By Mary K. Witkowski,
Editor: Ann Marie Virzi
In her 99 years on earth, Viola Bridgeforth, born in 1897, lived through many if not most of the profound changes that African-Americans and women in general experienced in the 20th century. Through all the changes, Viola Bridgeforth remained steadfastly focused on what mattered.
Viola Bridgeforth came to Bridgeport by way of Providence, R.I. She was the daughter of the Rev. Joseph S. Smith, originally from North Carolina [sic? 1930 US Census: South Caronlina] , and Cedilece Jones Smith , originally from Haiti. Her maternal grandfather also emigrated from Haiti to Rhode Island, buying land in an undeveloped part of town. At the time, he was not only among the area’s first blacks, he was also one of the first settlers in an area served by dirt roads before homes were built.
In Providence, Viola Louise Smith met Edward Bridgeforth, then a semi-pro baseball player for the Park City Giants and a truck driver. By 1925, at the age of 28, the couple married and settled in Bridgeport, at first living in a hotel room on Broad Street. In the following years, they moved, presumably to accommodate a growing family, to apartments in the city’s South End and West End neighborhoods.
Viola Bridgeforth recalled that during the Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired men for $15 a week plus a food basket. People made a daily trip to a food station to get milk and bread. Grocery shopping was permitted once a week. Seaside Park in Bridgeport’s South End served as the Bridgeforth family’s recreation hub. During baseball season, the children spent weekends at the park, watching their father play for the Park City Giants, a Negro baseball team.
The family also headed to the park for picnics and to swim in the Long Island Sound. Frank Bridgeforth, the second oldest son, recalled: “Everybody was friends and got along down at the park.” The children, through their friends and classmates, were introduced to multi-ethnic foods prepared by the Syrian, Hungarian, Italian and Jewish families in the neighborhood.
Church played a big role in the Bridgeforth family’s life. On Sundays, the family walked to Bethel AME for services and Sunday school. In the summer, the Bridgeforth children attended Bible school. “Every time we learned a new verse in the Bible, on our report card, they’d put a little star or a little heart or a little cross on it. My card is full of them,” Frank Bridgeforth bragged.
In 1930, Bridgeport was home to about 3,000 blacks or about 2% of the city’s population, according to the U.S. Census. Even though she was considered a minority, Viola Bridgeforth said she did not experience discrimination or racism at the time. “People were still friendly. Everybody got along good – the white and the colored,” she recalled.
In 1941, the Bridgeforth family became one of the first black families to live in Marina Village, a public housing complex on the City’s South End. Viola and Edward Bridgeforth raised their children there and moved to Stratford in 1957 after their joint household income disqualified them from living in public housing.
Like other Americans at the time, Viola Bridgeforth’s world changed in ways she never could have anticipated during early 1940s. Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States was at war with Japan and that country’s two allies, Germany and Italy. Defense manufacturers ramped up production; other industries, such as automakers, converted their plants to produce airplane engines, tanks and components. Months before the United States entered the war, an executive order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt cleared the way for African-Americans to work in defense plants and government. (Edward Bridgeforth suffered from nosebleeds when he worked in factories, so he opted instead to maintain employment as a truck driver.)
At the age of 44, Viola Bridgeforth landed her first job outside the home. She was responsible for inspecting bullets at Bridgeport’s Casco Products for three years up until 1945. During the wartime effort, the manufacturer of automotive and electrical appliances, such as heating pads and automobile cigarette lighters, transformed its plants to produce armor-piercing bullet cores.
She weighed bullets, using a Rockwell testing machine, to ensure they met specifications. She reported defects to the plant foreman so that machines could be adjusted.
During that time, Viola saw two sons go off to war. One of them, Frank Bridgeforth, enrolled in the Navy at the age of 17, serving in the Pacific Theater. He was on board the USS Fillmore, an attack transport, in the Philippines, preparing to invade Japan when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Japan surrendered.
Women wartime factory workers earned an average of 82 cents an hour, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. In contrast, 90% of the women working in stores or laundries in 1945 earned less than 65 cents an hour.
Viola Bridgeforth’s pay allowed the family to make purchases previously out of their financial reach. She bought better clothing for the children and better furniture for the home. “We didn’t go for no cars,” she said, explaining that she relied on public transportation, either a trolley or bus, to get around.
Manufacturers laid off workers and replaced women with men after the war’s end. Viola Bridgeforth ended up unemployed and in search of work. During one of her weekly visits to the unemployment office, she got annoyed when the staff referred her to companies that had no intention of hiring blacks – even though the companies were still hiring whites. She got fed up when the unemployment office staff suggested she take a job as a housekeeper. “I don’t do my own housework, I’m not going to do your housework,” she told one worker. “I was mad.”
Eventually, Viola Bridgeforth secured a job on her own as a matron at Howland’s department store in downtown Bridgeport. There, she supervised the women who handled maintenance, ordered the laundry for the kitchen and other responsibilities for 15 years.
Edward Bridgeforth died in 1961 at the age of 60. Despite the empowerment of women during her lifetime, Viola Bridgeforth did not completely adapt to the times: she never got a driver’s license or drove a car.
During her lifetime, Viola Bridgeforth credited a major change in employment practices that made it possible for her children to find meaningful work: the civil service system. That opened doors for African-Americans and others to be hired on the basis of merit rather than family or political connections.
In fact, three of Viola and Edward Bridgeforth’s children landed government jobs, which typically requires successfully competing on a civil service exam. Joseph Bridgeforth was a trailblazer, becoming one of the first African-American toll collectors on the Merritt Parkway. Cedalice Perry was a child-care provider for the state of Connecticut; Delores Peterson was a secretary for the Bridgeport Housing Authority. “If you passed the civil service test, whatever color you were and if you passed it, well, you got the job,” she said.