Sixteen miles from the gleaming glass towers and preoccupied hum of San Francisco lies arguably the most resilient city in the country; no place better exemplifies America’s indomitable “can do” spirit than Richmond, California.
Named by a nostalgic homesteader from Virginia, and incorporated fifty years later in 1905, Richmond was just another sleepy bedroom suburb until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Richmond Shipyards sprang up along the city’s waterfront virtually overnight, building 747 Liberty cargo ships for the war effort, more than any other shipyard in the country. Workers poured into Richmond from all over the country quadrupling the city’s population to a peak of nearly 120,000 by the war’s end.
The deluge of new workers raised the city’s artistic metabolism. By 1945, eight movie theaters lined bustling MacDonald Avenue in downtown Richmond, and African Americans from Texas and Louisiana brought with them a poignant, soul-stirring new music known as the Blues.
That was fitting because Richmond’s understanding of the Blues would deepen almost the moment World War 2 ended. With no more demand for military cargo ships, the boom town went bust; Theaters, shops, and factories closed, thousands of residents left, unemployment and crime soared.
But through nothing more than grit and guile, Richmond clawed its way back and is today poised for a comeback, in no small part because the city resembles America’s future, with a population that is 40 percent non-white Latino, 26 percent African American, 17 percent white, and 13 percent Asian. That diversity, in turn, has sparked a political revolution; it remains the largest city in the U.S to elect a mayor from the Green Party, and no less an authority than the Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has dubbed Richmond the “most progressive city in America.”
WWII Effort & Rosie the Riveter
There’s something true about
Red White and Blue About
Rosie the Riveter
With her bandana, brawny forearms and confident smile, Rosie the Riveter is one of the most iconic images of World War 2, representing one of the nearly six million new women workers who entered the workforce while their husbands and sons shipped off to fight.
Women were especially coveted for defense jobs such as those at the Richmond shipyards which produced more Liberty cargo ships than anywhere else in the country. One government advertisement asked women: “Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.”
But unlike the men, women often did double-duty during the war. Mothers with children at home pooled their resources to raise their families, assembling into groups and sharing household chores such as cooking, cleaning and washing clothes. Many women who had young children shared living space so they could save money and even babysit for one another if they worked different shifts. Feminist scholars believe that the confidence, and sense of independence and solidarity that white, African American, Latino and Asian women gained from their wartime jobs would ultimately birth the modern feminist movement.
Taking on a job during World War II made people unsure if they should urge women to continue in the role of full-time mothers, or support them in working jobs to support the country in this time of need. Being able to support the soldiers by making products made women feel accomplished and proud of their work. African American, Hispanic, White, and Asian women worked side by side.
In the book, A Mouthful of Rivets Vi Kirstine Vrooman recalls her decision to become a riveter. She found work building B-17s on an assembly line. ‘The biggest thrill — I can’t tell you — was when the B-17s rolled off the assembly line. You can’t believe the feeling we had.
We did it!”
The Rosie the Riveter World War 2 Home Front NAtional Park on the Richmond waterfront explores and honors the sacrifices of those American women whose contributions in defeating fasism are often overlooked.
The North Richmond Blues Clubs
On some nights, when the groove was just right, it would burrow deep inside of you, past your bones and into your weary soul. Some patrons of Minnie Lue’s in Richmond, described the experience in almost spiritual terms.
The African Americans who poured into Richmond beginning in the early 1940s to build the cargo ships that were pivotal in winning World War 2 brought with them this durable faith and a transcendent, emotive music that would inspire everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Beatles, hip hop MCs and country music crooners. And if the Blues was how Richmond’s African-American community found its spiritual healing in the 40s and 50s, the North Richmond Blues Club owned by one of their own, Minnie Lue Nichols was akin to their church, and B.B. King, Ray Charles and James Brown, their high priests.
Of the appeal of her blues house and restaurant, Nichols said at the time, “Well, if you’ve never felt the blues, I can’t hardly explain. You know how it feels… It was a blues crowd, a beautiful crowd. When the house is full and they’re rocking with members of the band, you enjoy it,” according to the author Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, the author of a book on Richmond’s African American community, To Place Our Deeds.
Born in Georgia, Minnie Lue lived and studied cooking in New York before moving to North Richmond in 1948. Finding it difficult to land work in the postwar economy, she started cooking for a local restaurant and her down-home dishes– chitterlings, collard greens, chicken, and sweet potato pies–were an instant hit. Within four months she turned the place around and took ownership of the restaurant., which became a kind of oasis for blacks who felt the sting of Jim Crow and discrimination.
Minnie Lue’s faded as Richmond’s population dwindled after the war, but remained open until 1983, when Nichols passed away.