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“When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

The Steel Rush                                                   Marissa Potasiak


Marilyn S. Johnson is the History Department Chair and a professor at Boston College, teaching courses on social movements, working-class history, and the American West. She received her bachelor degree in History at Stanford and her Ph.D. in History at New York University. She has written four other books and received the Sierra Prize from the Western Association of Women Historians for The Second Gold Rush.



Marilynn S. Johnson’s book, The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II, provides an in-depth account of the effects of World War II on the East Bay region of California, allowing her to uncover the human story of wartime migration and urban growth. This detailed focus of a specific community reveals the amazing social and cultural changes this region experienced – changes Johnson sees as “the most enduring legacy of World War II.”1

            Even before the boom of World War II, Oakland was a major city, topping San Francisco as the East Bay’s business, industrial, and financial center. But even though Oakland and its nearby neighbor Richmond housed factories from giants such as Standard Oil and General Motors, these cities still maintained a quiet, small-town feel. During the war, old time resident’s nostalgically remembered a place where “different ethnic and racial groups lived alongside on another” in a “fluid and tolerant social climate.” This stable environment – with a relatively small immigrant population – is what old-timers longed for during the war years, with their formerly homogenous communities replaced with striking, and to them terrifying, diversity. After Pearl Harbor, the government gave billions of dollars in federal subsidies to industrialists like Henry Kaiser, creating an overnight defense boom in the East Bay. World War II was the gold rush of the twentieth century and “unlike the earlier boom...the federal government now played a key role in directing and facilitating the flow of migration.”2 Shipbuilding was the major industry, with 150,000 people working in East Bay shipyards.3 The population of Oakland increased by 500,000 people from 1940 to 1945, with the immigrant population up 67.3%. Most were out-of-state settlers from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. These defense migrants – eager for the high wages of Californian shipyards – contained majorities of women, young people, and African Americans. These groups enjoyed economic opportunities unattainable in their home states, but their presence also created new biases among former residents.

             The war transformed both shipbuilding and the treatment of shipyard labor. New building techniques such as pre-fabrication (building the individual parts of a ship separately, before assembly) transformed “skilled trades into assembly-line production”, causing anger among old-time workers and their unions at the de-skilling of their jobs.4 The old-timers took out their anger on the new migrant workers – African Americans, women, and southerners. Old-timers felt these migrants were undeserving of their new, high-paying jobs and were frustrated with relative ease at which they moved up into semi-skilled positions. But these groups could never advance to supervisory positions, were placed in segregated workspaces, and were constantly subjected to racial and sexual stereotypes; African Americans got lower-paying, physically demanding jobs and women were often accused of prostitution. Unions offered little help to these workers, so management stepped in; Kaiser offered his workers “corporate welfare” – healthcare services, childcare, and leisure activities. Despite this help from management, migrants faced their biggest obstacle finding housing. The private sector proved unable to provide enough housing for the thousands of new war workers, forcing thousands of migrants to share tiny houses with extended family, move into decaying trailer parks, or simply sleep on the streets. When the federal government finally stepped in, they “introduced new forms of federally sanctioned racial segregation” creating “shipyard ghettos” that isolated old-time residents from newcomers and African Americans from whites.5 This “patchwork” segregation cemented post-war neighborhood settlement, creating lasting racial tensions. In total, 30,000 public housing units were built for 90,000 East Bay workers, mass-produced houses made from cheap materials, often placed in undesirable locations.

            Migrants relied heavily on family connections to adjust to their new lives. The family was the main source of support because “long hours, high turnover, and extreme social diversity all served to hinder the growth of a common culture in war housing areas.”6 Overcrowding, new roles for women, and new power for youth caused these families extreme stress. Men felt threatened by the loss of their position as breadwinner and feared marital infidelity in the workplace – both divorce and marriage rates increased during World War II. Young people became more independent – often making more money than their parents – causing a generational conflict between parents and children. Although they all dealt with common problems, migrants couldn’t lean on the migrant community for support because neighbors constantly moved and migrants worked varied shifts. Neighbors never had a chance to get to know one another. But there was a sense of geographical unity among some migrants, especially southerners. They brought their evangelical religion and popularized country and blues music – both having a lasting impact on Californian culture. Migrants also had a large impact on the cities they surrounded. These boomtowns “provided new social opportunities and freedom...for the migrants, blacks, and women who enjoyed new defense earnings”, a transformation that “shocked the sensibilities of the prewar middle class.”7 Retail businesses earned five times the amount they earned before the war, with migrants buying previously unattainable consumer goods – even fur coats were within their reach. Old timers felt invaded by wealth-flaunting migrants, who seem to bring with them street peddlers, gambling, prostitution, movie theatres, and bars. Blaming the migrants for “ruining” their cities, city governments targeted migrants for arrests, taxed theatres and jukeboxes, allowed segregated stores, and controlled female access to bars, dancehalls, and other public spaces. Migrants gained new economic freedoms but were subject to persecution and injustice.

            East Bay city governments were dominated by conservative, business elites before and during the war. However the war “presented an opportunity to challenge the political status quo” and “a coalition of labor, black, and other progressive forces coalesced during the war and would become a major contender in the...postwar era.”8 City governments promised to enact a series of public works projects after the war, including much needed road, sewer, school, and hospital repair. But these promises failed to materialize and unemployment increased dramatically after the war – especially for women and African Americans. Additionally, the migrants didn’t leave East Bay cities – as conservative city officials had hoped – instead, more continued to come. All these factors gave women, African Americans, labor, returning veterans, and progressive forces an opportunity to change city politics, enacting a general strike in 1946 and electing new board members to the city council. This victory was short-lived however, as returning prosperity and the fear of communism discredited this coalition. The most crucial issue of the postwar years was public housing. Conservatives were eager to see public housing destroyed, hoping to clean their cities of blight and squalor and attract private investment. In the early 1950s, cities like Richmond “evicted thousands of minority and low-income tenants, sowing the seeds of racial discontent that would plague Richmond and other East Bay cities for decades.”9 Cities evicted public housing tenants based on race and, in racist real estate market, forced African Americans to move into already overcrowded black neighborhoods. The lack of available, decent housing caused overwhelming frustration and anger in the African American community; the issue was the underlying cause of the race riots of the 1960s. Racist postwar housing policies created animosities that forever changed the East Bay.

            Throughout her book, Johnson claims World War II was a second gold rush for the East Bay, not only economically, but also in the social diversity it brought to the region. The Bay Area was the nation’s number one shipbuilding center, with over 5 billion dollars in federal contracts.10 The shipyards’ high wages – the highest of any shipyard center in the country – created overnight boomtowns, just as the gold rush had in 1849. And like the earlier gold rush, the population drew dramatically. In a region where immigrants were previously ethnic whites – Italians, Irishmen, Germans, and Scandinavians – the East Bay now had a much larger population of African Americans and southerners. Migrants infused the region with women and young people, reversing the previous majority of older men. World War II boomtowns were just as energetic as those in the gold rush, with their bars, movie theatres, and crowded shopping centers. Like gold miners who struck it rich, defense workers seemed to have more money they than knew what to do with, creating a jovial and some what reckless environment. Servicemen waiting for assignment further energized the boomtowns; knowing they may not come home alive, their only focus was to have fun. Just as important to Johnson’s thesis are the larger racial effects of the war. She argues early federal segregation of migrant housing forever changed the East Bay; minorities were isolated in sub-standard conditions, creating divisions and biases that would remain for decades. African Americans replaced Asians, the group that had been abused in the first gold rush, as the source of racial prejudice amongst East Bay residents. Decades of injustice, especially in housing, “finally exploded in the mid-1960s” when “black rioters responded not only to immediate civil rights issues but to a long history of racial oppression.”11 In many ways, World War II was a twentieth century gold rush for the East Bay.

            Johnson reveals herself several times in her book as liberal-leaning historian, focusing on women and minorities in the tradition of New Left historiography. Published in 1993, in Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, The Second Gold Rush was published with the help of a university known for being liberal. In fact, the region she covers in the book is today one of the most liberal areas of the country and the progressive-minded climate must have had some influence on her writing. But it’s the subjects of her book that show her to be a New Left historian. Writers who grew up in the sixties were confronted with the issues of race and poverty and New Left historians focused on the common person’s experience to understand how society became this way. A majority of Johnson’s book deals with the life of the common person, only a few times mentioning specific names and prominent people. Her main focus on migrants, minorities, and women reflect the New Left emphasis on pluralism. Johnson also unfavorably depicts the conservative business leaders who ran East Bay cities, saying “conservative rule” resulted in the “callous treatment of black migrants.”12 And unlike conservatives who dislike government interference on a local level, Johnson takes no issue with federal involvement during World War II; she just takes issue with the racial segregation they employed. Overall, Johnson’s emphasis on everyday life, her unfavorable judgments of conservatives, and her focus on women and African Americans make her book a New Left history of Oakland and the East Bay in World War II.

            Literary criticisms of The Second Gold Rush are generally favorable – praising Johnson’s focus on the “human dimension” of wartime migration and her varied sources. University of California Press commends Johnson for her “wide-ranging” sources that “include shipyard records, labor histories, police reports, and interviews.”13 These diverse sources allow Johnson to show the effects of the war years from many different points of view, as well as providing evidence to support her thesis. A review in the history periodical Choice also praises the book’s many photographs, maps, and tables that give an unaltered sense of life in World War II. Choice reviewer D.F. Anderson believes “Johnson provides as excellent case study of the “human dimension” of wartime western urban America” – a dimension that is often lost in larger, more general studies.14 The major criticism of Johnson’s work is she “tends to overstate the discontinuity between wartime and prewar society”, meaning she doesn’t address the connection between prewar economic and social forces and what happened during the war as well as she needed to.15 But as a whole, The Second Gold Rush is “recommended for all college and university collections” for it’s multi-layered analysis of the unrecognized masses of World War II migration.16

            Johnson effectively proves her thesis that World War II was a second gold rush for the East Bay and adeptly explains the complex racial, social, and cultural elements of East Bay society. But it’s Johnson’s analysis of the data from this period that really makes this book meaningful. Often showing the hidden meaning behind the statistics, Johnson shows how city officials and old-timers manipulated information for their own use. For example, in 1943 officials in Oakland and Richmond declared a “Crime Wave” caused by the new, immoral migrants.17 Police records do in fact show a rise in crime but this is only part of the story. Johnson explains that these numbers went up for many reasons: the population increased, the numbers of young, at risk men increased, and police made more arrests, targeting migrants for minor offenses such as vagrancy. In fact, the number of murders actually dropped during the war years, showing violent crime had not increased. Johnson shows that city officials used the fear of a “Crime Wave” as an excuse to control migrants and to convince the federal government to grant them more funds. Throughout the book, Johnson provides impressive analysis showing the complexities of migrant, old-timer relations. It’s this analytical skill that makes A Second Gold Rush a worthwhile read.

            Johnson also shows how the events in East Bay related to the rest of the country. Cities along the west coast like Oakland and Richmond “grew at the expense of those in the Northeast.”18 Small towns across the country disappeared as people who had long suffered during the depression went west for jobs. California was deeply influenced by the cultures these migrants brought with them, from evangelical religion to blues music. The actions of the government in Washington D.C. also had an enormous impact on the East Bay. After the United States entered the war, the federal government gave billions of dollars in contracts to East Bay shipyards, transforming the economy overnight. The federal government also helped encourage migration from the rest of the country to California, making them the source for much of the East Bay’s new diversity. Just like the rest of the country, the East Bay citizens dealt with the stresses of wartime life – rationing, women in the workplace, and war-related deaths. The East Bay experienced World War II along with the rest of the country, but they were affected in some distinctive ways.

            Everything that happened in the East Bay, and California in general, was on a larger, more dramatic scale. Hundreds of thousands of people migrated to “one of the nation’s largest shipbuilding centers”19 to earn the highest wages offered in the country. Californian defense industries produced a majority of the nation’s naval ships and aircraft and served as the launching point for the war in the Pacific. California arguably became the most diverse state in the country, with African Americans and southerners mixed with California’s existing minorities. This mix provided a window into American racial conflicts and showed how easily prejudices can rip apart a region. The war firmly established California as central to America’s economy and the racial conflicts that resulted showed the desperate need for America to destroy its racial divides.

            In conclusion, Johnson’s account of the effects of World War II on the East Bay goes where few World War II histories have gone – into the complex, chaotic lives of defense migrant workers. They had a lasting effect on the region, creating thriving boomtowns, “transforming social relations and cultural life”, and enduring the wrath of long-time residents unwilling to change.20 The people who built the ships that helped win the war uncovered the deep biases Americans held against outsiders, biases that would take decades to eradicate.


1. 25-26; Johnson, Marilynn S. The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993 2.

2. Johnson, Marilynn S. 25-26.

3. Johnson, Marilynn S. 30.

4. Johnson, Marilynn S. 33.

5. Johnson, Marilynn S. 33, 41.

6. Johnson, Marilynn S. 60-61.

7. Johnson, Marilynn S. 83.

8. Johnson, Marilynn S. 114.

9. Johnson, Marilynn S. 143.

10. Johnson, Marilynn S. 185.

11. Johnson, Marilynn S. 209.

12. Johnson, Marilynn S. 32.

13. Johnson, Marilynn S. 232.

14. Johnson, Marilynn S. 233.

15. University of California Press. Preface. The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

16. Anderson, D.F. “Social & Behavioral Sciences / History, Geography & Area Studies / North America” Choice Jan. 1987. Jul. 1994. May 29, 2008. <http://www.cro2.org/default.aspx?page=reviewdisplay&pid=1911792>

17. Anderson, D.F. <http://www.cro2.org/default.aspx?page=reviewdisplay&pid=1911792>

18. Anderson, D.F.

19. Johnson, Marilynn S. 153.

20. Johnson, Marilynn S. 3.

21. Johnson, Marilynn S. 4.

22. Johnson, Marilynn S. 2.