What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

Learning to Live Together in Good Times and Bad


Story by Aileen Keenan

In addition to reading Aileen's edited version of the interview, you can now listen to a Real Audio presentation of the complete interview with Naomi Craig while you view images and read material related to her remembrances. You can revisit specific pages in the presentation, or begin the interview at any of several points, using the table of cues and contents.

A "church person" and defense plant worker, Naomi Craig participated and coordinated countless activities with zealous efforts, despite the heavy discrimination surrounding her.

I graduated from high school in 1935. We had a big class because I went to Commercial. I took up short-hand typing; I wanted to be a stenographer. Black people had a hard time going to school. We were not taught to be proud of being Black. We weren't taught Black history. And when they spoke about Africa, it was always something negative, as if they were people that didn't know anything. It gave you a false sense. So we couldn't have a sense of pride like the young Black people do now.

I had a lot of friends who were Black and a lot of friends who were white because I was an open type of person. I could bridge the gulf, but I knew there was discrimination, particularly when I went to get a job, when I graduated from high school. I couldn't get a job. I went to offices of the different insurance companies. I was a crackerjack stenographer, and I was smart, but I was colored.

When I would go down for a job, the girl in the office would look like this, and then she called for the employer. He'd come; he'd say, "Uh, uh Miss Jennings, um, yes, well the job is filled." I'd go home and call right back. "Is there a position open as a secretary in your office?" "Yes there is." By my voice, he didn't know that I was colored because I spoke the same as anybody else. And so I said, "I was just down there." "Oh," he said, "Oh were you the Miss Jennings that was down here?" I said, "Yes, I was." He said, "Oh, well one of the girls..." I said, "You said the job was open." He said, "Well, one of the girls has decided that she's going to take it." And this was the run-around that I got.

When I went to the school department where they were giving out jobs to help people they said to me, "Naomi Jennings, you've done very well, haven't you?" And I said, "Yes, I have." She said, "Well," she said, "we don't have any jobs for you as a secretary or a stenographer." Because these jobs were going to white girls. I said, "There's nothing for me?" She said, "I have a little job for you taking care of these twins if you want to take that." I said, "No, thank you." And I went out. You know I was crying. I cried all the way home. I got home and I said to my mother, "I'm never going to be able to work." She said, "Why?" I said, "Because they're only giving out jobs to white people." She said, "That shouldn't be." I said, "it shouldn't be, but it is."

I eventually got a job at the Outlet Company, running the elevator. All the kids would come down, and they would see you running the elevator, and they'd laugh. They'd ride up and down with you, and the store was full of people shopping and doing things like that.

When the war came, women went to work for the first time in factories and driving trucks. If a delivery truck came to your house, a woman would be driving it. The women were postmen. Up until that time, we didn't have women postmen. The women were garbage people. They were because all the available young men were in the service.

I started work in a war plant, Federal Products in Providence, where they made gauges and precision instruments. They taught us how to make these micrometers. We were taught how to do everything in that line. I was top notch, but I couldn't do anymore than what they had shown me. I did it so well that I could take tension in my fingers to know just how a gauge would run. That was the biggest thing for the war effort.

People came in from the government telling us that we were part of the war, that we had to do the best we could, and we would make these indicators that were going out all over to precision places. We had such a feeling of being part of the war.

In 1943, I was going with my husband at that time. I said, "Oh, should I marry him while the war is going on? What should we do?" We couldn't think because if he went over in the service, and got killed, then what? I had to make up my mind because he only had a short time. Finally, we did decide we'd be married. We married on a Friday and he left on a Sunday.

He went first to Fort Devens and went right up to Wyoming. I never went out to Wyoming to see him because it was desolated out there. It was awful. You had a segregated army. All the blacks were together. They weren't getting the same supplies as the white contingent. It really wasn't fair. It made people feel like this is our war, too. We were all in it together, and our men were going over.

Then my brother went into the Navy, and my sister's husband went. Then the war was coming nearer to us.

I don't think I felt sad during the war. I was writing to my husband, and getting letters from him. You go home at night to see if you had a letter, and write letters as soon as you got home. Your whole life was writing and getting letters.

I went to a Methodist Church. I did religious work, too. I would go down to the Cape in the summer to open up a Sunday school for young children, and for people who came to work in kitchens for the very wealthy people who would go down to the Cape. I would play the piano and sing at church. There were servicemen down there because there was Fort Devens. Those colored servicemen, they said colored at the time, would come up to the church, and we would open our house for them, and have friendship times for them, so they wouldn't feel so lonesome. The USO's did not have many places for colored people, mostly whites were in the USO's. So the colored people made it nice for the colored soldiers. It was discrimination all the way through.

I was a church person. I taught Sunday School to young children. It was hard trying to keep them interested and keep them thinking, particularly if their fathers had gone. We had children without their fathers. Mothers got interested in church more because there was a war, and a lot of people who never went church started going. Churches were full.

Then it got to be so we knew that this was war, and this was terrible. People were getting killed. When somebody came home that was a friend of yours with a leg or and arm off, the sleeve would be hanging empty, then you began to think, oh, this is terrible.

By '43, my husband had gone into the service. My two sisters came home, and it made it kind of crowded. So I went to live with my mother-in-law who lived by herself because both her boys were in the service. I would go to work; she stayed at home. She had all my food ready when I got home. She was delightful - the most wonderful mother-in-law that ever was - a beautiful woman.

Roosevelt, to us was like a hero. Oh, he was great. Whatever he said, we believed. If he had told us that we were going to win this war in three days, I think I would've believed it, but that's how we thought of him. When he was on the radio, every house was quiet, even little babies would be quiet. And you would listen when he was talking, "My fellow Americans..." (Laughs.) "There he is!" and we'd listen to him. And his wife, I loved Eleanor Roosevelt. She didn't come into her own until after he died, as a speaker and as a great person for civil rights. She was the most fair president's wife.

And when Marian Anderson, this Black woman, was supposed to sing on the stairs right in front of the Washington Monument and nobody wanted her to do it, Mrs. Roosevelt had her sing. And then all the people of color just loved Mrs. Roosevelt. There was a war going. Our men were fighting in this war. Why couldn't we have some kind of freedom in this country here too?

After a while I thought the war was getting awfully tiring. I thought it ought to come to an end. I wanted to be able to go on with my life with my husband. I wanted to see if I was going to have a family, and he was going to come home, and how we were going to buy a house and what we were going to do.

It was hard to find a job because everybody came home at the same time. When my husband came back to Federal Products, they didn't have a job for him. Oh, they told him all the time while he was in the service, when he came home his job would be open. And my husband's job was pretty good at Federal Products. But when he came back, somebody else had it, and they couldn't just put the other person off. They would give him a job, but it would have been a menial job. So, he had to start all over again. That was difficult, very difficult.

We had a terrible time buying a house. Oh yes we did, because we were Black. We went to buy a house and they said, "Well, uh." When my husband came home, he just got home from the service, and they said we couldn't get a mortgage. You weren't shown houses in the sections you wanted to buy. They would take you over to a place that had all rundown houses. When they asked me on the telephone, "Would you like to see a house?" I would say, " Well certainly." And we would meet at the house. And I would go there and his face would fall because I would be a Black woman. Talking over the telephone, he wouldn't know.

Do you feel that what women were expected to do and be changed in any ways when the war was over?

Yes, they did change. They had gotten the feeling of their own money. Making it themselves. Not asking anybody how to spend it. And they were spending it. And then when their husbands came home, it was kind of like, "Oh." You had to ask for money. You had to begin to curtail the things that you would have been buying, had it been your own money. The war taught them how to stand on their own two feet. So, when their husbands came home, a lot of them didn't know how to be wives anymore because they had gotten kind of bossy. It was hard to get adjusted to somebody telling you "do this" when you've been doing what you want.

How did the war and the immediate post-war years affect your overall life and the lives of those closest to you?

I always had a feeling my husband was coming home. But I do feel that when my husband came home, he could've had a better job. People did not appreciate the sacrifices that Blacks had to make. I felt that I could've had a better home to have moved into at that time. I felt that the banks weren't kind to us as they were to white people, loaning them money to get them started. We couldn't get mortgages like other people could. I felt that people didn't appreciate that we went through the same things the whites did.

Another thing that the war did for us, it opened up our eyes to know that in trouble you're close. When a tragedy happens, it brings you together. Why can't we live this way after the tragedy? When peace came, people began to separate and then you began to see racial conflicts. Should not have been. Should've been, we were with you during the war when things were hard, when a tragedy struck, when a hurricane came, we were all together. Now, there's peace, we need to be together, too. That's what we need to learn. To live together in the good times as well as the bad times.

Table of Contents

Copyright 1995