Women, Work, and World War II

Brooklyn Historical Society has partnered with over a dozen Brooklyn schools in the past decade to implement Cultural Afterschool Adventures (CASA) programs in partnership with NYC Council Members. In the Young Scholars program, our educators meet with a group of upper elementary school students over the course of the spring semester, culminating in the creation of a book on a pre-selected theme. These books are then distributed to students, their families, and their schools. A copy of the student work is added to the Othmer Library & Archives, memorializing the student work for generations to come. If you’re interested in viewing the book discussed below, you can visit the Othmer Library during its public hours.

Here, Program Educator E. Bryan Cooper Owens reflects on the process:

A PS 307 Young Scholar experiences wears a welding mask. BHS has a number of oral histories from women who worked as welders during WWII at the BNY.

A PS 307 Young Scholar experiences wearing a welding mask. BHS has a number of oral histories from women who worked as welders during WWII at the BNY.

Beginning this past winter, I had the privilege of working with a wonderful group of students at PS 307 for the Young Scholars program.  We were tasked with uncovering and piecing together the historical experiences of women workers and workers of color at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.  From the outset, the students were enthusiastic about learning about the history of their community.  While the students were familiar with the Navy Yard and its importance as a place of commerce and military power, understanding its role in the evolution of work through the experiences of people of color and women gave the students a greater appreciation of their community’s history.

We began our project by researching the origins of the Navy Yard.  We traced the history of the Yard and its neighborhoods through the end of WWII.  We utilized various resources in this quest: oral histories, books, paintings, photographs, historical maps, and museum exhibits.  The students were amazed when they examined historical maps of the area while they were at Brooklyn Historical Society.  The maps illustrated the change and growth of the areas around the Navy Yard.  Students were also highly engaged with the paintings of the Navy Yard from the nineteenth century.  These paintings gave the students a window into what their neighborhood had looked like in previous centuries. They were able to see the geographical evolution of their own neighborhoods.

The PS 307 Young Scholars on their research visit to Brooklyn Historical Society.

The PS 307 Young Scholars on their research visit to Brooklyn Historical Society.

The exhibits at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92 contained a rich trove of resources for the students.  These exhibits allowed students to experience the personal histories of various people that worked in the Navy Yard during WWII. The oral histories in the exhibit, along with photographic documentation, helped students put together a patchwork of the social history of the WWII-era Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The students spent time brainstorming questions around the topic of work, women, and people of color in the Navy Yard during WWII.  They wanted to know: How were women and people of color paid in comparison to white men?  What was daily life like for these Navy Yard workers?  How did working in the Navy Yard affect their role in society?  The students were able to answer all of these questions through their research.  They found the oral histories of Naval Yard workers particularly helpful.  Hearing history as a person’s story added a touch of relevance and immediacy.

You can view the Young Scholars of PS 307's book by visiting the Othmer Library during open hours.

You can view the Young Scholars of PS 307’s book by visiting the Othmer Library during open hours.

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to work with the students of PS 307.  I am glad that I was able to facilitate their investigation into the history of the Navy Yard and their neighborhoods.  I hope that they were able to come away with a more nuanced and enriched understanding of their community’s history, and of the impact of history upon people, particularly themselves.  Exploring personal ties to one’s local history is a building block for a lifelong love of history

Bryan Cooper Owens
Brooklyn Historical Society
PS 307 Young Scholars Program Educator

If you’d like to bring the Young Scholars program to your school in Brooklyn, e-mail us at education@brooklynhistory.org with “Young Scholars” in the subject line.

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