Meet Jean Byrd Stewart

Jean Byrd grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, right across the George Washington Bridge from New York City. She would become one of the first African American WAVES during World War II.

Jean’s father had his degree in chemistry, and worked for a chemical company in nearby Maywood. During the Depression, things were tough for everyone, but Jean remembers things being doubly difficult for African American families. Her father was paid less than the white workers at the chemical company. Still, she said, the family did well enough – her father had a job and most of the time was working full time.

Aside from the lack of parity on on-the-job, Jean doesn’t remember any overt prejudice in her neighborhood.

I never paid any attention because where we lived was a mixed area.  I mean, mixed. So you were a person there who had to qualify and be as up as you could so that you would blend with others and would show that you had intelligence and keep up with people.  My mother and father went to school and they passed along a lot of things. So as one lady said later on in life, her parents didn’t raise any dummies.  I was surprised to hear her say it. She was a white girl, but that was the way she expressed it. So you live up to what you know, and have learned and picked up watching by seeing others. You just kept on moving.

This photograph comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.

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