Women kept Navy Yard afloat


It’s a little-known piece of Navy Yard history, and one that a recent high-school graduate is pleased she’s getting the chance to tell.

As part of a youth documentary history program, Marchelle Smalls, of the 800 block of South Cantrell Street, made a short video called Philadelphia Naval Shipyard: The Impact of Women and Tools.

When American men were shipped out to fight in World War II, women back home filled their vacated posts in the workforce, a transition captured in the famous image of "Rosie the Riveter." Smalls’ documentary tells the bold story of local ladies who traded in their baking pans for tools as they became welders, mechanics, engineers, scientists and laborers at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.

During the 1940s, women comprised 97 percent of the Navy Yard shop responsible for building battleships and cruisers, said Smalls, 18. It was the first time in American history that females were hired to perform "a man’s work."

"A lot of people don’t know that. And I really wanted to put that out there to break down stereotypical barriers. Not all women are prissy and whiny," said Smalls, who graduated from Parkway Center City High School in the spring.

Women often earned about $1.20 an hour, and African-American women made 5 cents less, Smalls added. "These women worked hard. They worked 12- to 16-hour shifts from like 7 in the morning until 7 the next day," the teen noted. "I wanted to get the word out about how these women worked and their contributions. I wanted the video to inspire people. If they can do it, people can put so much more out there in the world."

Forty years later, after the gender revolution, women would again take up tools and work alongside men at the Navy Yard, Smalls said. Her film also explores their experiences.

Philadelphia Naval Shipyard: The Impact of Women and Tools is one of 10 short videos created by Philadelphia students for Scribe Video Center’s youth documentary history project.

Scribe, at 1342 Cypress St. in Center City, is a nonprofit media arts center. The organization, founded in 1982, offers programs for people to explore, develop and advance the use of video as an artistic medium.

Conceived about seven years ago, the youth project serves a dual purpose, according to Scribe Video Center founder and executive director Lou Massiah: It helps kids learn the art of filmmaking and teaches them about history. A representative from the center visits schools around the city to explain the project and urge students to apply. Scribe then chooses its filmmakers from those applications.

"Documentary filmmaking is not only a wonderful way to tell stories, it’s an analytical tool," Massiah said. "Film is a great way of understanding the world and history and telling a great story."

All 10 student documentaries are part of the Broad Street Youth History Project and will be screened at Independence Seaport Museum, 211 S. Columbus Blvd., Saturday between 1 and 5 p.m. The cost is solely admission to the museum. Smalls’ film also will be shown Aug. 1 at the USS New Jersey in Camden, N.J., as part of Scribe Video Center’s Street Movies! summer program.

Massiah explained the topic’s appeal. "[This year] we decided to use Broad Street as the lens to look at the life of the city in terms of sociology, urban planning, history, economics, culture and politics. In many ways, Broad Street is the definitive Philadelphia street."

While exploring Broad Street, Smalls became attracted to the history of the naval base and, through her research, came up with the idea of women and tools.

"It was just interesting to me," Smalls said. "It has so much history — and people need to know that. Why isn’t it a tourist attraction? And why don’t more people know about it? I became fascinated by it."

With her documentary theme in place, Smalls then had the difficult task of locating women who had worked at the Navy Yard to interview. The aspiring filmmaker was nearing completion of her video when she tracked down World War II welder Lillian Carson in Collingswood, N.J.

Weeks later, Smalls found two more former welders — Mary Rzcudlo and Deborah Price — both of whom worked in the yard in the 1980s.

The teen was amazed to learn that 40 years made little difference in the work experiences of the women at the Navy Yard.

All the students got paid for the project — a testament to how seriously Scribe takes the program, Massiah said.

Financial support came from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation, Samuel S. Fels Fund and William Penn Foundation. Scholars and historians from area universities provided background information and guidance to the students as they searched for resources.

Students began work on their documentaries in fall 2001. They worked after school, on weekends and during the summer. Most had no film or video experience and few had historical research skills. Now they have both.

"I’m extraordinarily proud of the entire group of young people who became a part of this project," Massiah said.

This fall, Smalls will head to the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where she’ll major in communications. Much as she did with her film, the aspiring journalist is anxious to tell other people’s stories.

Broad interpretations

The 10 documentaries of Scribe Video Center’s Broad Street Youth History Project will be screened at Independence Seaport Museum, 211 S. Columbus Blvd., Saturday between 1 and 5 p.m. The event is free with admission to the museum.

The Scribe Video Center also will include some of the documentaries in its Street Movies! festival, which screens 25 films in 14 locations across the region in August. The series highlights locally produced work, as well as films by artists of color, women and youth.

For more information, call 215-735-3785 or visit www.scribe.org.