Posts Tagged ‘Lena Horne’

70 years ago: jazz singer Lena Horne christens liberty ship at Kaiser Shipyard

posted on September 9, 2013


by Ginny McPartland, Heritage writer

African-American women and men honored for their work on liberty ships at Richmond yards during World War II

On May 7, 1943, just over seven decades ago, beloved singer and actress Lena Horne visited Richmond, Calif., to break the champagne over the bow of the SS George Washington Carver, the first Richmond-built ship to be named after an African-American.

Miss Horne, sponsor of the ship, was joined by matron of honor Beatrice Turner in the launching ceremony. Turner was the first African-American woman to be hired as a welder in the Kaiser Shipyards.

The Liberty Ship, named after the famous black scientist George Washington Carver, was constructed by the workforce at the Richmond Shipyard No. 1, which included many African-Americans.

Bonaparte Louis, Jr., (at right) one of the best chippers in the yard, was among the skilled workers who rushed the Carver to completion. The keel was first laid for the ship on April 12, 1943 and launched less than a month later.

Odie Mae Embry, pictured below right at work on the SS Carver,was among the 1,000 black women who made up the 7,000 workers of African ancestry in the Richmond shipyards.

8d18719rGeorge Washington Carver, scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor, had died only four months before the launch. Lena Horne, singer, actress, civil rights activist and dancer, died on May 9, 2010, at the age of 92.

Photos by E. F. Joseph, Office of War Information.




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New novel tracks lives of fictional Kaiser Shipyard Rosies

posted on October 11, 2011

By Ginny McPartland

Heritage writer

Dorothea Lange photo on the cover of "Wax"

At first glance, one would think the newly released novel “Wax” is about women working in the West Coast shipyards during World War II. Famed photographer Dorothea Lange’s powerful photo of proud, bold “girls” stomping through the yard implies a story about their struggles and triumphs in that setting.

Once inside, however, the reader pretty quickly understands that the stories to be told play out far from the shipyards. Three young women who met in Henry J. Kaiser’s Richmond Shipyards in 1943 formed friendships that endured for decades. The “Rosies” earned a bit of freedom and independence that they would refuse to relinquish when they returned home.

First-time novelist Therese Ambrosi Smith says she wrote the book about “Rosie the Riveter” to spark an interest among today’s young people, especially girls. Rosie national park Ranger Elizabeth Tucker turned Smith on to actual Rosie oral histories, and the would-be author was off on her quest.

World War II’s sociological impacts explored

Smith proclaims the novel’s premise on the front cover: “Pearl Harbor Changed Everything.” Historians know this fact, and they have written millions of words about the social, economic and political effects of World War II.

Author Therese Ambrosi Smith

Smith’s approach is to place a spotlight on personal lives. She creates three main characters, Tilly Bettencourt from a small town near Half Moon Bay, California; Doris Jura from Pittsburg, PA, both in their early 20s; and slightly older Sylvia Manning, 32, from Kansas City. She shows a smattering of their shipyard employment experiences and then places them back in their peacetime lives. These war-time experiences will color all they do from then on.

Author Smith takes the theme of women’s independence full bore as the young women return home and establish a candle factory on their own. (Yes, that’s where the book title comes from!) Such a bold move had seemed impossible before the war. Despite obstacles, Doris and Tilly’s dream comes to fruition.

Life lessons learned in the shipyards

Other life lessons are to be learned as well. At the shipyards, the girls awaken to the idea that blacks should be treated equally with whites. Smith writes of Tilly’s encounter with a caring black coworker who helps her to the clinic when she receives a serious eye injury and is temporarily blind.

Later, Tilly ponders the experience: “I don’t know why,” she (Tilly) told Doris, “but this whole thing has rattled me. I mean being helped by a colored.” Smith as narrator explains: “There weren’t any coloreds in Montara or Moss Beach; she had no history with them.”

Tilly then comes to the realization: “The work was dangerous and difficult, and everyone who did it, regardless of color or background, was helping to win the war. They were all in it together.”

Doris chimes in with: “I feel like we are seeing the world up close here. It looks different.”

The racial theme doesn’t play out when the girls return home after the war. But another issue – sexual orientation – looms large for Tilly. Feeling attraction to other women, the beautiful Tilly has to fight off the eligible bachelors of her home town. She lives in her own personal hell as her parents and others push her toward marriage. In a 1940s world, she has no idea where to turn for help or understanding.

Although this book is fairly light on the historical significance of the Rosie experience, I enjoyed it. The characters are creditable and the description of the settings took me there. At times, I felt like I was sitting in Tilly’s uncle’s comfortable café perched on the coast near Half Moon Bay.

The Red Oak Victory has been renovated and will be open for the Home Front Festival Oct. 15

More about Rosies at the Home Front Festival Saturday October 15

Learn more about the Rosie experience from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. this Saturday at the Fifth Annual Home Front Festival in the Craneway Pavilion at the southern end of Harbour Way in Richmond, California. Admission is free.

Area historical societies, the Rosie national park and the Pacific Region of the National Archives will have exhibits and information to share with visitors. Kaiser Permanente Heritage Resources will have displays highlighting the pioneering medical staff who launched the Permanente Medical Care Program in the Kaiser Shipyards during the war.

The Red Oak Victory, a World War II ship built at the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards, will be open on Saturday for visitors to tour. The ship, owned by the Richmond Museum of History, is just returning to the shipyard Friday from dry dock where it has received an extensive renovation.

Lena Horne helped launch the SS George Washington Carver in Richmond, May 1943

Historian Steve Gilford will debut his new book on Saturday aboard the ship. Gilford will be signing the book, “Build ‘Em by the Mile, Cut ‘Em off by the Yard, How Henry Kaiser and the Rosies helped Win World War II,” from 2 to 4 p.m. on the ship. Shuttles will ferry visitors between the Craneway and the Red Oak.

Lena Horne tribute at USO Dance Friday, Oct. 14

The Home Front party actually starts on Friday night with the Rosie the Riveter 1940s USO Dance, featuring a tribute to Lena Horne, also in the Craneway Pavilion. Robin Gregory will play the role of the legendary singer. Also on the bill are the Singing Blue Stars, Junius Courtney’s Big Band and the dance group Swing or Nothing!

Tickets for the dance may be purchased online at or by calling the Richmond Chamber of Commerce at 510-234-3512. Advance tickets are $20 general and $15 for seniors; tickets may be purchased at the door for $25 general, $20 senior. Anyone showing a military i.d. or wearing an armed forces uniform will be admitted for free.

Event: Home Front festival

Description: Historical exhibits and 1940s-era entertainment

When: Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Oct. 15, 2011

Where: Craneway Pavilion (end of South Harbour Way [1414] in Richmond, California)

Admission: Free


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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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