Joseph James: Unsung Hero of the Marinship
Preface: Larry Clinton previously wrote about Joseph James, the black Marinship welder who played a brief but important role in Sausalito and Marin City’s history by successfully challenging discriminatory union practices in the shipyards, in a case that went all the way to the State Supreme Court. Marin City and Sausalito history researchers have been delving further into the story of Joseph James in preparation for an original play being presented on October 14 cin elebration of Marin City’s 75th anniversary. Here is his fascinating story.
Joseph Henry James was born in 1910 in Philadelphia to poor black parents. Left fatherless at age 3, he and his mother moved in with his uncle, Henry Hamming. The entire family was musically gifted: Uncle Henry had a rich bass voice, his mother was an alto and a much older sister sang with the great Philadelphia contralto, Marion Anderson.
“Life wasn’t soft for Negro kids with nothing but the streets to play in,” Joe told a reporter in 1945. “My mother could see that from a little innocent window breaking I’d soon enough be hitting the big time, so a year after she died I was packed off to Princess Ann Academy, a Negro boarding school in Maryland.”
Music became Joseph James’ ticket to a college education and extensive travels in the US and abroad. Princess Ann Academy enlisted James in a prestigious black quartet that toured to raise funds for the school singing “Negro Spirituals” to live and radio audiences.
After graduation, the quartet shopped for a black college willing to fund their studies, landing at Claflin College in South Carolina. Traveling for the first time to the Deep South was an eye opener. In Norfolk the group had to transfer to the “rattletrap” Jim Crow rail car. Unable to access the whites-only dining car, James recounted being shooed away at the front door of a restaurant at one stop and “directed to a little window in the back of the restaurant, something like the door of a dog house, where they’d throw food at you. It kind of took my appetite away---and that’s some kind of trick for an 18 year old kid still growing.”
Two years of traveling for Claflin and a tour stop in Boston led James to conclude “that there was more to this music game than I’d ever learn in South Carolina. So I stayed in Boston and sang on the radio. Later, I decided to find out how music was put together and learn about the guys who did it.”
James broadened his musical education at Boston University College of Music until the Depression brought home the realization that he could either “eat or play music.” So he joined an amateur theater production that enjoyed a brief run on Broadway. Just as that opportunity ended, the famed black choir director and composer Eva Jessye invited him to join her choir’s national tour.
Touring with the celebrated choir was anything but luxurious. “Almost 20 of us jammed into two seven passenger sedans covered with suitcases and trunks,” James recalled. “We covered 6,000 of the most agonizing miles I have ever traveled---breaking down all the way.”
Returning to New York, he was cast by choral director Eva Jessye in the premiere of Porgy and Bess. After Porgy, James joined the Hall Johnson choir in the chorus of the film The Green Pastures. James stayed briefly in Hollywood, playing bit roles in films, “mostly running around like a savage in a G-string… feeling pretty silly.”
Joseph James’ big break came with the Federal Theater Project Negro Unit. The Project was a branch of the Works Progress Administration that employed (literally) starving artists to perform for the masses. His first title role was as Brother Moses in Hall Johnson’s critically acclaimed LA, San Diego and San Francisco productions of Run Little Chillun’. James later starred inThe Swing Mikado, a modernized version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera presented at the 1939 Treasure Island Exposition.
In a “tragic-comic” twist, Joseph James was rehearsing the song “Good News” for the movie Tails of Manhattan when he learned of the Pearl Harbor attack. His singing engagements suddenly
evaporated, so he returned to San Francisco looking for work. Being interested in mechanics, he took a welding course at Samuel Gompers Trade School. In August 1942, he began as a welder at the Marinship.
Although only in his early 30’s, Joseph James’ early experiences had prepared him well for the many roles he played during WWII: expert welder sent to trouble spots in the shipyard; lead organizer for the struggle against discriminatory union practices; popular leader among the diverse family of shipyard workers; NAACP Chapter President in San Francisco; and outspoken patriot in the battle to defeat the fascist Nazi and Axis powers; and, yes, part-time singer.
Marinship had a closed-shop contract with the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, which required that all of the corporation’s shipyard construction workers must be members of the union. Boilermakers Local 6, which had jurisdiction over the Marinship yards, banned African Americans. If African Americans wished to work in Marinship yards, they were forced to join Auxiliary A-41, an all-black unit controlled by Local 6. In 1943, more than 200 African Americans, including Joseph James, who refused to pay the A-41 dues Local 6 demanded in accordance with their closed-shop contract, were fired from their jobs at Marinship. James filed a lawsuit to stop the dismissal of the African American workers.
Ironically, the California Supreme Court Marinship decision came after the war had ended and the shipyard was closed. But it did not end Joseph James’ activism. Before departing the west coast in 1946 to resume his musical career, he joined Noah Griffin, Sr. in founding Marin County’s first NAACP chapter.
Joseph James performed in 15 more Broadway shows before touring internationally with Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway and Maya Angelou in Porgy and Bess. Later in life he became a union organizer for the SEIU in the Bronx.
Joseph James died in 2002 at the age of 91
“One thing the Depression taught the American people is that when they came together around common problems, they could accomplish something. Now it seems that working people have forgotten that.” ~Joseph James, 1992\
— Dana Whitson
VISIT SALLY AT THE ICE HOUSE
A bust of Sally Stanford, sculpted by Howard Lazar, is now on display at the Ice House Visitor Center and Museum. Lazar, a portrait and history sculptor, donated the bust to the Sausalito Historical Society in 2016, and she was on display in the research room there until August, 2017 when she was moved to the Ice House. Lazar says this sculpture of Sally depicts how he remembers her when, as a boy, he met her at the Valhalla restaurant in 1961. Stop by and say hello!
Thanks to Premium Level Members and Major Donors
The Historical Society offers various levels of membership, with additional benefits. Since our last newsletter, the following members have taken advantage of the opportunity to increase their support for our programs:
- Tyke Glaser
- Donald Sibbett and Brianna Cutts
- Chris Kulina & Christine Scarpino
- Barbara Rycerski
- Herbert & Sisi Damner
- Nancy Drew
- Lloyd and Connie Latch
We’d also like to recognize two major donors: Linda Hothem and Richard Cooper.
Information about the various levels of SHS membership and tax-deductible donations can be found at http://www.sausalitohistoricalsociety.com.
Ongoing Calendar of Marinship 75 Events
Celebrations of the 75th Anniversary of Marinship, the WWII shipyard that changed Sausalito forever, continue into the fall. Here’s a calendar of upcoming events:
Sat., Sept. 30, HOMEFRONT ON THE WATERFRONT
11:00pm - 4:00pm, Floating Homes Community
This year’s Floating Homes Tour honors Marinship, which helped to foster today’s waterfront community. Fifteen unique floating homes will be featured, including a selection built from WWII surplus. Other attractions will include 40s cars and music, plus food and drink for purchase. Visitors and volunteers are encouraged to come in 40s dress.
Advance reservations may be made via the FHA website: http://www.floatinghomes.org/tour/purchase-tickets.
Sat., Sept. 30 SWING DANCE & DINNER GALA
5:30pm -10:30pm, Sausalito Portuguese Cultural Center, 511 Caledonia St.
A pasta dinner with salad will be served WWII canteen style in the dining room starting at 6:00pm. Reserved tables will be served family style. Doors open at 5:30pm and there will be a no-host bar. Reserved tables in the dance hall and seeing the band, $560. Individual tickets with seating in the dining hall, $25each. Tickets are available https:marinship75.eventbrite.com. Additional information is available at the Sausalito Historical Society web page. http://www.sausalitohistoricalsociety.com/
Sat., Oct. 14, RE-ENANCTMENT OF JAMES
6:00pm -- 7:30pm, First Missionary Baptist Church, 501 Drake Ave., Marin City
Joseph James’ lawsuit, described in our lead article, has been called a “major victory in the civil rights movement that upheld the federal prohibition on racial discrimination.”
This Performing Stars presentation features stars Marin City resident Tami Bell as Joseph James. Admission is free, with no RSVP necessary. Please arrive early, as seating is limited. Donations appreciated.
Fri., Nov, 10 - "TURN YOUR RADIO ON"
7:00pm - 9:00pm, Sausalito Library
Excerpts from the radio show, "Turn Your Radio On"-- originally presented at the Sausalito Woman’s Club in May -- will be performed live.
Following the performance, a reception will be held upstairs to introduce the Historical Society’s latest exhibit, The People of Marinship, Who They Were, Where They Came From, What They Did, and How They Did It. Story boards and captions will tell the stories of people who worked at Marinship Many unique and interesting features of life at the shipyard
will be explained using a collection of iconic images from the SHS Archive.
Sat., Nov. 11, MARIN CITY VETERAN'S DAY PARADE and THE LOST STORIES OF MARINSHIP
10:00am - 11:00am Marin City, CA
Featuring a Liberty Ship Float. a 1940's Greyhound bus, The Oakland Cowboys Assn. and original Marinship workers as Grand Marshalls. Parade participants will include representatives of the military branches, MarinCity veterans, and members of the Highway Patrol and Marin County Sheriffs and Fire Departments.
12:00 pm, CHILDREN'S PLAY - MARINSHIP - THE LOST STORIES OF MARINSHIP
Manzanita Recreation Center, Drake and Buckelew, Marin City
Marin City children depict the creation of Marinship and the subsequent construction of Marin City to house the workers, many of them black and from the South.
This is a dramatic documentary with humor, dance and music that celebrates the people, most of them poor, who left their homes to help their country and became the founders of Marin City. Re-produced under the joint cooperation of Performing Stars and the Marin Theater Company.
11:00am 4:00pm, TWO DOCUMENTARIES ABOUT MARINSHIP AND MARIN CITY
Manzanita Recreation Center, 630 Drake Avenue, Marin City.
“Marinship Memories” features stories of the birth of Marin City during World War II by those who lived it. Filmmaker Joan Lisetor wrote and produced the 45-minute collage of interviews, still photos and historic film footage.
“Marinship – World’s Most Amazing Shipyard” is a 60-minute documentary video written and produced by the SHS’ Eric J. Torney. It tells the story of Marinship from the initial request for construction in March,1942 to end of operations in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered and WWII ended. Continuous showings throughout the afternoon.
Admission is free, with no RSVP necessary. Please arrive early, as seating is limited. Donations appreciated.
BBQ in Rocky Graham Park
SHS on Parade
For the past 128 years – dating back to 1886, even before Sausalito was incorporated – Sausalito’s Portuguese-American community has held an annual Festa do Espírito Santo, or Festival.
The day includes a parade, complete with Queens from the Sausalito Portuguese Hall and sister halls in the Bay Area, a special Mass, a traditional lunch of “Sopas e Carne,” and dancing. Michael Moyle, an active volunteer in the Historical Society and the Portuguese cultural center on Caledonia Street, coordinated a marching unit that included Tami Bell, who will star in the October 14 re-enanctment of James vs Marinship (see p. 3) helped carry a Marinship banner in the parade.
Members of the Sausalito Historical Society also marched in the July 4th parade with a float prepared by the Lion's Club representing the William Richardson, the first ship produced by Marinship in 1942. SHS members dressed as dressed asMarinship workers or in other 40s outfits.
Student Historians Win Awards
Students at Willow Creek Academy and Bayside School have been recognized for their participation in the seventh year of a Sausalito Historical Society program to introduce them to the history of their community.
This annual educational program has grown from 45 to 65 students and from one curriculum unit to three. For each topic, docents appear in each classroom to introduce a topic-related workbook and again to lead a class field trip in Sausalito. Each workbook has been researched and designed by SHS volunteers in conjunction with teachers and administrators of the Sausalito Public School District. It is comprised of historic pictures, maps, facts and a glossary as well as space for student notes and sketches.
At the conclusion of each year’s program, the Historical Society hosts award ceremonies, where participating students receive photos, framed by Bob and Terry Woodrum of Sausalito Framing, of themselves with the work they achieved during the year.
LETTER FROM THE PRESIDENT
Befitting that Sausalito has been celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the creation of Marinship, 2017 has been a year of “nautical” exploration for me.
Back in January, Gail and I spent a weekend in Benicia, where Matthew Turner built most of his ships. At the local Historical Society’s Museum, in a former camel barn, I met a young man who attends Matthew Turner School. On the way to Benicia, I spent a couple of hours on the Red Oak Victory in Richmond. For a stunning story of the WWII home-front, look up Red Oak, Iowa. Before returning home, I visited the Sausalito, a.k.a. the Sportsmen Yacht Club, in Antioch. (We’ll talk more about that next year.)
After a spring of immersion in Marinship, particularly with our SHS Exhibits by Eric Torney and Jan Keizer, I recently spent a day on the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien, as a guest of our friend Carl Nolte. Carl has been the president of the group which restored and continues to operate the O’Brien, and, in 1994, he was part of the crew when it sailed down the coast, through the Canal and across the Atlantic as part of the D-Day Commemoration. The O’Brien was the only large vessel off the Normandy coast in 1944 which was present again in 1994! Great stories, great insights. And, the lookout station (crow’s nest) proudly sports a painting of Phil Frank’s character: Bruce the Raven.
I asked Carl about a particularly pitted wall outside the bridge. He patiently explained it wasn’t pitted, it was simple, inexpensive “armor” substitute: a layer of concrete. There were also concrete rings around the fore and aft gun mounts. Steel was a precious commodity. Liberty ships were extremely vulnerable to submarine torpedoes, and to surface gunfire. (I hope I’m not offending anyone by commenting that quantity was more important than quality.)
Speaking of concrete, many of you know about the SS Palo Alto, a WWI “Liberty” ship with a concrete hull, which served as a floating dance hall/amusement park in Aptos. It’s still at Seacliff Beach serving as an artificial reef. And, there was a shipyard just north of SFO which built concrete ships during WWII. No engines, just hulls, really barges, designed to be packed and towed. One of these, the Quartz, is part of a breakwater in British Columbia.
Lots of fun, learning, sharing.
See you soon, — Jerry Taylor