Saturday, October 27, 2012

Not All History Is Created Equal

World War II brought 20,000 jobs to rural La Porte County, where the county seat had a total population of only 16,000. Workers commuted up to 90 miles round trip per day to assemble explosive shells. The Kingsbury ordnance plant did hire black workers, largely from Gary, but it segregated them in lowly jobs (and separate bomb shelters!) and discriminated against them in workplace discipline. Nor were they allowed to live in the "new town" of Kingsford Heights near the plant.

Historian Katherine Turk has documented the situation in the new issue of the Indiana Magazine of History, drawing among other sources on files of employee letters to President and Mrs. Roosevelt and the Fair Employment Practices Commission, held at the National Archives in Chicago. It's not a pretty picture, and not one you'll hear much about in La Porte County today.

Turk's research interest is in documenting that the African American women's logic involved both equality and fairness, whereas later anti-discrimination laws tended to leave out the fairness part. My interest is in the power of local forgetting: how little is remembered of the virulent white racism that led the government bureaucrats and the contracting company alike to discriminate against black workers and lie to them about it. (Most responses to complaints were pro forma; one woman was turned away because the company doctor said she had high blood pressure, which her own doctor documented was not the case.) The plant would recruit as far away as North Dakota and Georgia rather than allow a black person to work in a job designated for whites.

Placing our ancestors in historical context involves being aware of uncomfortable issues and situations that now go unmentioned. Sometimes it takes an outside historian to pay attention to a part of the picture that local historians turn away from.

Katherine Turk, "'A Fair Chance To Do My Part of Work': Black Women, War Work, and Rights Claims at the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant," Indiana Magazine of Hisotry, vol. 108, no. 3 (September 2012): 209-44.

Harold Henderson, "Not All History Is Created Equal," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 27 October 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

1 comment:

Debbie V. said...

That "Historian on the Edge" - his manifesto post was thought-provoking.