The Henry J. Kaiser enterprise operated four shipyards at Richmond,
California for the United States Maritime Commission in order to meet
the demands of World War II. The shipyards ranked as the most
technologically and organizationally innovative and productive
shipbuilding facilities in the United States during that period. Managers
and workers at the shipyards pioneered rapid "prefabricated"
shipbuilding techniques that greatly increased the speed of merchant-ship
production. These processes were exemplified by such physical aspects
as the giant "Prefab" plant and by the overall layout of the yards
Seeking Equality in the Workplace
World War II forced the United States to open economic
opportunities to minority populations and women in order to
fulfill worker demands caused by an increase in war-time
production and a decrease in male population due to military
enlistment. The demand spurred a mass migration of African
Americans towards the West in pursuit of economic, social, and
political opportunities not otherwise afforded to them in their
former hometowns. The Kaiser Shipyards
began hiring large numbers of African Americans in 1942. The majority of Kaiser’s African American workers came from the South.
Although wartime work in the shipyards presented many African Americans with a wide array of opportunities, including increased
income, skills, and status, the experience was also fraught with hardship due to prevailing racism in the United States. A key struggle for African Americans was their exclusion from labor unions. This meant that
African Americans had little power to address grievances about labor
conditions and rights and had fewer avenues in which to seek
employment at the shipyards.
In response, African Americans organized their own organizations
that sought social change both within their workplace as well as their communities. Organizations such as
the Shipyard Workers Committee against Discrimination, worked on such local issues as ending segregation within labor
unions in addition to improving housing for local African American families. Other organizations like the United
Negro Labor Council, moved the demands to the regional and national levels.
During World War II, many gains were made to improve the working and social conditions of African
Americans but economic injustice structured by systemic racism was far from being solved. The experience
of African American shipyard workers during the 1940s and their involvement in the larger challenge of unjust
labor rights and civil rights helped pave the way for future movements which sought full equality as
citizens of the United States of America.
Kaiser Shipyard No. 3 was documented by the Historic American Engineering Record
(HAER) team during the autumn of 2001. The project was completed in partnership with the Rosie the
Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park and the California Coastal Conservancy through the
City of Richmond. HAER also documented the SS Red Oak Victory,
constructed at the Kaiser Ship Yards in 1944.