Como resident tells story of WWII ‘Black Rosies’

By Janet Wight

Ophelia Sewell, cafeteria worker. Vesta Mosley, machine operator. Lily Preston, matron. Margaret Lazenberry, nurse. Junauld Brown, newspaper reporter. Ethel Maxwell Williams, assistant director of Negro personnel.

These are just a few of the hundreds of African American women who worked as “Black Rosies” at the Twin Cities Ordnance Plant, or TCOP, around the time of World War II. This facility, located in Arden Hills, has been known as TCAAP (Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant) since 1963.

St. Paul native, Como resident and Black heritage champion Jeremiah Ellis on Feb. 24 presented the highlights of his TCOP research as part of the Como Neighborhood History Project at the Como Streetcar Station.

This research would not have happened without the influence of his grandmother Roxie Smith, Ellis said. He was planning a trip to New Orleans when she told him about the National World War II Museum, and then insisted that he visit this museum.

While visiting the museum, Ellis noticed a catchy poster advertising the documentary film “Invisible Warriors.” After viewing the film’s trailer, he learned about the African-American women who supported the war effort. This discovery piqued his interest.

In 2022, Ellis received a grant from the Ramsey County Historical Society that enabled him to delve into the compelling narratives of the African Americans who worked at TCOP during World War II.

Ellis extensively researched newspaper coverage of the Black Rosies. He was able to locate articles in the St. Paul Recorder, which covered the African American community, as well as in the TCOP plant newspaper. Additionally, the Pittsburgh Courier commended TCOP as a model munitions plant.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were about 1,000 African Americans working at the plant in 1943. That represented 20% of all Black workers in Minnesota then, he said.

Although it was rare for African Americans to be offered roles other than as custodians or housekeepers during the 1940s, the Ordnance plant workers held an impressive array of positions, including ­ordnance inspectors, engineers, operators, packers, timekeepers and ballisticians.

Working at TCOP afforded these women, many of whom were young, the opportunity to earn decent salaries. Some of them went on to financially support the growing local and national civil rights movement, he added.

Ellis was especially interested in learning more about the lives of these women outside of the workplace. It was important to him to learn about their roles in the church and in community development.

“As I have been uncovering and sharing, I have been able to make connections,” Ellis explained. For example, he had a conversation with the daughter of Junauld Brown who recounted her mother’s involvement in her church community as well as with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

“It is meaningful to me that I have been able to call out some of their names, and tell some of their stories, and this research might not have happened otherwise,” he reflected. 

Janet Wight is a regular freelance writer for the Bugle.

Photo: Author Jeremiah Ellis. Submitted photo.

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