Josie Dunn grew up picking cotton in Oklahoma and was among the first African Americans hired by Boeing. “Josie the Riveter” worked at Boeing for nearly 38 years.

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Josie Dunn, raised in a poor family in Oklahoma, came to Seattle in 1943 at age 24 in a wave of young black women hired to build bomber aircraft in Boeing’s factories as a crucial part of the U.S. war effort.

In segregated America before the Second World War, Boeing did not employ African Americans. Mrs. Dunn got her chance after President Franklin Roosevelt ordered wartime federal contractors to end discrimination and black leaders pressed Boeing to implement the shift.

 

In a twist on the government’s famous symbol of women at work, Mrs. Dunn was affectionately dubbed “Josie the Riveter.”

From that start, she forged a new life. She worked at Boeing for nearly 38 years, raised a family and became a pillar of the black community in Seattle’s Central District.

“I’ve had a good life thanks to President Roosevelt,” Mrs. Dunn told The Seattle Times last year. “Coming to Boeing was really a future for me.”

Mrs. Dunn died from bone-marrow cancer, surrounded by family and friends, on Nov. 26, at age 98.

Cotton fields

Mrs. Dunn grew up in Summit, Okla., a small town that was then all African-American.

Her father died when she was 4 months old and her mother, Josie Beard, raised seven children alone. As the youngest, Josie was nicknamed by family members “Baby Jo.”

They lived in a house without running water, and the entire family worked long hours picking cotton.

Mrs. Dunn’s son, Ventris Ingram, said his earliest memory is of being in the cotton fields with his mother when he was about 4 years old and she was around 23.

This life changed with the war.

In 1941, Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring companies with federal contracts to cease discrimination. Under the aegis of a government agency promoting jobs for the unemployed, Mrs. Dunn trained in Wichita, Kan., then traveled to the Pacific Northwest to join the war effort.

She arrived at Boeing along with her sister Annie Mae, joining other young African-American women dubbed the “Black Rosies.”

Mrs. Dunn lived in a housing project, near First Avenue and Michigan Street, where most residents worked at Boeing. Her mother and son joined her after a few months.

She walked daily the couple of miles to Boeing Field, where at Plant 2, now demolished, she worked as a riveter — a tough, physically draining job.

Mrs. Dunn and her workmates assembled B-17 bombers at a ferocious pace. At peak production in 1944, Boeing built 16 in a single day.

Boeing’s African-American employees were not allowed to join the Machinists union at the time, and, instead, were granted “temporary” work permits, a restriction that was lifted only after the war ended.

Mrs. Dunn, who always lived frugally, worked overtime and saved money to help more than 10 other relatives follow her to Seattle for job opportunities.

Her “temporary” job turned into a long and successful career at Boeing.

Because of Mrs. Dunn’s expertise, she trained incoming employees in the intricacies of the work. Over the years she was given several company awards, the biggest worth $750 — “when that was real money,” her son said — for suggestions that improved productivity.

Neighborhood pillar

After the war, her first marriage in Oklahoma having dissolved, she married Clarence Dunn, an African-American soldier returning from Europe, where he had driven a fuel truck servicing Gen. George Patton’s Third Army tank division in its push across France.

Clarence Dunn also worked at Boeing for a while, then left to start a demolition business. Their marriage lasted 52 years, until his death in 1998.

In 1953, the couple bought a house in the Central District, at the time the only Seattle neighborhood where African Americans could buy.

Mrs. Dunn joined the Mt. Zion Baptist Church and became active in her community.

She was part of a neighborhood group who pooled their money to start the first black-owned supermarket in Seattle. She was also a member of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Her only child, Ventris Ingram, now 79, said his mother was a wonderful support who “encouraged me in every way.” The first in the family to go to college, he graduated in accounting from the University of Washington and had a long career in the Internal Revenue Service.

When his parents moved to a new house in the Central District, they kept the first one to rent out, and later acquired another nearby rental property.

“She would always insist the rents be kept low,” Ingram said. “She’d say, ‘Let’s help those who are not in as good a position as we are.’ ”

Mrs. Dunn loved the Boeing Co. for giving her a comfortable life, her son said.

After retirement in 1981, she participated in many “Rosie the Riveter” events. She was interviewed for oral and video history projects for the Library of Congress, the University of California at Berkeley, and Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry.

Mrs. Dunn is survived by son Ventris Ingram (Anita), of Renton; granddaughters Jerri Ingram (Thomas), of Seattle, and Kimberly Ingram-Baun (David), of Auburn; sister-in-law Cora Faison Dunn, of Seattle; nieces Lou Annie Charles (Dexter), of Seattle; Norma Jean Tucker of Fort Gibson, Okla.; her nephew Cloyd Kilgore, of Gig Harbor; and cousin Dawn Massey, of Shoreline; as well as four grandnieces.

Funeral services will be held Saturday, Dec. 10, at 11 a.m. at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that any donations be made to Central Area Senior Center, Evergreen Hospice, Mount Zion Baptist Church and Antioch Ministry.