Eugenia Powell Deas was the only African-American woman who worked as a welder in the Charleston Naval Shipyard during World War II. While other African-American women worked as cooks and cleaners, Deas was welding.
Born September 21, 1924, Deas grew up in McClellanville, South Carolina. She lost her mother when she was seven months old. “My grandmother had to take over raising me because my daddy couldn’t raise me by himself,” she said in a recent interview.
Her father got married and took her from her grandmother to Charleston, where he lived with his new wife. She cooked and kept the house clean while schooling. She finished her twelfth grade at high school in Charleston.
Deas went on to train as a welder. “At that school, I was the only black woman”. She then began working at the Charleston Navy Shipyard as an electric welder. “… used to go on the ship and weld the little place to keep it from leaking. You know where the leave on and thing like that,” she told Museum on Main Street.
During World War II, Deas worked at the shipyard for two years. She recalled other African-American women calling her “One chocolate drop in the box. Because I was the only black woman welder. The other women there would do the cleaning and the cooking but I wanted to do something besides clean and cook. So I was a welder.”
As an electric welder, Deas said she had to wear special equipment. She always wore jeans and a helmet.
Asked if it was hard work, she said “Yeah, but I enjoyed it. I was kind of a tom-boy. I didn’t mind doing man work. It tickled me just to do the man work. They used to call me a ting because women weren’t supposed to do welding work”.
In her own words, she said: “The only thing a woman used to do, be in the classroom and teach the children and then cook and clean and take care her family and the white woman babies, we had to mind too.”
To change that perception, she said: “I wanted to do everything I wanted to do”.
“When I first learned to drive, they scold me ’cause I drive a car! ‘Cause only man, see I’m 92 years old now, only man and boy drive car when I first learned to. That ting to drive car? That ting think he a man? kind of hard up, where I could step up higher. I didn’t care what they call me, I do it, I do what I want”.
Reminiscing one time when a man decided not to hire her because he didn’t think she could do the work, Deas said: “Yeah, said I was a woman and I couldn’t do welding. And I already practiced some with being with the different people who would do the welding before, but he didn’t know I could do it. And I surprise him. When I go and light that rod and go and do the weaving. When did you learn to do that? I do any kind of work where I get good money. And honest labor I’m talking about! And I always wanted self-respect.
“I’m mother of nine kids. All from one daddy and he died after a couple years, I forgot what year it was. And I never remarried again. So I had to raise them children. And I would do them different jobs so I had money to send them to college,” she said.
The 92-year-old also touched on her days working at Lincoln High School. “I work at Lincoln High School. I was the head cook at Lincoln High School. I did all kinds of different work all to make an honest living. And I had to educate my children. I can’t just bring them in the world and let them go without education.
“And nine little children that ain’t no little job. But all my children have good education. God bless me, I couldn’t do it without the good Lord. And I serve my Lord now, he love us all. All you have to do it what? Trust and obey. There’s no other way to be happy in Jesus. Learn to trust and obey.”
She said she had a garden and a chicken house, with a chicken yard and chicken that want to lay eggs. “I plant my corn and collard greens. And sweet potatoes! Then I could go fishing. Catfish, mullet, whiten, crab, oyster! McClellanville had more seafood than any other town in South Carolina” she said.
Proud of her efforts to single-handedly raise her nine children, she asked: “How many black women could say, I sent all my children to college who wanted to go? And that’s what I did. And right now, I’m 92 years old.”