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Brooklyn Navy Yard oral history collection now available online!

By Amy Lau

Posted on September 22, 2020

Old Navy yard sign that reads: Builders of the World's Mightiest War Ships
Old Navy yard sign that reads: Builders of the World's Mightiest War Ships Frank J. Trezza, Old Navy yard sign that reads: Builders of the World's Mightiest War Ships, 1978, color slide, V1988.21.344; Frank J. Trezza Seatrain Shipbuilding collection, 1988.21; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Brooklyn Historical Society is thrilled to announce that the Brooklyn Navy Yard oral history collection is now available through our online Oral History Portal!

Forty-nine interviews with the women and men who worked in and around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, particularly during WWII, can now be listened to from the comfort of your home! The oral histories contain descriptions of the narrators’ early lives, their work at the Navy Yard, their relationships, and much more. Narrators reflect on the gender, racial, and ethnic interpersonal relations in the Navy Yard and in neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. Many narrators discuss the launching of the USS Missouri, built at the Navy Yard between 1941 and 1944, as well as day-to-day work responsibilities, and changes that took place in the neighborhoods surrounding the Navy Yard. While the recordings have previously been available to researchers onsite at the Othmer Library, the interviews are now available online via our oral history portal.

Several of the interviews discuss immigration to Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century. Many narrators, such as Eleanor Capson, describe when their parents immigrated to the United States and came to settle in or near Brooklyn: “my mother was born here in New York and my father was born in Vienna, Austria and came here when he was six years old, which was in 1905.” Other narrators, such as Jack Grossman, describe why their parents emigrated from Europe to the United States: “there were a lot of people at that time, starting to… take the trip and go across the ocean to the U.S.A. And that probably sounded like a better chance for the future, get a job. So, as a young kid, he [Jack’s father] took a shot.”

Nearly all of the narrators discuss where they grew up, their parents’ professions, their educational backgrounds, and why they applied to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Sylvia Everitt discusses graduating from Brooklyn College and hearing about the opportunity to work at the Navy Yard, “I lived in the Bronx. Had just graduated from Brooklyn College that June… And then I heard through a friend of mine that there was an exam to see if, you know, looking for women that could work in the Navy Yard.”

Women at Navy Yard gate, 1942 ca., black-and-white negative, V1988.21.64; Frank J. Trezza Seatrain Shipbuilding collection, 1988.21; Brooklyn Historical Society.

In his interview, Clarence L. Irving, Sr. describes his family as “a Navy Yard” family, “My father was a shipfitter’s helper, in the war of 1898, in Newport News shipyard. Okay. Now, my brother, in nineteen — around 1938, he was employed in the New York Naval Shipyard. And… I applied in 1940, and was called in 1944, so that gave you three generations of Irvings who worked in shipyards.” Later on in his interview, Irving explains that working for the federal government was better than working in the private industry for African Americans, “even though they had discrimination, you were better off working for the government than you would be working in private industry. You had a better chance in the event that something came up — because during those years, there was an awful lot of incidents that happened.”

The oral histories also record how working at the Navy Yard offered unprecedented opportunities to women, including the requirement to wear pants at work for the first time. In her interview, Lucille Kolkin, who worked as a tack welder, reflects: “It was also romantic and exciting. You know, to wear pants.” She goes on to explain that wearing shorts and pants in the city was unusual for women, “I wore shorts, I remember, during the summer, when I was in the country. You know, on vacation or something. I don’t think we wore them on the streets at all, you know, shorts. And I don’t think we wore long pants at all… pants was a much later development, maybe thirty years, forty years, I don’t know.”

Identification Badge
Identification Badge Identification Badge; Alfred and Lucille Kolkin papers, ARC.048, Box A0603; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Many narrators describe working in the Yard while friends and family served in the armed forces overseas. During Rubena Ross’s interview her daughter Janet Ross recalls a write up about her uncle who served in the Airforce with the Tuskegee Airmen, “There was a write-up on my uncle — he was shot down, and he was captured.” Janet Ross also recalls her father’s work in the service, “Daddy was in the service. My father was a photographer for the United States Army.”

The oral history interviews serve as a testament to the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a place that contains the histories of working class people who responded to the needs of the nation and state. From mobilizing a workforce to build and repair battleships and destroyers during World War II to producing face shields for health care workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, the Brooklyn Navy Yard continues to serve as a site of response to the state and nation’s needs.

Woman worker, 1942 ca., black-and-white negative, V1988.21.66; Frank J. Trezza Seatrain Shipbuilding collection, 1988.21; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The oral histories that comprise the Brooklyn Navy Yard oral history collection comprise two different collecting projects; the first effort from 1986 to 1989 was conducted by interviewers Benjamin Filene and Diane Esses for Brooklyn Historical Society. The second effort, which spanned 2006 to 2010, includes interviews conducted by author Jennifer Egan, BHS oral historian Sady Sullivan, and Brooklyn Navy Yard Vice President Daniella Romano through a partnership between BHS and the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC). Egan partnered with BHS and BNYDC not only to help create a historical record of workers’ Navy Yard experiences, but also to conduct historical research for her award-winning novel Manhattan Beach.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard oral history collection was processed and described through generous funding from the New York State Documentary Heritage Program. The collection was initially cataloged and made available onsite at the Othmer Library by Margaret Fraser in 2010. The transcripts and recordings were fully processed by Project Archivists, Mary Mann and Aliki Caloyeras, and Archivist, Amy Lau, in 2020.

For access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard oral histories please visit our oral history portal. A guide to the Brooklyn Navy Yard oral histories is available through our findings aid portal. While our reading room remains closed, our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected]

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