South Philly ‘Rosie the Riveter’ turns 100

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100-year-old Ruth Wilson sings along with Cubby St. Charles during a birthday celebration at the IATSE Ballroom in South Philly. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Ruth Wilson’s secret to longevity is simple.

“Work,” she said with a smile. “I worked until I was 80 years old. It keeps your mind sharp.”

Wilson has kept busy for the majority of her years, which most notably included a stint at the Philadelphia Navy Yard’s Dry Dock 5, helping build the USS Valley Forge aircraft carrier during World War II. Known as a true “Rosie the Riveter,” Wilson was one of 600,000 African American females who worked in factories and offices during World War II, helping the Allies claim victories in Europe and the Pacific. 

On April 2, Wilson celebrated her 100th birthday with a gathering at the IATSE Ballroom on Swanson Street, not far from where she lived in South Philadelphia while training at Bok Technical High School and working at the Navy Yard as a sheet metal specialist.

The celebration was organized by family members including Theresa Akinah Carter who got to throw a big party for her Nanna through Events By Lola, where she works. 

“I’m so happy to be doing this for my Nanna,” Akinah Carter said. “She’s been a positive influence on my life since I was a little girl.”

Ruth Wilson, who lived on South Street while working at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during World War II, recently turned 100. She was honored with a celebration at the IATSE Ballroom. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Wilson’s influence goes well beyond her family tree. Rightfully labeled a hero during the war effort, Wilson’s life is being documented by Gregory Cooke for a film called Invisible Warriors: African American Women in World War II. Cooke’s own mother was a “Rosie the Riveter” and he found Wilson when making cold calls to senior citizen homes. He received a phone call back from Wilson a few days later.

“When I was looking for Rosies, I went around to a few senior care facilities in Philadelphia and I just asked the administrators if they could put a little blurb in their newsletters asking if any of the women here worked during World War II,” Cooke said. “A few days later, Mrs. Wilson called me and told me she had worked at the Navy Yard. That was the beginning of a very beautiful relationship.”

Wilson has made a lot of beautiful friendships over the years and it was evident by the smiles and hugs she received on Saturday. Wilson sat in an oversized honoree chair at the party and posed for photos with friends and family. Wilson has two daughters, five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Her daughter Esther Brown said she was delighted to celebrate such a special occasion with such a special person.

A spread of desserts await guests at Ruth Wilson’s 100th birthday party. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“We are a chosen family and that’s a blessing and we’re thankful to God,” Brown said. “For anyone to get to 100, you need to have something special and she’s been a good girl.”

Wilson still cooks for herself and carries a great conversation. It helped that she worked for 13 years at AAA as a dispatcher until she retired at the age of 80.

“I loved working at AAA,” Wilson said. “When your car breaks down, you would call and you’d get me. And I’d send them out. Then, after I retired, I moved into a senior citizen building and started living with old people, which made me old.”

Wilson remembers her time at the Navy Yard fondly and she returned there in September where she was honored with a framed photo of the USS Valley Forge in Dry Dock 5 while it was being built. She said the artwork now hangs in her living room.

“It was the people,” Wilson said. “I loved the people.”

Ruth Wilson poses for a photo with Gregory Cooke, who produced a film about African American women in World War II called Invisible Warriors. Wilson celebrated her 100th birthday on March 2.

It’s what Cooke captures in his film, which has been shown for educational purposes at various schools around the country. It should be available to the public later this year.

“She’s one of these famous women and she’s been very helpful in getting the word out and I think she’s a good representative for 600,000 Black women who helped change the world,” Cooke said. “Mrs. Wilson is a remarkable woman who has had a remarkable life. We’re standing and sitting in the presence of greatness and in the presence of history. Better late than never to give her recognition.”