Beatrice Mobley, believed to be one of the oldest surviving workers of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital, sits at her dining room table in the Vinegar Hill area of Brooklyn, surrounded by mementos from various stages of her life. She picks up of her 66-year-old Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital I.D. badge with its sepia-colored distressed picture, looks at it and smiles.
“I feel like I’m the only one left,” she says, adding that she was only 19 when she worked at the hospital.
The 85-year old’s memories are now part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Oral History Project, an effort put together by the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) and 2011 Pulitzer Prize author and Brooklyn resident, Jennifer Egan. The oral history project is part of the newly established Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92, which is an exhibition and visitors center. Its mission: to capture the stories of women and others who filled trade positions at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.
“These women paved the way for all of us in skilled professional fields today, and their oral histories are important records of personal experience that will be preserved to inspire future generations of innovative young women,” said Daniella Romano, vice president of BLDG 92 Exhibits and Programs-Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. Full-length oral history interviews are available at the BLDG 92 Resource Center and at the BHS Othmer Library by request.
Mobley, wearing a jade-colored jersey shirt and emerald green skirt and vest, is feisty, fashionable and full-of-faith. Her zest for life began in the rural enclaves of Savannah, Ga. Although the climate of racism was strong in the 1940s, Mobley says she had a supportive family, great life and got along well with everyone.
“Some people came [to the north] from the south because they had it bad there,” she said. “But I didn’t come for that, because I had a job when I come from the south. I always had good jobs.”
Mobley had been curious about Brooklyn, though, so in 1945 when she was 19-years-old, she left her 2-year-old son James, behind with her parents and abandoned her husband— whom she’d married when she was 15, but has never divorced, and headed north. She immediately found work as a cook at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital.
After more than six decades, despite her age, Mobley has vivid memories of that time. Since there were no buses then, she said she used to travel by trolley from her apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant to the Navy Yard to work the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift. She chuckles now as she recalls how inexpensive things were.
“Carfare was five cents. That’s right, five cents to ride the trollies and the train,” she said. She enjoyed working with the diverse staff. “The naval hospital was very friendly, you would never know it was segregated,“ she added.
From a young age, Mobley learned how to cook from her mother and found the Navy Yard as a suitable spot to show off her skills. “There was a big dining room, big kitchen because all the navy boys come from the ship.” Mobley didn’t have a signature dish but she helped to prepare foods like potatoes, string beans and roast beef for the hundreds of people who ate in the cafeteria.
After working for the Navy Yard for a year, Mobley, however, felt the call of her southern roots, so she returned to Georgia and also spent time in Florida where she worked as a cook for a local judge and his family. But after a while, she missed Brooklyn, so in 1948 she returned, this time with her son, and has lived there ever since.
Mobley has lived in Farragut public housing for over 50 years. Sparsely furnished and neat, her apartment is decorated with silk roses and lace curtains with floral embroidery.
A professed loner, Mobley doesn’t have a lot of visitors except for a church member who checks on her weekly. Her son, who lives in Maryland, and other family members from other states, visit her periodically. But she says that she’s not lonely and despite the poverty and crime that is prevalent in her neighborhood, Mobley says she’s never had any problems.
“I don’t live in fear,” she said boldly. She attributes her fearlessness to her unwavering Christian faith. “Knowing God is with you, you don’t have to worry about nothing.”
Religion was a core part of her upbringing and the morals that were instilled in her as child resonated even thousands of miles away. “My mother told me the do’s and don’t’s: never drink, never smoke, never party,” she recalled. “It’s a shame I’d never been to the movies because I wasn’t that type. I just went to church, come home and go to my job.”
But she does watch a little bit of television and listens to the radio occasionally but she’s not a fan of either. She prefers spending time sewing, praying and reading the Bible.
Mobley has been a member of St. John’s Holiness Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant since she moved to Brooklyn and has served as a deaconess for over 50 years. She used to drive all over the country but today she only drives her 1970 mint green Impala to church on Sundays or when she visits a friend at a nursing home.
After she returned to Brooklyn, Mobley worked as a cook, chauffeur and hairdresser for her Pastor at St. John’s for over 20 years until she passed away. She then worked as a cook for different schools within the New York City Department of Education for close to 40 years.
“I was very faithful on my job,” she said. It was difficult for her to retire in 2010, because of a heart condition, from P.S. 287 where she served at for 30 years; she was affectionately called “Grandma” by students. To keep them close to her heart, she occasionally reads the dozens of handmade cards that students sent when she became ill. “I love them too. I love my babies.”
Mobley has 21 grandchildren of her own so opening her heart to others came naturally. She has a special wall adorned with photographs of her family and a box full of photo albums, which she eagerly pulls out for a visitor.
“All the things I’ve been through, I still have my joy,” she said. “My life is beautiful. I’m happy and satisfied.”