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Rubena Ross

Oral history interview conducted by Sady Sullivan, Jennifer Egan, and Daniella Romano

November 03, 2008

Call number: 2010.003.020

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RUBENA ROSS: [inaudible] See, when we moved up there, I was convenient to Tompkins Avenue bus, and the Tompkins Avenue bus would come over crosstown, of course --

JANET ROSS: No, the Tompkins Avenue bus went towards the Botanical Gardens. The Putnam Avenue bus went straight down to Fulton Street.

JENNIFER EGAN: And was this the bus or the trolley?

JANET ROSS: Was it the trolley, Mommy?

RUBENA ROSS: I really -- I can't say it was solely one thing, or the other.

JANET ROSS: Whatever it was, it's that picture over there, around behind you?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, see, when I first started working in the Navy Yard, I lived 1:00at -- ah --

[Interview interrupted.]

RUBENA ROSS: Putnam, Putnam Avenue, near Tompkins.

JANET ROSS: Okay, okay so my question to you is how did you get from the Brooklyn Navy Yard home to Putnam? Do you remember the route you took?

RUBENA ROSS: I think we took the Tompkins Avenue bus, and it went straight all the way down to Flushing Avenue and turned, and it crossed [inaudible] and I got off at whatever stop that was nearest to the building that I worked.

JANET ROSS: So, you went towards Williamsburg instead of downtown Brooklyn?

RUBENA ROSS: That's right.

JANET ROSS: So, you went towards Williamsburg, and then got --

SADY SULLIVAN: Yeah, I'm good.

JANET ROSS: So you swung around -- Tompkins Avenue trolley or bus went to -- towards Williamsburg, and it was Flushing Avenue that you got off.



JANET ROSS: So that was the entrance area.

RUBENA ROSS: That's right.

JENNIFER EGAN: So I think we're -- are we set up to start, Sady?

SADY SULLIVAN: Yes. So, you would start the interview with the date and --

JENNIFER EGAN: Sure. It's November 3, 2008, and we are at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and why don't -- I guess, should everyone in the room identify ourselves first, and then we'll -- ? So, I'm Jennifer Egan.

SADY SULLIVAN: I'm Sady Sullivan, from the Brooklyn Historical Society.


DANIELLA ROMANO: Daniella Romano from the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation.


JENNIFER EGAN: Actually, why don't we go to you, and then we'll --

JANET ROSS: Janet Ross, daughter of Rubena Ross.

RUBENA ROSS: I'm Rubena Ross. Maiden name was Rhodes.

JENNIFER EGAN: Could you spell your maiden -- your last name -- your maiden name, please?


JENNIFER EGAN: Okay, and could you also give us your date of birth, please.


RUBENA ROSS: Say what?

JENNIFER EGAN: Your birthday. Your date of birth.

RUBENA ROSS: Oh. [date redacted for privacy] 1918. Right now, I'm all of 90 years old.


RUBENA ROSS: And I was born in Allendale, South Carolina.

JENNIFER EGAN: Can you tell us a little bit about your family and how you -- just the -- the story of how you ended up at the Navy Yard in the first place?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, my -- my mother was a schoolteacher, and my father was a farmer. He owned land there, and then -- I mean, and his father owned land. And -- uh -- I remember -- when they first married, they lived in a very small 4:00house, and that's where I was born, in this small house. Of course, their little finances grew, and then they built a new house that they -- my brother and sister were born in. Uh -- uh. They -- he was a good farmer, and they were -- and she was a schoolteacher. My mother was a schoolteacher; my father was -- uh -- a farmer, but a -- a good, solid piece of male meat. And I came to New York 5:00when I was eleven years old. We first lived out in Flushing, Queens.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did you come with your mother and father?

RUBENA ROSS: With my mother, with my father. Now, my aunt was already living up here, so therefore, we lived in the same building where they did, and we got enough an apartment there. And -- um -- that's out in Flushing, Queens. I -- of course, I went to school there -- PS 44 -- and then I graduated from Girls High 6:00School. It's down -- I think it was down on Nostrand Avenue or something.


RUBENA ROSS: That's where I went to school; I graduated from there. And -- uh -- any further education was just enough out at Brooklyn College to learn how to get there by the bus. And that was a limited -- uh -- amount of time that I went out to Brooklyn College.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, you did not graduate from college there.



RUBENA ROSS: No, I didn't.

JENNIFER EGAN: And tell us how -- so, after you -- was it during your time that you were going to Brooklyn College that you also were working at the Navy Yard?

RUBENA ROSS: Uh -- no, no, no. It was -- uh -- after.


JENNIFER EGAN: Do you recall how you came to work here?

RUBENA ROSS: Not really. They -- it's -- we had neighbors that some -- some of the neighbors that did work in the Navy Yard, and -- you know -- when you're so [inaudible] with them for a length of time, then I guess it was you know, an offer, we'll take you down and get you introduced. And that is how I got introduced to the Navy Yard, by -- uh -- people who already worked down here.

JENNIFER EGAN: Was this -- uh -- Were you still in Queens at that point, your 8:00family, or had they moved?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, then -- but -- when I came to the Navy Yard, we had already moved from Queens to Brooklyn.

JENNIFER EGAN: And was -- where were you living at that time?

RUBENA ROSS: When I first came to Brooklyn?


RUBENA ROSS: Oh, well -- uh -- when we first came -- uh -- to Brooklyn kind of, we lived at -- uh -- [inaudible] Putnam Avenue [inaudible]. 459 Putnam Avenue.

JENNIFER EGAN: Okay. And so, after your neighbors introduced you to the Navy Yard, what happened next? Did you receive training? What kind of work did you begin doing?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, oh -- uh -- my teenage years there, I always was able to sew. My mother taught me how to use -- use the sewing machine, and I would sew. And 9:00when I came to the Navy Yard, the only skill that I had is -- uh -- well, I know how to use a sewing machine. So therefore, I got a job in the flag loft, where it was necessary, you know, and -- you know -- that my experience there, then, gave me -- I was able to get a job working in the -- uh -- flag loft.

JENNIFER EGAN: And do you remember what year that was that you began working at the flag loft?

RUBENA ROSS: No, I -- right off I -- look, the memory doesn't hold the dates exactly.

JANET ROSS: You know what age you were?

RUBENA ROSS: When I came to the Navy Yard?

JANET ROSS: Was it right after high school?

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah. I went to Girls High School, and then I went out to school at 10:00Brooklyn College long enough to learn the -- uh -- the room location and the -- how to get around the building. That's as much as I went to college.

JENNIFER EGAN: So -- um -- so you began working in the flag loft.


JENNIFER EGAN: Tell us a little about that. We -- we -- the building's not there anymore, but what do you recall the building looking like and being like?

RUBENA ROSS: Oh, I, I really. I can't -- it was just -- I -- I -- I can't remember just right off.


JANET ROSS: You remember walking into the building, Mommy, and was it a big room 11:00with a lot of sewing machines, or -- ?

JENNIFER EGAN: It was a big building, yeah.

JANET ROSS: Big building. Did it just have a factory-looking feel to it? Can you remember a smell of it? Just try to go back and just remember. Was it your own sewing machine? Was it a Singer sewing machine?

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, I, I, I was --

JENNIFER EGAN: Let's do -- let's take it slowly. I'm sorry. And we'll come back, too. Don't worry, because sometimes as we're having the conversation, more memories will come. Um, so we -- but you were about to say something. Were you?

RUBENA ROSS: No, I don't remember what I trying to say.

JENNIFER EGAN: Well, do you recall what kind of equipment you used to do the sewing?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, it was a Sing -- a pure sewing machine.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did you -- you said that you were sewing flags?


RUBENA ROSS: Making the flags, yes. And they were already cut, and we were taught how to put together the different portions of the flag.

JENNIFER EGAN: So how did that work? Were you given the different pieces?

RUBENA ROSS: Oh, yeah. They were already cut.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. And so --

RUBENA ROSS: And I went to sew them, and -- uh -- it just so happened that I -- uh -- I mean, not bragging on myself, but I was able to function and to do as they wished done in the making of the flags. I mean, the sewing skills, because my mother was a dressmaker, so therefore, I had gotten good instruction from my 13:00mother through the years, how to use a sewing machine, and how to put together the material for children's clothes and such. So, I'd gotten that from my mother.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember -- how did they give you the pieces? Were they at your machine, or did you collect them?

RUBENA ROSS: It was a table, and it would be one section, and you'd put it together with the next piece, and all. They would put it on the table in such a way that you knew what you pick up first, and what you pick up second, and how many strips do you put together, or what color. So, uh --

JENNIFER EGAN: Was it like dressmaking? Was there a pattern? Do you recall?


RUBENA ROSS: No. Because, you see, when you got the strips, see, then you were supposed to put one color and then, of course, another color. And they would have it done up, and it was like alternations of the colors of the strips in the making of the flag. And you sew it up to the top, and you come down with two long strips, and there would be, you know, stitch those, and then the next color. And -- and you'd go on and on. And then once you were putting so many pieces -- strips -- and then -- uh -- you then hemmed it all the way around put a double fold over and stitched that around as the finished hem on the flag.


JENNIFER EGAN: Were these American flags?


JENNIFER EGAN: So, what about the stars? What -- did you do that first, or last? How did that fit in with the strips?

RUBENA ROSS: With the -- yeah, well, what happened, way that they had the pattern, and from there, you would do that much, and then it would go on to a next person, and they would -- uh -- do that last finish-up job on the flag. But I was one of the basic -- uh -- I'd sew the basic lines of strips --


RUBENA ROSS: -- and hem the edge of that sides, and the bottom, and turn it over to the next person, who was more experienced, to do the finished top.

JENNIFER EGAN: I see. Okay. Do you remember -- how long did it take to make -- 16:00to do your part of one flag?

RUBENA ROSS: I wouldn't know.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you th --

RUBENA ROSS: I just know you just worked steadily all day. That's all.


RUBENA ROSS: I -- I -- I -- I -- that, I don't remember.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember what size the flags were? I mean, this or -- ? [laughter] How big?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, no. But just thinking at it -- of it -- I would say that the flags were [inaudible] about so wide as whatever. And then, the length of it was twice the -- uh -- twice and a little bit longer -- than the -- uh -- width.


JENNIFER EGAN: Good memory. [laughter] Did you -- did you sit in a group with other people doing this? Do you remember?

RUBENA ROSS: I was -- I was in a room with others --


RUBENA ROSS: -- and you had your machine, and wherever you had your machine, it was a -- a spacious place, where the machine was, so that you could handle this -- this -- as you sew and sew, your flag grew. Now, exactly the size of that flag, as I said what was the full length, I don't remember. Uh -- I know the width of it is less than the length.


RUBENA ROSS: But -- uh -- and then you would make -- put the strips and the colors all over it, and then the next person on the line -- no, maybe somebody down further -- they'd do the finishing-off of the flag that you finish.


JENNIFER EGAN: Do -- were -- was it mostly women doing the sewing, or were there men as well?

RUBENA ROSS: Men and women.

JENNIFER EGAN: You say, you had a good amount of space to work in.


JENNIFER EGAN: Was the room crowded? Were there a lot of people sewing? Do you have any memory of that?

RUBENA ROSS: Mm, it was a lot of people sewing. It was spacious. I mean, an area that you sat in to work, you had space. You weren't --


RUBENA ROSS: -- weren't curled up.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember what -- whether the -- was the light coming in from windows, or did you use lamps? Do you remember what your light source was as you were sewing?

RUBENA ROSS: We must have had overhead lights.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. Um -- did you -- uh -- talk to other people as you worked? Was it that kind of thing, where you could have a conversation and also 19:00sew? Do you remember?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, it was limited because there were -- they had -- uh -- I remember walking people around, and I mean, you're supposed to be working; you're not supposed to be talking.


RUBENA ROSS: So, I mean, you had -- were held under that kind of -- uh -- control.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. Do you remember whether -- how the sewing tables were positioned? In other words, were you kind of in a row with other people, or facing other people? Do you remember anything about -- ?

RUBENA ROSS: Sometimes -- let me -- it was such like I could be on this side, and I'm stitching over here, and just a little bit further than right there would be another worker, and be doing the same thing.


RUBENA ROSS: See. And there was -- I just say -- they call it a floor man.



RUBENA ROSS: And then after you'd gotten so many strips sewn together, then sometimes -- uh -- the hemming of the flag -- the bottom of the flag -- turning and hemming them -- then he -- he would pick them up and pass it on to the next worker.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, you didn't have to get up and pass it, necessarily?

RUBENA ROSS: No. No, there was somebody walking around you, and moving the material, bringing you material, and then when you finished so many strips put together, lined up, then they would take it away and pass it on to the next worker.

JENNIFER EGAN: And when you say, "floor man," was that actually a man, do you remember?


JENNIFER EGAN: Or could it be a woman, also?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, it could be both, but men -- I did remember men. Because sometimes they would pick up the bundles -- the bundles were heavy -- and they 21:00would -- they were men working.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. I see. Did you know where the -- what would be done with the flags after they left your area?


JENNIFER EGAN: Were you -- were they electric sewing machines, or were they -- did you have to pedal them? Do you remember how the machines -- ?

RUBENA ROSS: It was electric.

JENNIFER EGAN: They were electric. Um -- and what about the other people there? You mentioned that you had a friend, Anne -- was that Anne? Anne Frances.


JENNIFER EGAN: Was she also -- um -- in the flag loft?


JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember how you met her?


JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember meeting her? Do you remember becoming friendly with her?

RUBENA ROSS: I don't know where I first met Anne Frances. But -- um --- except 22:00that she was a worker in the flag loft there, and we became outside friends, not just after working together. On weekends, we might have spent time together at home.


RUBENA ROSS: Is she still alive?


JENNIFER EGAN: Was she also very young? Was she around your age?


JENNIFER EGAN: And what about the other people that you worked with? Do you recall whether they were -- what kinds of ages they were? You said there were men and women.


JENNIFER EGAN: Were they mostly young, or were some of them older, do you remember?

RUBENA ROSS: Some were older than I, that I remember.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember -- um -- what they were like? Were they also from Brooklyn? Do you -- anything about -- we know -- I mean, we've heard -- we've 23:00spoken to people who were of Italian ethnicity who worked at the Yard --

RUBENA ROSS: They were all backgrounds and -- Funny thing, though. After we would leave a day's work -- or week, months, of working together -- we didn't share visiting each other's home and a social life after. We just came to a working place, did our job, and -- now, don't forget. They had foot patrol around, and you weren't in there just talking to each other and laughing and giggling and going on. You were working and producing. So after the -- uh -- a day's work, there'd be -- you'd going out and going -- be taking the same bus, 24:00going in the same direction, and -- uh -- uh -- if any social part of being, it was done on the outside, not in that working place.

JENNIFER EGAN: What about lunch breaks or any kind of break time while you were working. Do you remember?

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, we had lunchtime.

JENNIFER EGAN: And what did you do at that time?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, I don't know whether we took our lunch, or they had -- I think they had a lunchroom, and we could -- uh -- eat there.

JENNIFER EGAN: Right -- right in the flag loft?

RUBENA ROSS: No, you had to go a distance.

JENNIFER EGAN: So that -- was that another time when you could socialize a little bit with the other --

RUBENA ROSS: That's right, but when -- uh -- when you were working, you worked 25:00and kept your eyes focused on what you were doing.

JENNIFER EGAN: And what was it -- how was it that you particularly became friendly with -- with Anne Frances? Did you have -- were you sitting near her, or what was it that drew you together? Do you remember?

RUBENA ROSS: I -- I -- I don't know. It just seems as if -- um -- we just took off -- you know, "Hello, how are you?", and there was a little mutual communication there, and I don't -- know, I mean, she was a ladylike, very quiet, nice kind of person.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did she also live in Brooklyn?


JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- and do you remember what kinds of things you did with her 26:00on the weekends? You said you did -- that you had an outside friendship, too.

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, but not -- later on. Not much in the beginning, there, because I had home responsibilities and all.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did you -- do you remember what your shift was at the Navy Yard? Were you working during the days?

RUBENA ROSS: During the day.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, when your -- when your day ended, you had to get back home?


JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- do you remember anything else about the other people there? Were they -- um -- I don't know -- just wondering -- any -- any other details or thoughts about the other workers.

RUBENA ROSS: Now, they were nice people, and if you are -- now, don't forget, 27:00they had supervisors walking around the area, and you didn't take a working day, where you're supposed to be sewing and putting together pieces -- in fact, if you're going to be putting together pieces, you had to keep your mind and your eyes on your work, else you'll sew together the wrong strips and all. So, as a working person, you came there to work, and to keep your mind focused on what you were doing.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you -- um -- were you at the flag loft the whole time you worked at the Navy Yard?


JENNIFER EGAN: Okay, so you're -- that was always your job.

RUBENA ROSS: I was always there. I never worked any other area, except in the Navy Yard.

JENNIFER EGAN: I thought you told me that she was a riveter.

JANET ROSS: Momma, you told us a story that you did riveting, with metal --


RUBENA ROSS: Bullets. Little metal --

JANET ROSS: Let's talk about that.

RUBENA ROSS: Well, see, that didn't last long enough for --

JANET ROSS: Well, even -- it didn't last long, but you did that.

RUBENA ROSS: I did that for a little bit -- little -- but that was more or less the jobs of the men. And I did do a little bit of it because it seems as if I -- I fell into the knowledge of what needed to be done and how to do it, but that wasn't my [inaudible].

JENNIFER EGAN: Was that after you -- Had you already been sewing when you began doing the riveting, or was the riveting first?

RUBENA ROSS: I don't know. I can't right now. That's a long time ago.


JENNIFER EGAN: [laughter] You're doing great. [laughter] We just want more.

RUBENA ROSS: I mean, do you know how many years ago? That was just so much -- I'm already 90 years old.

JENNIFER EGAN: But you remember a lot. It seems like you really remember the feeling of sewing those flags.

RUBENA ROSS: Mm-hmm, yeah. Mm-hmm. Oh, yeah. I never will forget the years that I spent here in this Navy Yard, and working on the flags, and meeting with the people, and supervisors and everything, being -- and being directed by supervisors that just treated you as if you were human being, and not just a worker.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, you found that --

RUBENA ROSS: See, I enjoyed my years here.

JENNIFER EGAN: The supervisors were very respectful.


JENNIFER EGAN: That's nice to hear. Had you -- had you had other kinds of jobs before that, or was that your -- was the Navy Yard your first job?


RUBENA ROSS: No, I had had others before, in small factories in New York, in the City.


RUBENA ROSS: Because when I first came here, I had to come with some kind of experience to have done public sewing. I mean, just because I did a little house sewing with my own machine for my own children, one thing. But -- uh -- I had worked in factories in the city.

JENNIFER EGAN: Also sewing?



RUBENA ROSS: Because that was the basis of my experience. Mm-hmm.

JENNIFER EGAN: And did you find the Navy Yard to be a different kind of job from the other jobs? You mentioned the supervisors were very respectful. Was that not true in the other places?

RUBENA ROSS: Mm -- other places, everything was -- you know, run, run, run. The 31:00Navy Yard was like a uniform operation. You know what you've got to do, and you've got to do it. And much more unity.


RUBENA ROSS: And your -- your instruction was very good. Right here in this Navy Yard.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, you got some -- even though you were very experienced at sewing --


JENNIFER EGAN: -- you had some instruction, also?

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah. Sure thing.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember what was going on in the outside world at the time that you came here? In other words, you were -- you were here during the War, at least in part --


JENNIFER EGAN: -- because we have a pay stub from '46. Do you remember -- do you remember thinking about the War while you were here and being aware of it?

RUBENA ROSS: Yes. Well, I -- naturally, I was aware of it. But now, how deep my 32:00thoughts were and concern, I -- I don't know, because at that time -- I don't know, did I have anybody in the service at the time? I think -- unless it was my brother. My brother -- kind of -- now, he was in the Air Force, my brother.

JENNIFER EGAN: During World War II?

RUBENA ROSS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

JENNIFER EGAN: I just wondered, when you talked about the unity --


JENNIFER EGAN: -- whether part of that might have been the feeling that you were all helping with the war effort.

RUBENA ROSS: Well, I -- I guess that -- uh -- the way that -- I mean, that I was helping with the clothing, or the cloth part of it.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. Um -- I just said it, and my question just escaped me. 33:00Did you have any contact with the ships? Were you aware of them, did you go near them or on them?

RUBENA ROSS: I did go on them. I was aware of them. And of course, there were certain times that they would -- the guard would allow you to just make a little trip through on the ships.


RUBENA ROSS: But that was with a guard, and for a limited time.

JENNIFER EGAN: And do you remember taking advantage of that opportunity and going on? Do you remember what it was like?

RUBENA ROSS: Oh, I went. I went, yeah.

JENNIFER EGAN: Were you -- was it -- did you go with a group and a guard, or was it just one by one that you could go?

RUBENA ROSS: No, I went with a group.



RUBENA ROSS: A smallish group.

JENNIFER EGAN: And were the other people in the group also -- um -- part of the flag --


JENNIFER EGAN: -- group? And so, what did you see? What do you remember from -- from going on the ships?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, I just learned about what it looked like on a ship. You see, it's a different location, they put together, and everything. It's, you know, it -- it was a different feeling when you were on a ship, and you feel a little bit of a motion through the water. Because even though it might be in a shipyard, it's still water under there, and if the wind blows, you get a little bit vibration there.


RUBENA ROSS: But to go on a ship is a very enjoyable trip, just to be able to 35:00walk it.

JENNIFER EGAN: It's interesting, because many women we've talked to said that they never went on a ship the whole time they worked at the Yard.


JENNIFER EGAN: So, I think it's unusual.


JANET ROSS: Ask about hardhat and metal shoes.

JENNIFER EGAN: Okay. On the ships, or just during normal work?

JANET ROSS: Oh, what do you mean normal?

JENNIFER EGAN: Well, I just -- is it -- does this specifically about going on the ship?

JANET ROSS: Walking on it.

JENNIFER EGAN: Okay. Did you have to wear special clothing to go on the ship? Or shoes or hats --

RUBENA ROSS: No, just regular clothing. I mean, that will be -- clothing that would not be -- uh -- I would say dangerous, that could be grasped. You know, it has to be fitted to the body. No fly skirts and carry on like that -- you know.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. Did you go more than once on the ship? Do you remember?


RUBENA ROSS: What do you mean, more than once?

JENNIFER EGAN: Did you get to go more -- did you just go one time on a ship, or did you -- were you able to take one of these tours more than once?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, that I don't remember there. It's -- but it was -- it was several trips that were allowed. Certain days, that would be --

JENNIFER EGAN: Hmm. What about when you were actually just doing your work in the flag loft? What -- what kind of clothing did you have to wear for that, or did you have a uniform?

RUBENA ROSS: No, no uniform. Just plain, fitted clothing that would not pick up so much -- uh -- flying trash.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. Did you wear the clothes that you worked in every day, or 37:00did you change into working clothes when you got there. Do you remember?

RUBENA ROSS: No, I would just work in whatever --


RUBENA ROSS: -- that I wore.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, did you wear -- did you wear skirts or dresses? I mean, we would wear pants now, but --

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah. Well -- uh -- I -- I -- I remember wearing both. Both the -- just the skirts and fitted shirts, and -- uh -- and -- um -- pants, later on. But I wasn't a great wearer of pants.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. What about your shoes? Do you remember?

RUBENA ROSS: Shoes -- low heels, just -- and -- and I remember in the summertime, we wore sneakers.



RUBENA ROSS: In the winter, it was a hard shoe.

JENNIFER EGAN: What about your hair? Did you have to wear a hat or a scarf or anything -- anything to cover your hair, or could you just have it out?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, my hair always was short, and most times, I had some sort of little band thing to hold it up.


RUBENA ROSS: I never had long, long, long hair.

JENNIFER EGAN: And did -- if -- if a woman did have long hair, do you remember -- did she keep it tucked -- ?

RUBENA ROSS: She had to keep it braided up or pulled back and tied into a -- like, a bun in the back. You could not have loose, flying hair.

JENNIFER EGAN: It seems like, with the sewing machines, you could get into some 39:00trouble that way. [laughter]

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah. Uh-huh.

JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- do you remember -- uh -- you mentioned that you -- that there was a place to eat lunch that you would have to walk to, and you also mentioned that you had a long walk to your building when you would get to the Navy Yard.

RUBENA ROSS: That's right.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, what would you see as you walked around the Navy Yard? Was it -- did you see a lot of other people, or was it quiet?

RUBENA ROSS: A lot of people, and a lot of -- uh -- motor vehicles of different sorts, trucks and such, going by, and you'd have to walk -- not just walk through the -- got to walk by the building, because there was all kind of truck -- uh -- and vehicle movement.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, you had to watch -- watch your step.

RUBENA ROSS: Absolutely.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did you ever meet anyone who worked in a different part of the Navy Yard? Did you ever socialize or get to know anyone who was not in the flag loft?


RUBENA ROSS: Yes, I did. But a lot of those people that I did meet, they have long gone away to other places. Some have gone down; some have gone away. Because that's a lot of years ago.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember how you would meet other people, outside the flag loft? Were there other places that you would encounter them, and get to know them, become familiar with them?

RUBENA ROSS: Only at the -- the lunch area -- time --

JENNIFER EGAN: Was it a cafeteria-style place?

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, it was a cafeteria. But I usually took my lunch, took my sandwich and my fruit, and bought some drink.

JENNIFER EGAN: But you still brought it to the cafeteria to eat.


RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, to sit with the group.

JENNIFER EGAN: I can imagine they might not want a lot of food around the flag -- [laughter] flag materials.

RUBENA ROSS: Oh, no. You couldn't eat in -- in where the material. No, no, no, no, no. You had to get up and go to that lunchroom.

JENNIFER EGAN: Right. Okay. And was the lunchroom crowded at lunchtime? Crowded, bustling, or was it calm? Do you remember the -- the atmosphere?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, where the area where the lineup, where people were getting their food was crowded, in that area. But if you brought your own lunch, you just go ahead and get yourself a seat or a table -- usually a table that you were accustomed to sitting with the people, and that's the time there's a little conversation time.

JENNIFER EGAN: And did you tend to sit with the same people every day? Do you remember?

RUBENA ROSS: Somewhat. Somewhat. We made acquaintances with different folks.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did -- um -- did the other women that you got to know there -- 42:00did some of them have husbands overseas?

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- do you remember any sort of unusual things happening while you were at the Yard, ever? Like, uh, any accidents or just things that people were aware of and talking about going on at the Yard?

RUBENA ROSS: Not that I remember. You see, when you worked in the Navy Yard, and one of the things they told us, "Whatever is happening, you keep your mouth shut. You see -- look at it with your eyes, but you keep your mouth shut, especially when you get out those gates, and you left the gate yard."

JENNIFER EGAN: And who would tell you that?

RUBENA ROSS: Oh, they had offices all through the place. Everywhere you -- you 43:00know, I mean, you're working -- not that they were watching you or -- I mean, so close to you that you feel their warmth from their body -- but don't worry, you were under surveillance all the time. And you do your work and keep your mouth shut, keep your conversation as kept lips closed.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you ever remember anyone getting in trouble with the supervisors for any reason?

RUBENA ROSS: Some did.

JENNIFER EGAN: What kinds of things would lead to that?

RUBENA ROSS: I don't know. I never got into other people's affairs. I'd try to stay out -- I find that life will -- might will last a little longer if you just keep focused -- 'cause there was a thing that they said. "Keep focused ahead, 44:00and keep your mouth shut, and do what you got to do, and that's what's in front of you."

JENNIFER EGAN: Pretty good advice. [laughter] For all of us. Um -- let's see. You mentioned that it was very cold in the winters --


JENNIFER EGAN: -- and I know -- we've -- I've experienced that here, sometimes, in the winter. That wind really blows.


JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember what it was like in the summer here? Was it -- what was it like in that -- in that flag loft? Was it hot in the summer?

RUBENA ROSS: It was hot. It was hot. It was a -- a usual warm, hot time, and -- or, of course, now they -- the way the buildings were located, there's a lot of space between buildings, and that will give -- uh -- wind --



RUBENA ROSS: -- the movement of wind and air -- uh -- time to move through, rather than if it's very tall -- uh -- buildings, and just the little area where the guards go through, the -- the atmosphere is tight.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. And so, in the flag loft, did -- were there windows? Was there air moving through?

RUBENA ROSS: Oh yeah. Mm-hmm.

JENNIFER EGAN: Because you said that --

RUBENA ROSS: And light.

JENNIFER EGAN: -- there were overhead lights, but there was also --

RUBENA ROSS: The windows were -- uh -- we had space there.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. So that kind of kept you -- kept you cool, a little bit, in the summer.


JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- did you see many soldiers at the Yard when you were moving around?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, yes, out in the Yard. You know, out of the building where 46:00you're working, you would see them. And the most, though, that what we saw a lot of was Navy men there. 'Cause ships were out and all of their different color uniform, and they -- of course, that was a lot of movement of -- uh -- military people in and around in the Yard.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did you ever interact with Navy men in the course of your work? Did they have any part in the flag loft?

RUBENA ROSS: No. We were told we are working in the flag loft. This is where you stay. You keep your eyes and your interests there and take care of your day's duties.

JENNIFER EGAN: And when -- you mentioned that you did some riveting somewhere in 47:00there, and that was more of a man's job. Um -- do you remember where -- where you did that work? Was it near the flag loft?

RUBENA ROSS: It was within the general area.

JENNIFER EGAN: And in that job, did you work with -- also with women, or was it --

RUBENA ROSS: Well, with men.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mostly with men?

RUBENA ROSS: I -- then, when I was back in those years, I was a kind of strong, tough little woman.

JENNIFER EGAN: Oh, really? [laughter]

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah! I was!

JENNIFER EGAN: That's great.

RUBENA ROSS: I was. I was able to -- just really. 'Cause, you see -- and the reason why I was tough -- first of all, I mean, I'm a bowler. I've bowled for years.

JENNIFER EGAN: Oh, really?

RUBENA ROSS: And that gives you good muscle control, direction, your eyesight, 48:00your strength, and you have good body control. I bowled for years. I have a cabinet at home, in my dining room right now, with trophies yea high that I have won on different occasions. And -- uh -- and I've won from bowling.

JENNIFER EGAN: So -- um -- so you didn't probably have too much trouble, then, doing some -- some strong, physical work.

RUBENA ROSS: That's right. I always was able to use my arms, and that's why now, I enjoy my backyard, and I've got my grass out there, and my grapevine, and rosebushes and every other kind of thing that will grow green. I produce some pretty flowers. I have a good backyard.


JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- and so, when you were doing the riveting work, do you remember what you wore to do that? Was that a different kind of -- um -- costume than you had for the flag sewing?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, you had to wear clothing like the -- um -- wasn't the overalls --


RUBENA ROSS: -- the regular men, working-type of material, such. No dainty lace and stuff like this.


RUBENA ROSS: Just plain, plain clothing.

JANET ROSS: What about the shoes, Ma?

RUBENA ROSS: They always had to be a secure, low-heeled shoe.

JANET ROSS: No, no, no. When you were riveting with the metal -- you worked with the metal, and you spoke about how you had to put on the steel shoes and hardhat.


JANET ROSS: Go back to that scene.


RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, that's -- I had to.

JENNIFER EGAN: And did you wear -- you probably didn't wear -- have those things at home, I wouldn't think. Did you change into that stuff at work?


JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember anything else about the equipment that you used for riveting? How do you rivet?

RUBENA ROSS: That's such a long time ago. I can't hard --

JENNIFER EGAN: But you remember the sewing.


JENNIFER EGAN: [laughter]


JENNIFER EGAN: But not so much the riveting?

JANET ROSS: [inaudible] with a -- like a staple gun--type of device, and it would --

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, just --

JANET ROSS: And what would you do with it?

RUBENA ROSS: Whatever that I was instructed to do. Now, some of this, like with that comes to that down detail -- uh -- can't remember all. But I worked -- only 51:00thing -- I worked hard, and I did get good recognition for the kind of work that I did and produced.

JENNIFER EGAN: Talk -- talk about that. How -- how -- what kind of recognition did you get? How did you know you were doing a good job?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, some supervisor would come by and say -- and they would say to me -- uh -- "Oh, you're so small? How can you do this kind of work? Where does your strength come from?" And what I would tell them -- I said, "My strength comes from bowling because I bowl, and it" --

JANET ROSS: She didn't bowl then.


JANET ROSS: She didn't bowl then. The strength came from just being in the South 52:00Carolina, growing up on a farm, and --


JANET ROSS: -- had to go off and do -- But bowling had nothing to do with the Navy Yard.

RUBENA ROSS: I -- I know, but my muscle development came from bowling.


JENNIFER EGAN: But I guess you had those same strong muscles that helped you at the Navy Yard made you a really good bowler.


JENNIFER EGAN: But -- so they would remark when you were riveting -- it's -- what you're telling, me, I think, is that people would say, "You don't look like you would be doing this kind of work, because you're small," but you were strong.

RUBENA ROSS: I was strong.

JANET ROSS: Now, Mommy had spoken of the riveting, and the -- with shoes and the -- the helmet. Ah, not too many women worked in that area, but the ones that did were strong. And you had to be precise with riveting -- whatever that is -- and 53:00-- some the better women, I guess their eyes or their sewing angle of looking at things. You had to shoot something with a gun or something into -- whatever it was, Ma. I don't know. I don't know. Can you describe that?


JANET ROSS: Do you remember?


JANET ROSS: And there was always -- you said years ago, there was always an officer or a man in the area with the women, and they would -- they were not in there a long time because it was -- you're underneath it all. And riveting -- I don't know if you can remember any --


JENNIFER EGAN: Does it look familiar?

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah. Good old metal bits.

JENNIFER EGAN: Trying to remember some of the riveting.



JENNIFER EGAN: No, that's okay. So, another thing I'm curious about is we've interviewed a lot of women and we've -- you were only the second African American woman we've talked to who worked at the Navy Yard. And I'm curious to know what that was like for you. Did you -- were there many African American women working here?


JENNIFER EGAN: But -- did you -- did you feel a special bond if you -- if you saw another African American woman there?

RUBENA ROSS: No, I mean, I -- only thing -- I was there, and I had a job to do --


RUBENA ROSS: -- and I had to do it. It's the same thing that say when I went to high school. As -- sure, I might have been the -- one of the few that were in my class at all, but I was there for purpose of work, and this is what I did. I 55:00picked up some ideas from maybe the person next to me, or listened to what the instructor was giving out, and I -- I worked with that. And I was able to be -- as I say -- to hold on, and to be successful. Now, when I was here in the Navy Yard -- uh -- many of the -- uh -- supervisors have said that, you know, that "Gee, you are strong to be so small." Course, I'm heavier now. But this was just the way it was.

JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- you also mentioned that you -- that you had some good feedback, that you -- that you were doing a good job --



JENNIFER EGAN: -- and also that you did very well financially at the Navy Yard.


JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember how much money you earned, and how that changed over time? Did you get a raise if you did well, or from staying longer?

RUBENA ROSS: I -- I really [inaudible] to remember that right off. I don't know. But now, raises came through; at periodic periods, a raise would automatically come through. I don't say that I was any, you know, a super-duper, but from what I can remember, I -- I was a productive worker.

JENNIFER EGAN: And were -- was -- did you earn more at the Navy Yard than you had been earning in the factories before? Was the pay better, do you remember?

RUBENA ROSS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Mm-hmm.

JENNIFER EGAN: And you were living at home at that time.



JENNIFER EGAN: Did you turn the money over to your parents, or what -- how did you handle that?

RUBENA ROSS: I started a bank account and put the money in the bank.

JENNIFER EGAN: And that's how you --

RUBENA ROSS: A certain amount went into the bank because I said, "I don't know how long this job will last, and I have got to establish a little financial security for myself." And I still got a little bank account.

JENNIFER EGAN: And you say you were there around five years.


JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- did you -- and -- and what caused you to leave that job in the end?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, they start laying off people.


RUBENA ROSS: They cut down their force.

JENNIFER EGAN: And were you married yet at that point, when you left the Navy Yard?


JENNIFER EGAN: So, you got married while you were working there?

RUBENA ROSS: Uh, let me see. I think I was married before I went to the Navy Yard.

JENNIFER EGAN: You got married right -- right after high school?


RUBENA ROSS: Not right out of school, but I was -- I know I was married when I was working in the Navy Yard.

JENNIFER EGAN: And where did your -- what did your husband do? Where was he working?

RUBENA ROSS: Oh, boy. What did he do? Alan [phonetic] was a policeman a while. Lived and made part of his working a living [inaudible] -- was a policeman, of course, he didn't value his life at all, by taking in unsavory things into his body.

JENNIFER EGAN: Hmm. Um -- and so did -- was he also from Brooklyn? Did you meet 59:00him in your neighborhood?

RUBENA ROSS: In the neighbor -- he was a neighborhood person.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, were you -- were the two of you living with your parents at that time, when you were at the Navy Yard? Did you and your husband both live with your folks?

RUBENA ROSS: No, I had my own house. We had our own house.

JANET ROSS: They did with their parents at that time.

JENNIFER EGAN: Which, I think, was pretty common, we know, because -- young, young, married couple. But so -- but he was not in the Service?

JANET ROSS: Yes, he was.

JENNIFER EGAN: He was in the Service. Okay.

JANET ROSS: He was in the Army.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, was he -- was your husband overseas while you were at the Navy Yard?

RUBENA ROSS: I don't recall.

JENNIFER EGAN: Okay. Do you know?


JANET ROSS: No. We will -- we could check on that, when Daddy was in the service. My father was a photographer for the United States Navy -- Army.


JANET ROSS: So, he did -- he sent back pictures of what was happening overseas.

JENNIFER EGAN: And he did -- he served during World War II?


JENNIFER EGAN: Okay. Um, let's see. Did -- um -- did your friend, Anne Frances -- was she your friend the whole time you were at the Yard? Was she also there until the layoffs happened?

RUBENA ROSS: Of course, I can't remember. You know?

JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- and did she -- was she married, also?


JANET ROSS: Yes. She married. Her name was Frances Best, B-E-S-T. And we called her Aunt Frances.


JANET ROSS: Because in those days, you didn't call a woman by her first name.

JENNIFER EGAN: Right, okay.

RUBENA ROSS: Especially when she was older -- not a child.


RUBENA ROSS: We call them adult by their first name.

JENNIFER EGAN: Sorry. I'm saying "Anne Frances," but it's "Aunt Frances." Okay, sorry about that.

JANET ROSS: Uh -- that was her married name. She has a son. I can contact him to see does she have any -- was there any information left in her -- uh -- belongings of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But her son, Aunt Frances's, and Mommy's first daughter was born around the same time.


JANET ROSS: So, they were both pregnant and working at the same time here.


JENNIFER EGAN: So, were you pregnant -- did you have a child while you were working at the Navy Yard still?

RUBENA ROSS: I don't know.

JANET ROSS: Well Sharon was born in '44, and you were here in '46.


JANET ROSS: So that's the numbers I'm writing down here.


JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- do you remember anything about that? About -- about being pregnant here, or how much time you took when the baby was born? Any of that?

RUBENA ROSS: No, I don't remember. I mean, the brains aren't what they used to be.

JENNIFER EGAN: [laughter] I think you're doing great. I think we're all hoping we'll be so lucky as to [laughter] -- as to be, you know, growing grapes and vines in our garden when we're ninety. [laughter]


JENNIFER EGAN: We're just trying to push as hard as we can to get any -- any little bit that you remember.


DANIELLA ROMANO: What about her brother in the Air Force? I know it's not Brooklyn -- I know it's not Brooklyn Navy Yard--related, but was your brother at Fort Hamilton ever? It's surprising that your brother was in the Air Force, perhaps, during the Second World War.

RUBENA ROSS: He was in the Air Force.

DANIELLA ROMANO: Was he a pilot?

JANET ROSS: Yes. Tuskegee Airmen.


DANIELLA ROMANO: Oh, my goodness. Wow.


DANIELLA ROMANO: That's -- uh -- can you tell us a little bit about what it was like for him to train, or how he found out about the opportunity? I mean, that's -- that's history right there.

JANET ROSS: Well, his education -- Polytech --

DANIELLA ROMANO: Okay, Polytech.

JANET ROSS: -- and he was -- he loved what he did. They really did not discuss too much, be it security, or just --

RUBENA ROSS: You're not supposed to.

JANET ROSS: You're not supposed to.



DANIELLA ROMANO: Polytech, though.

JANET ROSS: Wilhelmina's father. That would be Wilhelmina's father.


JANET ROSS: And she's doing the history and the book on the Tuskegee Air Force, and --



DANIELLA ROMANO: Is her mother alive?

JANET ROSS: His wife? Yes, yes.

DANIELLA ROMANO: Yes. Or his wife, yes. Sorry.

JENNIFER EGAN: Interesting.

DANIELLA ROMANO: Wow. So, you must have been proud -- the family. [laughter]

JANET ROSS: There was a write-up on my uncle -- he was shot down, and he was captured. Well, he was shot down. I don't know the whole story; I can't remember. But -- uh -- they -- the Tuskegee Air Force was the men that went in first, okay, that went in first, so secure their -- the airways for the next -- 65:00the big boys to be coming in. And -- because they wanted the big boys down -- the big bombers down. And Tuskegee Airmen made it safe, where they could get through.

JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- a little more about -- just -- we were -- you were talking at the beginning about how you got to work, that it was a streetcar or a bus from Potnam -- Putnam; you weren't completely sure. Do you remember -- did you come in -- which entrance did you come in, do you remember?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, I'd come down on -- which bus did I -- I would take the bus down by the school, and what's that -- what's that street where the buses come through there -- the [inaudible].


JANET ROSS: Now, you mentioned the Tompkins Avenue bus, but --


JANET ROSS: -- it was -- there were trolley cars at this -- at this time.

RUBENA ROSS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

JANET ROSS: And you mentioned Flushing Avenue, and you were coming from that way.

DANIELLA ROMANO: It could have been -- I mean, the bus numbers are the old trolley numbers, right?

JANET ROSS: I don't know.

DANIELLA ROMANO: Sixty-one and --

JANET ROSS: I wouldn't --

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember what the entrance looked -- do you remember what it was like when you would come into the Yard? What was the process?

JANET ROSS: Security-wise.

RUBENA ROSS: Well, they would look at you, you know. I mean --

JANET ROSS: Your ID card.


JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember a time card? Punching a time card?


JENNIFER EGAN: No. Do you -- do you remember Sands Street at all? It's gone now --


JENNIFER EGAN: -- because there's housing there, but you know, many people have talked to us about what a colorful street it was --


RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, that's right.

JENNIFER EGAN: -- and lots of life there. What do you remember about it?

RUBENA ROSS: I didn't go in and out of that much, 'cause I'd always just have to go home. Course, Sands Street's just -- that's downtown Brooklyn more, and shopping, and the business area down Fulton Street.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did you and Frances ever go there? Did you ever do anything on Sands Street, or go to a -- get a bite to eat there, or anything like that?

RUBENA ROSS: I'm sure we did.

JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- Let's see, I'm just -- some stray questions here. Do you -- did -- did the -- the work that you did, the sewing work, was it always the same, or did it change as you -- as you were there longer? You mentioned that 68:00you were a beginner at first, and so they would give some of the more finishing work to other people. But what about after you had been there for a while? Did your job change at all?

RUBENA ROSS: I do remember a change -- some change in the -- the job. I -- I was tried out for everything. I was given the opportunity to do a little bit of everything.

JENNIFER EGAN: You mean, within the sewing area --


JENNIFER EGAN: -- or beyond that?

JANET ROSS: Do you remember this, Mom? That's one of your pay stubs.

RUBENA ROSS: What is this?

JANET ROSS: The Brooklyn Navy Yard.

RUBENA ROSS: No, [inaudible]. Mm-hmm. My reduction. I like the way they put it, "reduction in force." Playing, I'm going to let you go. [laughter]


JENNIFER EGAN: Were you surprised when that happened?

RUBENA ROSS: Uh -- I -- I -- I -- I really don't remember. Course, I -- I'm sure I wasn't ready -- financially ready -- to give up my job. So I -- I think that was my -- uh -- would have been my natural feeling.

JENNIFER EGAN: Especially because you really -- it sounds like you really enjoyed the job.

RUBENA ROSS: Yes, I did. I enjoyed the job, and those that worked around me and everything. You know, I enjoyed working with the people, supervisors and all. They -- uh -- you were given orders to do, and if you did them, you got a little 70:00compliment, and -- and -- and things worked out.

JENNIFER EGAN: But you -- do you remember anything about your reaction when you -- when you found out you were not going to be able to work there anymore?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, I don't remember right now, but naturally, you would -- uh -- I -- I can't say that I was shocked or that -- I might have been ready, or had gotten myself into a financial position that I was secure, and I would be able to take the layoff.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did you -- did -- do you remember if you found work right away, or did you take a break?


JENNIFER EGAN: You were having children by then, and --

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, well. I know I didn't get any -- take any -- any other job right away.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. Do you remember any -- any events at the Yard? We've had 71:00people mention christening ships. You know, watching the launching of ships.

RUBENA ROSS: Oh, the ship. Yeah.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember that?


JENNIFER EGAN: What -- what would happen when that would go on? Did you watch it? Did you come out of your office and watch?

RUBENA ROSS: If they permitted you to come out. Course a lot of times, it -- uh -- the launching of a ship took place, and they just -- they didn't have time to let you go out there and view it.


RUBENA ROSS: It depend -- it all depend on whether the time was available and the supervisor would grant it.

JENNIFER EGAN: But did you actually watch any of the launchings?

RUBENA ROSS: Yes, I have seen some.

JENNIFER EGAN: And what was that like?

RUBENA ROSS: It was good. It was interesting.

JENNIFER EGAN: Were they crowded? Were they well-attended?


RUBENA ROSS: Oh, yeah. Mm-hmm.

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you remember which ships you saw be launched?

RUBENA ROSS: No, no. I mean, the brains can't hold all of these things in detail, and right to -- to numbers and names. It's a long time ago.

JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- in terms of the Yard itself, you mentioned there was a cafeteria that you went to, there was a place where you riveted that you got to know, and also the flag loft.


JENNIFER EGAN: Were there any other parts of the Yard that you had -- and you went on a ship a few times --


JENNIFER EGAN: Any other parts of the Yard that you had exposure to? For example, the infirmary or the hospital, or just any -- any other areas you got to know at any point.

RUBENA ROSS: No, no. One thing that we were told -- and we had to abide by those 73:00rules -- you know, there were certain restrictions. You just didn't march all over the place any time that you wanted to or any hour at all, see. And you had to stay within your zone, unless there's some special event, and it's like open to everybody.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. And so, it sounds like you were careful to -- to obey those rules.

RUBENA ROSS: I tried to.

JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- if any -- if you guys are having some questions and want to jump in, that's fine, because I'm getting to the end of my list, and I -- I'm sure I'm missing things.

DANIELLA ROMANO: I was just going to give you the questions on the back of that if you want to review those.

SADY SULLIVAN: I have a few that are sort of bouncing around --


JENNIFER EGAN: Yeah, great.

SADY SULLIVAN: -- if that's all right. So, going back to when your family moved here from South Carolina -- when they moved to Flushing, Queens --


SADY SULLIVAN: -- where your aunt was --


SADY SULLIVAN: -- um -- do you know why your parents wanted to move the family?

RUBENA ROSS: Say what?

SADY SULLIVAN: Why did your family want to move from South Carolina?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, because the crops. They was -- I'll say -- have to say -- eh -- I wasn't fully -- uh -- know why. The crops were not producing --


RUBENA ROSS: -- well enough down there, and -- uh -- they -- and -- uh -- my aunt lived up here, and so -- well, my mother's sister. So they -- there was 75:00visitation, and before you know it, they start to say they going to move up here --


RUBENA ROSS: -- and give up farming --


RUBENA ROSS: -- and the area there, you see.

JENNIFER EGAN: And what did your dad do after you got here? What work did your father do?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, he didn't live very long after.



RUBENA ROSS: Because actually, he -- he -- uh -- the reason why they giving up on the farming there -- the farm -- because he wasn't well. And a farmer, he can have ever so many workers and everything, but he himself have got to be physically able and capable of -- uh -- taking care of his farm and his cattle, and stuff like that. So now, that was my -- that was -- I would have to say, 76:00that was a failure of my father's health is why we gave up on South Carolina.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm. There's a lot of people -- was there a lot of people from the South that were in -- in Brooklyn? Well, you first went to Queens, but when you moved to Brooklyn, did you find there was a lot of people whose families were from the South?

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, Mm-hmm.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. Did other people have a similar -- you know, similar background in terms of farming and -- ?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, I imagine so. I mean, I imagine. You see, at that time, I was around eleven and twelve years old, so I -- the -- the most part of it that I remember there, my mother was a schoolteacher, and -- uh -- my father was a good farmer and -- uh -- one that was recognized in everything. So, when we came to 77:00New York -- uh -- it was -- I mean, I kind of like forgot about down there.


RUBENA ROSS: And we had -- we had a lovely house, a beautiful house, that they had built.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did your mom teach school in New York?

RUBENA ROSS: No, no. Just down in South Carolina, country school.

SADY SULLIVAN: Um -- and you said that it was -- that neighbors -- um -- told you about the job -- or that there was jobs available at the Navy Yard.


SADY SULLIVAN: Who were -- who were the neighbors? What's -- where were they from?

RUBENA ROSS: Don't really know where they were from, but they were neighbors from our block --


RUBENA ROSS: -- where we lived, and -- uh -- that's how I got the information, from association with the young people, you know, friends from the church and 78:00such. So that's where I got that from.

SADY SULLIVAN: What church did you grow up with in Brooklyn?

RUBENA ROSS: In Brooklyn, Duryea Presbyterian Church.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm, and --

RUBENA ROSS: Right on my corner.

SADY SULLIVAN: Is that where you -- do you still go?

RUBENA ROSS: And I'm still living there, and the church is on the corner.

SADY SULLIVAN: That's great.

RUBENA ROSS: And I had my second house there on that block.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. Um -- Brooklyn College, when you -- when you went there, that was -- what were you planning -- what were you -- why did you go? Were you planning to study something in particular?

RUBENA ROSS: No, just to try to get a little -- little more learning --


RUBENA ROSS: -- a little more school instruction.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. And then what was the -- why couldn't you continue there? Was it -- was it expensive, or what -- what -- why didn't you continue there at 79:00Brooklyn College?

RUBENA ROSS: I -- I -- I really don't know why -- why I left.


RUBENA ROSS: I know that after I left attending there, I became an assistant at the public school in my area -- well, in PS 9.


RUBENA ROSS: I came -- became a classroom assistant.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. Is that something you were -- were you studying teaching at Brooklyn College? What kind of classes did you take?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, I was -- I was taking education, but now --


RUBENA ROSS: -- and it would have been in teaching, but I didn't finish.



SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. Um -- going back to your -- to your neighborhood, you 80:00were still living on -- on Putnam Ave -- is that right? -- when you were working in the Navy Yard?


SADY SULLIVAN: And so, were there other people on your block that were also working -- or in the neighborhood -- that were also working in the yards?

RUBENA ROSS: Not -- I -- I -- I mean, I -- I -- I imagine so. I imagine so, yeah.

SADY SULLIVAN: But there wasn't -- I -- I'm sort of thinking if there was like a gang of people that would all go together or something like that.

RUBENA ROSS: No, no. No.


RUBENA ROSS: See, most the time I was working in the Navy Yard, I wasn't living up at Putnam Avenue area; I was down on Sterling Place.

JANET ROSS: She was living on Putnam. She was living at Putnam.

RUBENA ROSS: Putnam. Then -- then I moved down on Sterling Place, near -- uh -- what's that? Washington Avenue?




SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. So, in the flag loft, you said that the pieces were 81:00already cut. Was there -- could you see the people that were doing the cutting? Were they in the same area as you?

RUBENA ROSS: In the area, but partitioned off. But you knew that's where the cutting went on, and you would do the sewing out front.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. And so were -- were they always -- were you making always the United States flag, or was --

RUBENA ROSS: Say what?

SADY SULLIVAN: Were you making always the United States flag, or would you make a flag for like -- I don't know --

RUBENA ROSS: United States flags --

SADY SULLIVAN: -- different symbols or something.

RUBENA ROSS: -- were what we were doing.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. And was the machine -- was it the same kind that you had learned with, that your mom was sewing with, or was it a bigger, industrial thing?

RUBENA ROSS: No, it was very much the same as what we had.



RUBENA ROSS: Electric machine.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Um -- oh, they -- do you remember who -- who was at the gates when you would come in?



RUBENA ROSS: Guards were at the gate.


RUBENA ROSS: Yeah. And of course, as soon as they see you coming, they turned -- like, turned their head the other way because they say, "I know that face. She can come on in." So that was a -- it was a very pleasant -- uh -- enjoyable -- uh -- years that I spent down here at the Navy Yard.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Do you think -- were people -- why -- was part of that because people were really invested in their work? Why do you think there 83:00was a good -- a good work environment here?

RUBENA ROSS: I don't know. Just attitudes were in good -- good tone.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Was there ever anything bad that happened, like accidents or you know -- ? I know I've heard of some fires and things.

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, there was some -- some fighting and all, but I -- I never -- never got myself involved too much with crowds.


RUBENA ROSS: I came in to do a job, and I did a job, and then I'd take that bus and go home to the other side of Brooklyn.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

JENNIFER EGAN: I was going to say, when you say there was some fighting, do you mean physical fighting? Or what kind of -- what do you mean?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, disagreements, and let's just say unpleasant word usage among 84:00them. And it wasn't my kind -- my style -- not my upbringing and my environment of growing up in, and so on.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Was that more, was that more of the men working here that were behaving like that?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, it was both. I worked with women, too. But of course, the Navy Yard, I would say, it was more occupied by men than by women.

SADY SULLIVAN: And how was that?

RUBENA ROSS: So. Well, because in this Navy Yard, that's -- that's heavy we work.

SADY SULLIVAN: How -- how was that, in -- in -- to be a woman in an environment that was mostly men?

RUBENA ROSS: You just closed you ears and go and do what you were assigned to do. That's it.


RUBENA ROSS: Because now, in the flag loft, where I worked, it was mostly women 85:00in there that worked. Some of the supervisors were men, but I -- I've found in life, if you do what you were assigned to do -- go ahead and do it. Because if you're going to start being different and asking questions and all, you don't get nowhere.

SADY SULLIVAN: Were there people who were sort of not following that way of thinking?

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, there's many -- there's many a persons around -- not only just in Navy Yard, just even in the area where I live, even in the church situation, there are people -- many people together -- you'll find different ideas and options --



RUBENA ROSS: -- and they don't see life coming out of the same two eyes.


RUBENA ROSS: And of course, they -- their quality of brain that focus those eyes, that's something else that none of us really know.

SADY SULLIVAN: [laughter] That's true. Um -- so when you say you would have to close your ears to -- and focus on your work, were people --

RUBENA ROSS: On your work.

SADY SULLIVAN: -- were -- was -- were people being rude? What were they -- what was going on?

RUBENA ROSS: Sometimes, some clown be rude. Sometimes, you'd feel like taking a piece of cotton and sticking it in each ear so that you don't even hear it --


RUBENA ROSS: -- because if you hear all that's verbed out, sometimes that might strike a certain nerve, and you're ready to answer back.



RUBENA ROSS: Then you'll get into trouble. So --


JENNIFER EGAN: When you -- when -- were there particular areas where you had to close your ears the most? Was it as you were walking through the Yard, or was it actually in the flag loft, or how did that --

RUBENA ROSS: Well, walking through the Yard, you would hear a lot of conversation that you know it's not -- uh -- good for the present area and conditions and all, so sometimes you just got to close up the ears and go ahead and take care of your own business. And that goes not only just in the Yard, the work in here, but that goes on in your neighborhood, in your own area and all. You've got to limit what you allow your ears to take in, and then when your ears 88:00take them in, you got to wonder -- I've got to shoot out some of it and just keep on moving. Keep looking forward, keep moving forward. Every once in a while, you turn around, see what boogey man is climbing up behind you.

JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- when you say that there was conversation that was going on that wasn't really appropriate, do you mean -- I mean, I just want to make sure I know what you're talking about. Do you mean guys whistling or, you know, saying "Hey, beautiful," or do you mean that you heard people talking to each other about things that were inappropriate?

RUBENA ROSS: About things and certain situations that should not be -- uh -- exposed to the public.

JANET ROSS: What was happening in the -- during the times, or what was happening 89:00outside of the -- within the military, Mommy?


SADY SULLIVAN: So when the guards -- when you would get to go on the ships, and there was a guard that would take the tour, did you get the sense that the guard was -- was the guard protecting the ship, or was the guard protecting the visitors, or how -- why was the guard there?

RUBENA ROSS: They were just there to be observant and listen to what's going on from people's mouths that might speak loosely and might have some ugly thoughts behind it.


RUBENA ROSS: That's why they have guards.


SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. Um -- oh, and so just -- since we were -- we were figuring out the -- um -- the birthdays. When were your -- when were your five daughters born? Do you know the years --

RUBENA ROSS: Birthdays, you want to put down?

JANET ROSS: Fifty. What is she, '54? Sharon was the oldest -- '54 -- and Mommy was working in the Navy Yard, and -- in '44 -- and Mommy was working in the Navy Yard, '46 --


JANET ROSS: -- so she was here during the pregnancy.


JANET ROSS: Fifty four -- six -- '46, '51,' 52, '54. Somebody -- Do you know 91:00what -- when your last days here? Um -- was it -- Sharon was two years old -- the oldest. I don't know if Carolyn was -- I don't know if you were pregnant with Carolyn. Now, I will try to get some information from Frances Best's son --


JANET ROSS: -- and if he has any papers or anything -- uh -- with the Brooklyn Navy Yard.


JANET ROSS: Any photos.

DANIELLA ROMANO: Any photos of you even at that time. Anything like that. Do you have any photos from that period? Whether or not they were at work?




JANET ROSS: Because see, that was military time, and it wasn't -- you also have to understand, being Black American, it was -- you were straight-laced. You know, it was a great opportunity to be where you were, and -- uh -- it was just be responsible and respectful, and the actions were not any different than in the South. You know, you -- not to get racial -- but you're around whites, you had to be quiet, and -- and -- still, so to speak. But here, the military base -- it was military, it was --

RUBENA ROSS: You had to close up your ears.

JANET ROSS: I could imagine how this place felt, with all the good-looking soldiers walking around, you know, and the officers. [laughter] You know, but 93:00that type of feeling. And you know, they were always dressed sharp and straight and all. Can you imagine? So -- uh -- I think -- I think it was an honor to be here --


JANET ROSS: -- and being -- that -- the ships were coming in, the aircrafts were coming in -- uh -- right here in front of you. So, it was just -- some part of what's happening out in Europe and you know.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. How did you meet your husband?

RUBENA ROSS: Mm. Where did I meet Alan?

JANET ROSS: Daddy, in the same neighborhood, same neighborhood.

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, in the same neighborhood.

JANET ROSS: He was at a party, your friend -- a friend introduced you. Your best friend.

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, yeah. Mm-hmm.

SADY SULLIVAN: And then -- and he was in the military -- He had -- he wasn't yet in the military when you met?

JANET ROSS: No, uh-uh.


JANET ROSS: Probably at the same time when -- everyone went in at the same time.



JANET ROSS: My father, my uncles -- uh. My uncle was in the Air Force, my father, Navy -- uh -- my other uncle was in the -- in the Marines, and my father was in the Army.


JANET ROSS: And cousins were in the Army, also. They all went together. You know, so --

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. And everybody was from Brooklyn?

JANET ROSS: From Brooklyn, yes. They were here.


JENNIFER EGAN: And did your dad pass away a long time ago?

JANET ROSS: He passed -- well, he passed in '72. He passed in '72.

JENNIFER EGAN: Pretty young.

JANET ROSS: Yes. Yes, he was.

JENNIFER EGAN: Are you through with your questions?


JENNIFER EGAN: Um -- I guess I just want to -- before we stop, I just want to -- 95:00again, I know you've been trying to push for this, too -- to just say is there any -- are there any other things you remember about just the feeling of being here, the smells or the sounds? Any -- any other little shred of -- of memory, just from your senses, about what it was like to be here?

RUBENA ROSS: You mean being here today?


RUBENA ROSS: Oh. Oh, to be down here in the Navy Yard?


RUBENA ROSS: No, nothing special. I -- I worked, I did my assigned work, and -- uh -- the people with whom I worked, and under, they were -- uh -- good folks. So, I didn't -- no, nothing. I mean, I had nothing that -- nothing happened that irritated me, you see.


SADY SULLIVAN: Was it comfortable work, I mean, physically, or would you -- at the end of the day, did you feel achy and sore, like that kind of hard work?

RUBENA ROSS: No, not back at those days. I was younger.


RUBENA ROSS: My body was more flexible. My brains, certainly, was a little bit more alive and carried a little more -- not experience, but -- uh -- open --


RUBENA ROSS: -- to more learning than now.


RUBENA ROSS: Now, it's gone. But I enjoyed my years of working in the Navy Yard, and the people with whom I worked, and under whom I -- uh -- worked. They -- uh 97:00-- it was -- it was a good environment for me. I enjoyed it, and the few dollars that I made, I stored a little bit in the bank, and just thankful that I'm still here. At ninety years old, I can -- I can still write out a little check -- even though I lost my check fold -- [laughter] but I can pay my bills.

JANET ROSS: She loses it every other week. [laughter]

SADY SULLIVAN: Do you remember when the Navy Yard was decommissioned in the '60s?


SADY SULLIVAN: Did you -- did you hear about that in Brooklyn when they -- when they closed up the Yard?


SADY SULLIVAN: What'd you think?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, I -- I don't have the brains that have -- have good thinking powers for everything, so sometimes I have to let some things just kind of go 98:00by, because it was closed up by the minds of people that had more wit than I, so --


RUBENA ROSS: -- who am I to criticize --


RUBENA ROSS: -- or have too much of an opinion?

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm. How did it affect -- I mean, did you know people in Brooklyn that were affected, though? I mean, I know a lot of people lost their jobs.

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, I know that.


RUBENA ROSS: I know. Well, the few little pennies I made while I was down here, I rolled them up, and I stuck them in the bank, helped establish a little bit of security --


RUBENA ROSS: -- because I said I knew that a job, or income, would not be lasting forever, and I still had to buy a little bit of milk and bread, so.

SADY SULLIVAN: That's smart. Do you know who -- who taught you that that was important?



SADY SULLIVAN: Who taught you that that was important?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, you learn that from association with other people who -- with whom I've had the opportunity to mingle. Some have been, uh, persons -- adults -- where I babysat their children. Now, I learned a lot from that family. That he was a dentist, and -- uh -- his wife, well, she was a housewife, and little boys at all, and from those people, I learned a lot about life and living. And if you're a human being and not an animal to be running around and slapping 100:00everything with its tail, you learn from people who have -- apparently, that are successful.


RUBENA ROSS: And I learned so much from that couple and their two little boys. I used to baby-sit their little boys. And it's from them that I learned -- from him, himself. She would do shopping from the groceries -- shopping. She'd come home and put the groceries out, and change out of the purse, and pennies on the table, and he -- he would roll out the pennies from her coins, just there, and he'd give them to me, and he taught me how to roll up pennies in fifty, you had a little slip case, put it in, put it in the bank. And she would say to him, just as -- uh -- and he was a doctor -- dentist doctor -- and she would say to 101:00him, you know, "What are you doing with that?" "Well, I'm teaching Rubena how to roll up pennies, and I've got --" And she said, "What you're going to do with them?" And he said, "I'm going to give it to her, and she's going to start a bank account, and she's going to be able to -- wherever there's spare pennies thrown around the table and people's junk on the side, make use of them. Because pennies can become doctors if you put -- dollars -- if you put enough of them together." And right now, I'm still rolling pennies. Ask my daughter. [laughter]

SADY SULLIVAN: That's great. How old were you when you were -- when you started babysitting for that couple?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, I was in -- I was in high school --


RUBENA ROSS: -- at the time.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. And were they neighbors? How did you meet them?


RUBENA ROSS: I met them from -- uh -- I became their babysitter for their two little boys from a tenant that lived in my mother's house, and -- uh -- then I became their babysitter. From a tenant of my mother's, and that's how I got on that penny roll. And I'm still rolling pennies.

[Interview interrupted.]

MR. MATTS: You going to still be using twelve? Okay, do me a favor. Don't park it over there tonight, just find some place near 270.


RUBENA ROSS: And he was a dentist, and they was -- she was mother of two boys, and -- uh -- they were just good people. And they set -- and they helped to set an example for my life and living, and a good environment.


JENNIFER EGAN: Did you ever keep in touch with them after you were older? Did you ever see them again?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, now they both have passed, and I don't know where -- they had two boys. I really don't know where those boys are now. But it was -- they had two boys. But I'm still rolling my pennies, and I'm still thinking about that -- their last -- their last name was Graine -- G-R-A-I-N-E. And -- uh -- it's kinda. Of course, I was their babysitter. So, that's it. Things have passed.

JENNIFER EGAN: Anything else you want to add or questions you want to ask? 104:00Anything you feel we're missing?

JANET ROSS: You can't remember anything with the rivets, huh?


JANET ROSS: Anything with those metal strips that you used to talk about. 'Cause you told me the story -- Mommy, tell me the story about working in the metal sheet area. She says, "I have to tell you so I don't forget."


JANET ROSS: And she spoke about the steel shoes and the hardhat, and that's why -- I do remember -- she said, "Let me tell you this."

SADY SULLIVAN: What I've heard about the -- about the riveting was that the gun was really heavy -- really, really heavy -- not only for putting it forward to do the rivet, but to hold -- just to hold the gun up. Do you remember that kind of equipment?

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah, but you know, I'll tell you. When you get ninety years old, some of your memory sleeves have kind of closed up.


SADY SULLIVAN: Oh, I understand. Yeah.

JENNIFER EGAN: It's in there somewhere!

SADY SULLIVAN: You're doing great.

RUBENA ROSS: Wait, wait 'til you get ninety --

SADY SULLIVAN: I hope so. [laughter]

JENNIFER EGAN: If she's so lucky. [laughter]


RUBENA ROSS: -- and you will see --

JENNIFER EGAN: We hope, we hope.

RUBENA ROSS: -- that some of your little memory things, they'll be -- just have escaped you.

SADY SULLIVAN: Oh, I think you're doing great. Yeah.

DANIELLA ROMANO: This has definitely been one of the best interviews. Not that we do comparisons, but --

JENNIFER EGAN: Oh, no. [laughter]

DANIELLA ROMANO: -- this has been very rich. You have a fantastic memory.

SADY SULLIVAN: Well, if you guys feel done --

JENNIFER EGAN: I think we're -- yeah. I mean, I -- I feel like I could keep pushing and pushing, but I also feel like, you know, you've given us a lot, and I don't want to just wear you out for no reason.

DANIELLA ROMANO: The good thing is you're within twenty blocks, if anything 106:00comes to mind, you know, we can -- we can come back and see you easily.

JANET ROSS: Can I have a copy -- another copy -- so I can fax it to Frances Best's son? And if he can write down anything and --

JENNIFER EGAN: Sure. This is the -- this is the --

DANIELLA ROMANO: [inaudible]

SADY SULLIVAN: I do have one.

DANIELLA ROMANO: Great. Do you want me to photocopy it so you'll have extras again?

SADY SULLIVAN: Ooh, actually --

DANIELLA ROMANO: Is that it? Or is that your notes on --

SADY SULLIVAN: Oh, yeah. No, you're right. This is the blank ones.


SADY SULLIVAN: That's okay, I have a bunch.

JENNIFER EGAN: Did your mom talk a lot about the Navy Yard when you were growing up?

JANET ROSS: Um -- she spoke about it -- well, being the youngest -- she -- yeah, she did speak about it. Because Aunt Frances -- uh -- you know, they -- they had their own little conversations, and -- uh -- she did. Yeah. She said it was hard work, and saving your pennies, and Aunt Frances and her, basically, that was 107:00their time together --


JANET ROSS: -- because they were in their mid -- mid-twenties, so that was their time.

JENNIFER EGAN: Mm-hmm. Did the husbands become friends? Your dad and --

JANET ROSS: Yeah. Because Mom -- yeah. Because they would all -- depending on what shifts who were working where, and they would all go out to the beach and -- what were your hours, Mommy? Do you remember your hours that you worked here?

RUBENA ROSS: Mm, no. No. You know, I think -- I think I worked -- I came into work at four o'clock in the afternoon. One time -- sometimes you had an hour shift in the hours.

JANET ROSS: Maybe it was until four in the afternoon because you mentioned Daddy, if he got off his shift, he would come and pick Aunt Frances and you up, 108:00and y'all would go out to the beach. You know, it was like a Friday or something, early --


JANET ROSS: -- to get to the beach before sundown or something.

RUBENA ROSS: I'm sure.

JANET ROSS: You know, just -- you mentioned something about the Navy Yard and Aunt Frances and --

JENNIFER EGAN: And your dad.

JANET ROSS: He was an officer -- police officer. They would all go out to the beach. That was their --


JANET ROSS: And my -- um -- sisters -- Aunt Frances is my sisters' godmother, so it all stayed in the family, and --

RUBENA ROSS: She was like another mother.

JANET ROSS: Yeah. Well, Aunt Frances, yeah. Very ladylike, but she was a pistol, boy; she'd put you in place in a minute.

JENNIFER EGAN: So, you were both tough. Okay.



SADY SULLIVAN: I have the release forms. These are release forms for both of you to fill out.

JANET ROSS: Okay, now, this is to release the information that Mommy has talked about --

JENNIFER EGAN: Just the interview, the actual interview.

JANET ROSS: Were we on television? No. [laughter] Um -- okay.

DANIELLA ROMANO: And you'll have a chance to review the transcript and everything.

JANET ROSS: Yeah, to correct it. I mean, because there --

DANIELLA ROMANO: Maybe add some [inaudible], yeah.

JANET ROSS: Add, or, you know, if something was -- I have to study this --

DANIELLA ROMANO: And if you want to clarify things, yeah.

JANET ROSS: Yes. "Understand that the purpose of this --"

[Interview interrupted.]

JANET ROSS: "I hereby grant that ownership --"

SADY SULLIVAN: Will you tell me again, for -- since we're recording -- about 110:00your grapevines and the banana peels?

RUBENA ROSS: I -- what -- what do you want to know now?

SADY SULLIVAN: Tell me again about your -- your garden in the backyard and what you do to -- to keep it up.

RUBENA ROSS: Well, first of all, what I have out there in the line of plants are I have a grapevine. Now, the whole width of my yard is twenty feet wide, like this, and it's -- and it's separated from the neighbor with a fence, an iron fence. So that's twenty feet wide. And I'd say, going out from my kitchen windows, from the door, through the kitchen, and my kitchen level is just about 111:00right on just the level of the ground level. You walk out of the kitchen door, and you walk right out into the backyard.

SADY SULLIVAN: Oh, so no steps going down or anything, just right out?

RUBENA ROSS: Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. This -- you're coming right out from the kitchen, from the dining room, living room in the front, and through the dining room, and through the kitchen, and right out the kitchen door into the backyard -- all smooth walking --


RUBENA ROSS: Right out to the backyard. Well, the first portion, as you get into the yard, it's all cemented. I have it all cemented across. Then -- uh -- and I'm separated from the house to my -- my right and one to the left, we have 112:00fences. On one side is -- the people wanted a wooden fence because they didn't want to see through it. The other side, you know, I have a wire fence, and it goes all the way back to the end of the -- uh -- my portion of the land --


RUBENA ROSS: -- and across the back, then it connects over. And on top, I -- and then I built a framework, and at the end of my length of earth, I put in grapevines into the earth, across the whole back of the yard.

SADY SULLIVAN: You planted the grapevines.

RUBENA ROSS: Yeah. I did.

SADY SULLIVAN: Oh, wow. When did you plant them?

RUBENA ROSS: When I plant? Oh, I guess when I first bought the house --


RUBENA ROSS: -- that particular house, and that's been years ago now.

JANET ROSS: I think that was about twenty years.


RUBENA ROSS: Huh, hon?

JANET ROSS: About fifteen, twenty years.



RUBENA ROSS: And -- uh -- then -- and the grapevine, I built -- had a fence built up a frame, so when it come up, it has something to rest on.


RUBENA ROSS: And that goes from the end of the -- one end of the backyard to the other. And the grapevines just sprawl across.

SADY SULLIVAN: How long did it take them to get up onto the structure?

RUBENA ROSS: I don't know. I mean, I guess in the first year of growth from the root, it reached the fence.

SADY SULLIVAN: All the way, just in one year?

RUBENA ROSS: In one year.


RUBENA ROSS: That's how fast it grew.

SADY SULLIVAN: And then how long 'til you get -- you could get grapes?

RUBENA ROSS: And then it took years to put a -- see, I put one on one side and one on the other side, then as they grew up, they like met, and when they met, 114:00about mid-yard, I just take one line of the grapevine and spread them across -- because I built up a fence across -- a shelf, like, for them to rest on.


RUBENA ROSS: Not -- and -- and had it open. 'Cause I built it across with -- with poles, iron poles, so that the -- the vine, as it grew across like this, it could get air to come through the posts across --

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

RUBENA ROSS: -- and -- uh -- that goes all the way across. And the width of my backyard is twenty feet wide.

SADY SULLIVAN: So, twenty feet of grapevines. Amazing.

RUBENA ROSS: Go right across.

SADY SULLIVAN: And did someone teach you how to -- how to grow grapevines?

RUBENA ROSS: Well, my father was a farmer --


RUBENA ROSS: -- and I grew up on a farm, and I stayed down on the farm until I 115:00was twelve years old, when I came to New York. And by that time, I had learned everything you need to be learned about plant growth. My mother had a lot of beautiful plants, and Daddy had his farm, and they had the grapevine and everything. So, I just followed through, when I came to New York.

SADY SULLIVAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

RUBENA ROSS: And this past year, I had loads of grapes on that vine.

SADY SULLIVAN: What do you do with them?

RUBENA ROSS: Eat them.

SADY SULLIVAN: Eat them fresh? Do you have to put -- put any up?

RUBENA ROSS: No, I just -- no. Haven't got time to put any up. They get eaten before you can --

JENNIFER EGAN: Do you have -- do you have a problem with squirrels?


JENNIFER EGAN: Do you have a problem with squirrels? Because I live in Brooklyn, and I love to garden, and I have a terrible problem with squirrels eating all my stuff.



JANET ROSS: Well, we have cats, so --

JENNIFER EGAN: Oh, that's right. They say cats are very good for keeping the squirrels away.

RUBENA ROSS: The cats will come and go up on the grapevine, but now, we don't have much squirrels out where we --

JENNIFER EGAN: Probably because of the cats.

JANET ROSS: Well, we have squirrels.


JENNIFER EGAN: Maybe the cats keep them under control.

RUBENA ROSS: And then I have grass, green grass, between -- at that portion of cement in the backyard --

JENNIFER EGAN: These are two other -- um -- [inaudible].

RUBENA ROSS: -- come out of the kitchen. I've got just plain green grass, and that's supposed to go all the way to the backyard, and I -- Janet cut with the lawnmower, and I have rosebushes that I got into the earth --

SADY SULLIVAN: Did you plant the rosebushes also?

RUBENA ROSS: Oh, yeah, set them out by myself.

JANET ROSS: Okay, Ma. You have to sign this because of the interview that we have --


JANET ROSS: -- you have given.

RUBENA ROSS: Oh, okay.

JANET ROSS: In other words, your information --

RUBENA ROSS: Now, do I get a copy of this to go home with me?


DANIELLA ROMANO: The photographs are yours.

JANET ROSS: No, the signing.

DANIELLA ROMANO: Yeah, I can make you a copy.

JANET ROSS: Okay, and I'll have a copy of mine, too.

DANIELLA ROMANO: Okay, no problem.

RUBENA ROSS: I just have to sign this?

JANET ROSS: This states the information you have given --


JANET ROSS: -- it -- it can be used for publication. Any information -- your pay stub -- that they can -- and this information is true.

RUBENA ROSS: Mm-hmm. So, this is me?

JANET ROSS: And you didn't give away the recipe for apple pie, okay?


JENNIFER EGAN: Now, that's serious.



RUBENA ROSS: Now, which one do I keep?

JANET ROSS: I gave you mine?

SADY SULLIVAN: Do you have both of them?

JENNIFER EGAN: No, I don't have it.

SADY SULLIVAN: Maybe it's here?

DANIELLA ROMANO: Oh, here it is. No. Okay, I'm going to go run off a copy. I'll be right back.

JANET ROSS: Can you make a copy of this with the back and front because it's 118:00easier --


JENNIFER EGAN: Janet, what do you do? What kind of work do you do?

JANET ROSS: I'm my mother's caregiver.


JANET ROSS: And I was in computers until it was time for her to --


JANET ROSS: -- you know, have someone home for her.


MR. MATTS: Came in to say hello.

JENNIFER EGAN: Hi, how are you.

MR. MATTS: Hello.

RUBENA ROSS: How are you?

MR. MATTS: I'm Mr. Matts [phonetic].

RUBENA ROSS: How are you, sir?

MR. MATTS: I've heard all about you. It's a pleasure to meet you.

RUBENA ROSS: Well, I'm ninety years old, so I've been around a while.

MR. MATTS: Yes, you have.


JENNIFER EGAN: Have you two met?



JENNIFER EGAN: Okay, I figured you must have.

MR. MATTS: Hi, I'm [inaudible] Matts.

JANET ROSS: Hello. Janet Ross, Rubena Ross's daughter. Nice to meet you.

MR. MATTS: Okay, well -- sorry to interrupt you.

JENNIFER EGAN: Good to see you. Wow, it's going to be dark when we go out there. Crazy.



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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Rubena Ross

Rubena Rhodes Ross (1918- ) was born in South Carolina where her mother was a teacher and her father was a farmer. Her family moved to Flushing, Queens when she was eleven and later settled in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she heard about work at the Navy Yard through her neighbors. Since Rhodes had learned to sew at an early age from her mother, she signed on to work as a seamstress in the flag loft at the Navy Yard.

Rubena Rhodes Ross (1918- ) worked as a seamstress in a few factories before beginning work at the Navy Yard. During her interview, Ross describes the process of sewing the flags and her work environment. She remembers enjoying her work at the Navy Yard, relating that her supervisors did not just see her as a just worker, which was a different experience from her previous factory jobs. She also talks about her family, including her brother who was in the Airforce with the Tuskegee Airmen and her husband, who spent some time as a photographer for the Army. Interview conducted by Sady Sullivan and Jennifer Egan.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard oral history collection is comprised of over fifty interviews of men and women who worked in or around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, primarily during World War II. The narrators discuss growing up in New York, their work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, their relationships with others at the Yard, gender relations and transportation to and from work. Many narrators bring up issues of ethnicity, race, and religion at the Yard or in their neighborhoods. Several people describe the launching of the USS Missouri battleship and recall in detail their daily tasks at the Yard (as welders, office workers and ship fitters). While the interviews focus primarily on experiences in and around the Yard, many narrators go on to discuss their lives after the Navy Yard, relating stories about their careers, dating and marriage, children, social activities, living conditions and the changes that took place in Manhattan and Brooklyn during their lifetimes.


Ross, Rubena Rhodes, 1918-, Oral history interview conducted by Sady Sullivan, Jennifer Egan, and Daniella Romano, November 03, 2008, Brooklyn Navy Yard oral history collection, 2010.003.020; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • New York Naval Shipyard
  • Ross, Rubena Rhodes, 1918-


  • African Americans
  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Local transit
  • Shipyards
  • Tailors
  • Uniforms
  • Wages
  • Women--Employment
  • Women's clothing
  • Work environment
  • World War, 1939-1945


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)


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Finding Aid

Brooklyn Navy Yard oral history collection