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Wanted: Tales of Richmond’s War-Time Housing By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday July 15, 2005

The City of Richmond and the National Park Service are looking for people who lived in Richmond’s 11 World War II-era housing projects in the 1940s and 1950s. 

The history project—which is being coordinated by Berkeley resident Donna Graves—is part of an ongoing national-local effort to document the story of the effects of the massive war effort on mid-20th Century Richmond. 

One community session was held earlier this summer. A second one has been planned for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Booker T. Anderson Co mmunity Center, 960 S. 47th St. in Richmond. Participants are asked to bring any photographs or other documentary evidence of their stay in the Richmond housing projects, as well as to tell stories that will be videotaped. 

Richmond’s Kaiser Shipyards wer e a major portion of the enormous American military buildup that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and America’s entry into the war. 

Tens of thousands of new workers poured into Richmond for employment at the shipyards, many o f them directly from the South. Most were white, with as many as 23 percent African-American, and an unknown number of Mexican Americans and Chinese Americans. The sudden influx transformed overnight what had been a small, country town—72,000 people, more than half of Richmond’s population, were poured into 25,000 housing units by 1943. It has been called the largest public housing project in the nation. 

Graves says that the wartime housing project boom had some of its greatest effect on the city’s black workers, as well as on Richmond as it is known today. 

“Housing was strictly segregated in Richmond at the time,” she said. “And that got reflected in the wartime housing projects. Some of them were all-black, and some of them were set up as segregated u nits where African-Americans were confined to only one portion of the project. The Housing Authority had a quota of 20 percent of the units set aside for African-Americans, but they didn’t take into account the fact that housing wasn’t available for blacks anywhere else in Richmond.” 

Graves said that as far as she could determine, Mexican Americans did not face housing discrimination in Richmond during the war, and most of the Chinese American workers lived in San Francisco and took the ferry across the bay to Richmond. 

With the housing projects overflowing and nowhere else to live in the city limits, Graves said, African-Americans went across the city line to build homes in unincorporated North Richmond, which continues to be heavily black. 

Another ca rryover from the wartime housing was that in order to gain city approval for the projects, the federal government had to agree that most of it would be temporary and would be torn down after the war. 

“At least 90 percent of the projects were built out of flimsy materials and they were, indeed, destroyed as soon as the war ended,” Graves said. “The idea was that with the projects torn down, the workers would go back South after the war, or wherever else they came from. But most of them stayed.” 

Only thre e of the projects were built as permanent structures, she said. Two still remain and one of them, Atchison Village, is now part of Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. 

Graves says that the loss of most of the Wor ld War II housing structures makes oral histories and collection of memorabilia all the more important. 

“We heard wonderful stories at the first session,” she said. “One black woman told of coming up on the train from Texas and having to stand for four d ays straight because troops were occupying most of the train. When she got to Richmond she had to borrow somebody’s baby so that she and her husband could qualify for a one-bedroom apartment. She said she was in fear that somebody would ask her the baby’s name, because she had no idea what it was.” 

Graves said that the woman and her husband ended up having five children, but kept the one-bedroom apartment. 

For now, there are no definite plans for presenting the material once it is compiled. Graves said that between three and four professionally videotaped full oral histories are planned and they, along with a report on the history project, will be turned over this fall to both the Richmond Public Library and the Park Service. 

“We’re hoping that this will be used in presentations on the World War II period,” she said. “For now, it’s just important that we gather the information before the residents pass on.”i