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By Seabright McCabe
Filmmaker LeAnn Erickson did hundreds of hours of interviews for her documentary on the Top Secret Rosies. From that footage, she culled 60 minutes’ worth of material, producing a tightly woven narrative that was engaging, even suspenseful.
Yet there was one woman in this elite group of female “computers” who remained elusive. Over the years since the 2002 premiere, Erickson searched sporadically for her, based on the only name she was given — Alyce Hall — even calling every Hall in the Philadelphia phone book (there were about 600). She didn’t know whether Hall was a maiden name or married name, further complicating a search that proved fruitless.
It was like trying to find an Alyce in a Hall haystack.
In Erickson’s frustration lay a unique opportunity. Just as her Rosies were “America’s secret weapon” in World War II, it turned out I had a secret weapon of my own! My sister, Melinde Byrne, happens to be a forensic genealogist, a recognized expert at finding people, even if they don’t want to be found, even if they’re long gone from this world. I said to Erickson, “You know, I bet we can find her.”
I was on the phone to my sister in a heartbeat. Always intrigued by a mystery, Melinde looked at Erickson’s photo of the Rosies and made an educated guess at Alyce’s age at the time it was taken (circa 1942). Combing through the 1940 census, she found 1,582 Alice/Alyce Halls living in the United States in that year.
Of those women, only 11 were spelled “Alyce,” and were also African-American. Of the 11 African-American Alyces, only one had a college degree (Melinde deduced, correctly, that all of the Rosies must have had post-secondary educations). In 1940, this Alyce Hall lived in Philadelphia. It had to be her! Melinde reached out on Ancestry.com to find her.
“Who are you?” The reply bounced back, almost immediately.
Those three words gave us both a cold shiver. Was the sender suspicious? Or asking a mere question? Sadly, it wasn’t Alyce who responded, but a distant relative, who steered us to Alyce’s obituary but didn’t have any other information.
Its headline in the Philadelphia Daily News read, “Alyce McLaine Hall: Talented in Math.” So fantastic, to find that her life after the war was a long and happy one, with many personal and professional successes.
Even though I couldn’t talk to Alyce (she passed in 2003), I was convinced there was still a story to be told. I began the work of filling in her life, while Melinde, armed with Alyce’s maiden name, found her ancestry, reaching back to the late 1800s.
I found her college yearbook photo, but not much else. Just a list of associations and organizations Alyce had belonged to over the course of her 92 years. I dutifully checked out each name, address, and number. Every single one was long cold — the organizations were either disbanded or didn’t have records reaching back that far.
The very last one was the Bethel AME Church in Philly, where Alyce had taught Sunday school in the 1980s. I went to its small but venerable website, about to give up on finding someone to talk to. It was an apt moment for a “hail Mary” attempt.
“Is anyone there who remembers Alyce Hall? She was a Sunday School teacher at this church, back in the day,” I wrote.
A week went by, and I’d already forgotten, when —
“Who are you?” landed in my inbox. “I’m Alyce’s grand-niece.”
After a cautious beginning, memories and stories flooded in. The grand-niece, Robin Wright, passed me to her mother, who passed me to her sister, who passed me to her grand-niece in Augusta, Ga., who said,
“Alyce had a sister, my grandmother, Alma. You should know about her, too.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Read about it here. It’s a fascinating story about two women who succeeded, despite the race and gender issues of their time.
Both stories about the Top Secret Rosies have been truly rewarding to write. So many times during the process, I found myself saying, “What were the chances?” I don’t often get to work with my sister, which was great fun. That it took two sisters to uncover the story of two sisters is something I’ll never forget.
And I learned a twofold lesson: First, never give up on your story and, second, to quote SWE’s intrepid editor, Anne Perusek: “It’s always the last place you look!”