Camera Rolls: 102:47-51
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Paul Boatin , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 28, 1990, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Mr. Boatin, what lured your father and you to Detroit?
Well life in Pennsylvania, in New Castle, wasn't very rosy. Having left, my father having left positions of leadership, both in the political and employment movement in Italy, my father was really a refugee from fascism after having been beaten up, given castor oil, machine oil. After six, seven months of hiding, passing was provided. As it was, he traveled to three different seaports: Genoa, Naples, and Palermo before he finally was able to board a French ship on a French passport. So leaving Italy was a heartbreaking proposition, but the real heartbreak came when he found anti-Catholic—my father was not Catholic, but he came from Italy. Therefore, no employment, no jobs available, the feeling prevalent that the corporations preferred to hire a foreigner because he would work harder and for less money. So life was not very good, and they had very strict sky blue laws, blue sky laws. And my father had been an activist and a labor guy, was fired from Carnegie Steel Mill, where he'd worked in the third, three floors up. I remember looking at his shoes. His shoes had three soles as a means of deflecting the heat that came through these grills. They weren't solid floors, they were grills you see. He was fired from there and my uncle recommended him for a job in a cement mine, and he convinced—most of the workers were Italian and he convinced them that they should have a union. So my father was fired from there, and my uncle who was conservative was also fired. Then came the news of where would they go, and the news was that Detroit was hiring people. It was natural to come to Detroit and to try to find a job with Ford. And above all my father liked the idea of being associated with Ford. I particularly like the idea. I didn't know that eventually I'd try to get a job there. But Ford was being denounced for having introduced the eight hour day, five dollars a day for the first six months, six dollars after that. You'd eat fifteen minute lunch on company time. And this was destructive of capitalism. He was called an anarchist, he was called all types of things. People even dug up the fact that during the first World War, Ford had talked about the peace in the world, and had even sent, built a ship and sent it to Europe. But they didn't know that that ship had brought back a lot of Polish workers because they couldn't speak English and because they were big and strong and had hard backs. Eventually he thought he could get more work out of them. But life in Detroit was attractive in terms of employment, but there were no jobs to be had immediately. Months passed before employment was secured.
Also Sir, could you look at me when, whenever you can, sort of glance up at me when you talk so we can make eye contact.
Can you describe what it was like for people to, coming to Detroit what it would look like, and I'm referring to the parking lot experience? Where were you standing?
Well, it—my uncle and father came here first. I was left back with my aunts, my uncle's family, who had two children in New Castle, and we would come to Detroit eventually, but we would have responsibility for the furniture and moving and so forth. So when we came here, my uncle and father had already found a home, and they already gathered some information as to where to go for employment and so forth. Neither one of them had had a job. They came here in May, the family didn't come until...later. We were within two mile walking distance of the Ford Rouge plant, and we explored the area where the employment was—employment office—and saw that in order to be, to stand a chance of being interviewed for a job at the employment office, you'd have to come there in the middle of the night because there were already thousands of people gathered there. Eventually, that number became millions for a period of twenty-five to twenty-six. According to the publicity I saw during that period, people had come to secure employment even though the company wasn't going to hire all of them, the desperation was such that people came. Variety of actions, variety of faces, variety of appearances. Some poor illiterate workers would come from the South. Those southerners, southern whites who were not illiterate eventually became foremen. My foreman when I got a job later was a southern white who stood over me with a 3x5 card. But the presence of thousands and thousands of people all seeking employment was—I think taught everybody a very interesting lesson, very interesting lesson. And the experience, the few things that I learned, some of the advice that I got, even though I consider myself sophisticated, I eventually discovered that a lot of these ordinary people, who had no pretense and no expectation and no, no glorified ideas, who made no pretense of having a particular knowledge or having, some admitted that they hadn't gone to school. They knew more from the school of life than I knew, even though I had read many books, I was bilingual a little by that time, I even studied English somewhat. Those were lessons that I know laid the foundation for, for some of the resentment that developed over the years against the Ford Motor Company, because...they stood in the parking lot, day and night, not even water to drink, no facilities, there were no trees, the sun shining down you. And some cooperation developed, workers standing there developed some fraternal way of assisting each other. If one went away, he would make sure that the person next to him would hold his place for him. So there was the beginning of a [sic] associated cooperative activity, which came in handy later on. It was a learning experience.
Can you describe the fear in the factory?
Well as, even though Ford had advertised the eight hour day, three shifts per day, all that, the work was not continuous. The, when a new model came out in the month of July and August—
—they rushed production, and by January and February of the following model year, they had produced cars for six, seven, eight continuous months. There were layoffs, so people resorted to all types of personal strategy. If you were an Italian you brought wine to the foremen—
OK, hold on one second. We ran out of film, we have to reload.
What was, what was it like in the reality of life in the plants when you were working there? What was it like to have the service department over you?
Well my own personal experience for the first sixteen to eighteen months before I got fired the first time, was concerned with the fact that I had come to Detroit to work for Mr. Ford, and I would not lie to Mr. Ford and tell him I was only sixteen and two months old, and they only gave me half pay and during the sixteen to eighteen months they would never change the damn thing. So I was becoming, I was personally indignant, but I began to, to, to have a feeling of the, of the, of the thing that was described by Charlie Chaplin later in the [sic, the Chaplin film with this scene is ] that we were cogs, silence was demanded of everybody, no talking. And we were being watched every minute. I became aware early that the Ford Motor Company was presented as being very generous, it hired a lot of deaf-mutes. So much so that I became an interpreter for the deaf-mutes in front of the employment office at a later date. But it was clear these deaf-mutes were no dummies. Ford hired them—and deaf-mutes knew it—because they had agile fingers, they couldn't talk, all they knew was work, work, work. And I recall having a foreman over me whose language I couldn't understand. He spoke with a strong dialect, which I later learned was from southern United States. But he always had a white three by five card and a little stubby pencil in his hand, and he always agitated you about what the other shift had done, how much production they turned out, and that his job was in danger because we weren't doing as much work as the people on the other shift. And he had, he had to protect himself. The Ford sociological department visited people at their homes. They wanted to know, they pretended to be working for the welfare of the family, so they wanted to make sure that you went to church, that you didn't drink, that you believed in monogamy, all those things, you were faithful. Essentially, though this was not just part of a conservative belief that Henry Ford and his operators used, but they wanted obedient people. And the more ignorant, the less you knew in a mass production industry, the more work you did, and the more dependable. You were not dangerous. And they used—but, in addition of course, during periods of layoff, they had more terrible measures. Instead of being laid off, you'd be kept on the job if you did the right thing. Even including having supervisors, many of them, at your house for sumptuous dinners, Italian food was always famous, and all Italians made home wine at that time, even in violation of prohibition laws. They were allowed to make 300 barrels of Italian wine. And I don't know personally of any cases where a foreman was permitted to sleep with a worker's wife, but there were stories in circulation about that as well. And we had learned to know because a lot of the workers were Italian, and particularly the guys on Bennett's staff were Italians. And as soon as the union was organized later, most of those guys vamoosed because they were afraid [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
Cut. That's good, you did it.
Tell me about these ideas.
There were books, there were advertisements—I remember the advertisements, I responded to some of them—that if you had $2,000 to invest, that money would multiply very fast if you had the right type of advice. So in 1927, I was only eighteen years old. I attended a couple of seminars where people got up and said, "Yes, this is how I got rich. This is how I did this. I started with nothing." Those tactics were not new, they were new to me. Besides I was looking for a place where to fit. I was goin—had gone to school. I attended the, I was put in the first grade in Pennsylvania. Six weeks after I arrived in New Castle, I stayed in the first grade for four or five months and then I moved up to sixth or seventh grade, I forget. Then I began to teach other people how to speak English because there were a lot of Italians arriving there. So, I considered myself capable of going beyond the experience that my dad had had working for Carnegie. I did not know about Carnegie's fame that time, I only knew what the hell that steel mill looked like. And I remember what my father's work had been in Italy. So I believe I succumbed to some of the propaganda, and there were three newspapers in the Detroit area all singing the same tune. If you were unpatriotic, if you found anything critical to say, you're certainly stupid—besides being unpatriotic—if you didn't take advantage of some of the opportunities, and the same with some of the seminars. And I, in the meantime I picked up odd jobs after I'd been fired by Ford, and eventually as part of this development of getting rich I became a contractor. At age eighteen I had four adult people working for me, because in the meantime my father had signed me up at the Wolverine School of Trades for 368 bucks, and I, I was, I was on top of the world. I thought that, you know, that propaganda existed at the school all you have to do is pay attention, blah, blah, blah. And I stayed that way with hesitation and uncertainty, but I didn't learn my final lesson until 1929 when the crash came. And I didn't know what caused the crash necessarily, but I learned enough from the couple of years of experience from '27 to '29 to know that I had succumbed to a lot of bamboozled ideas that really weren't realistic. But I also knew this, that soon after the crash of 1929, some people who had not been very rich, the little neighborhood bank, The People State Bank in Oakwood, began to repossess houses. And there were people that actually became very, very rich from the depression of 1929. Repossess homes, there was no law preventing repossession, and there was something very, very educational about that experience.
OK, cut for a second. We only have—
Tell me what you, you, tell me what the ideas were, point blank, tell me what those ideas were that you had.
Well I indicated that even upon being fired, and mistreated unjustly at Ford's, and being, you know for, being honest at having thought Ford as Mr. Ford, I blamed myself that there was something wrong with my, with what had happened to me. And, that means that I hadn't learned the bitter experience of—
OK, cut, cut for a second. Just tell me what you believed in.
Hold on, he's still slating.
I attended several promotional meetings, some of them you even had to pay admission, because I thought that was the way to wealth and certainly some success. So I believed in the story of "this is where you make it, boy." If you know the right people and you do the right thing, you can make it. Never mind that you got fired, never mind that you still think of some of your father's life in Italy longingly. This is where you are, and correct your ways you'll make it. I really accepted that hook, line, and sinker. I, I'm sure of that as I think back.
OK, that's great. Cut.
I think you came just slightly afterwards, right?
But you drove [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] in person?
I wonder if you could recall what your feelings were and what, what you saw at that point in time? Can you relate that experience to me? Just that moment when you came across the scene, how it made you feel.
Well I knew, I was in Cleveland, and I knew from literature that I had seen, and sort of a recruiting that I had heard, that there was going to be a march on Miller Road in response to the Ford Motor Company saying, "Anybody wants a job, there's lots of jobs," you know. And there also had been statements made by the Dearborn Police department, which had always been on the side of Ford Motor Company, that the march would not be permitted. The people assembled anyway and marched down Miller Road till they got to the gates of the Ford Motor Company. The property of the Ford Motor Company on both sides of Miller Road commenced at Dix Avenue. Dearborn Police were there, it sort of barricaded, but the workers pushed through. Many suspected that the reason why the police were eventually, eventually permitted people, the march to go through, because they knew that a trap was being laid about a mile and a half further down. But, I wasn't present. I got there a little late. When I left, one of the things that was left from my experience as a little capitalist contractor was a Model T 1927 Ford car. I jumped into the car, I knew I was late, and one of my brothers said, "Where you going? Where you going?"
And I dashed over, I just saw the smoke. Miller Road was covered with smoke from shooting and from tear gas,
** and there was a wounded person laying to one side at the corner of Dix and Miller. And I understood some arrangements had been made, preparatory of contingencies of this type to take wounded people to the hospital, and I to him to Delray Hospital in West Jefferson, which no longer exists, but which performed some important services. It was manned by, it was a Hungarian neighborhood, a friendly territory. And I returned to the scene to find that four people were dead, one whom I had known, Joe DeBlasio, and that a fifth person was wounded. And people were scattering and running in all types of directions because it was dangerous, dangerous territory.
How'd you feel?
Well, by this time, I was reliving...the period of fascism in Italy after the march in Rome by Mussolini in 1922 by the fascists. And I hadn't really, in spite of the fact that I had gone through the experience of thinking that I fitted in, and I didn't hesitate telling people that I'd been a contractor. "I'm not a failure," I guess, that's what I wanted to say. But the ground under my feet was not secure, and I had long stopped calling Ford, "Mr. Ford," and—but the agitation was continuous, prior to the march and after the march, against outside agitators, against communist troublemakers and so forth. And it was not easy to become, you know, completely indignated [sic] what had happened because
you lived with fear. You were learning very fast that in many, many ways this was far from being the free country that you had heard about, that you hoped it would be,
** that there was anti-foreign feeling—to say nothing of anti-black feeling. The blacks were, you know, but it was a learning experience, a learning experience. And while it would be misleading to imagine that everybody in Detroit learned, that all the workers learned, but they didn't, they didn't. We met in basements, one or two at a time. We encountered prosecutor Toy, T-O-Y, never forget that name, funny name for a prosecutor. He kept agitating that he knew who the culprits were and that an imminent arrest was going to occur. While you were learning, you were also afraid. I was afraid, I was no better than anybody else. But—
Tell me what you experienced in Grand Circus Park please.
Well for several months after the 1929 crash...you could feel a lot of desperation in the air. Those who by January or February of 1930 were contacted by banks to buy off at ten cents on the dollar contracts on homes that had been repossessed. They didn't tell us about what they were doing, they were satisfied. You would read periodically about some banker that had jumped out of a window. But generally I think that everybody was unprepared for what happened. They had absorbed and accepted the propaganda about getting rich in '27, '28, then up to October '29. They were totally unprepared. Unfortunately we had a president, who some had accused of being insensitive or ignorant. I don't think he was either insensitive or ignorant. He had become world famous by having fed or fought the famine in Russia in 1919, '20, and '21. Certainly he should have known something about how to take care of the American multitudes that were affected by the Depression. So instead of taking care of people we were told that the depression was over, prosperity was around the corner, a car in every garage, a chicken in every pot. That was really the propaganda. I would say that analysts will determine at a later date that there was such a fear of revolution in this country that the only way they could combat it was by circulating this lie, "Prosperity is coming. Don't worry buddy, everything is going to be all right." But people were going through experiences of their own. I think everybody was learning, the young people particularly. Those that had worked in industry thought, "Oh well, I'll get back." They had a couple of dollars saved, but the sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen year old people, they were up all night. They had more energy to spend. They were looking for answers maybe. And for five cents a day you could live at a petty cafeteria on Woodward Avenue near Grand Circus Park, and that became a concentration point all because there were speeches there, there were guys that tried to give you answers. All the grass in Grand Circus Park, the most beautiful park Detroit had, was trampled, the bushes were trampled. There was nothing left there from the constant—some of these people lived on the park benches, slept on the floor on newspapers. And that became a school of ideas. Possibly Detroit was a little lucky that we had a mayor who, who might have been a little bit better than the average person, but he was not a big city man. He had come from a small town in the thumb, and had a farm mentality that reflected some of the same charges about foreign agitators and so forth and so on. But, and the city was being paid with script, workers were being laid off, racism crept in, anti-foreign sentiment crept in, true Americans were permitted—
People were left all alone.
Tell me, just say what you just said.
If you'll just sit back a little bit.
Tell me what the learning experience was.
Grand Circus Park, that was a university of economic and political ideas, raw. Mostly, the people that stayed there day and night had no families, they were young, unmarried, lost, no roots, but they were looking for answers much more so than adults. But there really wasn't anybody there to supply the answers. Even people knew that Hoover wasn't supplying the answers, newspaper editors weren't supplying answers, the mayor didn't come to speak. And since the assemblage was peaceful, there really wasn't anybody that interfered with the people, so they felt at home. And Grand Circus Park, in addition to being a place where to learn, try to find answers, was also comfortable. They didn't feel so lost by being there. But when a speaker came, and it was usually a communist who had a program, there was great response. And then there came a day when people weren't just satisfied to listen to a speaker. They became a little rebellious, they began to make demands, they were translating what they were hearing, and the ideas that they had digested and were maturing in their brains, into demands for action. Well, action didn't come very fast. Later on, Civilian Conservation Corps to isolate the young people for the purposed of teaching them a trade came, but during the early period, nothing, no soup lines, no speeches, no direction.
The young people felt deserted, except the communists, the few radical agitators that came. And people were becoming impatient,
** but the learning experience was also giving them strength, and courage, and greater understanding, and those are memorable days.
Well, and also can you look at me? What did they find out in Grand Circus Park?
I am not sure that everybody found out the same things that I found. Either prior to that or shortly after I joined the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, in out West primarily, I had learned about Joe Hill and some of his songs. I know that Joe Hill had been executed by a firing squad in trumped up charges in 1915.
Excuse me, cut.
You know what I'm driving at, right?
So if you had a job at this period of time, working at Ford's in 1931, '32, what did it mean?
I only know two people, and they were going to be participants in this if conditions had permitted, who admit being in the plant in 1932. One at a key job in a powerhouse, so he doesn't mind admitting that he didn't really want to be there, but after all, without him—
Wait a second, we have a big sound.
It's gone now.
So he was working in a powerhouse and he justifies that-
Could you, could you start at the beginning?
Wait a minute.
OK, we're going to cut for a second because we-
What did, what did it mean to have a job in the Ford plant in 1931, '32?
Well, basically I would have to say that the general opinion...has been and continues to be, that if you were not laid off and you continued to work in '32, '33, '34—in '35 things became a little better, and '36 better still—but those first two or three years after the depression, if you continued to work you had to be an ass kisser. You had to be a person who played ball with the foremen, with wine and food, and you went to the boss's house and painted it on the weekends, grew his garden, did all kinds of things. You were on the side of the company, the company therefore kept you subservient by letting you work in exchange for services of various types that you provided. You were a company guy, with rare exceptions.
I wonder if you could talk about, could you characterized those years for me, you know, 1930, '31, '32?
I forget now exactly when the veteran march in Washington took place. I'm not completely clear about some events in the last half of 1930 in Detroit, and the first half of 1931 because I was away for a time. But I periodically returned and I had become a subscriber to the various newspapers, and I had attended meetings of unemployed in Chicago and Detroit prior to leaving here, and I had been a member of the unemployed councils and the Unemployed Workers Alliance. And I had become disillusioned with what I had hoped the IWW, the answer that they would supply. I personally was somewhat lost and I was looking for answers. It was then that I became to associate with some communists, and I joined a cultural youth group, Youth Division of the Workmen's Circle. There were girls there too of course. But I was looking for social contact. I wanted to get away from the feeling of being lost because I had the that the answers had not been given to the young people, and the young people were lost. What kind of lost was it? I'm not sure.
Where was America going? The presidency, the President of the United States did not supply any of the answers. The papers were negative. They were scared stiff that the people would rebel or look for answers elsewhere.
** So there really was a terrible feeling of hopelessness as though all hope, all past dreams, all visions of greatness and of success had been artificial, everything. And I suppose that was one of the reasons why I went searching for answers elsewhere. That's why I wound up in Chicago, that's why I thought the gold mine in Wyoming with Brother Mackenzie, who had been a revolutionary in Ireland fighting for Irish independence. New experiences, but it was really running away from, from the situation of despair I think that one found in the big cities. What'd you do, you went to a farmer and he gave you a sack of carrots, you exchanged labor with that farmer in exchange for the carrots. Some farmers may have been a little illuminating, but generally they were close to the soil. And they weren't thinking about the changing conditions too much, they just wanted to get enough see or enough money for seed for the following year. There were no answers, there were no answers. The only people that supplied answers were some communist agitators and speakers who spoke eloquently, but they tied their solutions with what had happened in Russia and the revolution. And it seemed remote, people weren't ready to accept. In any event, basically, the famous unemployed councils and the Workers Alliance, what where they? What did they do? They were dealing with immediate basic demands. If you were evicted from your house, the Workers Alliance would come and put your furniture back. The next day, the furniture would be out on the streets, you went there and put it back, and you got clubbed and arrested. Nobody was really dealing with basic solutions. As I think of it now, I—
—it was despair, despair.
You said, "When I think back on it now..." You better change the focal length too. When you think back, what was the feeling?
When I think back at the many days and nights spend on Grand Circus Park, occasionally a speaker would invigorate us. There were moments of hope...but speeches do not produce solutions, despair alone does not produce solutions. And there was a period about the middle of 1930 where the numbers of people in the park began to diminish...and as a matter of fact, I now recall another sad aspect. On Michigan Avenue, at 3rd, 4th, and 5th Streets, not far away from the famous Book Cadillac Hotel, the city had permitted all those empty stores to be turned into home produced beer joints. People actually got licenses. Every store made beer, home brewed, so that with empty stomachs, by eleven o'clock on, you invariably found, not so much the young people, but some of the old people that had assembled in Grand Circus Park slouched on the sidewalk in front of these joints with an empty bottle of home brew. It was sad because while I hadn't myself had too much confidence in the government providing solutions, I was, part of my disappointment with the then mayor, Mayor Frank Murphy, was based on the fact that that sort of thing was permitted as an escape. And that contributed to the despair that took over, and it was really, it, it was a hopeless, desperate situation, which showed no signs of any hope or solution. It was really, despair took over is the best way to describe it.