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Crossing Gender and Racial Lines During WWII

“Rosie the Riveter” was a cultural icon of World War II, representing women who worked in factories and shipyards during the war. Many of them produced munitions and war supplies.

During WWII, there were approximately 600,000 “Black Rosies” in the United States working to support the war effort throughout the country, mostly in aerospace at companies like Boeing and also in the shipbuilding industry.

African Americans have played a role in the nation's defense since the American Revolution. World War II was no exception, with an estimated 1.2 million African Americans serving on the home front and overseas.

For decades, they have received little historic recognition or acknowledgment and, for many Black Rosies, their stories have been lost.

Ms. Althea Skelton, an 89 year old Pittsburgher is sharing her experience as a Civil Defense Worker during WWII, building B20 “Superfortress” bombers for Boeing, to give voice to the stories of Americans who challenged gender and race roles in the 1940s.

Ms. Skelton spoke with AARP Pennsylvania and shared an endearing account of her childhood years in Pittsburgh, her career as a civil defense worker at The Boeing Company in Seattle during World War II, and connecting with Boeing nearly 60 years after returning home.

Early Years in Pittsburgh

Born in 1925 at Magee Hospital, Ms. Althea Skelton spent her early years in Mount Lebanon before moving to the Upper Hill district of Pittsburgh. As a teenager, Althea would often work with her mother as a housekeeper while attending Schenley High School.

She had no problems growing up as one of a few black teenagers in the community, commenting she had a normal childhood spending her free time reading, joining a “little girls social club” and going to the “the girls Y.”

She recounts a normal childhood, but that changed on December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. She recalls doing “nightwork” (homework) and heard the news on the radio.

“The next day, the high school boys started dropping out of school to join the service. Prom had no boys because they were all signed up for service.” Among the young men signing up for service was her high school sweetheart Benjamin Skelton, whom she later married.

The War is On

After graduating Schenley High School, Skelton recalls “the war was on” and everyone was going to Washington, DC to look for jobs. She moved to DC to work as a clerk typist for the Federal Maritime Commission from November 1942 to August 1943, living at first in a rental and then in a dormitory with friends who also moved to DC to find work. “It was a booming time to be in Washington.”

After her husband completed his training with the Navy, he was assigned to a duty station in Bremerton, Seattle, and they made the long trip across the country to settle down in the West.

“It was quite an experience,” says Skelton. “I’ll never forget it. We left Pittsburgh on a Monday morning and got off the train in Chicago, then onto another train. We didn’t get to Seattle until Thursday. It was a long, long train ride. Montana felt like the longest state to get through. Seattle was the end of the world – you couldn’t travel any further. There wasn’t a lot of activity in Seattle, and I remember trains coming in or leaving Seattle was a big event.”

Seattle was very different than Pittsburgh. It would rain for days. She kept company with another military wife, Mary Alice, who became her frequent date to dinners and plays when their husbands were away in Alaska.

They shared living quarters in pre-fab homes for military personnel and spouses, near other minority groups including Filipinos, Chinese, Eskimo, and African Americans who worked for Boeing. Skelton recalls that Boeing was recruiting people to work on the shipyards and bases.

“I wanted a clerical job but they didn’t hire blacks in those positions. Only whites. So I ended up as an electrician. I wired up the wires on the copilot side of the B29s. To see an airplane built from the beginning, it was really amazing.”

She recalls working on B29s with others of mixed races, ages and gender. While Boeing employees worked side-by-side, minorities were treated differently. “We were not allowed to join the union. None of the minorities were. That’s just how it was back then.”

Despite the difference in how minority employees were treated, Skelton recalls her time at Boeing fondly. “We were paid quite well, better than most, and I was treated fine. I can get along with everyone. I did notice there was some racially motivated tension, but I wasn’t bothered by it. I just stayed focus on my work.”

That work involved pushing out over 360 B29s per month to help with the war effort.

“We knew what we were doing was important. We didn’t need anyone to tell us. We wanted to do our part to end the war.”

Shortly after the war ended, her husband was discharged from the service and they returned to Pittsburgh. Putting her experience with Boeing behind her, Skelton worked 30 years for the State of Pennsylvania before retiring.

A Hidden Piece of History

Black Rosies working at Boeing in the 1940s
Credit: The Museum of Flight Collection
The Museum of Flight Collection

A picture featuring “Black Rosies” in front of a B29 airplane was taken sometime in the 1940s but, according to Skelton, it remained hidden in a wall for 60+ years and was discovered when a Boeing building was being torn down.

“Someone at Boeing put the picture in their quarterly pamphlet to see if they could identify anyone in the picture. I was the only one that could be tracked down. My friend called to tell me, ‘Boeing is looking for you.’ So I called and that’s how we connected.”

Several weeks later, Boeing flew Skelton, her grandson and goddaughter to Seattle for an award ceremony. Boeing awarded Skelton with a certificate to posthumously incorporate her into the union.

“It was a nice gesture.”

Paving the Way, Preserving the Past

While men fought on the frontline during World War II, women stepped in to the workforce. During the war, nearly 65 percent of the aircraft workforce were women.

Skelton recalls the makeup of the workforce at Boeing during her short two years working in Seattle.

“I’m told there weren’t that many blacks in Seattle before the war. When the war was over, some stayed. When I was working there, there were lines and lines of assembly lines of mixed races. It was really incredible to see. We were all there for a greater good. We didn’t focus on things like color or gender, we focused on the work we had to do.”

Upon hearing herself referred to as a pioneer, breaking traditional gender and race roles as a “Rosie Riveter” for Boeing alongside thousands of other African American women, Skelton chuckles and humbly responds, “I suppose so. I don’t think on it much. It was a great experience. We just wanted to make a difference. We wanted to end the war and bring our boys home.”

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