Josephine Lico – Eyewitness to Richmond for over 100 years
on December 9, 2014
Josephine Lico has seen a century of history and bears the scars of the city where she spent her life.
Lico watched Richmond grow from a rural farming community to an industrial “boomtown,” and bore witness to the nadir of urban decay of the 1970s to the growing multi-ethnic city it is today.
During World War II the 29-year-old worked in the Richmond Shipyards.
“It was a time of opportunity for women,” said Elizabeth Tucker, the lead park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.
Lico found work in the IBM department.
“The computers were as large as cars,” Lico said.
Almost 30,000 women worked in the shipyards at the height of production.
“But after the war there was a focus to go back to the way things were,“ Tucker said.
Men returned from the fighting in Europe. Women returned to the home or more traditional jobs.
In the 1989 earthquake Lico and her relatives were driving on the Cypress Structure.
Her brother-in-law lost control of the car. The highway buckled. The car crashed at 60 miles per hour.
Lico was born Josephine Alice Pucci on Nov. 27, 1914.
Her parents, first generation immigrants from Tuscany, moved to Point Richmond and later to North Richmond in the early 1900s, when the city had just a few thousand residents. The U.S. President was Woodrow Wilson.
Her family fled Italy in search of a better life. Her father Tomaso found work with the Standard Sanitary Company. Her mother raised eight children.
Lico was honored by the City Council earlier this month in recognition of her centennial birthday. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Councilmember Tom Butt made the announcement.
“She’s in remarkably good shape, I guess that shows that Richmond may not be as unhealthy a place to live as some people think it is,” Butt said.
Lico’s family attributes her longevity to her “extremely social” nature and the food grown in her garden, a skill she learned nearly a century ago.
She was born on a small farm in North Richmond. It was a hard, Spartan life. She shared a bed with two sisters. Heat was a luxury the Puicci’s didn’t enjoy.
“We froze in the winter,” Lico said.
Early 20th century North Richmond was mostly open fields with one house on every block. Her parents raised vegetables and chickens, and two cows supplied the milk.
But even then, Richmond was a polyglot. People came from everywhere.
“Austrians, Germans, Portuguese, you name it they all settled there,” Lico said.
Salesmen would come to the house selling flour and sugar. Not able to afford a horse and buggy, the family “walked everyplace.”
In her two-story home on 39th Street, surrounded by photographs from her century of life, Lico recalled some of the milestones and struggles.
As the city grew in the 1920s and 1930s business and retail spots sprouted. Lico would shop downtown at Macy’s, J.C.Penny’s and Woolworth’s. She recalled a summer working at the Felice and Perrilli Canning Company.
On one visit to the Fox theater, Lico’s sister and mother won a 1937 Oldsmobile from a raffle ticket they purchased. It was the family’s first car.
In 1934, just out of high school, Lico found work at the California Cap Company, now known as the Stuaffer Chemical Company. They made blasting caps for the mines. But labor for women in those days was often short-lived.
“When you married you were out of a job,” Lico said.
Richmond’s population increased dramatically from 23,600 in 1940 to 93,700 in 1943 as new residents migrated from the South and beyond to work in the shipyards.
“That changed the picture of Richmond completely, it was just a small town” before then, Lico said.
After the war she met her husband Sam, an accordion player who grew up in North Richmond. The two wed in 1947 and raised a family. They have been married for 67 years.
Her husband owned Stege Market on 47th Street. For 20 years, she was the bookkeeper. In their spare time the couple took cruises – 128 in all.
“It was the best money we ever spent,” Lico said.
In the 1970s Richmond began to change again. Downtown shops moved to the new Hilltop Mall.
“Our beautiful shopping area in Richmond went right down the drain,” Lico said.
Urban decay set in, and with the high unemployment came crime. Sam’s sister and brother-in-law were murdered at their home in Albany in 1981 by serial killer Charles “Junior” Jackson. After that, the Lico’s put bars on their windows.
But despite the tragedy the Lico family thrived. She has two children, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
And, she looks back fondly on the Richmond of her youth.
“We knew everybody, everybody. It was like one big, big family,” Lico said.
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