Serena Williams: Rosie the Riveter Had Nothing on Her

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Rosie the Riveter

-by Emily Akin-

Serena Williams of Union City is a member of the Greatest Generation. She didn’t serve in the military, but she was one of many female workers who rescued American industry while the men fought WWII. Like the fictional Rosie the Riveter, Serena learned to do a job traditionally done by men.  

Born in Sarasota, Florida, Serena grew up in Wauchula, where she graduated high school early. While finishing high school, she attended a free government-sponsored radio school. There she learned radio maintenance and how to build a radio from scratch. She graduated high school in December of 1942 and radio school soon after. She was also licensed to send Morse code.

Serena and two others from radio school were hired to work in Memphis at Chicago and Southern Airlines (later merged with Delta). The others didn’t last long, but Serena persisted. Radar was new and very restricted at the time. Serena was the only woman at the airline allowed to install radar in planes. After D-Day, she realized that her job was no longer secure. She was dating Fred Williams, a Union City native also working in Memphis, who was not eligible for military service because of his eyesight.

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Serena Williams displays a photo of her and her husband Fred taken circa 1944.

Fred and Serena went to the employment office to check on other jobs. They heard the government was hiring at a new town in East Tennessee called Oak Ridge. These jobs were related to the war effort, but the exact nature of the work was secret. We now know Oak Ridge was where uranium was enriched for the atomic bomb. “We went to Oak Ridge to find out more,” Serena said. “And we were both hired.” They worked different jobs, often on different shifts.

“We decided to get married, and we invited a friend to come,” she said. Both bride and groom were required to have blood tests, but Fred’s blood test didn’t come back in time for their planned weekend wedding. She said, “So we just drove down to Georgia, got married, and returned to Oak Ridge in time for work on Monday, no honeymoon or anything.”

Employees at Oak Ridge were not allowed to talk about their jobs, even to spouses. She said, “You had to show your ID to get in the complex. The guards checked cars for items that were not allowed to be brought in or to leave. If you lost your ID, you were in big trouble.”

Serena worked in a large facility in one of a dozen cubicles. The cubicle door stayed locked all the time, and she still has that key. “I was classified as an electrician. There were radio tubes as small as my finger, and some so large that I couldn’t lift them. The magnetic fields were so strong that the workers’ hair would stand out from their heads. Some of the women had bobby pins pop out of their hair,” she said.

Serena resigned in July of 1945 because she was pregnant. When the war ended in August, the facility began layoffs. Fred and Serena moved to his home town of Union City, where they raised two daughters. He worked as a tractor mechanic and Ford parts manager. Serena was a legal secretary for a while. Then, she became secretary at First Christian Church (1949-1977). In later years, she became the first female elder of the church. In the summers, she worked for Western Union as a relief manager. Certified in Western Union operations during her radio training, she worked in WU offices in the area so regular managers could take vacation. In 1978, Serena took a job at Union City Iron and Metal Company, where she was manager until 1985.

Fred and Serena loved to travel out West to places like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Calgary, Canada, for the stampede. She said, “We didn’t get to go to New England. We intended to go there one summer, but we visited battlefields in Virginia and Pennsylvania and Lancaster County. We then decided to go to Michigan to see friends, so we ran out of time.” She’d still like to visit New England, Hawaii, or Scotland. And she would take those trips by herself if her family would let her.

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Serena is an active member of the duplicate bridge group that meets weekly at the Eddie Cox Senior Center.

Serena has done a lot of volunteer work. She has 5,000 hours of volunteer time at the hospital. She loves playing cards, too. She’s a long-time member of the Union City Duplicate Bridge Club, and she’s pretty much an authority on the subject. She started playing back in the 1950s. The club now plays bridge every Thursday at the Eddie Cox Senior Center at noon. “We now have five tables,” she said. “That’s down from 14. I’ve taught many people how to play.”

Serena said she thinks she’s had an interesting life, and I totally agree. Asked if she or any of her co-workers at Oak Ridge were shocked to find out they had been working on the atomic bomb, Serena said. “We were surprised but not upset. We knew we were contributing to the war effort. We wanted to do whatever we could to bring it to an end.” Like the others of her generation, she did her part.