Pockets of Liberation Within Models of Suppression

It is surprising that a country founded on the rights of the individual would not extend those same rights to employees or individuals applying for work; however, in general, our government and laws supported employers’ rights at the expense of individual rights.  It is an odd mix of inconsistent beliefs; because of this, we have seen a general rule of suppression of the rights of the individual, until necessity or government laws and regulations mandated a reversal.

It is fitting to understand that not all employers were evil; and some were enlightened in their treatment of employees or applicants.  The lesson to be learned is that when we stray from our moral center, we flirt with disaster.

Take the case of garment workers in New York City around 1910.  Typically, these workers were immigrant women.  It was a common practice to lock the doors to stairwells and exits in order to prevent unauthorized breaks or theft of goods.  

In March 1911, a fire broke out on three floors of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village.  Unable to get out of the work areas, 123 women and 23 men died from the fire, from smoke inhalation or from jumping to their deaths from the windows.  While the fire triggered the disaster, the working conditions caused the damage.

The great liberation of women came only as a necessity during WWII, although some areas of economic emancipation had arisen out of technological change. 

Below we have a photo of a woman operating a turret lathe in 1942.  During WWII women welded, brazed, riveted; their employment rose from twelve million in 1940 to twenty million in 1944, with four million employed in the defense industry.  They filled positions in all industries and proved that women could do jobs that had previously been reserved for “men;” and they performed well.

WWII - Women in Defense

New Employment Opportunities

Technical pioneers, such as George Washington Carver, had already transformed parts of the South from depression to agricultural and industrial renaissance before WWII.

In the photo below, George Washington Carver is seated, front row center, with fellow faculty members of the Tuskegee Institute around 1902.  He was instrumental in replenishing the soil in the South with nitrogen by planting legumes, such as peanuts; then he was instrumental in finding hundreds of new applications for legumes, once they were harvested.

George Washington Carver with Tuskegee Institute

Tuskegee Institute Faculty – 1902

A migration of African-Americans from the South to industrial centers throughout the United States during WWII changed the country’s demographic landscape.  Known as the second Great Migration of African-Americans, more than five million migrated from the South to the North, Midwest and West between 1941 and 1970. Below is a picture of a woman working on the A-31 Vengeance bomber in Nashville, TN in 1943.

A-31 Vengeance bomber 1943

Opportunities for African-Americans in Tennessee

Eleanor Roosevelt countered doubts about the ability of African-American pilots to fly planes by visiting the training facilities at Tuskegee Institute and flying for over an hour with Chief Civilian Flight Instructor Charles Alfred Anderson.  Armed with photos from the flight, she went back to Washington to urge her husband, President Roosevelt, to activate for combat what later was known as the 99th Fighter Squadron (“Tuskegee Airmen”).  Also known as the “Red Tails,” the Squadron had an excellent record in their P-51’s escorting bombers in the Italian campaign.  

Tuskegee Airmen during training

Eleanor Roosevelt flies at Tuskegee Institute