Challenging the status quo:
The lives of Jessie Jimenez Alonzo and Shirley Sims
An average shift at the Navajo Ordnance Depot looked different depending upon the worker. It might entail helping load boxcar after boxcar at the large facility, used to store ammunition during World War II, or standing at a conveyor to watch hundreds of explosives cross the belt. For Jessie Jimenez Alonzo, one of 21 women and non-binary people featured in Resilience: Women in Flagstaff’s Past and Present, a single
day consisted of loading and unloading, stenciling and inspecting grenades and ammunition.
Alonzo was just 19 when she began working at the depot. She was committed to her work and more than happy to be “doing a man’s job,” she said in an oral history interview, while bringing in the good money it made her. In a collared and crisp white shirt with a hat, ascot and overcoat, she was proud to be in uniform. Alonzo even gave birth to several of her children at the depot’s hospital, according to John Westerlund, author of Arizona’s War Town: Flagstaff, Navajo Ordnance Depot and World War II.
“We’ve seen that Rosie the Riveter figure in history, so finding someone with a Flagstaff connection — and there were many women in that position — was important,” Sacha Siskonen, museum education coordinator for the Arizona Historical Society and a mentor and researcher for the Resilience project, said. “We wanted to have a personal story connected to that larger national theme of women moving into the workforce during the war.”
At its peak, the NOD employed around 2,300 people. Flagstaff was a town of about 5,000 residents at the time and supported 800 jobs at most. With the influx of the war-time industry, the town threatened to burst at the seams.
Bellemont, which until then was a sleepy little hollow that could hardly even be called inhabited, was forced to shutter its only two restaurants after they could not keep up with the demand of thousands of hungry workers. Of its 2,000-plus employees, many were working 24-36-hour-shifts just to keep all the incoming ammunition moving.
During World War II, women the nation over were called to fill the labor gap left by the draft. Rosie the Riveter entered popular culture, women were granted relevance in the economy and permitted exit from the confines of family and home.
In Flagstaff, as became the case in other parts of the country, the shortage of workers resulted in ethnic diversity in addition to gender — a momentary semblance of parity, though often women of color were still given the more physically demanding jobs. The NOD hired people from at least six different Native American tribes in addition to African Americans, whites and Hispanic people — the latter comprised almost 50 percent of the non-Native laborers at the depot in 1943. A third of the workforce overall was female.
An image of Alonzo smiling, a triangular side cap fastened to her curly black hair, greets passersby as they move toward her panel. Although the photograph does not necessarily communicate the many struggles Alonzo faced, the first generation American and daughter of Mexican parents saw a great deal in the way of discrimination.
“It struck us so loudly reading her oral history and hearing about the discrimination and the segregation in the schools, and how she was still so willing to step up and help the war effort and wear her uniform in town and serve her country in that way,” Siskonen said. “We saw that in a lot of the stories of people who were marginalized, but who were proud to be part of the war effort and helping their community here in Flagstaff.”
Resilience outlines Alonzo’s education, a journey that brought her to South Beaver School, now part of the Northern Arizona University campus, then to Emerson School. Alonzo would not move past the eighth grade, in part due to the cost of schooling. She remembered her Southside neighborhood as unequal and ignored, especially compared to the whiter one that existed just north of the tracks.
When she was a young teenager, Alonzo contracted appendicitis and landed in the hospital, where she remembered being given second-rate, almost non-existent, care as a doctor butchered her surgery.
The NOD would undergo several changes into the present. First as the armed camp of the western United States, the one Alonzo remembers; then as a prisoner of war camp for roughly 200 Austrian soldiers. It would keep operating through the Korean War, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War.
The depot was deactivated after the United States and Russia signed treaties at the end of the cold war. It was renamed Camp Navajo in 1993 and is currently used primarily for training and storage purposes overseen by the Arizona Army National Guard and others.
Alonzo died in 2016 in Flagstaff in her early ‘90s.
This story is a shortened version of former Sun Staff Reporter Emery Cowan’s 2017 article, “A migration that defined Flagstaff's postwar history.” For the full article, visit www.azdailysun.com.
Shirley Sims’ father, mother and three older siblings boarded a train in central Louisiana and headed west to Flagstaff in 1944, the tail end of the second World War. Sims’ father, a worker at a lumber company in the small community of Rochelle, Louisiana, heard from an uncle that timber workers in Arizona were receiving higher wages than their counterparts in the South.
The family initially moved in with the pastor of a local church on Flagstaff’s Southside, Sims said. She was born the next year.
Sims’ family was part of a major transcontinental migration of African Americans in the mid-20th century. The migration was defined by people wanting to escape the racial oppression of the South and seeking upward mobility, higher wages and a better lifestyle out West, said Jack Reid, a historian who received his doctorate at Northern Arizona University.
Flagstaff and northern Arizona, thanks in large part to the timber industry, became a destination for hundreds of those people. The thriving community they created in Flagstaff has left an indelible mark on the town’s history.
Many black residents who moved to Arizona had friends or family who had already made the journey and helped them find work and housing when they arrived.
Sims‘ father found a job immediately after arriving, and Neal said his cousin, who was a supervisor at a local mill, quickly helped him get hired there as well.
Much of Flagstaff’s black community said their families were able to live comfortably thanks to the wages offered by the lumber industry. Sims said her less fortunate friends would ask to peer inside her house just to admire the family’s furnishings.
“Everyone worked really hard and everyone did well compared to where they were from,” she said.
And yet, Flagstaff was still divided along racial lines, which Sims sought to disrupt in various ways. It was the 1960s, the American civil rights movement was gathering steam and making more changes day by day.
As a student at the segregated Dunbar School (now the Murdoch Community Center), she saw the discrimination first hand. From a peaceful walkout she lead at Flagstaff High School after the parents of the white prom queen refused to let her be paired with the black prom king, Moses Winsley, to a sit-in at the El Charro restaurant.
The sit-in forced the Southside restaurant to integrate.
Sims’ activism is something she still carries and enacts as reverend at the First Missionary Baptist Church, one of Flagstaff’s historically black churches.
Framed by a bright yellow background on her Resilience panel is a quote from Sims: “I’ve always been that person that would take a stand, for what is right or for someone I felt couldn’t speak for themselves. Doesn’t matter what color. That’s just who I am.”