“You’re Not an Individual”

Though there was resistance to allowing African American women to serve in the Navy, Jean Byrd Stewart says she didn’t encounter any racism once she was in the military. She ended up being stationed in the Chicago area, but remembers one time traveling to St. Louis. St. Louis was a segregated community, and while she could find a restroom for white women, she couldn’t find one for African American women.

I said to the gentleman in charge, “I am going back upstairs where I saw ladies rooms. And I’m going to use that.  If you hear any commotion, you know I’m in trouble.  Send a Shore Patrol because I might need help.” Because there is no ladies room here. And I did.  I went in and you know, you have to wait until there’s an open on.  And I did, I went into the ladies room, came out, when I came out, I sat down.  I took off my hat.  I fixed my hair, checked my make-up, stood up to leave, and of course they were around talking and saying.  And you say, “Goodbye.”  Or “I’ll see you later.”  And you get up and you leave.  Nothing happened.  It shouldn’t have, but you never know.

You know what they told us when we went in?  “You’re not an individual. Remember your home training and all the things you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to act.  You belong to a group.  You’re not an individual.  You belong to a group and remember your manners.”  And that was it.

This photograph comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.

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.