Camera Rolls: 318:76-77
Sound Rolls: 318:40
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ella Johnson , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 19, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Ella Johnson, take one.
I wanted to start off asking you if you could tell us how you first heard about a job working in the shipyards.
My cousin was living in Marin City and she wrote us about coming here to work. I had planned to go to Detroit and work in the plants back there, but my cousin insisted, "You come here. They're hiring." So that's how I heard about it.
You were living in...?
Shreveport, yes. Louisiana.
So, can you tell me, start off by telling me where you were living and how you got here.
I was living in Shreveport, and my cousin wrote that we should come to California and work here in the shipyards, so I agreed. So I got my ticket. Everybody chipped in a little money to give me, so
I rode the train here.
** It was just unbelievable but to me, I was young, it didn't much matter at that time. I sat on my suitcase from Shreveport to California because they had two coaches for colored people, as they called them, and when it got to Shreveport they were filled. So I sat on my suitcase all the way for three days, to get to Marin City.
** My mother prepared my food, either in a shoe box or paper bag, whatever. We couldn't go in the dining cars. Coloreds weren't allowed in the dining cars. So after getting here it was just unbelievable. I'm excited, young and happy. I know I'm going to make a dollar-twenty an hour at least. I made that a week back home, a dollar and a half. So I dashed to the shipyard and the people said, "Sure, we'll hire you." I'm thrilled. They said, "But you have to join a union." "Well great, all right." Dash over to the union office and low and behold they said, "We don't take colored people." "What? That's all right, I'll just won't work." So I go on back to the people, and then the union decided, "Well we'll form an auxiliary for colored people." Whatever. After that a lot of us, I guess three or four hundred, I don't know how many, stayed out of work, we just didn't report.
You had a strike.
Yes we did. Because we were in an auxiliary paying regular dues, having no rights whatsoever. So we had this one fellow from Chicago named James who was a musician but he was working in the shipyards. And Mr. James said, "Oh no. We are going to strike. We'll stay out until we can join the regular union or none at all, whatever they decide. So they threatened us with firing us if we didn't come in and work. We said, "No, that's all right. We're staying out, and we did." The judge in San Rafael, Judge Butler, ruled in our favor. They had to admit us. So we had to break down all kinds of barriers here in California, not back home. There were places in Causality, the drugstores, you couldn't sit down and eat at the counter. You could take something out. This is California and segregation was just on the rampant. San Francisco had very few blacks. There was only one black doctor here, and I understand one attorney, so they hadn't seen too many of us I understand. Many Asians lived here, but not many black people. So they had to get introduced to what they had to live with, and it was an exciting time.
Yeah, I was just going to say, take me back a little bit to what excitement you felt when you heard about this job. Its an awful lot of money, to go out from Louisiana to California it must have been—were you really excited that finally it was—?
Can you describe that for me?
Well, I had never been out of Louisiana before, and I don't know if I had ever ridden a train in the state. I doubt it. I was just thrilled, just ecstatic, the joy to come to California. I'd heard "California, the Golden West" and all this. I was disappointed after I got here, but coming here was just the joy of my life. And then as I say we wanted to do the right thing with the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. Everybody was aware of that. We thought, "Well, we don't like that." We've been selling scarp metal to Japan and they turn around...this is our friend and now it's our enemy, killing Americans there in Hawaii? So that gave me something and of course the money was always important.
Tell me about that. How much were you making each week? What did this represent for you?
Well, I had a job at one time, even working as a cashier, and I think I was making about three dollars a week. That was good money, and here I would be making a dollar-twenty an hour, and I had had jobs at home where I made only a dollar and a half a week. So this was just like going from rags to riches. I thought, "Oh my, I'll buy a house." My mother was just...happy and she was sending us off to my cousin's house, small studio apartment in Marin City. My cousin had three children, and then here I am. That makes five with twin beds, huh? So we slept in shifts that way for a while. Then my father came and my cousin, well they all had to pile in. This is seven of us by now, and we slept in shifts. So when I hear people living today in one house, ten of them, twenty, until somebody can go and buy a house of their own, that's the way it should be, as far as I'm concerned. But it was just...somebody would work days and somebody would work midnight and another one would work swing so we could have a bed. You sleep while I go to work and I sleep while you...it worked out.
You saw [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] during those years?
Yes, yes. You had the Arkies, the Louisises [sic] and the Okies. That's what they called all of us, you know. If you came from the South, Oklahoma, you're an Okie, and if you're from Louisiana you're a Louisian, and so forth. But you know, we didn't have all this crime. We didn't have any. If a man slapped his wife it was the talk of the neighborhood for months. We couldn't believe it. We left our doors open for the ice man to put ice in the refrigerator and then he'd just shut it back. I mean, no big deal. Now you can't put enough locks or bars on your windows. Has there been a change in these forty-some years!
Well, what was your job in the shipyard? Can you describe that?
Well, I was a welder. I was a ABS welder. I had my training and then took the test and passed it. Certified welder, whatever you called them. And I welded sheet metal together for the ships. I was working in the hull of the ships many times. I never saw any white people around me. I guess that was my job, to go down there with all the black smoke getting in my nose. Now they talk about asbestos, so we didn't know about that then and I didn't even think about it, but I knew at night I had to clean my nose and get all this out. And I do not have [sic] asbestoses, thank the Lord.
It was hard work, what you were doing?
Yes. Oh yes. You had to pull these heavy lines and of course you had leather suits and goggles and gloves and [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] on your head to pull down and look through that. But pulling those line all over the ship was a quite a...
Take number two up.
We were talking before about the work you were doing at the shipyard. I wonder if you could tell me what your experiences as woman were, how that work changed how you were received.
I wasn't received well at all. The men resented it, even in war time, but they tolerated us. We didn't get, I think one woman made foreman, a white woman, and no blacks, during the two years I worked there from '43 to 1945. So it was something they just all hated.
What did the experience do for you?
Well, young it didn't bother me that they acted so different towards us, not really. But Mr. James is the person, and of course in my later years I am the other person to deal with. I changed, you see, from when I was young. Today it's a whole new ball game.
What happened as the war wound down?
A reduction in force, and they started laying people off, and of course being the females and all I think most of us went first. Then we went, I went to try and find another job. It was just about out. I wanted a job welding again. You can forget it. We don't have women doing that kind of work. In fact they wanted me to back to being a housewife and a mother. I mean wash the clothes, cook the meals, scrub the house. But I just couldn't do that so I went to the telephone company and tried to get a job with the ad in that day's newspaper. The lady looked at me and she said, "I'm sorry. The operator job is filled." I said, "But this is today's paper. "We don't have anything." And she was embarrassed, you know, you can tell they do what they have to, I guess, when they're working. And I said, "All right." She said, "Well, you could get a job washing dishes." I said, 'No thank you. I don't want that."
You had talked about all the different people who worked together in the shipyard. Did you get along well?
Yes. I don't recall anything serious among the employees. Some of the supervisors were a little hard to get along with, abused their authority.
Was that also true outside the shipyards? Talk to me a little bit more about what was going on in Sausalito and all that.
Well we just [sic] wasn't allowed to, you know, eat in the restaurants or buy property there or anything like that at that time, and of course I lived in Marin City and it was just white, black and Asians. Everybody treated each other with respect and concern and care, so as I say there wasn't any crime and we got along with the people that were supposed to have been integrated a long time. Most people that lived in Marin City came from the South, most of them.
So there were just legal restrictions that affected...?
Yes it did.
Can you talk to me a little bit more about what the work was like? [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
Well, you have to pull the cables, you know, throughout the ship and you've got the upper deck, the lower deck and so forth, and that was extremely hard. They're heavy. So I would get tired with that, but my work, doing the overhead and welding wasn't anything for me. I didn't mind that at all. I enjoyed it. I was numb most of the time.
Did it give you a sense of strength?
Can you say that for me without just saying yes?
I definitely grew, and I felt a stronger person, a stronger female, a stronger black woman, and that has stayed with me, and will forever.
** I really got a lot out of the shipyard experience and the way I was treated. I wouldn't allow half of that to go on today, not with me personally or anybody else I know.
Is that the most significant way in which all of that changed you or are there other ways in which living through those years, some of those difficult years of the Depression and then the experiences in the shipyards, how do you think all of that changed you?
Well, in the Depression, of course, I was born in 1922 as I said, I did nothing about it, because my grandfather had one child, my father, and when I was born he bought my father a 1922 Star, an automobile named a Star. I have photographs. And so I was never hungry or really without. Of course when I got old enough to get a job the salary was just so small you know, but other than that the Depression didn't really do anything personally against my family or me. If anyone's hurting around you it affects you in that way. People were hungry...but I think the shipyards made me really wake up. See I was what, twenty-one, something like that, twenty-two when I came here and that experience really...see, back home we knew that we were segregated but we went to the same movie houses and things and we sat in the balcony and the white people on the first floor. The stores and things like that, we could go in any store there if we had the green stuff and buy whatever we wanted. So it was a different thing. Now schools were segregated there, and I don't know if the churches or not.
It felt more rigid to you when you got out there.
Yes it did, because I think I expected too much. I forgot I was still in the United States. I think I absolutely expected too much of California or any other part, for that matter. I had to step back and I didn't like it, but I said "So, I'll have some money."
What did the victory, and James' fight mean to you?
Oh, like night and day. It just was a complete turnaround. It meant that we do have some rights, but we got to speak up and stand up for them, because people will push you as long as you let them and when they see you'll fight back with something-words, action, whatever you've got, well they'll have some second thoughts. It just made me strong to see this strong black man coming out of Chicago to tell them, "Oh no. We're not joining an auxiliary. We will be accepted in the regular union or none at all, and then we'll take you to court. Which he did and we won, and Judge Butler-I'll never forget that man. What a joyous day! I can't say enough for them. That tells you about white and black people, huh? The judge was white, but he knew white from wrong. Thanks.