Hidden History: Boat-maker bridges racial gaps to help win WWII

NEW ORLEANS, Conn. (WTNH)– It may seem our nation is all too divided these days but there is guidance in a boat-maker who helped soldiers cut through the shores of Normandy, while bridging the barriers on American soil.

The divisions were all too clear in the early 1940s. Axis powers in Europe seemed ever closer to toppling our nation’s most storied allies and that’s to say nothing of the divisions closer to home. White and colored signs painted the crescent city but a boat builder named Andrew Jackson Higgins had an idea.

His vessel would not only stop the Germans from striking the U.S. mainland. They would bridge racial gaps with his seven New Orleans factories, more integrated than parts of that city and the nation were themselves.

“He was an employer who needed, at the height of the war, 20,000 employees. He was in the south, but he wanted to get a workforce, and to get those 20,000 employees, he had to get them everywhere he could. Out of beauty shops, out of the cane fields. It was black, it was white, it was men, it was women. He paid equal wages for equal jobs,’ said Jerry Strahan, Author of “Andrew Jackson Higgins And The Boats That Won World War II.”

And for the workers, Higgins industries was integrated beyond the factories, too.

“In his company, you had baseball teams, you had track, you had bowling leagues. You had things to keep the employees not only working together, but socializing together, making it a coherent group,” said Strahan.

“I’ve befriended a lot of former Higgins workers. Sadly, they’re disappearing like the World War II veterans, but I never found anyone who had anything other than a great word for Mister Higgins. They just loved him,” said Cmdr. Jim Duckworth, U.S. Coast Guard.

But fighting to stay afloat after the war. Higgins industries closed shop in late 1945. Higgins himself died in 1952.

President Dwight Eisenhower would go on to call Higgins “the man who won the war.” His workers, of all races, building that victory.

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