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Monday, May 25, 2009 | Alvie Green always downplayed the defining episode of her career. The way she saw it, there was not much too extraordinary about her decision to challenge the patriarchal rules governing promotions at the San Diego Naval Medical Center kitchen where she worked, becoming the first woman ever elevated to the position of foreman there.
It was the late 1950s, and women working for the military, despite their critical role during the previous decade’s war, were still largely relegated to domestic, service, and non-managerial jobs. Green started her career at the Navy hospital kitchen in the mid-1940s, first as a dishwasher. As the years progressed, so did she — to assistant cook, then cook, and eventually to acting foreman.
But for years, the kitchen’s top job remained just out of reach. Long-held views about the place and capabilities of women in the workforce meant that Green could expect to be consistently passed over for promotion to foreman, the job title, perhaps, betraying the entrenched institutional attitudes that conspired against her.
Instead, she was repeatedly asked to train the men who, despite being less qualified, would become her superiors.
Alvie Banks-Green, a long-time Valencia Park resident, died on May 6. She was 88. Green had suffered from a protracted period of illness, her son said. Most recently, she had undergone a heart operation to receive a pacemaker.
Friends and family remembered her for her generosity and her uncommon willingness to sacrifice for both loved ones and strangers. She loved quilt-making, cooking for others, and was an active member of her church, but she also exuded throughout her life the quiet determination and strength of character that earlier had compelled her to challenge the constraints placed on her because she was a woman.
The strong will that family and friends invariably attributed to her character left her unsettled at the prospect of being denied advancement because of her gender. After being asked on several occasions to train the men who would assume the job she believed she deserved at the hospital, she finally refused.
With the help of her union, she filed a grievance against the hospital. Her appeal made its way to Navy administrators in Washington, D.C., who instructed that she be interviewed for the position.
When asked during her interview whether she believed that she had been refused the job because she was African-American, she responded that she did not. “It’s because I’m a woman,” her son, Wilmer Green, said she had recounted. “She never used the race thing,” he said.
She was given the promotion, and for the remainder of her career worked as kitchen foreman, supervising and cooking the meals that over the decades would nourish the men and women of the armed forces who were admitted to the hospital for treatment.
When she retired from her job at the Naval Medical Center kitchen in the late 1980s, Green had spent more than four decades cooking and supervising in that kitchen. Over the course of her 41-year career, she worked for no other employer.
Alvie Banks was born Feb. 23, 1921, at Three League Bayou, about nine miles northwest of Natchitoches, La. She was the oldest child of Mary Wafer Banks, the daughter of slaves, and Simuel Banks.
As the oldest of five children, she felt a constant sense of personal responsibility for her siblings’ well-being. As a child, her younger sister Jennie was being punished and whipped by their mother, Alvie intervened on her sister’s behalf.
“I used to be, I guess, the one who caught the most whippings, and she used to feel sorry for me. Mamma would be spanking me and she’d tell Mamma, ‘Don’t hit her anymore, give me the rest, don’t hit her anymore,’” Jennie McKissack recalled in an interview.
It was the sort of caring attitude that family and friends said would characterize her relationships with loved ones and strangers for the rest of her life.
“She was very giving, one of the most generous people I’ve ever met,” said Kevin Green, one of Alvie’s 11 grandchildren.
As a child she and her siblings picked cotton on their father’s farm while they attended school, learning from an early age the virtues of hard work, McKissack said. She attended the local country day school, and went to high school in nearby Shreveport.
After becoming pregnant with her first child, she dropped out of high school and married Willie Green. In 1944, having given birth to six children, two of whom died as infants, the 23-year-old moved to San Diego with her sister to join a cousin who had found a job in the shipyards.
Soon after arriving she found employment at the naval hospital, and settled into a house in Linda Vista with her husband after he completed his army deployment. But within months, she took a leave of absence and returned temporarily to Louisiana to give birth to her seventh child, Edward, in 1945.
According to her son, Wilmer Green, his mother’s life during those years was marked by hard work at the naval kitchen coupled with a silent but determined dedication to her family life.
Not earning enough to replace furniture or other major appliances, Green would return home from her days at work and patch holes in the family’s couches, her son recalled.
“But there was always food on the table,” he said. “We always had baseball gloves, we always had cleats.”
In 1957, she and Willie moved their family into a new house in Valencia Park, just as the racially restrictive covenants that had governed where African-Americans could live were being challenged by a nationwide movement toward racial integration.
When they moved into their new home, several of their white neighbors moved away, fearing a decline in property values. But she and her husband did not shy away from being among the first black families to move into the neighborhood.
Still, Green rarely discussed race, her son said. She accepted that she was raising her family during a time of injustice but chose not to burden her children with the realities of discrimination. Instead, her son said, she and her husband emphasized virtues and a strong work ethic.
“We all learned how to work, from the time we were seven,” he said.
Later in his life, he said, a woman who recognized him as Alvie’s son stopped him in the street.
“She said, ‘I used to feel sorry for you guys. … You guys were always hanging out clothes, and you couldn’t even reach the clothes line,’” he recalled. “And I just told her, it didn’t hurt us, because we all had that work discipline.”
Green’s marriage to Willie suffered because of the post-traumatic stress he experienced after returning from war. Although they divorced, she continued to speak with and visit him regularly until his death in 1978.
When she retired from the naval hospital in the late 1980s, she moved to Louisiana to care for her ailing mother until her death in the late 1990s. Returning to San Diego in 1999, she renovated her house, looking forward to hosting family gatherings and social functions.
Her family noted that her lifetime of working in a kitchen made her the family’s best cook.
“It was old style cooking, not very healthy,” the grandson, Kevin Green, said. “But she made the best shrimp fried rice, and pancakes, and she always served her syrup in a little dish on the table. It was always warm.”
“She could cook most everything, and she made lovely cakes and pies,” McKissack said.
As she aged, her family said, she developed a silently resilient demeanor that resonated with those around her, both in her family and her social circles. She was a serious woman who was greatly pained by the deaths of two of her grown children, but who internalized her grief and relied on her faith to overcome it.
“She had the kind of quiet dignity that really added to the character of our church. She was liked by everybody that worked with her,” said John Ringgold, the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in the Oak Lawn neighborhood, where Green worshiped for longer than any of her friends or family could remember.
Still, she exhibited occasional flares of spontaneity, her grandson said, such as the time she walked into the room when he was practicing the drums and “did a little jig,” but then left the room so as not to interrupt his focus.
She was an active member of her church’s altar guild and mission activities, volunteering her time to work with underprivileged members of her community, said Barbara Williams, a long-time friend and member of Bethel Baptist.
In her final years, she was limited in her mobility and in her ability to engage in the activities with which she had filled much of her spare time, like making elaborate quilts and performing missionary work. Yet for as long as she was able, she continued hosting her family and friends, always offering food to anyone, friend or stranger, who arrived at her home during meal times, much as she had done for most of her life as the woman in charge of feeding San Diego’s injured service members.