In Memory of Lena Horne & Launch of the SS George Washington Carver Liberty Ship

posted on May 10, 2010

By Tom Debley
Director of Heritage Resources

Singer Lena Horne prepares to launch the SS George Washington Carver on May 7, 1943 at Kaiser Shipyard No. 1 in Richmond, Calif. This was taken by black photographer E. F. Joseph for the Office of War Information.

This week we pay tribute to the great jazz singer Lena Horne, who died Sunday, May 9, at the age of 92.

What’s her connection to Kaiser Permanente? Sixty-seven years ago, on May 7, 1943, Lena Horne broke a bottle of champagne across the bow to launch the SS George Washington Carver, a brand new Liberty ship built in Henry J. Kaiser’s legendary World War II shipyards in Richmond, Calif.

She was proudly representing the more than 7,000 African American shipyard workers — 1,000 of them female “Rosie the Riveters” — and all of whom received their health care from the medical care program that would become Kaiser Permanente after the war.

Their story is part of Kaiser Permanente’s long and proud history of ethnic and cultural diversity.

The SS George Washington Carver was the first Kaiser-built Liberty ship to be named for a famous African American, and many of the men and women who built it were African Americans.

Anna Bland, a burner, is shown at work on the SS George Washington Carver as it was being rushed to completion in the spring of 1943.  Photograph by E. F. Joseph for the Office of War Information.

Carver, you will recall, was the scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor who had died only four months earlier in 1943. Who better to christen her on her maiden voyage than one of America’s most admired  and talented African American women?

Also on hand that day was a well-known African American photographer, E. F. Joseph, who recorded the event for the Office of War Information.

The ship was initially assigned by the War Shipping Administration (WSA) to the American South African Line, Inc. for merchant service. But in November 1943 the ship was turned over to the United States Army and converted to the Hospital Ship Dogwood.

In January 1946, the ship was again converted to carry a combination of troops and military dependents as the USAT George Washington Carver before retiring to National Defense Reserve Fleet.  It was sold for scrap in 1964.

Today, the story of these African American workers, the SS George Washington Carver, and its launch by Lena Horne is one of the legacy stories of the Home Front that is part of the history that is shared in the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif.

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