Courage · Dorothea Lange · Hung Liu · Japanese American Internment · Kaiser Shipyards · Public History · T Sisters · The Dust Bowl · Touring · World War II

Back to the Beginning: Docent Training and Understanding Public History

Today I began to learn first hand the meaning of the docent’s college-level class, California History as Public History.

Betty Reid Soskin came to the museum to talk to the docents for our monthly Advanced Training and New Year’s Luncheon. Betty is the oldest park ranger in the United States— 94 years young, for sure. Some of you may have seen her on television with President Obama this past December. She was invited to the White House to introduce him before he turned on the lights of the nation’s Christmas tree.

Betty works in the Rosie the Riveter Museum, right here in Richmond, California, next to the Craneway Pavillion, the renovated Ford Factory. During WWII, the Model A factory was retrofitted to manufacture jeeps and tanks.

Betty Reid Soskin

In doing some research for this entry, I looked up Betty and found her blog and a place to email her:

Dear Betty,

The Rosie the Riveter Memorial is my favorite museum because WWII has become my passion at the OMCA as well. I was one of the history docents privileged to hear you yesterday at the Oakland Museum of California. I write a blog about being a history docent. I was just in the middle of writing about the college class we all took in 2012 on California History. I had assumed that it would be a linear history—a survey course. Our professor, Linda L. Ivey, Ph.D. from Cal State East Bay, had titled the course California History as Public History. It took me a while to understand what that meant. “Isn’t history all about the public?”

I notice as I look over the notes and readers from the class that Professor Ivey touched on many of the issues you referred to yesterday—race, economics, housing—but she did not cover the history close to us in Richmond.

My favorite bay in the history gallery is the model of the Liberty ship, built by Kaiser in Portland, Oregon (my hometown). When I first saw it, I had to find out more about it; and I did. Your talk yesterday helped me to see how history is a story, and depending on who is telling it, who is listening to that story, and, as you said, “who is in the room,” it may be more or less complete. You found that out when you saw the films Home Front Heroes and The War at Home about WWII, which are shown at the Rosie the Riveter Museum. Your story, which belonged to many, was left out.

In writing my blog, I weave my own family’s story throughout. I often get calls from my cousins, “Emily, that is not how it happened!” or “You left out ‘the why’ in that story.” Usually, it is just because I do not have all of the pieces. Not everyone who lived those stories is in the room to make corrections or comments. In short, we need the public to tell the history to those who record it. A skeletal scaffolding is fine for a starting place, and then we need to invite others to comment and lay their tracks down as well.

Anyway, I will be reading your blog. Thank you for yesterday. All good things in 2016.

Emily Zell is my blog, but I know that you are plenty busy these days and I don’t expect you to read it. Just know that you have influenced me as well as others!

In the docents’ public history class, Professor Ivey chose the photos of Dorothea Lange to portray the local events during WWII. She focused on the Japanese American Internment, one of the most glaring injustices of that time. The Internment overshadowed the story of the Richmond shipyards, which was perceived from the outside as a “happy story.”

Professor Ivey had us examine several aspects of WWII through academic papers. One, written by Linda Gordon, “Dorothea Lange Photographs the Japanese American Internment,” included eleven photographs.

Dorothea Lange was a documentary photographer whose best-known works are the photographs of the migrant farmworkers of the 1930’s Depression. The majority of her work was done for the federal or California state government. Lange took the photographs of the migrants to show the real conditions of the workers to help the public develop empathy for these people. The photographs have been published in many books and articles and have been shown in many major museums. We are fortunate at the Oakland Museum of California to have all of her negatives. She left them to the museum when she died in 1965.

Not only were photographs meant to show the public what was happening, but songs communicated the dire situation as well. In 1930, lyricist, Yip Harburg and composer Jay Gorney wrote the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Here is a link to it, sung even today by three young Californians from Oakland, the T Sisters:

Lange was also engaged by the government to take photographs of the Japanese American Interment. However these photos were not intended for public record. They were used instead to “protect false allegations of mistreatment and violations of international law.” 97% of these photographs were not seen until half a century after having been impounded by the government. But during WWII, these photos were suppressed. Because of this, the public history of the era being presented was distorted.

In a similar way, the films that introduce the visitors to the Rosie the Riveter Museum leave out Betty’s story. Betty did not see ships being built in Richmond during the war. She was not part of the scene of “The Rosies” and the racial mix of war workers from the southern states, the Philippines, Mexico, etc. who came to Richmond. During WWII, Betty lived in Berkeley and had a job as a clerk in Oakland with the Boilermakers Union A-36, a Jim Crow all-black union auxiliary.

Here is an excerpt from her blog dated September 20, 2003:

I was a Rosie who never saw a ship during that time. The little union hall that I worked in as a young file clerk has long since been destroyed.  It was far enough away from the shipyards to have gotten lost over time as memories dimmed. My memory has either censored all relationship to the period, or I never felt a part of the war effort at all. I did not arrive west at the start of the war. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I was an anomaly.

My family had come from New Orleans at the end of World War I to join my grandfather who preceded them. My maternal ancestors had originally immigrated to the Americas in 1631 from France by way of Nova Scotia and Maryland. My father’s people arrived before the Louisiana Purchase, also from France. And on both sides, were the ancestors who had come in the early 1600s as chattel, in the Middle Passage, untraceable through the dark curtain of slavery.

I am a part of the story now being told, and I will do everything that I can to restore the missing chapters … but the challenge is daunting, indeed.

The Kaiser Shipyards were not subject to the Jim Crow laws, referring to two sets of laws, one for blacks and one for whites. The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB) was the union for the ship builders, blacksmiths, forgers and helpers. The IBB employed only whites until the 1930s. In 1937, IBB auxiliaries were formed due to the rush of blacks into the Bay Area and Los Angeles. However, blacks were not allowed to file grievances. The auxiliaries were under the control of the all-white parent group. Training certificates of blacks were not recognized, although they had to pay the same dues as their white “brothers.” In 1945, the Supreme Court ruled that blacks had to be employed under the same conditions as whites within a union. However, conditions did not immediately change for the blacks and when the war ended two years later, many of the workers were laid off. (There is a new book out which I recommend, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.)

For Betty, having a job as a clerk was comparable to being the first person in a family to go to college, except that her work was segregated. (I do not have personal stories from Betty about her experiences—yet.)

A few days later, after sending the email, I received a response to my email from Betty. She told me how comfortable she was speaking to all of the docents and that she was continuing to decompress from the effects of the national exposure she had recently had. She is posting every few days now and I encourage you to read her blog. She is quite extraordinary. Here is a quote from the posting on January 20, 2016, “And why did it take 94 years to find my footprints upon the earth—and to stand tall in them? …and I didn’t realize that I could cast such a great shadow.”

Yesterday I was in the history gallery watching some of the staff work on a bay called “Sent Away” that will enlarge the existing story of the Japanese American Internment Camps. Below is one of the Dorothea Lange photographs depicting the relocation.

Relocation—also known as moving from a fixed location and settling in a different one—sounds like such a safe, innocuous word. But this relocation was forced. Even children in orphanages who were of Japanese heritage were “relocated.” Remember that most of these photos were not published. The photo below looks like a nice family photo before a vacation. The father is smiling and everyone is well dressed. However, the “luggage tags” everyone wears are telltale indicators of where they were going.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 3.50.44 PM
Courtesy National Archive Photo, photo n.537505 Taken May 8, 1942, of the Japanese-American Mochida Family as they await relocation


The Sent Away bay is adjacent to the WWII story of the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond. Looking at the model of the liberty ship built to sell FDR on the idea of partnering with Kaiser, I saw a retired Marine Corp veteran with his own story that he clearly wanted to share with someone. Sometimes, I think that that is one of the most important things we docents do: listen. We do a lot of talking with the students, but with the adult visitors, we listen.

“I build race cars as a hobby, so, I am a welder. One afternoon I was in my shop welding a piece of a Mustang chassis. Someone was visiting me and brought their grandmother into the shop to look around. I was concentrating on what I was doing when I heard, ‘You got that weld too hot!’ I didn’t look up because I didn’t think that she knew what she was talking about. But she shouted at me again. I flipped up my mask and looked into the face of an 84-year-old woman who knew what she was talking about.

“‘I know how to weld and your weld is too hot. Move over and I will show you how its done.’ Well I moved over and she made the smoothest and most accurate weld I had ever seen. ‘How did you do that,’ I queried. ‘I was a welder in the Kaiser Ship Yards in Richmond during WWII. I never lost the touch!’ And she hadn’t!”

Now that is public history. It is well known that the women were excellent welders. I’ve read that you could easily tell a weld done by a woman from one done by a man.

I emailed Betty again several days after I heard from her:

Dear Betty,

I just wrote an email and it disappeared. I went ahead and found the answers to the questions I asked you in that email, in case it actually made its way to you and you’re wondering. Mostly I want to know more about how it was to work for the Boilermakers Union. I need to read more about the period. I am afraid the story of the Kaiser Shipyards is not all that we should know about as docents. We are encouraged to explore and that is why we have monthly advanced trainings. We would all love for you to return and talk to us in our history gallery, but until you have time for that, we will drop by and visit you in Richmond.

Thank you so much for responding to my first email. I bet you have been an important mentor for a lot of people. They are lucky to know you.

Emily Zell

Just when I was steeped in public history, at the end of last week I had the opportunity to visit Hung Liu in her studio with a group of patrons of OMCA. Hung Liu is spending time in the Dorothea Lange Archive at OMCA.


Hung working in the Dorothea Lange Archive at the Oakland Museum of California


One of the paintings Hung is working on, based on photographs taken in the 1930’s by Dorothea Lange.


Hung Liu’s life is so full of public history. Her most recent exhibit at the museum, “Summoning Ghosts,” was based on her life in China during the Cultural Revolution. From paintings of her own experience to exploring Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the public history of the Oakies and the Arkies during the Dust Bowl, Hung Liu is a true public historian. She is now turning Lange’s photographs into her own paintings. In the photograph below, Hung Liu is painting a scene of Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph. Among other scenes, she will also paint a scene from Weedpatch Camp. This is one of the most poignant stories, and I love to tell it in the gallery on my tour.

Here is a brief summary of what happened at Weedpatch Camp and School:

Weedpatch School

The Dust Bowl was an environmental disaster. What followed was a social and economic disaster. The growers in California encouraged people in the Dust Bowl states, known as Dust Bowlers, to come for employment, sending thousands of handbills to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri:


This advertising campaign brought many families to California. However, when they arrived there was little work, and what work there was offered very low-paying wages. Between 1935 and 1940 a million people came from the Dust Bowl states. The families found themselves poorer than ever and far from their homes. The Californians were very unwelcoming, especially to the children. Camps were established and families moved into them. The federal government built several farm-labor camps. One of these camps was called Weedpatch Camp.

The children from the camps were made fun of in school by the local children and were even ridiculed by the teachers. A school counselor, Leo Hart, came by and visited the children of the camps. Eventually he was elected School Superintendent. He was so disturbed by the treatment of the children that he asked the School Board if he could build a school for the Weedpatch Camp at no cost to the district. The School Board was delighted to get these children out of the public schools.

In April of 1940, with help, Hart leased a ten-acre site. He borrowed and begged and eventually got supplies. The adults and children of Weedpatch Camp helped build the school. Hart visited several colleges and universities in California and recruited the best teachers, who all had the right attitude to teach these students.

By September, 1940, in five months, the students had built several classrooms, plowed the land and planted crops. They kept adding on to the school, which by now had a wonderful reputation. (By 1944, the families who had been so awful to these children wanted their children to attend Weedpatch School!) The Dust Bowl students became successful adults, not only because they had excellent teachers, but due to the skills they developed building their own school and raising their own crops to feed their families. It was a happy ending for everyone.

If you want to know more about this story and see Dorothea Lange photographs of the school and camp, check out Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp by Jerry Stanley with photos by Dorothea Lange and others.

When I told Hung about this book, she was so excited that I mailed her a copy.

Weedpatch School’s Nursey

My search for the meaning of public history has taken me from Betty Reid Soskin to Dorothea Lange, the T Sisters and finally to Hung Liu. So what have I learned? There are two kinds of history—the one that you learn in your classroom, often linear and sometimes dry. Then there is the history that is the life you live every day, the connections you make and the stories you walk through. A lot of us walk through the public history stories at a place like the Oakland Museum of California; and some of us lived the stories, worked in the shipyards or in the segregated union auxiliaries, or grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China. Then there are some who are exploring the history that came before us and sing the songs of a time not so long ago that still has connections in the present.

I think we are all public historians of a sort. Notably, the definition of ‘public history’ has been referred to as elusive. Public history can also be defined as “applying history to real world issues.” To me, academic history is the bones and the scaffolding, and the stories and connections made by people are the flesh that gives history its life and purpose out in the world. The National Council on Public History says  “All public historians share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere.”
That is how I feel and what all of the people I have mentioned in this posting are pursuing. This is absolutely what all of the docents are doing, be it through history, art or natural sciences.

Betty Reid Soskin can be visited at the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond.

See Betty’s blog

There are often Hung Liu sightings at the Oakland Museum. See her website.

The T Sisters can be found singing up a storm.11059504_918802218163654_6921545903751393445_n

3 thoughts on “Back to the Beginning: Docent Training and Understanding Public History

  1. The T’s are a real draw, aren’t they. Who would know that I would pull them into this topic! But they fit it to a ‘T’.

  2. Awesome post, Emily! Been a huge fan of Dorothea’s since my OM internship in 1993 (gulp), back when I was 12. xo!

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