This is the 4th post in a 7-part series on the great American playwright Arthur Miller’s sojourn in Wilmington, N.C. during the Second World War.
When they were in Wilmington in 1941, Arthur Miller and his audio specialist, Johnny Langenegger, also just drove around the city looking for scenes and moments and stories that captured the spirit of the wartime boomtown.
On one of their rides around town, for instance, Miller met a crowd of African American men loitering in a city park.
“One day I was out in the town square of Wilmington and suddenly discovered about…30 or 40 automobiles, broken down trucks, spread all over the square,” he later told Christopher Bigsby, an English scholar who has written a brilliant biography of Miller.
As best as I can tell, Bigsby is Miller’s only biographer that has written about his time in Wilmington.
In his interview with Bigsby, which was done not long before Miller’s death in 2005, the distinguished playwright reflected back more than 60 years and continued:
“They were just sitting there. I got to talking with one of them. Well, they had built a shipyard in Wilmington…. The building of that shipyard required them to work in water up to their hips. It was tough going. But when the shipyard was done, and they were getting ready to hire labor to build the ships, they were all fired…. They were just told to go home. Well, they were from uprooted families. Where were they going to go?”
At the time, one of the black workers told Miller, “When you first started, you had nothing but woods and trees….” He was referring to the remote, swampy shores of the Cape Fear River, where the shipyard was built.
He went on: “You help build it up, and after that they put you out.”
Hundreds of men gathered at the city park every morning in hopes that the shipyard might eventually hire black workers as it grew bigger and busier.
Another of the black men told Miller, tongue only half in cheek, “I hate to go to stealing, but if I don’t get something to eat I got to steal!”
The other workers laughed, but to me the man’s voice held an edge of real despair.
Most of the African American shipyard construction workers had come to Wilmington from small farms up the Cape Fear River. Many had been tenant farmers and sharecroppers– they did not own their own land. They had given up life in the fields and a cabin on a farm owner’s land to come to the city and build the shipyard.
As a result, many no longer had a home to which they could return.
One told Miller that he hoped to get a chipper’s job at the shipyard, where he would use an air hammer to finish ship hulls.
Another said he hitchhiked to Wilmington every morning in the hope of getting a job on a crane.
Eventually, the war’s demands for labor would compel the shipyard’s white managers to employ thousands of black men and women like the crowd in the city park, but that time had not yet come.
“This is worse than Hoover time—getting terrible now,” one of the workers said.
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To be continued– tomorrow, part 5– “What happens in Wilmington at night”