In 2017, as all three of Meredith Ritchie’s triplets prepared to leave for college, she found herself in need of a reinvention.
“I knew I needed something to transition and to not be a helicopter parent on three different campuses,” she said, laughing. “I knew I wanted to learn something new. I was fairly young. I always said I could create a Meredith 2.0 if I wanted to. And so then it was like, ‘I said that so much, now I’ve got to go do it.’”
Focusing on her love for writing and following the advice of local authors she reached out to, Ritchie connected with local nonprofit Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, also known as Charlotte Lit, where she took a year-long Authors Lab class that connected her with local writing coach and author Paula Martinac.
From that experience came Poster Girls, Ritchie’s debut novel that follows the stories of two women living and working in Charlotte during World War II.
The book delves into a largely forgotten part of Charlotte’s history: Ritchie’s two protagonists — Kora, a Black woman from Alabama; and Maggie, a white woman from Boston — take jobs at the Shell Assembly Plant, a massive naval munitions assembly factory that employed one in 10 Charlotteans during WWII.
In 1942, it took less than six months for the U.S. Rubber Company and U.S. Navy to carve out over 2,300 acres near Steele Creek, erect 250 buildings, and employ up to 10,000 employees for Charlotte’s Shell Plant, with women and people of color filling the vast majority of positions to help fill the void left by men at war.
Upon the release of Poster Girls, I sat with Ritchie at Giddy Goat Coffee Roasters in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood to discuss how her own personal journey led her back in time to the 1940s and to this story, among other things.
Queen City Nerve: How did you decide on this time period? Why WWII?
Meredith Ritchie: I was in a job transition in 2017, and it was actually before the whole Me Too thing hit, but I just asked myself a question: “How do women lead? What is the unique way that women lead?”
And I really couldn’t answer that question because the people I had reported to and dealt with that were women usually got where they were because they led like men. So I was like, “Well, how are we going to figure out when they’re always there? … Oh, wait, there was a time when they weren’t there.” That was World War II.
And I had just been to Camp North End, and I thought for sure, “Oh, that was probably something really cool in World War II.” It was not.
Was it not a bomb-making facility?
Meredith Ritchie: In the ’50s it was. Those were the Nike bombs. They shipped out supplies in WWII, totally boring, not the right setting, but in Googling that, the Shell Plant came up.
I never knew about the Shell Plant. For two-and-a-half years it was this huge deal in Charlotte, and nobody knew about it. I was born here and I’ve lived here most of my life and I didn’t know about this. What a cool setting to do this and to tell about the forgotten history of Charlotte.
So that became my setting, and I did a bunch of research on it down at the Carolina Room at the [Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Main branch]. There was a guy in Steele Creek [named Walter Neely] that helped a lot, because that’s where [the Shell Plant] was.
Are the buildings still there?
Meredith Ritchie: The only building left, according to Walter Neely, who has written all this stuff on the history, is a Mexican restaurant on Westinghouse [Boulevard] called La Poblanita. So that is the only building that’s still standing. Ironically, it was the main cafeteria. It’s the one that burned down and they built it back.
How did you decide to explore the racial aspects of it, especially in that time period? You said in a press release that it mirrored your own personal journey, so tell me about what that journey was.
Meredith Ritchie: When Black Lives Matter happened, I started to Google, and that was my primary research. I didn’t know that much about Brooklyn in Charlotte, so I learned and kind of fell in love with Brooklyn, which had 1,400 homes and 250 businesses. I had no idea that it was that big.
There are some great descriptions you write depicting everyday life in places like the Cherry and Brooklyn neighborhoods. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Levine Museum’s City Within a City exhibit about Brooklyn. Did you do any of your research through Levine?
Meredith Ritchie: Levine was a big help. [Levine staff historian] Dr. Willie Griffin was a big help. He gave me some great book choices to read; one is called The Queen City at War [by Stephen Drew]. It’s fabulous.
I didn’t know anything about Roosevelt’s executive order in 1941 — no. 8802, which he wrote — that said there’s no racial discrimination allowed in the defense industry. I love the movie Hidden Figures, and that was the same executive order that allowed those women to work in the defense industry.
And so basically The Queen City at War told me that there was no wage discrimination allowed, so they were all paid the same. A lot of the African Americans were coming from making $3 a week, and now making $25-$30 a week … This is a game changer.
I just always knew that Kora wanted to buy a house, and I also wanted the reader to understand on their own — especially the white readers — to empathize with Kora and know that this is what she wanted and also know the history afterwards [of urban renewal that led to the destruction of Brooklyn] and put two and two together, and to understand it wasn’t right.
It’s interesting you say that because there are certain themes that I noticed that run through the book, and one of them, for lack of a better term, could be described as white guilt. Sometimes it even takes a very literal form, as Maggie is the reason behind Kora getting fired early in the book and feels the need to remedy that situation. Was that something you were conscious of while you were writing?
Meredith Ritchie: Well, yeah, I think, and that evolved over the whole Black Lives Matter movement, too. I really dove in, I was reading books and really trying to educate myself, and not just for the book but to be a better community neighbor.
I learned the term white savior, and I definitely tried to stay away from that. It wasn’t Kora that needed saving, it might have been Maggie, or they saved each other, or they helped each other.
That white guilt, I’ve since learned, is really exhausting for Black people, because as soon as they educate a white person, then the guilt comes in and they have to console them. And I’m like, if I had to do that over and over again, I would be exhausted, and I would just be done.
I did have sensitivity readers, by the way, so that was key.
What was that process like?
Meredith Ritchie: I ended up engaging a friend of a friend, her name was Marla Mahon, and she just nailed it. She just really took the time to peel through Kora and would just tell me “no” sometimes.
You speak specifically about skin color in that Kora is light-skinned enough to have “passed” as white on the bus when she was a kid. What led you to include that?
Meredith Ritchie: Well, you realize that race is a social construct, like it’s a set of rules based on something that can change; it’s just a genetic feature. There’s that Dr. Seuss story, The Sneeches, where they’re like “Oh, now it’s the stars, now it’s not the stars,” and it’s just that we tell each other something until it becomes reality.
Like the one-drop rule, you mean?
Meredith Ritchie: Yes, and it’s just dumb. And I think Kora, she’s like, “This is stupid. Why do these rules apply to me when I’m half this and half that?” And that just makes all the rules fall apart and it makes the people that are desperate to keep those rules in place seem desperate, and she saw them that way.
One of the best ways I’ve heard it, right at the start of Black Lives Matter, is Toni Morrison’s interview with Charlie Rose. It’s one of the best interviews because she says, “This is not our problem. This is yours.” Not that you should be ashamed of yourself, she didn’t say it like that, she just said, “You [white people] need to fix it.”
So you’ve already named a few to this point, but what were some points of Charlotte history specifically that stuck with you from your research?
Meredith Ritchie: The war changed the city, because it brought rural people into the cities who were attracted by the high wages from the defense industry. So Charlotte itself had just gone over 100,000 people in 1942. But then it really tipped the scales for North Carolina to be more urban versus rural, and we’re still fighting on urban versus rural for North Carolina. And so there was that aspect of it, because it kept people in the city.
I also read Anna Jean Mayhew’s book Tomorrow’s Bread about the ’60s and ’70s, tearing down Brooklyn. So that was really impactful in just looking at it differently. She used to live here and grew up in that time and she writes it very well.
I’ve always thought Charlotte and Austin are similar in size and growth patterns or whatever, but Austin appreciates its weirdness and Charlotte appreciates its real estate development. And I think that’s quite sad.
Was it purposeful that you released the book as Black History Month turns into Women’s History Month, since this book touches on both?
Meredith Ritchie: No [laughs] but I thought, “That’s cool that they kind of did overlap with the book release.”
Anything else you think is important to mention?
Meredith Ritchie: Someone asked me last night at book club whether it was realistic that Kora and Maggie would be friends. And I think we kind of sometimes gloss over history and we think, “Okay, so all the Rosie the Riveters were white and they all wanted to work, and they all were happy when they did work,” and we write these broad-stroke narratives for people that were all different personalities and all different interests. So I was like, “No, they absolutely could have been friends.”
At the end of the book, it is not the rosiest picture. Some of the people last night asked me about this, because we don’t know if Kora and Maggie are still friends, and then the husbands come home and I won’t spoil it but it’s not the best outcome. And people were like, “Why did you write it so sad?” I’m like, “That’s reality.” There are some really cutesy parts of the book, but I didn’t want it to all be like that. I wanted the reader to think and project those people into the civil rights movements in the ’60s and the women’s movements in the ’70s, and based on their positive experiences at the plant and [how that ended].
It’s an interesting thing to explore, because obviously racism and sexism were still not only prevalent but rampant, but out of necessity for having other things to worry about, these people were suddenly together more often and that would surely bleed into social life, because when you are forced to be with someone whom you might not normally be around socially, then you’re going to start to see them as humans and neighbors and not the “other.”
Meredith Ritchie: Yeah, it’s a labor shortage – plain and simple, an economic labor shortage. [Poster Girls] lifted the curtain on this really brief two-and-a-half-year period of equitable history in Charlotte.
Like, they got paid the same, they rode the same buses together, they got along well, and then they were literally fired the day the Japanese surrendered and the tree snapped back, and they were all told to go home and be exactly as it was. But it worked for those two-and-a-half years.
Meredith Ritchie is scheduled to appear at Park Road Books on March 17 to discuss Poster Girls with Paula Martinac.