Clarence Irving Sr., 87, a former St. Albans resident, is among dozens of Brooklyn Navy Yard workers whose stories and experiences are featured in an oral history project to be unveiled next week at the facility, where shipbuilding began after the American Revolution and which in its heyday sprawled over 200 acres.
After passing a civil service exam in 1940, Irving was accepted into an accelerated three-year apprenticeship program at the yard, where we worked as a machinist from 1944 to 1946 and again in 1952 during the Korean War, operating equipment such as milling machines and drill presses.
“There are very few of us left who ever worked at the yard at that time,” said Irving, who was interviewed for the project about two years ago. “There was a uniqueness about that time, it was very different than it is today.”
Initially the project, a collaboration between the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. and its partner, the Brooklyn Historical Society, was to focus on employees from the WWII-era, the peak of the facility’s production when it employed 70,000 people, 24 hours a day.
But in 2009 it was expanded to include interviews with people who worked there after the yard was decommissioned from 1964 to 1966 through its present use as an industrial park.
“I hope people will take away the notion of how things could be better today, if we lived as we did back then,” Irving said. “I am so pro the program. People have forgotten what it took to get us where we are today and what a great country this was. People had respect for each other and there was tolerance.”
Irving said he jumped at the chance to be a machinist, because he was fascinated by the profession, adding that his father was a ship fitter during the Spanish-American War, and his brother also worked in the yard, during the late 1930s.
“There was a small group of us that said ‘give us a chance and we can succeed,’ and we did,” Irving, who lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn at the time, said of the black Navy Yard workers, whom he described as an “exceptional determined group of people.”
Both black and white employees worked together as a team, unified by a single goal, to get the job done by the required deadline and help the nation during wartime.
“Even though they had discrimination, you were better off working for the government than you would be working in private industry,” Irving says during his interview for the oral history project, adding that at the time blacks were not allowed to join unions, so if a problem arose with a boss, and the person worked in the private sector, it often ended badly, “because the truth wasn’t always told.”
In addition to his work at the yard, Irving has had numerous accomplishments during his lifetime. In 1978, the historian and stamp collector came up with the idea for the Black Heritage Stamp Series, which in 2003 featured an image of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
In 1984, Irving founded the Black American Heritage Foundation, which aimed to ensure that all black people, whether famous or not, had a caretaker to preserve their history. The group still exists, but is less active because of its aging members, Irving said.
“Our mission, our philosophy has been, that African Americans, black people of African descent, who were born here or are naturalized citizens, should take claim of where they came from and understand their history,” Irving said. “We were the bushwhackers who cleared the path for others to come here en masse, and they should have appreciation for what we have done.”
An area lawmaker even suggested naming a Jamaica post office after Irving. On Dec. 18, 2007, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) introduced a bill to designate the branch located at 88-40 164 St. as the “Clarence L. Irving, Sr., Post Office Building.” Records show the bill was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, but it didn’t move forward.
There will be a public ceremony to unveil the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s oral history project at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, at Building 92, the exhibition and visitors center, Irving said. For more information, go online to bldg92.com/oral_histories.html