing the women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II, many of whom produced munitions and war supplies. These women sometimes took entirely new jobs replacing the male workers who joined the military. Rosie the Riveter is used as a symbol of feminism and women’s economic power.” Wikipedia
Kaiser also went to the South and brought back hundreds of black men from four different states to work for him. His call to work became a part of the Great Migration of slaves and ex-slaves to the North and West during the first half of the 20th century.
Back to Betty: Betty’s talk of 30 minutes was mesmerizing. She talked about the black experience and the female experience of being on the Home Front, being paid to do what up until then, had been men’s jobs. She has since gone on to outlive two husbands, raised a family, has met Obama twice and become a Park Ranger at the age of 85. “Reflecting on her own role in planning for the Park’s creation, and on how she brought her personal recollections of the conditions for African American women working in that still segregated environment to bear on the planning efforts, she has said that, often, she “was the only person in the room who had any reason to remember that… what gets remembered is a function of who’s in the room doing the remembering.” That is a quote from Wikipedia but she said the exact same thing to us.
If you happen to be in the Bay Area or if you live here and, like me, have not seen this amazing National Park, I encourage you to go. I was told by a friend that public transportation goes right up the Visitor’s Center.