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“All the Colored Women Like This Work”: Black Workers During World War I

Wartime production demanded the mobilization of thousands of workers to make steel and rubber, to work in petrochemical industries, and to build ships. As a result, African Americans made striking gains in employment even while also facing continuing discrimination. Black women, for example, got jobs working on the railroads for the first time during the world war. Black women found jobs as laborers, cleaning cars, wiping engines, tending railroad beds. Helen Ross was one of them, working for the Santa Fe Railroad. In an interview with the Women’s Service Section of U.S. Railroad Administration, Ross described the advantages of her railroad job. Nevertheless, the same agency later declared such work too heavy for women.

"All the colored women like this work and want to keep it. We are making more money at this than any work we can get, and we do not have to work as hard as at housework which requries us to be on duty from six o’clock in the morning until nine or ten at night, with might little time off and at very poor wages....What the colored women need is an opportunity to make money. As it is, they have to take what employment they can get, live in old tumbled down houses or resort to street walking, and I think a woman ought to think more of her blood than to do that. What occupation is open to us where we can make really good wages? We are not employed as clerks, we cannot all be school teachers, and so we cannot see any use in working our parents to death to get educated. Of course we should like easier work than this if it were opened to us, but this pays well and is no harder than other work open to us. With three dollars a day, we can buy bonds..., we can dress decently, and not be tempted to find our living on the streets..."

Source: quoted in Maurine Weiner Greenwald,Women, War, and Work: The Impact of WW I on Women Workers in the United States(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980).from interview by Helen Ross, Freight House, Santa Fe RR, Topeka, KS, 28 October 1918: 27 File 55, Women’s Service Section, RG 14, National Archives, Washington, DC.