Monday, May 28, 2007

FOOTPRINTS - WWII and the African American Migration

Big news came to workers of the Shipyards in Bayview Hunters Point during World War II when the Navy made a policy decision to racially integrate new military housing being built following the Navy’s $4 million purchase of 47 acres there. Hunters Point developed into one of the most progressive examples of military housing while the country as a whole would wait until 1948 for full desegregation of the armed forces.

United States entry into World War II was imminent, and the value of African American labor to the war was understood. While full integration was slow to come, and episodes like the Port Chicago disaster exposed a deep racial divide, the military was ahead of mainstream America in terms of respect and opportunity for African Americans. And Hunters Point sat on the lead edge of change.

Life in the Bayview Hunters Point began to set a new social standard.

African Americans surged to the area for jobs and the relative tolerance they found in this place where nearly everyone was from somewhere else, and where peaceful coexistence was prized. African American children sat side-by-side with European- and Asian-American children in neighborhood schools. There were no “turf wars,” transportation was easy and safe, and children of all colors thought nothing of a Saturday afternoon walk to Playland at the Beach.

By the mid-1950’s, the shipyard swelled with thousands of civilians.

With money in their pockets, African American’s were bringing a unique new vibrancy to the neighborhood. Eateries featured Southern foods. Nightclubs pulsed with jazz and blues, star entertainers, and young people living the life. Homes became centerpieces of family investment. Small businesses and churches grew to serve the newest population.

Along with the fishy scent of the Bay, the breeze carried a collective optimism for racial harmony, the rise of the black middle class, and distance from the history of pain and struggle in this country for people of African decent.

The development of the shipyards also ushered in a legacy of pollution, including radioactive contamination, and the severe health outcomes still being experienced by Bayview Hunters Point residents. Similarly, the stage was being set for the rapid economic downturn of this “one-industry town” when the military closed their operation in 1974 during a national recession.
“We were all Catholic, and it seemed like that was more important than the color of our skin in getting along with neighbors.” From an oral history with Ms. Stacil who was talking about the Bayview in the 1950’s
World War II Poster courtesy: Northwestern University Library, Tom Kennedy

Get to our branch library to see more about the rich history of the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood!

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