Hidden History: New Orleans ship builder integrated staff amid War efforts

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVLA) – The divisions were all too clear in the early 1940s. In the heat of World War II, Axis powers in Europe seemed ever closer to toppling the United States’ most storied allies. Closer to home, there was another kind of division: segregation. These were the days before Ruby Bridges went to what had been an all-white New Orleans public school and before four New Orleans college students asked for lunch at a Canal Street counter. White and colored signs painted the Crescent City.

But a ship-builder named Andrew Jackson Higgins had an idea. His plywood and paint Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel boats — or LCVPs — would become essential for troops traveling from ship to shore, as they stopped German troops from striking the U.S. mainland. They would also bridge racial gaps, with Higgins’ seven New Orleans factories more integrated than parts of that city and the nation were themselves.

By the end of the war, the Higgins Industries workforce churned out 20,000 boats, more than any manufacturer of its kind. Along the way, it became the first full-time workforce in New Orleans that was racially integrated.

“[Higgins] 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,” said Higgins biographer Jerry Strahan. “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,” Strahan added. “They were paid equal wages for equal jobs.”

Higgins Industries was integrated beyond the factories as well, operating company-wide baseball teams and bowling leagues.

“I’ve befriended a lot of former Higgins workers,” said retired Coast Guard Commander Jim Duckworth, who supervised a reproduction of the Higgins boat for the National World War II Museum in the late 1990s. “Sadly, they’re disappearing like the World War II veterans, but I never found anyone who had anything other than a great word for Mr. Higgins.”

Fighting to stay afloat after the war, Higgins Industries closed shop in late 1945. Higgins himself died in 1952, leaving behind those who helped win the war, as the battle for equal rights continued.

It’s a struggle that continues, including in the workplace. A 2017 study published in Harvard Business Review shows that since 1990, white applicants received, on average, 36 percent more callbacks than black applicants and 24 percent more callbacks than Latino applicants with identical resumes.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Louisiana State University history professor Alecia Long. “We certainly have racially integrated workforces, but we don’t always have equality in outcomes or hiring practices or wages.”

It’s impossible to say what Higgins himself would make of race relations over the past 60 years, how they’ve improved and the work still undone. But one thing is for certain, the Higgins war-time boats, built by workers of all races, have steered the nation at least some of the way.