By Rachel Dworkin, archivist
In the spring of 1942, with World War II raging, Elmira’s factories were all hands on deck. Or at least, they would have been if not for American’s oldest and most persistent foe—racism.
During the war, the Eclipse Machine Division of the Bendix Aviation Corps of Elmira Heights was involved in crucial war production. They made, among other things, airplane parts, starters for tanks, and mechanical delayed bomb fuses. With their male workers headed for the military, they found themselves dangerously short staffed. In January 1942, they began hiring every woman who filled out an application. Every white woman that is. Black applicants, on the other hand, were given the run around. They were given applications upon request, but never called back.
|Call for more workers from Elmira Star-Gazette, December 5, 1944|
A group of women from the Negro Women’s Progressive Club took a course in defense training at Elmira Free Academy and applied in mass to work at Eclipse. The company initially told them they would be hired if they found 25 Black women to work an all-Black shift. When the group showed up for their interview with twice that many though, they were told that there was “no place for Negroes” at the company.
The ladies of the Negro Women’s Progressive Club didn’t take it lying down. In June, shortly after the meeting with Eclipse, club president Grace Mann wrote to the legal department of the NAACP asking for advice. They were told to have each woman write an affidavit describing what happened to be submitted as evidence and to form a local branch of the NAACP. There had already been a branch here in Elmira back in the late 1910s and 1920s, but it had ceased operation sometime after 1927. The new Elmira branch of the NAACP was officially chartered on September 14, 1942 with Grace Mann as president. It continues to this day.
The problem of anti-Black discrimination in war production was not isolated to Eclipse. Repeated complaints from across the state forced the New York War Council to launch an investigation of the problem in the spring of 1942. They found that Blacks were consistently barred from employment and that this posed a huge problem for war production, especially in upstate areas where there was a shortage of white laborers. In September 1942, New York state established a special unit of the State Labor Department for prosecuting employers who discriminated in hiring based on race, creed, color, or nation of origin.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out what happened to affidavits submitted by the Negro Women’s Progressive Club or what, if any, legal action was taken against Eclipse. What I can tell you is that shortly after the complaint was filed, Eclipse started hiring Black men for positions on mixed-race shifts. No word though on whether anyone from the Negro Women’s Progressive Club was ever hired.
|Eclipse gun range crew (r-l): |