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A Tour of Richmond’s WWII Historic Sites

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday May 26, 2006

It’s not at all strange for a bus half-filled with important local officials to roll through the streets of a California city, pointing out tracts and plots and buildings along the way. It is unusual when the other half of the bus is filled with longtime city residents and community activists, and the purpose of the tour is not so much to plot the city’s future as it is to make sure its past is understood. 

On Saturday, Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park held its fourth such tour of the city’s World War II era sites, with participants who lived through the era encouraged to add their commentary to the park service’s tour guide. 

The result was an exercise in living history. 

In one of Richmond’s Latino sections, the bus passed the Mexican Baptist Church near the Atchison Village housing projects, with tour guide Naomi Torres of the National Park Service talking about how the village was once an open field where Mexican-American farmers grazed their livestock and then was built as housing for Kaiser shipyard workers who flocked to Richmond during the war years. 

When Torres was finished, Contra Costa Grand Jury Foreman Antonio Medrano, who grew up in Richmond, pointed to the Mexican Baptist Church and said, “I bet you thought all Mexicans were Catholic,” which began his telling of the history of Mexico’s evangelical Protestant movement that later migrated north into the United States. 

At the Winters Building off of MacDonald Avenue, which served as both a dance hall and an air raid shelter during the war and which now houses the East Bay Center for The Performing Arts, another Park Ranger asked if anyone on the bus remembered attending any dances there. 

“That place was for white folks,” one of the older black participants pointed out. “You have to remember who was welcome and who wasn’t welcome on MacDonald Avenue in those days.” There followed stories of Richmond’s deeply segregated days when young white drivers cruised the city’s main street with impunity but black drivers were cited and arrested by police. 

And at a stop along the wharf next to the enormous closed Ford Assembly Plant, some five football fields long, which once housed a tank production factory and is now being prepared for commercial and housing redevelopment by the City of Richmond, one longtime Parchester Village resident recalled how she and her neighbors could see the lights from munitions loading accident explosions on the docks from their windows. 

Rosie the Riveter National Park community liaison Betty Reid Soskin, who conceived and designed the tours and works on them jointly with National Park Service Outreach Specialist Naomi Torres, calls them “resoundingly successful,” and says they came out of a desire to “raise the awareness in the City of Richmond that they are in the middle of a national park. There is a misconception that the park is just down by the shoreline but the heart of it is in the Iron Triangle, which is one of the most troubled parts of the city. We’re hoping that the tours can help Richmond form a new identity of itself. We have such a rich history here.” 

Soskin says she has resisted suggestions to simply have officials take the tours by themselves, without the longtime residents. “Without the residents telling their stories,” Soskin said, “we’d simply be passing by building sites that we pass by every day, without knowing their historic significance.”  

Included on the tours was the Galileo Club on South 23rd Street, where Richmond’s largest single ethnic group before World War II—Italians—had a social club (one of the participants explained that because of Richmond’s sensitive wartime industries, only American citizens could live in the city, and many Italian families were broken up when the elders who were non-citizen immigrants were forced to move out). 

Other areas visited were the Pullman District, which includes the still-standing, New Orleans-style hotel where Pullman porters stayed between runs as well as buildings where Pullman passenger cars were repaired and restored; the Park Florist on MacDonald, which was once owned by a Japanese family who were forced to sell the business when they were relocated to an internment camp; and the Kaiser Field Hospital, one of the first structures shipbuilding magnate Henry J. Kaiser used as part of his health care system for his shipyard workers, a system that eventually grew into Kaiser Permanente.  

The tours start at the headquarters of the Rosie the Riveter park at Richmond City Hall, where participants view some of the historic memorabilia. Among them are ID badges, ration stamps, welder’s guns, and a welder’s mask used by a Japanese-American welder “until the day he went into an internment camp,” according to park officials. 

The photo I.D. badges are especially poignant, giving a human face to an era that is close to us in time, but often forgotten. Housed on a single table in the back of the City Hall complex, the items are being collected for a permanent park museum. While the location for the museum has yet to be determined, park officials say that some of the memorabilia in the park’s projected new Visitors Center at the Ford Assembly Plant. 

A park official explained that the park is both a collection of World War II-era historical cites as well as a documentation of activities on what was called “the home front” during the war. 

“And we’re using home front in its broadest possible term,” he said. “We’re referring to anything that happened domestically during the war years. Whatever people were doing at that time was affected by the war, or had an effect on the war.” 

The official said that while the Rosie the Riveter Park was headquartered in Richmond, the park is a collection of all the west coast wartime history, from Washington State to Southern California.  

The fifth and final tour is scheduled for later this summer, but Soskin says the park is seeking more funding to extend the events. The tours have been funded by a grant from PG&E. Slots for the fifth tour are already filled, but at a feedback session following Saturday’s tour, park officials said they were open to suggestions to expand the tours and make them available to more community residents, groups, and officials. 


Contributed photo  

Richmond City Clerk Diane Holmes (left) and Richmond community activist Ethel Dotson view Rosie the Riveter Memorial during Saturday's Richmond historical tour.