Today’s blog is written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland
Black women have a long history of work in the United States. They have toiled in hot fields, cared for other people’s children, cleaned homes, worked in factories, taught in poorly funded schools, and held numerous professional and political positions. African American women are a part of the American workforce by choice or by circumstance. They contributed to the progress and success of leading industries with dedication and hard work. And after these long days away from the home, black women still managed to find the strength to care for and nurture their own families.
The iconic image of Rosie the riveter during the war years depicts a white woman flexing her muscles and wearing a bandanna with the catch phrase “We Can Do It!” Black women also gave their labor in support of the wartime shortages. Women of all races and ages worked in various factories and industries during both world wars across northern and mid-western states. Most women endured difficulties as paid labor in the wartime industries, which include low pay, sexual harassment, and grueling working conditions. Black women, who often worked in segregated areas, were paid even less than their white female counterparts and also had to deal with racism and oppression, while attempting to support their families and the war effort.
The General Photographic File, 1893-1945 (National Archives Identifier 522858) series in RG 86 Records of the Women’s Bureau contains photographs showcasing women at work during World War I and the early 1920s. The Department of Labor managed to document all classes and races of American women employed at various naval yards, tobacco plants, Army hospitals, and federal agencies. Within this series are images of black women employed in lumber yards, in manufacturing plants, at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, and in steel mills. The photographs from this series illustrate African American women at work and their struggles to obtain better pay and improved working conditions.
The series Negro Activities in Industry, Government, and the Armed Forces, 1941-1945 (National Archives Identifier 535799) in RG 208 Records of the Office of War Information consists of photographs detailing all aspects of black life during the World War II years. Among these images are representations of African American women’s contributions to the wartime labor shortage. Similar to the war effort during the First World War, black women filled vacant positions in industrial and service sector positions. These photographs also show black women at work in both civilian and military offices.