The Gadsden Times
Gadsden, ala. (AP) — Zaddie Johnson is no stranger to hard work. She and her family were sharecroppers in the ’20s and ’30s, and she worked alongside her brothers and sisters on the farms.
“Girls had to work like men,” the 95-year-old Tidmore Bend woman said. “We picked cotton, hoed cotton, hauled hay …”
That work ethic served her well during World War II, when she was part of an all-female welding crew at the shipyard in Mobile.
Zaddie was born in 1918 in East Gadsden, on the Paden Farm. There were eight children in her family, and she said her father didn’t want them to get married.
“So at 17, I ran away and got married,” she said.
Zaddie married Roosevelt Johnson, whom everybody called Ted. “By the time I was 20, I had two babies,” she said. Barbara was born in 1936 and Ted in 1937.
Like most young families during those years, the Johnsons struggled.
“We started with nothing, so you were glad for anything you had,” Zaddie said. “Both my babies were in diapers, and I was washing on a rub board and drawing water out of a well. I look back and wonder how people did all that. We didn’t starve, but we had very little to exist on.”
Soon after World War II began, the Johnsons moved to Mobile so Ted could get a job on the docks. He was a welder and there was plenty of work because so many men had gone into the armed services.
Ted went down first and rented a place in Prichard for the family to live.
“We got down there and there was two rooms,” Zaddie recalled. They shared a bathroom in the middle with another family.
“I got there and I cleaned all day,” she said. “It smelled so bad. I just kept cleaning and cleaning.”
That night when her husband got home from work, she told him she couldn’t seem to get the smell out. He started laughing.
“He says, ‘That’s the paper mill you smell,'” Zaddie said.
She soon got a job at the paper mill, but worked there for only a short time.
“I found out you could make more money at the shipyard,” she said. “Just a little bit more money meant a lot to people.”
At first she only helped, tacking the weld for the welders. “I had never seen a welding machine in my life,” Zaddie said. “Ever chance I got, I would start practicing. It wasn’t long till I got on a welding crew.”
The crew consisted of about 15 women, and they worked until the war was over.
“There was no men to do the jobs,” she said. “I was assigned to the welding crew and I liked it. I didn’t know anybody by their first name.”
Zaddie learned to climb on and off the platforms, and the women pulled their own cables and worked to put the pieces together.
She recalled one day when her crew went on strike after they were sent to correct mistakes made by the night-shift crew.
“One of the girls came by and said, ‘Johnson, come on. We’re striking,'” she said. “So I followed them. Our boss followed behind us, too, and they soon sent us to our regular jobs. We didn’t want to have to fix their mess.”
The workers carpooled, and Zaddie said, “When that whistle blew, there was a mad rush to get out of there.”
At least five tankers would be built at the shipyard at the same time. Once her job of helping build the hull was complete, the ship went to another area where the inside was finished.
“Then some bigwig would break a bottle of champagne over it,” she said.
After the war was over, Ted worked as a welder and they moved to Pascagoula, Miss. Zaddie owned a restaurant and they lived there five years. Barbara worked alongside her mother in the restaurant for several years.
Some of their friends bought a camper to hit the road for long-term construction jobs, and the Johnsons decided to do the same thing.
They worked around the country at power plants and similar locations and usually stayed no longer than a year at one place. Most of the time Zaddie worked in restaurants.
“In these boom towns, people would swarm in and out,” she said. “Our real constant was that we had our home with us. We had some stability to a degree.”
Barbara said she went to a different school every year, but graduated from high school in Middleport, Ohio.
By then, Zaddie said, they had become tired of traveling, so they moved back to Hokes Bluff and Ted graduated there.
The family built a house in Hokes Bluff and Zaddie got in on some of the construction.
“I welded the deck on the house in Hokes Bluff,” she said. “I showed them how to do it, just for the heck of it.”
Zaddie and her husband were married for 61 years. He died in 1996.
Barbara married and stayed in Ohio for several years, but also returned to Etowah County. Now she and her mother live together. Ted and his wife, Marie, live in Hokes Bluff.
Zaddie said she gave up her car keys voluntarily a few years ago. “That was hard because I drove all over the country,” she said.
She hangs on to her memories and thinks often about how things have changed through the years.
“We didn’t even have electricity until after we were married,” she said. “Now if the power goes off, we’re helpless.”
Zaddie said she probably won’t see times again as tough as she had long ago, but she believes others will.
“But even with all that, we haven’t seen anything yet,” she said. “It’s in the book [Bible].”