The Pacific Parachute Company
Born in Alabama, Howard “Skippy” Smith (1913–2003) moved to California in the 1930s and launched a successful career as a skydiver. He and his partner, Mac “Skip” Gravelle, performed spectacular parachute jumps in air shows around the Los Angeles area.
In 1941, Smith began working for Standard Parachute in San Diego as a parachute packer and inspector. He was the first African American hired by the company, which was a major defense contractor for the U.S. government. Smith went on to start his own company, Pacific Parachute, which operated as a subcontractor for Standard Parachute. To finance the venture, Smith partnered with entertainer Eddie Anderson, who played the role of “Rochester” on Jack Benny’s radio show. He also brought in other celebrities, including boxer Joe Louis and performer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, to promote the plant. Smith recruited his half-brother Herman Warren, business manager of the Evanston Wolverines football team, to supervise manufacturing operations.
This is an hour of crisis. It is a crisis of democracy. . . . What is this crisis? To American Negroes, it is the denial of jobs in Government defense projects. It is racial discrimination in Government departments. It is widespread Jim Crowism in the armed forces of the Nation.
A. Philip Randolph, issuing the call for a march on Washington, 1941
In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, called for a massive march on Washington to protest discrimination against African Americans seeking jobs in the nation’s growing defense industry. Five days before the march was to take place, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in government and defense employment.
When the Pacific Parachute Company opened in 1942, it was heralded as a significant achievement for Black business as well as a progressive step in American race relations. At the San Diego plant, company president Howard “Skippy” Smith promoted federal anti-discrimination policy by hiring an equal number of Black, Mexican, and white employees. While promoted as an example of “democracy in action,” Pacific Parachute also helped to advance the African American campaign to secure a “double victory” in World War II—freedom and equality at home and freedom and democracy abroad.
Under the leadership of president Howard “Skippy” Smith and general manager Herman Warren, Pacific Parachute produced more than 60,000 pilot parachutes for the U.S. military and won the National Negro Business League award in 1943 for most outstanding Black business. In July 1943, Pacific Parachute received a contract to manufacture parts for the Douglas Aircraft Company. With military demand for parachutes decreasing, this shift in production enabled the company to remain in business for the duration of the war.
In 1944, Pacific Parachute relocated to Los Angeles. In contrast to the San Diego plant, which had employed a racially diverse workforce, the new factory was entirely staffed by African Americans. Located in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of South Los Angeles, the plant provided skilled jobs for Black workers and support for the city’s growing African American community. The company remained in operation until 1946.