The icon that has come to conjure Rosie the Riveter in many of our minds is that poster of a factory worker sporting the polka-dot headscarf and pin-curl bangs, flaunting her biceps under the words, "We can do it!"
In the picture, she is white. But not all Rosies were.
About 600,000 African American women also rolled up their sleeves during World War II, working in industrial and government office roles while the men were deployed. Like their white counterparts, these Black Rosies built the weapons and bullets that defeated fascism abroad. But they also battled racism at home, escaping jobs as sharecroppers and domestic workers as they helped the Allies win the war.
"They've been sidelined or erased, but this is truly part of the Greatest Generation," said James Curry of Fridley, whose late grandmother, Hazel Curry, worked at the Twin Cities Ordnance Plant in northern Ramsey County. "When we think of women in the war effort, we think of the white woman with the bandana flexing her muscles. But you don't think about the women of color. I don't know why this wouldn't be something to celebrate."
That's changing. Local historians are on the lookout for other Black Rosies in Minnesota, to honor both them and their descendants, at a ceremony this month at the Minnesota History Center. If you have a family member or know of other African American women who worked at the facility, later known as the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, the Minnesota Historical Society wants to hear from you.
The effort has found champions in women like Acoma Gaither, a program associate at the Historical Society who observed that its own exhibit on Minnesotans serving in World War II had "virtually nothing" about Black women.
She and her colleagues are partnering with Jeremiah Ellis of St. Paul, who researched African American women who worked at the plant when he was an Arthur C. McWatt Sr. Fellow with the Ramsey County Historical Society. By poring over old articles, including those from African American news publications and the plant's newspaper archives, he was able to identify about 30 Black Rosies from the Twin Cities. More than 1,000 Black people worked at the plant — about a fifth of the state's Black population — making it the largest employer of African Americans in Minnesota at the time.
"That's a lot of people — that's huge," Ellis said. And yet, "the sheer volume of African Americans who engaged in this effort is a story that is undertold."
Ellis tracked down fragments of life stories, like that of Grace Bryant of Minneapolis, who according to the 1940 census was a domestic worker before landing a job as a visual inspector at the plant. During the war, Flossie Harris was a reporter for the plant's newspaper. Gail Hoskins worked in security. Billions of bullets were produced at the site.
The Pittsburgh Courier, which had reach with African Americans across the country, cast a positive impression of Minnesota when the newspaper reported on the variety of jobs held by Black workers at the plant. They assumed roles as department supervisors, accountants, foremen, typists, machinists, engineers, ballisticians, millwrights and more.
The fact that they could rise to supervisory positions was not typical for plants around the country, Ellis said.
"There's this national story of 'Minnesota's got something figured out,' " he said. "And the thing that they've gotten figured out is, Black people can do any job. We shouldn't be relegated to simply janitorial positions."
Cecil Newman, an influential civic leader and publisher of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, advocated for plant managers to hire African Americans, Gaither said. He eventually held a leadership position there, acting as a conduit between top brass and Black workers. So did Ethel Maxwell Williams, who was featured in the national Urban League's Opportunity journal.
"Her position became an example for other plants," Ellis said. "What is Minnesota's national reputation at this point? It's a place where African American women can be in positions of power and authority."
Yet all across the country, it wasn't uncommon for Black women to hold the dirtiest and most dangerous industrial jobs, such as making gunpowder, said educator and filmmaker Gregory Cooke, who interviewed several of these pioneers as part of his "Invisible Warriors" documentary. And even those who were lucky to land office jobs — like Cooke's late mother, who moved to Washington, D.C., during the war for a job as a clerk typist at the U.S. Patent Office — still had to deal with slums, segregation and racial oppression.
Cooke still believes World War II was the single best thing to happen to Black people in the 20th century. Black Rosies earned higher pay than ever before, working jobs that weren't available to them before the war. They brought millions of dollars into the Black community, helped solidify the Black middle class, achieved life-changing skills and confidence and assisted in laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement, he says.
Yet many of the women Cooke interviewed had to be convinced that their stories were worth telling.
"It was a great job for them, but it was only a job, and it only lasted for a minute," said Cooke. "When the war was over, they went back to their lives, and didn't really talk about it. Many of these women's families did not know what they did, because the women themselves did not see what they did is anything historically significant."
Hazel Curry was a "tiny little thing from the South Side," a mother of eight — including a set of triplets — who cared for her family in a segregated area of south Minneapolis, said her grandson James. The only bits he has gleaned from her time at the Twin Cities plant came from his dad.
"I do remember him saying it was long hours, it was hard work, and she was tired," James Curry said. She died before he was born.
Cooke, the filmmaker, said he's proud to be part of a movement to give Black Rosies their due credit, even though many are no longer alive.
"I just want people to know they were extraordinary women who rose to the occasion," he said. "They were patriotic. They loved this country. And despite the fact they were second-class citizens, most of whom could not vote, they went to bat for America."
If you go
A screening of the documentary "Invisible Warriors: African American Women in World War II" will be held at 1 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. General admission, $12; MNHS members, $9.60. After the screening, filmmaker Gregory Cooke and historian Jeremiah Ellis will lead a discussion honoring Black Rosies from the Twin Cities. If you have information about women who did this work, please contact the Historical Society at firstname.lastname@example.org.