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47 7 7 7 7 7 7 In a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, Altha Sims described a visit to the Memphis U.S. Employment Service (uses) office, where she was “coldly refused by a lady” who informed her that “there was not defense work for Negro woman.” Written in July 1942, a year after the president, under pressure from African Americans, issued an executive order banning racial discrimination in war production industries and creating the fepc, the letter asked him to confirm this information and explain “why there is no work for” black women, since the news “was hard to beleave coming from local authority.” Sims wondered why black women would be barred from doing their “part to help win the war,” even though her two grown sons would shortly be called to military service, leaving her with three children to support.1 In September, with her case still unresolved by the fepc, Sims indignantly penned a second letter that exemplifies African American women’s frustration with their seeming invisibility in the wartime economy. This time she wrote to Mayor Chandler, protesting being rejected when she responded to newspaper advertisements for defense workers, including one that proclaimed, “So Mother Can Do War Work,” and another that called for black and white laborers. “I want a Job but I dont [want] no cook Job,” Sims insisted, reporting that she had been informed there was “no Job for [her] but a skilet an pan.” “Where would the Negro woman apply for work?” she asked. “I am verry anchous to no.” Chandler’s response would not have pleased her: “I know of no positions for unskilled colored women other than domestic work,” he wrote, “and I imagine that is why [the welfare director] told you that he could not give you a place.”2 Letters like the ones Sims sent to Roosevelt and Chandler provide a window into how working-class blacks in the urban South perceived their 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 WhereWould the NegroWomen Apply forWork? Wartime Clashes over Labor, Gender, and Racial Justice 2 Wartime Clashes 48 wartime struggles over labor and racial justice. Some of these stories have fallen through the cracks of histories of race and labor during the Second World War because they involve protests from outside unions. But these are the stories that fueled indignation among African Americans over black women’s exclusion from the “Rosie the Riveter” wartime industrial defense jobs open to white women, and their restriction to private work as maids or to its public equivalent in government hospitals, military supply depots, and industrial laundries.3 Black men were more likely to find employment in the defense industry, but their exclusion from most skilled positions elicited equally bitter responses. Men and women’s encounters with discrimination, despite the national emergency, paralleled concerns over segregation in the armed forces. Black workers seized on wartime discourse about democracy to demand the elimination of racist practices that prevented them from ful- filling American ideals of citizenship. What may previously have appeared as individual struggles that had little to do with vital matters of democracy and national unity now took on far different significance. With racial tension mounting in southern cities like Memphis, nationally prominent black leaders and the black press demanded “Double V”—victory over fascism abroad and racism at home. They insisted that world democracy could only be achieved if it were based on genuine freedom for African Americans and for people of color in colonized nations. As these local struggles show, wartime clashes over race and labor in the urban South involved more than demanding that employers comply with the president’s executive order against racial discrimination; they also involved redefining the social meaning of black and white manhood and womanhood. In the eyes of many black workers, exclusionary policies and racist job classifications perpetuated degrading racist views of blacks as servile and dependent. While women like Altha Sims refused to be pigeonholed as cooks and maids, men like Clarence Smith, a porter and floor sweeper at Firestone who wanted to work as a riveter, argued that they were as skilled, efficient, and intelligent as whites, as eager to advance, and as essential to the war effort. “What I really want is what a great portions of my race want,” Smith wrote to the War Manpower Administration, “a chance to do something to help win this war and peace to come to every...


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