By Southwester Staff 

A man paces along the boardwalk at the Navy Yard in Southeast D.C. during the COVID-19 pandemic. His sweatshirt reads, “What’s your 1619?” The year refers to the arrival of the first slave ship in Virginia, an event that inaugurated centuries of oppression for African Americans. Other passersby in Navy Yard enjoy the eerily pleasant vacancy of this post-industrial space in the nation’s capital. The neighborhood’s deserted old factory buildings are now seamlessly interwoven with new restaurants and boutique shops. Most lay dark and quiet – unable to open their doors for fear of spreading the deadly virus.

Seven decades ago, the streets and factories of the Navy Yard bustled with a different kind of activity. It was the largest naval armaments factory in the world at the time, sending countless tons of ordinance to U.S. troops fighting in Europe and the Pacific, and this month we mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day.

Historic newsreel footage of the Navy Yard, which can be found on YouTube under “U.S. Naval Gun Factory Washington, D.C. 1940s,” gives a bird’s-eye view of the 125-acre campus. In the 200 buildings that still largely fill that part of Southeast D.C. – comprised of factories, shops, warehouses, foundries, rail lines, laboratories, and much more – the “tremendous potential” of the workers, scientists, and military personnel built the wartime machinery that helped us defeat the Nazis.

Down the waterway in Alexandria, Va., in another old torpedo factory, Jewish historian, Gerhard Weinberg, supervised the team microfilming the countless captured German war documents. During the Cold War, he would be representative of a cornerstone of the United States’ power in the subsequent history of our country and of the world. While global superpowers fought each other by supporting so-called proxy nations, rather than deploying the full might of their own militaries, the information industry thrived in Washington, D.C.

While Weinberg and the U.S. military were bringing the German war machine home to build up our wealth of intelligence, African Americans, who fought and died in that war, demanded equality with renewed fervor. They brought back the “tremendous potential” of the wartime mindset, and won desegregation of the military in 1948. The Capital City wouldn’t start to see similar measures in institutions until subsequent decades. And, the District wouldn’t be allowed to vote in federal elections until the 1960s. 

According to the above mentioned Navy newsreel, the “gun factory’s greatest resource” was its “master craftsmen, its master mechanics and supervisors, its scientists and engineers, specialists in a multitude of fields,” and so on. Among those “men and women, representing a great variety of skills,” were the workers described as the “great rank-and-file of the gun factory’s veteran employees.” In effect, essential workers. 

Today, 75 years after VE Day, we are again confronted with how essential certain workers are. Whether it is because they have no choice but to work in the service industry, in close contact with possibly infected patrons, or because they cannot work their job remotely and have been laid off, they are fighting in this war.

With so many federal and private sector researchers housed in Southeast D.C., we ought to once again recall that we serve our community and country on the backs of essential workers. Like Weinberg, many of us produce information rather than bombs, and we are considered essential to national institutions, and receive the requisite visibility. Yet the working class is too often taken for granted, overlooked. 

In reflecting on the anniversary of our triumph over the Nazis, we ought to consider what progress we will have made in the next 10 or 20 years. What changes and innovations – what new kinds of understanding – will we bring back from the COVID-19 pandemic? Essentially, what will we bring back that pushes us forward?

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