Philly Rising: A filmmaker's mission to get 600,000 black 'Rosies' recognized

Antionette Lee
February 28, 2020 - 6:00 am

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Gregory Cooke has been on a mission to get 600,000 African American women recognized for their contributions during World War II for more than a decade now. 

“The untold story of 600,000 'Rosie Riveters,' black women who went to work during World War II, who helped build planes and tanks and make ammunition. There were also codebreakers in Washington, D.C. Black women,” Cooke explained. 

There was little information about this black history until the historian and filmmaker began tracking down some of the women to uncover their stories. Their recounts of history are unveiled in his documentary called “Invisible Warriors: African American Women in World War II.” 

The black “Rosies” who are still living are now in their late 90s and early 100s.

Ruth Wilson, who worked in the Philadelphia Navy Yard during the war, is now 97.

"Well, one day the loud speaker came on and the manager asked if anyone had worked at the Navy Yard during World War II would they please come to the office, and I was the only one who came down, and that's how I met Mr. Cooke," Wilson said. 

Before her job in the navy yard, Wilson was employed as a caretaker of two girls. She says her job as a sheet metal specialist paid a lot more money, which helped her gain independence and take better care of her family.  

“I worked in Dry Dock 5 on the USS Valley Forge — carried 100 airplanes — and I stayed there until the war ended,” she said. 

Before Cooke came along, she didn’t think much of what took place decades ago. 

“Just that the war was history. I never dreamed I'd be a part of it until Mr. Cooke came along, I thought nothing of it,” she explained. 

Cooke calls Wilson and the thousands of other African American women who joined the workforce at that time the “greatest generation” and one the most significant groups in our nation’s history because of their impact then and the difference it made for the women after them. 

“These women had a tremendous impact on the modern labor movement, gender equality, civil rights, and the U.S. military. Today, all women in professional and nontraditional careers, stand on the shoulders of our greatest generation,” he said.  

Cooke will host an annual awards luncheon during Women’s History Month in March to honor the African American women of World War II. The documentary will be screened at the luncheon and again at Drexel University.  

Cooke says with recent support from leaders at Drexel, he hopes he will be able to release the full documentary this year.