Dorothy Vaughn disembarks from her bus in Newport News, a booming hub of military manufacturing activity. She sees boats on the James River carting rations and ammunition, K9 dogs and mules, and allied troops departing from the pier. She hears the port band play “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Carolina in My Mind,” La Marseillaise”—a mix of sounds from the soldiers’ various hometowns.
The wartime atmosphere makes clear the importance—moral, patriotic, and historical—of the job that Dorothy is about to do. Shetterly includes details about how the soldiers’ hometowns are all so different to show that Newport News is a draw for young talent from all over, which indicates that Dorothy might find community there.
Many women work at filling stations, shining shoes, or they staff the shipyard and military offices. The city’s population has recently exploded and the economy is booming. The Norva Theater nearby shows movies all day, including Casablanca. Newsreels before and after each show keep Americans up to date with battlefield exploits. Plenty of money flows through the banks and the city infrastructure groans under the weight of the influx of people. A federally-funded housing project for workers in Newsome Park, designed to fix the sudden housing shortage, is where Dorothy will eventually live.
Dorothy is but a small part of a massive transformation taking place in Newport News as a result of the war. The same circumstances that have allowed her to leave her small hometown and embark on a new life are changing the entire country, and her journey is just one piece of a story that combines financial growth, technological advancement, and changes in racial and gender dynamics in the workplace as a result of WWII.
Dorothy lives in Hampton Roads, a region straining under the weight of segregation. Complicated Jim Crow laws make public transportation confusing for both blacks and whites, slowing down travel for everyone. Black riders are sometimes dragged off buses or beaten by police, and some drivers refuse to give rides to black passengers, even when they’re in military uniform.
Shetterly indicates that every aspect of the black worker’s life was fraught at this time, demonstrating how difficult it was for any African-Americans to carve out a financial foothold for themselves, given that even taking the bus to and from work posed a risk.
This moment in history proves especially confusing for black soldiers, who are called upon to serve their country while at the same time facing discrimination and prejudice in their daily lives. Blacks recoil with other Americans at Germany’s torture of its Jewish citizens, but they wonder why the U.S. is fighting against racism abroad while still practicing it at home. On the front lines, black soldiers can’t serve alongside whites and they have to use segregated showers. At home, black men in uniform encounter violence at the hands of whites who believe blacks shouldn’t be allowed to join the army.
African-American soldiers faced a significant conundrum: Although they were risking their lives for their country at the front and on the battlefield, at home, they weren’t granted the same rights as white citizens. This contradiction was particularly stark in light of the fact that they were fighting against racial prejudice and discrimination abroad.