Frances Albrier in her Red Cross uniform. (Courtesy of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland)
n 1940, an industrialist named Henry J. Kaiser was approached by the British government and asked to build ships to aid the United Kingdom’s World War II efforts. Kaiser was one of the main contractors responsible for building the Hoover Dam, and he had an impeccable reputation. To accommodate the UK’s request, Kaiser opened his first shipyard in Richmond, California. As the war ramped up and demand increased, Kaiser’s one shipyard turned into four. By the end of the war, tens of thousands of workers in Richmond had built 747 ships — more than any other shipyard in America.
By 1942, with so many men away at war, this Richmond hub was employing tens of thousands of women. That year, they hired their first ever Black female welder: Frances Albrier. At 44, Albrier had already done her part for the war effort, volunteering with the Red Cross as a nurse and first aid instructor. But presented with any opportunity to contribute to a collective good, the Berkeley resident always grabbed it with both hands.
In addition to her nursing and ship-building, Albrier also volunteered at Oakland’s De Fremery Park Hospitality House, a recreation center for soldiers. During this time, Albrier frequently used the letters pages of local newspapers to ask the public for donations that would benefit soldiers stationed all over the Bay. (At one point, she successfully acquired two pianos for a Berkeley camp of servicemen — one for church services, one for downtime. She knew small actions could have hugely positive impacts.)
Though committed to helping everyone serving in World War II, Albrier was particularly concerned about the welfare of Black soldiers. After an incident of violence against Black servicemen stationed in Louisiana in 1942, Albrier wrote an impassioned plea to the Oakland Tribune. Her letter said, in part:
The Army has taken thousands of Negro men from the Northern, Eastern and Western sections and placed them in localities whose traditions and practices are to insult, beat, shoot and lynch them … Fair minded, liberal Christian white Americans should help their brothers of darker skin by protesting against these insults heaped on citizens who are doing their part to save our democracy, which they hope someday may exist for them also.
lbrier’s commitment to assisting the communities around her did not start — nor stop — with the war. Raised in Tuskegee, Alabama by her grandparents following her mother’s death, she graduated with a BA from Howard University in 1920. Albrier moved to Berkeley that year and, inspired by an Oakland meeting of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, she volunteered as a Black Cross Nurse. The Black Cross was a Red Cross-inspired organization specifically focused on the health needs of the Black community at a time when hospitals and medical offices were still segregated, including in California.
Soon after that, during a five-year employment as a maid, manicurist and ticket-taker with Pullman Company first-class trains, Albrier helped her fellow maids and porters to unionize.
In 1938, Albrier served on the board of directors of the National Negro Congress and became the first woman elected to the Alameda County Democratic Ventral Committee. All the while, she also passionately campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom she had met on a Pullman train while he was the governor of New York. That same year, Albrier was president of the East Bay Women’s Welfare Club, which campaigned to employ more Black teachers in Berkeley schools and visited classrooms to inspire children of color. The club was also trying to get some Black representation in local government — which led Albrier, in 1939, to become the first ever Black person to run for Berkeley City Council.
“I didn’t think I would be elected,” she said in 1977, “but … I received a great many votes. My idea of running was to meet the people. I knew that if I ran for city council, I would be invited to the clubs and organizations to give my views on the city government.” Albrier went on: “I wanted to tell them that we had 5,000 [Black] taxpayers without any representation in the city government or the schools of Berkeley. That was the message I wanted to get over to them.”
Albrier didn’t need to be a political candidate to become embedded with “the clubs” however. Throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Albrier held prominent positions at an astonishing number of organizations. These included: the NAACP (both Alameda County and Berkeley branches), the Department of Women in Industry, the California Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the Citizens Employment Council, National Council of Negro Women (San Francisco chapter), the Ladies Auxiliary Dining Car Union, East Bay Women’s Missionary Fellowship and the Golden Gate Democratic Club. There was also the Negro Cultural and Historical Society, the Democratic Women’s Study Club, the East Bay Negro Historical Society and the Berkeley Women’s Town Council.
Albrier’s motivations for being involved in so many different causes were reflected in one “Thought of the day” notecard she wrote to herself in the late 1940s. “We have prayed together during the stirring, anxious, tragic years of war,” she wrote in neat cursive. “Now we have peace and we are profoundly grateful to God. We must, however, continue to pray with the same earnestness, the same faith and constancy. The problems of peace are many, as serious and as disturbing as those of wartime. And they demand a courage equal to that called for by the fiery trials of the war years.”
he fire that drove Albrier back then never cooled. As she strode towards her senior years, she became concerned about the welfare of the elderly — particularly those that were impoverished and did not have families to fall back on. (Albrier herself had raised three children — William, Betty and Anita — from her first marriage to William Albert Jackson. Four years after Jackson’s death, she married Willie Antoine Albrier.)
Once again, Albrier got involved in any way that she could. In 1965, Albrier was appointed to the City of Berkeley’s Committee on Aging. She acted as a senior community representative at the Berkeley Senior Center. By 1971, she’d been called on to act as a delegate at the White House Conference on Aging. (The gathering’s express purpose was to solidify a “comprehensive national policy” for aging Americans.) Albrier spent five years on the board of directors for the South Berkeley Model Cities Neighborhood Council. In that role, she was key in establishing Harriet Tubman Terrace — housing for low income seniors. Albrier even delivered meals (and companionship) to the elderly and infirm — something the City of Berkeley recognized with an award in 1978.
After a life thoroughly well-lived, Frances Albrier died on Aug. 21, 1987. She left behind 11 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and too many admirers, friends and supporters to count. Before she was buried at the Sunset View Cemetery in her beloved Berkeley, her family released an obituary that paid tribute to the incredible impacts Albrier made in her 88 years.
“She served as a role model and inspiration for innumerable educators, politicians and community service groups,” they wrote. “It might be said of Frances Albrier that she was a living example of the philosophy ‘Be all you can be.’ Suffice it to say that all of us who have touched the hem of her garment will always serve our communities.”