by Sarah Davenport
In 1942, Florise Spearman and Dorothy West Williams became the
first African Americans ever to be hired at the Seattle-based Boeing
This important milestone capped a long struggle for African Americans
seeking the right to work at Boeing. Beginning in 1939 and continuing
through World War II, African American activism combined with pressure from
the federal government to finally force the company to relax its racially
exclusive hiring policy and integrate its workforce.
This paper positions the campaign within the context of three
overlapping developments. The first is the formation of a politically active
African American community in Seattle over the course of the first four
decades of the twentieth-century. Starting in 1939, a black activist and
former local Communist Party leader, Hutchen R. Hutchins, led the charge
against the Boeing Company and the International Association of Machinists.
Hutchins founded the Committee for the Defense of Negro Labor’s Right to
Work at the Boeing Airplane Company (CDNL) in 1940. The Seattle-based
African American newspaper, the Northwest Enterprise, was the driving
force behind this campaign, and Hutchins used his position as a reporter for
the Enterprise to facilitate his activism.
The second context is the struggle between the Boeing Company and its
principle union, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) Local
751. Boeing blamed Local 751 for the discriminatory hiring practices
against African Americans while the local union in turn blamed both the
company and its own national leadership. Briefly in 1940, the local union
decided to allow African American members, but this was soon revoked when
local union leadership was accused of Communist activities and removed by
the parent IAM. In truth, both the IAM and the Boeing Company had
histories of racial discrimination in the workplace. Boeing had never hired
African Americans in its twenty-five years of existence, and the IAM had a
clause in its oath that banned blacks from membership.
The third context is the role of the federal government. In
June of 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt, under intense pressure from
national African American leaders, issued Executive Order 8802. The order
required that all companies with government contracts cease discriminatory
hiring practices and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC)
to investigate the employment practices of companies like Boeing. However,
despite the order, the Boeing Company did not immediately comply. As
historian Quintard Taylor points out, “in the ten weeks after the executive
order became law, the company hired 1,000 new employees per week, but not
one was black.”
And it would take even longer for the IAM to finally change its policy and
grant African Americans membership.
The United States entered the war in December of 1941 after the
Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Men and women all over the nation joined the
war effort by purchasing bonds, enlisting in the military, rationing food
and supplies, and signing up to work in war craft industries. Many of these
newer industries were located on the west coast, which prompted a
large-scale migration of workers and their families to the region. As
Taylor states, “forty-five thousand African Americans migrated to the
Pacific Northwest to work in World War II defense industries.” Largely as a
result, between 1940 and 1950 Seattle’s black population grew 413 percent,
from 3,789 to 15,666.
Despite their small
numbers prior to World War II, African Americans in Seattle built an active
community through networks of families, churches, civic organizations, and
The first two African American churches, First African Methodist Episcopal,
founded in 1886, and Mount Zion Baptist, founded in 1890, often opened up
their facilities to the public for meetings, forums, and rallies.
There were also black organizations such as the Knights of Pythias, the
Masons, and the Odd Fellows.
The community had a wide variety of nightclubs, entertainers, and sports
teams that it supported.
For its size, the African American community in Seattle was also very
politically active. African Americans created a number of local branches of
national organizations, including the NAACP, the Universal Negro Improvement
Association, the National Urban League, and the National Negro Congress.
Although Seattle seemed
far removed from the Jim Crow South, with its brutal mobs and lynching, and
even from the institutional racism of the Northeast, it was not free from
the divisions caused by racial discrimination. Much like the rest of the
nation, African Americans in Seattle were often the last to be hired and the
first to be fired, and they were not admitted to most unions, including the
longshoremen’s union and the waitresses’ union.
This in turn often caused blacks to become strikebreakers, which further
widened the gap between white and black workers in Seattle.
African Americans were generally limited to menial jobs. Black men could
work as servants, waiters, and janitors while black women most often worked
as domestic or personal servants.
Seattle was not limited to employment. African Americans were called racist
names and segregated in schools. Segregated housing was another major
concern as restrictive covenants banning blacks from certain neighborhoods
became widespread during the interwar period. [link to “Segregated Seattle”
section]. These covenants forced the majority of blacks to live in what is
now known as the Central District, a region between Downtown Seattle and
generally stayed within the confines of their own community and, although
politically active, did not often militantly challenge the discrimination
that was evident in Seattle. There were of course exceptions. In the early
1930s, African Americans in the Communist Party, including Revels Cayton and
the future chairman of the Committee for the Defense of Negro Labor’s Right
to Work at the Boeing Airplane Company, Hutchen R. Hutchins, aggressively
protested racism and discrimination in Seattle and linked it to events
occurring in the rest of the nation. And in the mid thirties a broad
coalition of black and white organizations, including the Communist Party,
the NAACP, and the Urban League successfully fended off two
anti-intermarriage bills introduced in the state legislature. More
typically, however, small political groups would challenge discriminatory
practices on a limited scale.
For the most part, these efforts failed to yield dramatic results because
the African American community was too small to make a major impact.
As the main newspaper
serving the African American community in Seattle in the 1930s and 1940s,
the Northwest Enterprise was the voice of a number of civil rights
struggles. The newspaper’s editors were important political leaders in the
African American community, including William Wilson who was president of
the local chapter of the NAACP during the early 1930s, Prentice Frazier and
Clarence Anderson who were leaders of the Seattle Urban League, and Edward
Robinson who was a prominent business owner. The Northwest Enterprise
gave each of these men a podium to voice their concerns over such topics as
discrimination in the workplace and equal housing opportunities and helped
bring the community together to achieve common goals. In the early 1940s,
the paper would build on this legacy, becoming a crucial resource for black
activists struggling for the right to work at Boeing.
ORGANIZED LABOR, BOEING, AND THE IAM
The Boeing campaign is
also an example of how African Americans had to overcome conservative labor
unions in their struggle for equal employment opportunities. Throughout the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unions often played a significant
part in upholding the color line in American industries.. The American
Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886 with Samuel Gompers as its
president, was formed to help workers gain rights through solidarity and
However, the AFL was not an organization intended for African Americans.
Some AFL unions practiced discrimination in their ranks, even if they
allowed African Americans to join, while others, like the IAM, explicitly
barred African Americans from membership altogether.
The International Association of Machinists was formed in 1888
and by 1889 had thirty-nine locals. In 1895, it joined the AFL, and over
the next thirty-five years grew to be one of the largest unions in the
The IAM was originally an organization for highly skilled craftsmen who
performed general operations on locomotives and other engines. By the turn
of the century this changed as groups of specialists such as the Allied
Metal Mechanics entered the union. Over time, the jurisdiction of the IAM
continued to broaden as semiskilled automobile and aircraft workers were
admitted. By the 1930s, the IAM was no longer a union specifically for
skilled machinists, but rather was beginning to resemble a quasi-industrial
Discriminatory practices in the IAM started to change when the
Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) challenged the AFL’s leadership.
Led by United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) president John L. Lewis, a
delegation to the 1935 national convention challenged AFL leadership by
proposing a shift toward industrial unionism, a strategy that sought to
organize both skilled and unskilled labor within entire industries. Lewis
and his supporters were rejected by the AFL, which caused them to form the
The CIO knew that it had to have an inclusive policy uniting black and
white workers together if it was to gain power and survive in the labor
arena. In 1939, the CIO had about 1,838,000 members and included The United
Automobile Workers (UAW), the United Steel Workers (USW), the UMWA, the
United Electrical Workers (UE), and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of
In the late 1930s, these unions began to work with black communities,
promising them more jobs and opportunities. Because of this, civil rights
groups formed alliances with the CIO. As Walter White, the executive
secretary of the NAACP, stated, “the CIO has proved … it stands for Negro
advancement. It has fought for our people within the unions and outside the
The Boeing Airplane Company became a battleground for the fight
for African Americans’ right to work. Founded in 1917 by William Boeing,
the Boeing Company started with just twenty-eight employees, including
pilots, carpenters, boat builders, and seamstresses. After securing a Navy
contract during World War I, Boeing was able to expand both in employment
and in production. However, with the end of the war came a contraction in
the demand for airplanes. The Boeing Company took to making furniture and
boats in order to survive. Throughout the 1920s, Boeing was able to sell
some small orders for aircraft, started to make mail-carrying planes, and
even began to make passenger planes. By the 1930s, Boeing sent passenger
airplanes from coast to coast, trained pilots, and continued to ship mail
throughout the country.
It was in the mid 1930s that Boeing started to build large
military aircraft. The B-17 was developed in 1935 as the first Boeing
military plane to have a flight deck instead of an open cockpit, and it was
outfitted with bombs and machine guns.
The Army Air Corps ordered eighty B-17s in 1940 and twenty more were sent to
the British Royal Air Force that same year. The B-29 was introduced in 1939
and became the largest bomber to be manufactured during the war. It had a
number of new special features, including mounted guns that could be fired
via remote control.
By the end of the war, 3,970 B-29s had been built, most of them at Boeing
The massive contracts for both the B-17 and the B-29 enabled Boeing to come
out of World War II as one of the nation’s leaders in airplane manufacturing
and also one of the largest employers in Seattle.
IAM established a local branch at Boeing in 1935 in order to unionize
Boeing’s expanding number of workers.
This branch, Local 751, was an industrial union, but it was assigned to the
IAM by the Executive Council of the AFL. This occurred because although the
AFL was generally against industrial unions, the international unions within
the AFL were allowed to decide amongst themselves who was to have
jurisdiction over what industry, and hence, what local. With only
thirty-five founding members, IAM Local 751 was able to sign its first
collective bargaining agreement with Boeing in 1936.
The CIO was still very new and did not focus on the aircraft industry until
1939; by that time, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recognized IAM
Local 751 as the bargaining agent at Boeing and the workers there were well
established with that union.
In barring African
American membership, the IAM was reinforcing the Boeing Company’s own
longstanding policy of racial exclusion. From the company’s founding in
1917 through the first years of World War II, not a single African American
was hired at Boeing, despite its massive growth over the period. Members of
the African American community challenged the Boeing Company because it had
become one of the largest employers in the region, and blacks wanted to be
included. As Quintard Taylor writes, this meant that “if economic exclusion
was at the heart of the black community’s dilemma, and progress in this area
appeared virtually impossible, then politics and civil rights would provide
a way out.”
Drawing on existing community resources and a tradition of political
activism, African Americans in Seattle would eventually gain the right to
work at the Boeing Company, but it would take the intervention of the
federal government for this to happen.
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY DEMANDS EMPLOYMENT
African Americans first attempted to eliminate discrimination
barriers at the Boeing Company in October of 1939. According to the
Northwest Enterprise, “efforts to break down the Boeing Company’s
discrimination policy were made last October  when a young Race man
applied for training at the Boeing shops following the launching of a
program to train additional men to fill the company’s orders.”
African American men applied for this training school knowing that, due to a
large backorder, the company could use the extra labor. Still, the company
made it clear that it did not hire African Americans.
Boeing Company officials blamed IAM Local 751 for the discriminatory hiring
practices, arguing that “Local 751 of the International Association of
Machinists was the sole bargaining agent for the employees and as such, all
hiring was done through the union.”
The IAM had a clause in its oath which stated, “I will not
recommend for membership in this union any other than members of the white
race.” This oath was repeated before every Local meeting.
The Northwest Enterprise began publishing a series of articles
condemning both the Boeing Company and Local 751 once it learned that both
groups used this oath as an excuse for not hiring blacks. This jumpstarted
efforts to have the clause removed from the oath.
In May of 1940, African American activists in Seattle came
together to form the Committee for the Defense of Negro Labor’s Right to
Work at Boeing Airplane Company (CDNL). The CDNL was supported by a number
of groups, including churches, clubs, and other community organizations, in
an effort to get African Americans hired at Boeing. Black men were
encouraged to apply for jobs at Boeing and were told, “Do not take NO for an
answer. If you are refused, learn why and who refused you.”
The CDNL built a strong case against both the company and the union,
demanding an amendment to the union oath, admission of African Americans
into the union, and the removal from office of anyone who continued to
defend racial exclusion.
Hutchen R. Hutchins, a longtime black activist who was then
working as a reporter for the Northwest Enterprise, was appointed as
the chair of the CDNL when it formed in 1940. Hutchins originally came to
Seattle in 1932 as a district leader for the Communist party (CP), and was
one of a number of African American Communists in the area. After being
forced out of the local CP leadership in 1933, Hutchins’ remained involved
in left labor politics as the president of Seattle’s Negro Workers Council.
affiliations point out the important role the CP played in local civil
rights struggles during the 1930s, especially in the labor arena. Revels
Cayton was another prominent African American Communist who formally joined
the Northwest Party in 1934 after being actively involved in Party
activities for several years. Cayton was drawn to the CP because of its
activist ideals and its willingness to openly attack racism and
discrimination, and was able to quickly work his way up through the ranks to
become one of the few African American leaders in the party. Cayton used
communism to push his own civil rights agenda, staging protests to draw
attention to the discrimination found in labor unions and segregated local
Susie Revels Cayton, Revels’ mother, also became a member of the Communist
party, in large part due to its civil rights stance. She saw how her son
was becoming empowered through the CP and sought to use it to her advantage
For local African Americans like the Caytons and Hutchen Hutchins, as well
as for African Americans in other regions of the country, the Communist
party in the 1930s was an important ally in the struggle for civil rights
and social justice. However, association with the CP also left black and
white activists open to the red baiting tactics of civil rights opponents
who sought to paint the movement as subversive in order to discredit it.
Communists within the IAM would face this challenge in the early 1940s at
the Boeing plant.
By 1939 it is unclear
whether or not Hutchins was still a formal member of the Communist party.
However, his continuing ideological commitment to the Party is apparent in
the fact that his reporting for the Norwest Enterprise had a
distinct communist flavor. For instance, in an article headlined, “Fifth
Column Works Behind Nazi-ized Labor Unions Throughout U.S,” he wrote:
If the leaders of Boeing
Aeronautical Union No. 751 would have ignored this feudal oath and admitted
Negroes, the International would have said nothing. Had it done so, the
union leaders would have become a model of courage and progress and labor
history would point to its leaders with pride. The same machine is trying
to defend the jim-crow position of the union and place the blame on the
American Federation of Labor. While the A.F.L. certainly needs an
immersion, it does not lessen the guilt of Mr. Lundquist [Hugo Lundquist,
business agent for the Aeronautical Machinists Local 751] and others … The
most dangerous enemy facing Negroes here is jim-crowism and segregation
masquerading under the banner of liberalism and progressivism in labor
Hutchins and other African American community leaders in Seattle were trying
to show that discrimination existed in Seattle, and that it was unjust to
ban African Americans and other minorities from positions in Local 751 at
the Boeing Company. They blamed Hugo Lundquist for the refusal of the
local to hire African Americans, stating in the Northwest Enterprise,
“he [Lundquist] has decreed that no Negro shall be placed in a position
where he will be able to spend one red cent.”
In response to attacks from the Northwest Enterprise,
Local 751’s newspaper, The Aero Mechanic, published an article
titled, “Do We Bar Negroes?” in order to address its position on the matter:
Attacks have been
recently leveled at Local No. 751 – unfair and unjust attacks on the charge
that we, as an organization, are opposed to the hiring of Negroes by
Boeing. We wish to state clearly and emphatically that such charges are
entirely false and without grounds. It is true that the Boeing Company does
not hire Negroes. But since when has Local 751 had any control over the
company’s policy in this connection? It is also true that a clause exists
in the constitution of the International Association of Machinists barring
Negroes from membership. Would this small but vociferous group which has
been loudest in attacking our local have us dis-affiliate with our parent
body because of this clause? For their information, it has been progressive
locals like our own that for years have been fighting at the International
Conventions of the I.A.M. for the elimination of this clause. It is to be
hoped that we may be more successful at the forthcoming convention.
Certainly, of all the trade unions in the city, we feel that the direct
attacks against us as proponents of racial discrimination prejudice or
chauvinism, is not only unfair and unjust, but is inspired by certain
anti-labor elements to disrupt our union while it is in the midst of serious
negotiations with the company. To the honest and sincere colored workers in
Seattle – and there are many of them – we can state that a committee … has
been set up to try and find a solution to what we recognize as an important
This article was reprinted in the Northwest Enterprise on July 12,
1940. The African American community viewed Local 751’s response with
hopeful but still skeptical eyes. The union refused to take responsibility
for the demands of the black community and instead came up with excuses that
needed to be challenged.
LOCAL 751 AND THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY NEGOTIATE
Negotiations opened up between IAM Local 751 and representatives
from the CDNL in July 1940. Bernard E. Squires, Executive Secretary of the
Seattle Urban League, was chosen to present the demands of the African
American community to the Executive Board of Local 751.
The two groups deliberated over the issue of the union’s oath as well as
concerns that “Negroes might prove to be potential strike breakers and
scabs.” It was successfully determined that “the Negro is not a potential
strike breaker but has proven to be the backbone of many important strikes
in the Northwest.”
Union members promised
to open the union to African Americans, and Local 751 president Barney Bader
and business agent Hugo Lundquist were asked to call for the removal of the
membership ban at the International Convention of the IAM.
The two groups finally decided that Local 751 would bring these grievances
to the International Convention, with Squires giving the report at the
international meeting in Cleveland, Ohio that September. They agreed to
join forces in order to “wipe out forever the exclusion clauses now existing
in the ritual constitution of the International Association of Machinists.”
The Boeing Company
blamed the union for barring blacks from working at the company. As it
stated, “the Company has an agreement with the Aeronautical Mechanics Union,
Local No. 751 which provides that all employees working under the agreement
shall become members of the Union.”
This meant that the Boeing Company shifted the blame for discrimination from
itself onto the IAM. However, Boeing had been in operation for more than
twenty years and had only dealt with the union since 1935. During those
twenty years, African Americans were never hired. This clearly shows that
the company was also guilty of racial discrimination.
At the international IAM meeting in Cleveland, Squires
discovered that Local 751 was not sincere in its commitment to end
discrimination and include African Americans in its membership. His
attempts to persuade the IAM to remove the discriminatory clause from its
constitution proved fruitless. What was most disheartening was that “the
local delegation did little if anything by way of fighting for the proposed
change in the ritual while in attendance at the convention,” which meant
that Squires did not go to the convention with the support he assumed he
LOCAL 751 SHAKE UP
Throughout the 1930s, the Communist party in Seattle had supported the
inclusion of African Americans in organized labor. Although the IAM was
affiliated with the more conservative AFL, Communists and other leftists
maintained an active presence within the union. Ironically, this fact kept
the rival CIO at bay. In his autobiography, local CP leader and CIO
organizer Eugene Dennett mentions that “the Seattle “left” in the CIO was on
good terms locally with the AFL Machinists, so we felt it was unwise to
interject contention from a far-away source.”
That Communists in the CIO felt it unwise to intervene in a segregated union
perhaps indicates that by 1940, CP support for African Americans had waned.
In 1940, in the midst of the CDNL’s campaign to integrate Boeing’s
workforce, an internal struggle within Local 751 brought charges of
communism against certain members of the union and led to the restructuring
of Local 751. IAM President Harvey Brown personally went to Seattle in
April of 1941 to sort out the matter. Brown revoked the local charter and
all of the union leaders accused of communism were expelled from the
international union. In response to the leftist views held by some of the
union members, Brown stated:
“Subversive forces are
deceptively working to obstruct the National Defense Program. Recently,
there was plotted a program to cause a stoppage of work, to bring idleness
to all employees of the Boeing Aircraft Company. The time has come for you
to call a halt. Developments demand that every loyal member, worthy of our
American institutions, cooperate to the utmost in cleansing Lodge No. 751 of
the Communist element now gnawing at its vitals.”
few days later, he wrote again:
Lodge 751 has been a long suffering victim of Communist strategy, character
assassins, deliberate lying; in fact, perjury to create confusion,
prejudice, hate, bitter feeling among members.”
return of the delegates from the IAM convention in Cleveland also sparked
dissension within Local 751 when one faction of the Union leadership was
accused of Communist activities. Among those accused were Bader and
Lundquist, who were singled out in an editorial published in The Aero
The parent IAM swept in and removed the accused Local 751 leaders and
installed new leaders who were more in tune with the policies and practices
of the national IAM leadership. Those removed were thought to have CIO
Significantly, the Executive Board also decided to retract the agreement
that included African Americans in the union. All local leaders who had
supported the removal of the clause prohibiting black union members were
accused of being Communists and were removed from their positions.
Thus, the shakeup within the IAM leadership is an example of how red baiting
was sometimes used as a tool to obstruct civil rights activism.
EXECUTIVE ORDER 8802 AND THE FEPC
President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on
June 25, 1941.
The order provided the federal backing needed to finally push through
integration at Boeing, but not without continued pressure from civil rights
activists. Ten weeks later the Boeing Company had hired about 10,000 new
employees, but none of them were African American.
Noting the company’s lack of progress, the Northwest Enterprise
stated, “The president’s memorandum issued to quiet the rising tide of
Negroes’ protest against the hypocritical stand of industry and labor
denying the Negroes’ right to work in plants holding contracts for national
defense falls on deaf ears in the far northwest.”
In September of 1941, a full two months into Executive Order 8802, a young
African American man named Eugene Beech was denied entry into the Aircraft
Defense Training School, which was a requirement for anyone working at the
Boeing Company. Beech was sent home after only two days in class because
instructors thought that, due to his race, he would not be hired at the
Boeing Company even after full training. “I remember Eugene Beech,” his
instructor said, “and thought he was a very likely young man … but there is
nothing we can do. I think it grossly unfair to let a person complete the
course with the expectation of getting a job when we know he cannot.”
Washington’s U.S. Senator Monrad C. Wallgren and Congressman Warren G.
Magnuson were asked to look into the Beech case and the issue of
discrimination at Boeing.
Both men agreed that the case against Beech was unacceptable, and Senator
Wallgren sent it on to the Office of Production Management, which was in
charge of the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
Ultimately, the ban against Beech was lifted; the Office of Production
Management announced, “it will ‘do everything possible to remove bans
against qualified negroes in both training and employment.’”
That same September, the NAACP filed a complaint with the FEPC.
By April 1942, the FEPC helped to insure that Local 751 issued work permits
to African Americans. The Local complied only grudgingly, stating, “we
[Local 751] have officially gone on record as agreeing to live up to the
letter and spirit of the executive order whole-heartedly and without
reservation … at the same time we rather resent that the war situation has
been used to alter an old-established custom, and do not feel it will be
helpful to war production.”
Despite IAM compliance, problems persisted. A handful of African American
women were hired at Boeing, but were not allowed membership in the union.
They were required to purchase temporary permits at a cost $3.50 per month,
which was more than monthly union dues. The Northwest Enterprise
expressed outrage over this thinly veiled attempt to circumvent the
First of all it means no
security of job or certainty of relief. That being the last to be hired,
we’ll surely be the first to be fired. That because we are Negroes, we must
remain on the narrow ridge of economic survival, only partially connected
with our nation’s remedies, but dumb victims of its difficulties. It means
that in spite of our President’s executive order of no discrimination in
defense industry, that this union will continue to discriminate even though
it be at the cost of unity and morale, factors definitely essential to
winning the war.
Seattle’s African American community played a crucial part in forcing
Boeing to hire black workers, but it was the FEPC that obligated Boeing to
finally hire its first black workers. Even then, it would take more time
and pressure for African Americans to gain unrestricted access to employment
at Boeing and membership in Local 751 of the IAM.
WORKING AT BOEING
Over time, it became increasingly clear to the Boeing Company
that qualified African Americans were going to continue to apply for jobs
and that the company would be legally obligated to hire them. With the
wartime industry boom, a number of African Americans came to Seattle to work
at Boeing. As was the case in defense industries throughout the nation, many
of these workers were women. They had been trained in their local areas by
the National Youth Administration, which was created during the 1930s as a
way to train young people in trades and then assist them in finding jobs.
Once they came to Seattle, many found work at Boeing, although they were
still subjected to racial discrimination. Some of the African American
women who worked at Boeing during World War II recall their experiences as
positive, as they were able to travel away from home, seek adventure, and
make more money than they ever had before. However, others remember the
discrimination faced in the workplace as they were banned from the union and
treated like second-class citizens. Whatever their experience, these women
owed their jobs to the activism of the local African American community and
the intervention of the federal government.
Belle Alexander described how in Georgia she was trained in
sheet metal for three months, welding for another three months, and then was
put on a bus bound for Seattle. She remembers working with mostly women in
the three years she was at Boeing. As a sheet metal worker, Alexander felt
that “They don’t talk about nothing but the Riveter,” and wishes other
skills were highlighted in the history books as well. A variety of skills
were needed to properly build and assemble airplanes at that time.
Alexander compared it to making a cake. As with a cake, workers had to
start from scratch, from the making of each panel to the assembly. Working
for sixty-two cents an hour, Alexander paid union dues but was not allowed
to join Local 751. After working at Boeing for three years, she left to
start a family, and did not go back because, in her words, “By the time I
was all ready to go back, Japan had surrendered.”
There was little job security for African Americans who worked at Boeing
during this time, although to some degree this was true across racial
lines as whites were also laid off in significant numbers after the war.
Other women had similar experiences. Katherine Thompkins came
to Seattle from Tulsa, OK when she was sixteen years old. She had trained
in welding, but, “When we got out here, the welding we couldn’t do, because
of our race.”
Her instructor had told her of the possibility of racial discrimination in
the workplace, but until she arrived it was unclear what she would have to
face. The Boeing Company retrained her in sheet metal work. Thompkins
first worked at Plant 1, known as the Little Red Barn, as a mechanic. She
too recalls working for sixty-two cents per hour, and received a substantial
amount of overtime. Through this she was able to earn a great deal of
money. At the end of the war, she was laid off for nine months because her
plant was shut down. When the plant reopened, Thompkins was rehired.
Although Local 751 did not allow her to join when she first started working
at Boeing, she recalls that by 1948 everyone was admitted to the union.
Thompkins worked for the Boeing Company for almost forty years. Reflecting
on that time, she says, “I felt that it was a difficult job, but the best
job for a woman,” because she was able to make more money, have more
opportunities, and receive better benefits.
Although she was thankful for the job at Boeing, Thompkins remembers facing
discrimination in Seattle. For instance, she was not allowed in some shops
or restaurants because of her race. There were no signs on these
establishments, but she could tell by the atmosphere that she was not
welcome. Some restaurants refused to serve her outright. Summarizing her
experiences from that time, Thompkins reminds people that “we still have
discrimination now;” it has not gone anywhere.
Katie Burks and Vivian Laye both came from Birmingham, Alabama
to work at the Boeing Company. Burks first worked in the tool room and then
later as a mechanic. She recalls that coworkers would offer her candy and
food stamps if she would do their work, which she gladly did. She also felt
a sense of confidence in herself and her job. As she stated, “if the
supervisor said anything to me that I didn’t like, I’d tell him off.”
. Vivian Laye weighed only 92 pounds when she first started working for the
Boeing Company, and the first machine she was assigned to was too heavy for
her to operate. Both women worked on the B-17 and the B-29.
The confidence that Burks recalls may have stemmed from the fact that the
black community she moved into was small, and most of the blacks she
interacted with were not native to Seattle. Even her church, People’s
Institutional Baptist Church, had a congregation mostly made up of African
Americans from out of state. Laye, however, remembered discrimination in
Seattle: “we felt it [discrimination] was more here, because it was
These women all came to Seattle to work at the Boeing Company
during World War II, either to move away from home, to seek adventure, or to
support the war effort. They shared similar experiences but different
perspectives, which varied from resentment toward the Seattle community and
the discrimination faced there, to a sense of belonging and freedom from
In 1944, Boeing employed a wartime peak of 1,600 black workers.
In 1945, the leadership of Local 751 decided to once again pressure the IAM
to remove the clause in its constitution barring African Americans from
membership. Local 751 brought the largest delegation of any IAM local to
the International Convention in New York. It challenged the discriminatory
clause, but was outvoted. A year later, the delegation tried again and this
time, was successful. In 1946, Local 751’s delegation convinced the IAM to
remove the discriminatory clause from its ritual oath.
African Americans finally won the right to work at the Boeing
Company and to participate in Local 751 after a long ordeal involving both a
grassroots community campaign and government intervention. Without the
efforts of local black activists, the Boeing Company would have continued to
deny employment to qualified African Americans. Ultimately, it was FEPC
that forced the integration of the Boeing Company, but it was the Seattle
African American community, led by the Northwest Enterprise and the
CDNL, which had to bring the issue to the attention of the federal
government in order to correct the problem. However, even after Boeing
began hiring African Americans, blacks still faced racial discrimination in
the workplace. There were segregated lunchrooms and bathrooms, and white
workers had nicer facilities than black workers. African American workers
were often denied promotions and were laid off for protesting
And of course being hired did not ensure fair treatment, or even admittance
until 1946, in the union. Today, Boeing has come a long way to become a
highly integrated workforce with a strong anti-discrimination policy.
However, discrimination still exists; it is important to remember how and
why people fought discrimination in the past in order to not just keep the
status-quo, but to continue forward in the fight for equality in the
workplace, on the street, and in the home.
(c) Sarah (Miner) Davenport 2006
HSTAA 498 Autumn 2005; HSTAA 499 Spring 2006
Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s
Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era (USA:
University of Washington Press, 1994), 163-165.
Taylor, Forging, 136.
Gerald J. Baldasty and Mark E. LaPointe, “The Press and the
African-American Community: The Role of the Northwest Enterprise in
the 1930s,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly Winter 2002/2003:
“AFL-CIO,” History, Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), (2006) http://www.aflcio.org/aboutus/history/history/gompers.cfm.
Bruce Nelson, Divided We Stand. American Workers and the
Struggle for Black Equality (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2001), xxxi.
“IAM Headquarters” History of the IAM (2006) http://www.goiam.org/content.cfm?cID=868.
Walter Galenson The CIO Challenge to the AFL. A History of the
American Labor Movement 1935-1941 (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1960), 495-496
“AFL-CIO,” History, John L. Lewis (1880-1969), (2006) http://www.aflcio.org/aboutus/history/history/lewis.cfm.
John McCann, Blood in the Water: A History of District Lodge 751,
International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
(Seattle: District Lodge 751, IAM&AW, 1989), 9-10
Nelson, Divided We Stand, xxxii
“Boeing” History, The Shared Heritage (2006) http://www.boeing.com/history/narrative/n001intro.html
“Boeing” History, B-17 Flying Fortress (2006) http://www.boeing.com/history/boeing/b17.html
“Boeing” History, B-29 Superfortress (2006) http://www.boeing.com/history/boeing/b29.html.
“Boeing” History, The Shared Heritage
McCann, Blood in the Water, xvi
Taylor, Forging, 163
McCann, Blood in the Water, 23-24
Airplane Co – Aeronautical Union Bars Negro Labor From Plant,”
Northwest Enterprise, 8 Mar. 1940: 1
Robert Bedford Pitts, Organized Labor and the Negro in Seattle
(Seattle: University of Washington, 1941), 74
“Hutchin R. Hutchins Further Exposes Wretched Conspiracy Of Boeing
Plant,” Northwest Enterprise 5 Apr. 1940: 1
“Organize Com. For Defense of Negro Laborers’ Right To Work at
Boeing Co.,” Northwest Enterprise 31 May 1940: 1
Hutchin R. Hutchins, “Fifth Column Works Behind Nazi-ized Labor
Unions Throughout U.S.,” Northwest Enterprise 7 Jun. 1940:
Sarah Falconer “Revels Cayton: African American Communist and Labor
Activist” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project
L. Goshorn “Susie Revels Cayton: “The Part She Played”” Seattle
Civil Rights and Labor History Project (2006) http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/susie_cayton.htm.
Hutchin R. Hutchins.
“Editorial: Mr. Hugo Lundquist Squawks,” Northwest Enterprise
14 Jun. 1940: 1-2
“Do We Bar Negroes?,” The Aero Mechanic 28 Jun. 1940: 8
“N.W. Enterprise leads Negro Labor to Victory,” Northwest
Enterprise 12 Jul. 1940: 1
Taylor, Forging, 163
“N.W. Enterprise leads Negro Labor to Victory,” Northwest
Enterprise 12 Jul. 1940: 1
“Letter from Boeing,” Northwest Enterprise 12 Jul. 1940: 2
Letter to Mr. Walter White, Secretary NAACP NY, from LeEtta S. King,
Secretary Seattle Branch NAACP, 9 Sep. 1940; Papers of the NAACP, microfilm
(Frederick MD: University Publications of America, 1991).
Bernard E. Squires, “Employment For Negroes Impossible At Boeings;
Conditions Unchanged,” Northwest Enterprise 8 Nov. 1940: 1
Eugene V. Dennett Agitprop: The Life of an American Working-Class
Radical. The Autobiography if Eugene V. Dennett (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1990) 108
Galenson, The CIO Challenge, 506
Taylor, Forging, 164
Richard C. Berner, Seattle in the 20th Century, Vol.
3: Seattle Transformed, World War II to Cold War (Seattle:
Charles Press, 1999), 51-53
Pitts, Organized Labor and the Negro, 77-78
“Executive Order 8802” Dec. 5 2005 www.eeoc.gove/abouteeoc/35th/thelaw/eo-8802
Taylor, Forging, 163
Howard A. Droker, “Seattle Race Relations during the Second World
War,” Experiences in a Promised Land, ed. G. Thomas Edwards
and Carlos A. Schwantes (Seattle: University of Washington Press,
Washington New Dealer, 11 Sept. 1941
Washington New Dealer, 18 Sept. 1941
Washington New Dealer, 2 Oct. 1941
Washington New Dealer, 16 Oct. 1941
Droker, “Seattle Race Relations,” 354-355
“To The Editor,” Northwest Enterprise, 3 Jul. 1942: 1
“The National Archives” Guide to Federal Records, Records of the
National Youth Administration [NYA] http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/119.html.
Belle Alexander Interview, with Sarah Miner and James Gregory, 2006
Katie Burks, Vivian Laye, and Katherine Thompkins, Interview with
Lorraine McConaghy, 5 Nov. 2005
“To The Editor,” Northwest Enterprise 3 Jul. 1942: 1
McCann, Blood in the Water, 48-49
On March 27, 2005, Machinists Union District
Lodge 751 held a conference honoring the black women who had broken the
color line and worked at Boeing during World War II. Below are some of the
the former Boeing workers who attended. Photos: IAM District Lodge 751
Belle Alexander was one of the first African Americans to work at Boeing. Click the picture to see her video interview.
images for larger versions of the articles below]
Above, In its March 8, 1940 edition, the
Northwest Enterprise began the campaign to force Boeing to open its
doors to black workers. Communist party member Hutchen R. Hutchins helped lead
the campaign, writing articles and also founding
the Committee for the Defense of Negro Labor’s Right to Work at the Boeing
Airplane Company. Below is his article of April 5, 1940.
a row of B-17 tail sections. Photo: Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection
Below: white women were hired by the thousands
as Boeing ramped up production. Photo: Metropolitan King County
Photo: Metropolitan King County
series of articles Hutchins and the Northwest Enterprise attacked
both the company for refusing to hire blacks and the Machinists Union which
maintained a whites-only membership policy. Above May 31, 1940; below: June
June 14, 1940 editorial the Northwest Enterprise goaded union business
agent Hugo Lundquist for "squawking" about wage increases while his union
maintained its racist exclusion policy.
The union's newspaper, The
Aero Mechanic, responds below (6/28/40):
Northwest Enterprise June 28, 1940
July `12, 1940 issue, the Northwest Enterprise thought it had won a victory
when the leadership of local 751 agreed to work with the Committee for the
Defense of Negro Labor's Right to work at Boeing Aircraft.
July 12, 1940
July 12, 1940
In this Nov.8, 1940 article, Bernard E.
Squires, head of the Seattle Urban League reported that local 751 delegates
had been rebuffed at the International Association of Machinists meeting in
Cleveland. The parent union had refused to change the whites only policy. A
few months later the International revoked the local charter and expelled
the 751 leaders, accusing them of Communist leanings.
Files of the NAACP
The microfilm Papers of NAACP include important
correspondence on the Boeing struggle. In this letter, special counsel
Thurgood Marshall offers advice about the campaign
In a September 8, 1940 to the national
office, chapter secretary LeEtta S. King details the progress of the
Jack Steinberg served as attorney for the
Washington branch of the NAACP. Above he writes to the Personnel Manager of
Boeing on June 28, 1941 explaining that the company is in violation of
Executive Order 8802. Below is the reply.
Roosevelt's executive order of June 25, 1941
made it illegal for defense contractors to discriminate on the basis of
race. But almost a year would pass before before the first African American
workers were hired at Boeing.
September 19, 1941
September 26, 1941
April 3, 1942