Camera Rolls: 313:22-27
Sound Rolls: 313:11-13
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Dorothy Height , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 25, 1992, 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.*
I came into New York in 1929 when I had just finished high school. I came from a small town, Rankin, Pennsylvania. And there the Depression was very real, because I had witnessed steel mills that were, that I could see from my backyard, little by little get shut down. And so I was awed when I got into New York, because it was so beautiful and so great to be there. But it wasn't long before I found myself at New York University, where Washington Square was simply filled with grown men selling apples, and most of us didn't have a nickel to buy one. They, the whole scene was to me so shocking, because it suddenly became very clear that people were standing in breadlines, they're all down through the Bowery. It was simply a, a dreadful scene. Men, and many of them young men, out of work, but who had almost given up hope. So that the, the beauty that I had thought of, and the greatness of New York, suddenly was faced with a kind of reality that I just could not believe it was same city I had dreamed of being in.
Can you remember or recall—
I came to New York in 1929. I had just finished high school in June. And already in my little town of Rankin, Pennsylvania, I had really been amazed at what had happened when the McClintic Marshall's and other steel mills that I could see from our back porch were closed down, and the way people were struggling, trying to get work. My father was a painting contractor, and he had so many people coming asking for work.
I looked with great anticipation into going to New York, and just thought it was the most beautiful of cities and so great, and so I got there, and I had the feeling, "At last I have reached New York!"
** And then when I got down to New York University, where I was going to college, in Washington Square, I found there were so many men there, and they were all selling apples. They were five cents, but no one had five cents to buy one. And I found that all through the Bowery, which surrounded it, I was almost intimidated by seeing the numbers of, of grown men just standing with a hand out, and breadlines all around. And, of course, in Harlem, the churches, everywhere you looked, people were serving soup kitchens and, and people were really trying to get some kind of job, some kind of way to make a decent living.
Was there any feeling around, among the people that they had to hang together to try to get through this, that there had to be support? I mean, how did people feel? What was the general atmosphere like?
And, you know, in a strange way, everybody had a feeling of common suffering.
There was a kind of sense that everybody's having a hard time. You didn't have a feeling that some people were making it and some were suffering. But at the same time, everybody had to compete with everybody for the scarce things that there were.
And, in that competition, do you remember anything specific about it? I mean, what kind of competition? Competition for jobs, competition for relief? Can you be a little bit more specific about that?
Well, as a student I remember one thing that showed me how competitive the situation was. I had earned the Elks' Oratorical Scholarships, so I had four years of scholarships. But you can't eat scholarships. So I had to find something to do. So I tried everywhere to find a job, something that would give me enough money to sustain me. Cost me about 25 cents a day going back and forward, and having lunch and all at school, and so I found a job in a factory. And when I got there, the, everybody, all the workers, all the women who were there would gang up and eat their lunch on the fire escape and sit together. And they were very fearful that I was a young person who had come there to work. And it was one woman, an Italian woman, who one day told me, at the end of the first week, when I had worked long, long hours, and I had, oh, it was just next to nothing in my paycheck, and she said to me, "Everybody here knows that the, you're paid by the pieces. And the pieces they're giving you pay you less than a penny. That's why you earn so little." And she said, "Tell them you can finish," and that meant putting the flowers on dresses, or putting the collars on doing things. And I had to fight for the right to get that kind of work. In other words, they competed against each other for every little piece of work, because it made a difference. I had worked all week, long, long hours, and I had earned $9.
Now, you referred to Harlem briefly. Tell me what it was like in Harlem, in terms of Harlem compared to the rest of New York City.
Harlem was a great complex. I look back at Harlem now and cherish the fact that my neighbors, you know, were people like Thurgood Marshall, Aaron Douglas, the artist, that, Langston Hughes and Du Bois, and Countee Cullen. All them were part of Harlem, so there was a kind of richness in Harlem. And I think we were poorer than I realized, but there was a kind of richness of spirit and a kind of cultural positiveness that was sustaining. But once I got out of that circle of my college friends and the group with which I moved the most, I realized that there was such pain in Harlem, because you had whole families that were being evicted any time. You could go down the street, and there would be a whole family sitting, seated, whose every possession was placed on the street just because they didn't have the money to pay the rent. And the marshals would stand there and in a merciless way. You'd see little babies and little children and their parents, trying to deal with what was an impossible situation. It was nothing to see three or four evictions in any given week.
Now, was there any community response to these evictions? Was there any organizing effort? What did people do?
Well, there were all kinds of organizing efforts in the churches. One of the most significant ones I think was it, it came, was at the time that we realized that there was a, a, we were spending what little money we had and getting nothing. And Adam Powell came into the picture, and he organized a people's committee. And what he called for was that we learn to spend no money where we could not work. And he taught us that no matter how little you had, your power was in what you did with it. And that to me was an indelible lesson. In fact, it was around then that I had my very first civil rights activist position, first thing that I ever did that was activist. I'd always been interested in justice and in equality, and I participated in United Christian Youth Movement and many activities, the Harlem Christian Youth Council, all of those activities. But I had never done anything like picket or go out on the streets in exactly the same way. And when Adam Powell called this group together, he said to us, "You can take you can take your own condition in your own hands." And that was the time that he started the movement to get jobs on 125th Street.
I had a little assignment, which was to go to a record shop with another girl, and we were to go in the record shop and say to the owner that we felt that he should hire blacks, since we bought records. And it was at that moment, and I can almost feel it now, when he took me and he said, "Why don't you go up to Spear's, that's a furniture store up the street, because you can't take that furniture. But you people will steal all my records." Well, I came alive at that point. And I tell you, he put something into me. We rushed back to Adam Powell, we told him what had happened, and he said, "Well, you're absolutely right." So they added more pickets to us. And we went back and really helped put that man out of business.
** And I just felt that, that I had seen, you know, what he meant by power, that we could do it. And that I have to thank that man, because he started something in me that I still have. I just cannot stand that kind of injustice. And in this instance it was racism in its worst form.
Another aspect of it was that people through the church, and all of the churches, seem to have had, you know, a kind of hope. I remember the revivals with all of the seventy other churches. People went into the crowd and into the churches. At Salem United Methodist Church, that Countee Cullen's father pastored, there was an evangelist, Reverend Becton, who came in from Philadelphia, and who conducted revivals, but he always gave people the opportunity to consecrate a dime. And his idea was that if you consecrate this dime to, with the hope that you will get a job, or that your, your illness will be corrected in your family, or that somebody who is suffering will be better off. And that little act meant that there was standing room only, night after night, in those revival sessions. And I used to go with other students, and we would stand in, and even though maybe we just had one dime, but we could consecrate. It was a, it, it, it helped you to see the role that religion played, and also that people were reaching for whatever seemed to be the way out. There was no sort of taking it and falling apart, or saying, "What good can we do?" There were many who, who felt that way, but there was a spirit in the community that I thought was invigorating.
Now, Harlem, in terms of its nightlife, I mean, you told me that it was very rich culturally and politically and what not. Tell me about Harlem at night, and the Cotton Club and various other clubs, and music, and the richness of all that.
Part of Harlem that is often described, as you know, the Cotton Club, the Renaissance, all of the glamor that was in Harlem at that time. There was, you know, all the big bands. The, the nightlife for the city of New York, not just in Harlem, was in Harlem. And you saw the red cars all roll into Harlem. In a sense they represented income coming into Harlem. But they also meant that you were talking about places where black who lived there were not accepted. And so you had many, like I remember, Carl van Vechten, who came, who enjoyed so many, and so much hospitality from so many people in Harlem. And then there was a great upset when he came out and he wrote under the title of . It was his looking in as a white man on what was going on Harlem. And that made people realize in Harlem all the more that even, even the things that we were, that people came to enjoy, they did with the feeling that, of superiority, and that here were, were people who were struggling. But they had very little respect for the kind of support, economic support, that the community needed.
Let's stop for a second. Are these papers okay?
Of course, as a student just trying to get through and through college, and since I had only a four year scholarship to college, I tried and I did make that four years give me both my Bachelor's and Master's, I didn't have much time to get into the nightclubs. But I did have the experience that was so rich in Harlem of little supper clubs, of, where artists who performed downtown would come uptown. And there they would serve as waiters and sing, or you could walk into oh, any one of the places, Dickie Wells, I forget all their names, Small's, and there, there were those who would entertain, there would be good food. And there was just a, a happy kind of climate. And it had a reality base, because everybody was aware of the fact that we needed work. But there also was that sense that we had so much still among us still as people to celebrate. That's, that's, I'll never forget that.
You said earlier that people were reaching out, and in a way they reached out spiritually. Now, did they reach out politically? Did FDR, upon his election in '32, instill hope and confidence for the people?
Well, of course, you know, one of the historic facts is that it was almost like, you know, the, a new kind of liberation when Franklin Roosevelt. The people felt that they had, there was an upsurge of hope. I was among those who really at that time, coming, just coming out of college, cast my first vote for Franklin Roosevelt. And we gathered through Adam Clayton Powell again, but also A. Philip Randolph, who brought young people together. He began to get us together in groupings. And, and I was very active in a group called the Harlem Youth Council. And we band [sic] ourselves together to deal with the issues that were affecting us. For instance, few people realize how vital it was for us at that time, in the middle of all of this that was going on, to deal with the fact that lynching was so on the rise. We had a "Stop lynching" campaign. Juanita Jackson, now Mitchell, was the NAACP Youth Director. And we put on all kinds of, of special programs dealing with Angelo Herndon, who had been on a chain gang. We, we took the time out to sit down and find out what was happening. And I think that there was a, a way in which the activists, the social action part of Harlem, was something that I found just all around, people just, there was always some youth committee. I belonged to the Harlem Christian Youth Council. We had a youth committee that spent time trying to discuss a new program for young people.
I want to get back to that lynching question a little later on. But tell me more about FDR and listening to his inauguration address or his fireside chats, how he made you feel, how, what kind of a communicator he was.
Franklin Roosevelt for many of us almost seemed like he was superhuman, because he seemed to have just spoken to our every need. For instance, on his fireside chats was, he talked about one-third of the nation, and what was happening. If...one felt—I identified with it, it was, "He is speaking for me. He is saying what I need to have said." And, of course, I can never forget that I had the pleasure, in 1937, of getting to know Eleanor Roosevelt. And the way in which Mrs. Roosevelt sat among us as young people and worked with us, she, she, she got to know what our issues were, what our problems were. And I was one of ten young people that she invited in 1938 to come to Hyde Park to sit down and talk about what was happening to young people. I was the one young black person in that particular group, and when I came away, I had such a feeling that I had been in touch not just with royalty, but it was someone who not only listened, but she cared about what was happening.
Now, FDR wins, and inaugurates his emergency relief and various other programs. At that time you were working at the Brownsville Community Center, have I got that correct?
When, when I was a field work student at New York University, I had an assignment at the Brownsville Community Center, which is in the, really the most, one of the most desperate areas of the whole city. It has the highest delinquency rate at that time. And when my field work was over, I was employed by that same center. I had never in my life realized that whole families could be suffering the way that people were suffering there. There just was no food, and when you asked the black people, "What do you do?" Grown men would say, "I light fires." And it took me a while to understand that what they meant was, and because this was largely a, a Jewish, Italian, but more Orthodox Jew affected community, that for those Jewish families who would not light fires on their Sabbath, that was the job that these people had.
So once a week they would light fires.
The fireside talks.
When President Roosevelt came on with his fireside chat, I remember those were in the days when you couldn't see him, you just listened, you just had a feeling of being in his presence. You had the feeling that he knew what you were struggling with, and he was speaking to it, and he was giving the reassurance that somehow or another, you know, that we were going to be able to move ahead. And I remember the way in which sometimes we would all sit down ourselves afterwards and rehash what he had said.
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When President Franklin Roosevelt came on the air with his fireside chats, you know, and it was before the days of television, so it was only the radio, you had the feeling you could not only see him and hear him and feel him, but that he was speaking to you, you know. It gave you a feeling of hope. I was just finishing my education and working over in the Brownsville Center, and earning all of $20 a month, but there was a way in which he, you know, said, "We are a, we are a people who can move forward." And you felt you, you felt the country trying to do that, and to feel it. And I was so impressed at many times that
we would ourselves sit down and talk over what he had said. And then we would look at what was happening all around about us, but still come out feeling good about it, feeling better than we had felt, though we had problems.
Now, your work at the Brownsville Center, you distributed some of the relief that FDR made available. Can you tell me about that?
What was good about President Roosevelt was that he, he dealt with those bread-and-butter issues that meant so much to people. And it was during that time that, through the Red Cross, there were, they were called food baskets, food packages, that were set up. And our job our in Brownsville was to distribute those. Through the WPA, we employed workers who were there to help distribute that food. And the food was given through the Red Cross, so you had this combination of things working together. And though I was then just, you know, a youngster, I learned so much about the struggle of families. I remember one family whose, whose, all of their children, one or the other, was in some kind of delinquency difficulty. And we were always having to get them out of, keep them out of jail, or try to get them back into school, and the rest. But when I discovered that those people literally had so little to live on that those children were stealing just to get the food to bring home, it, it, it was very hard. And, and the minister who was in charge of that community center felt it so keenly that he organized the, the, the center into a church so that people would have not only the way to deal with some of their problems, but that he could minister to them in a different way. And the Universal Baptist Church grew out of the work of that community center, which literally just started with plain giving people relief from hunger, distributing clothes to people. And yet I've seen some beautiful things happen, like one family had several boys who were very active, but who really got themselves in hand through the work they did through the center. They were the Stubbs brothers, and when the famous play and movie and drama came off, the dance thing called "This is the Army, Mr. Jones," these four boys, these four brothers, were the leading tap dancers. They had, they just pulled themselves up by no bootstraps, but they pulled themselves up.
Now, can you describe any racism, discrimination, within relief programs, both in terms of direct relief and jobs, the employment programs, particularly the PWA and CWA?
You know, around the, the PWA and, and CWA, around those programs, there was a lot of racism that came out. And I don't think really many understood it that way, because it was a kind of resentment that here at last it was something where people of all races were unemployed. And you remember they used to say that the WPA workers did nothing but stand all day, and they ducked away from work.
That was the PWA, the CWA that we're talking about. Can you pick up right there, and say they used to say the PWA and the CWA?
They used to say, it was a, it was a standing joke that workers on PWA and CWA simply went to work, took the shovel, and stood all day and talked, and they did no work, when in reality they were hard working, and they contributed a lot. But the most important thing is suddenly they were feeding their families, and they were able to get themselves on a little better track.
Now, as a result of racism, discrimination, and whatnot, the situation in Harlem continues, continues to fester, I think you could say, at least in the '35 riot.
You know, if you really want to talk about, about the racial situation,
here was a whole community where, I remember someone saying once, where a dollar was a dollar, and black people didn't have any.
** If you really wanted to assess the racial pattern, you'd have to say discrimination played a great role. Eight percent of the population was black at that time, but it became 42% of the relief rolls once they were established. That gave you some sense of the imbalance of the way in which it was impossible to get work. We had the, the pattern of segregation in New York, was as rigid as the pattern of segregation in any part of the Deep South.
** I remember in those early days there that there was in, in, in Harlem, the YWCA serviced women and girls in Harlem. There was not a bed anywhere in downtown New York that would take a black girl. And when I became an active part and later moved to working with the Harlem YWCA, that was the thing that astounded me. That the unwed mother, the runaway, whoever she was, if we could not find a place in the Harlem community, she suffered all the worse. But the beautiful thing was that we had things like Club Caroline women, who took her home and made a home. In other words, racial discrimination and racism are so deeply embedded in the American society that even the simplest little needs did not make it bend. And it was so rigid at that time that if, if it had not been for the people of Harlem sort of coming together and seeing what they could do, I don't know where we would be.
As this, as this worker at the Brownsville Community Center, would you, do you remember ever sending someone, saying, "Look, they have this CWA or this PWA project. Go there and see if you can get job," and there were, it was denied because of racism. Do you...?
I have since so, I have found myself, when I was working in Brownsville, sending people off to work, suggesting that here they were employing at a, a certain center. We would write letters. The head of the center would write a letter of reference. And the person would go and come back and say, "Well, they say that there is no work." Of, one of the things that arose at that time, and was very active in Brownsville, but also throughout the city, were what they called Unemployment Councils. And those were simply organizations of the unemployed. And they themselves would band together and come and knock on the door and demand help. And it, it meant many times that the, the black people who were caught up in the situation, who went to places, the relief centers, and others—
—found that they simply got the same rhetoric. "There is no work. We're thinking about it."
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Well, there was even discrimination within...there was even discrimination within some of the WPA assignments.
PWA, CWA assignments. There was even discrimination among the PWA and CWA assignments, because
what would often happen would be that a call would go out even for something like cleaning the parks or snow removal, or some of those kinds of, of assignments. And black people would go, but they were not employed.
** And there was a, a, I think that, that they, it, it's a paradoxical, which I think is so characteristic of our lives as an African-American people. Some of the first opportunities were coming through these new programs.
** But also even as they came, we tended to get the lower level jobs, so that those were in the managerial jobs, and those who were in the most lucrative assignments were white. And that added tension even within this. Later on, I remember when, under the WPA, there was in, at the, at a theater in Harlem, the, what had been the Lafayette Theater, that there was a young, a theater project. And I always have to, have to laugh when I discovered that a young man I knew, who was, who had some skill, but he was a stage hand. And he was among those who led a little revolt within that project, because he said that they were not given all the opportunities that they needed. Well, it turned out that two people they were protesting were Orson Welles...I'm sorry. Can you stop it now?
It turns out that the people they were protesting, who were in charge, were Orson Welles and Jack Houseman. But at the time, it was the climate that was so bad that they couldn't, they really were looking at it in terms of bread and butter. Who gets the better jobs?
Now, in '33, LaGuardia wins the election, and we have some research that indicates that there was this, in a sense, an opening up of, of government and whatnot, because LaGuardia was Italian and Jewish immigrants [sic], they had sort of been shut out. Can you tell me your remembrances of that, and how people, particularly black people in Harlem, felt about LaGuardia?
When Fiorello LaGuardia came in as mayor of the city of New York, he sort of ushered in a new day. He was called the Little Flower, and he turned up everywhere. You, you could not have a fire in Harlem but that he was there almost as soon as the firemen. He took an active hand, and I had the opportunity to, to work in the Department of Welfare at the time that he was the mayor. And
he would give out a call, and he would say that you have to take on, go into this community, take on people. He insisted that people be employed. And he did not talk against,
** about discrimination, but he would, would say, "We gotta get more blacks. We have to get more people of different races" and so on.
** He had a, a strong voice, and he didn't hesitate to use it.
Now, in terms of his other well-known campaign, his campaign against corruption and vice and whatnot. Do you have any remembrances or particular stories about that?
In a sense, he carried his struggle against corruption even into the newly formed Home Relief Bureau that he had set up. And he insisted that there be—you know, he reviewed everything. You had a feeling that here was, here was a mayor that could try to keep up with everything that was happening. And I recall the way in which he cleaned house, very quickly got, got rid of some of the administrators that he felt were not dealing fairly with people. And he set up a whole segment of the really, of, that had to deal just with single men. And he felt that this was something that was needed. In other words, LaGuardia was a, a man for the people. But he also battled the establishment of which he himself was a—
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Fiorello LaGuardia really was a man of the people and for the people. And I think people had that feeling about him, because he not only put himself, you know, in his office as the mayor, but he put himself out in the streets. He came into whatever situations he needed. There were so many people related to Tammany Hall that he had to fight against. And he himself worked not only against the corruption he could see, but he was also trying in every agency of the government to see what kind of protections he could build in. And in the Department of Welfare, all we had to have was a word from the mayor's office. He had a, a section in the, in the Home Relief Bureau that was called, that dealt with nothing but anonymous complaints. And I recall having some supervision over that office, and really had to realize that he took every complaint seriously. And we had to not only answer it, but we had to see to it that that answer got through to his office and to the person who had filed it. You had a, you had a feeling of an active leadership trying to salvage what was a bad situation.
But one bad situation that he couldn't salvage was, was some of the things that were happening in Harlem, hence the 1935 riot. Can you tell me what led to it, what you remember about it, how you felt?
Historians will have a hard time really saying fully what happened in 1935 to cause the Harlem riot. But it certainly made its impact on the whole city.
There were rumors, and that's the way such things begin, that a black boy had been mistreated by the police, and then there was another that a woman had been hit. But before anyone knew it, thousands of people were in the streets, and there was this great upheaval, and a real riot up and down the streets.
** One of the stories that has run all the folklore of Harlem is that there was a
** Chinese, Chinese laundry, and when he realized that it was the black people moving and destroying all the stores and properties owned by the white people, trying to get them out of Harlem, he went out and put a sign on his window and said, "Me Colored Too."
** And that, that sign got to be something that everybody laughed at. "Me Colored Too." He wanted to identify with those colored people in Harlem. And that riot led to the formation of a committee led by Reverend John H., John Johnson, the minister of St. Martin's Episcopal Church, was a Harlem committee that looked at the conditions in the city and what could be done about them. One of the recommendations that came out of that committee came because, again, it was recognized that eight percent of the population which was black had produced 42% of the relief rolls. And that committee in, among other things, recommended that, when they looked at the administration of relief, they had no person in a decision making position, in the personal administration. Anna Arnold Hedgeman had been appointed to work with Charlotte Carr, Commissioner of Welfare, to serve as an advisor on minority affairs, and she, too, joined in this, this whole recommendation that there should be someone in, in personnel. And I was working then in one of the district offices, and I was chosen to be that first black person in the personnel administration. I wasn't assigned any of the Harlem offices—
—but I was assigned all the central office services, which gave me an opportunity.
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The Harlem riot...excuse me. When I was working the Department of Welfare, the thing that really got me the most was that, day after day, hundreds, literally hundreds, of people came as part of the Unemployment Councils, protesting and asking for money, not only for food and, and housing, but for simple things that they needed. Like, I remember one woman who came all the time, and she wanted to get some false teeth. She couldn't understand why they wouldn't give, we could not give her the funds to get teeth, because that's what she needed. She couldn't get a job without her teeth. And she had broken her teeth. And, you know, you felt a real accomplishment when you could get maybe one of the dental schools or something to mend a person's teeth or help them on. We were down to just the, what I would call just the simple elements in human existence that affect people. The Harlem riot stirred up a lot, and out of it, not only was, was I appointed, but I think it actually meant that for the first time, there was a systematic way in which we were looking at discrimination, in, in, in the, in the Bureau. That we were counting and seeing as we made dismissals whether or not the last hired would be the first fired, and how all of that could be handled in a fashion that we did not lose the simple gains we were making.
Now, the story of the slave market.
When I left the Department of Welfare and worked in Harlem, YWCA, one of the earliest recollections I have is of the desperation of women and men looking for work. The, the domestic workers in Harlem had a, had an experience that I think no one would ever associate with the great city of New York. What had happened was that as more and more women came from the South, and they were in need of work, and they didn't have references, and they didn't have jobs, what developed what was called the Bronx Slave Market. And that meant that the women went to certain corners, and employers would come, and just as in slavery, they would look and choose the one that looked the strongest or the healthiest, take that person home with them to get their work done, and then sometimes they would turn the clock back. I got into this because at the Harlem YWCA so many girls and women, coming from the South especially, came to us with these stories of desperation, how it was they went home with the women at eight o'clock in the morning and they left their house at midnight, and she turned back the clock and said to them it was only six o' clock, and they didn't know until they got out into the streets. And she would only pay them what she wanted. And then, if she went to the police, they would, this woman would say, "I don't even know this girl. She tried to get into my house," so that we had young teenagers as well as older women who were just desperately looking for work. One time, I went before the city council, because we were protesting this. We had a small committee that was trying to see what could be done. And I'll never forget saying to them that it was called, that it was known as the Bronx Slave Market. And the Bronx councilman didn't want to hear that, and he said, "Well, how could you call it that?" I said, "Well, it's not only in the Bronx, it's in Brooklyn, too." It was all over the city. Desperate domestic workers were simply being exploited.
Well what about LaGuardia? What did he do?
Well, one of the reasons for bringing this before the city council was to get some approach towards either having hiring halls or some attention. And this again where I would say that the Department of Welfare was given an assignment to see what could be done about it. So that you had an active presence around these issues when you had a, a mayor like LaGuardia.
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Franklin Roosevelt really gave a new meaning to democracy. He made people feel that he cared about them, and, above all, he was able to make it very specific.
The things that he did said to us, "You, no matter who says that feeding the hungry, or giving clothing, or helping those who need housing to get housing, no matter who says that creates dependence,
** that there is a responsible role for government, and the government has a responsibility to see it change." And he said, "Any time we have a nation where one third of the nation is suffering the way it is," and he, "that the, the government has to take a hand."
** I think that the way in which he did it meant that he brought into communities simple steps. Take the, the Youth Conservation Program, the CCCS for young people, who gave them an opportunity to learn something, the skills they were able to get. It wasn't just giving them money. He taught them something. That kind of thing made people know that, that it is not irresponsible to ask your government to help, but that the government has the responsibility to take its proper role.
Can you remember any particular opposition, conservative opposition, whatever kind of opposition, to New Deal, to Roosevelt's New Deal programs?
Anyone who followed the New Deal couldn't help but react to the fact that there were some elements in our country who always wanted to seem like Mrs. Roosevelt was somehow especially caring about black people, that the president was going overboard in his efforts to deal with the, the people. And, you know, the Eleanor Clubs grew up, people called them, the Eleanor Clubs, anybody, and whoever really worked, they called, they called some of them "nigger lovers." There were all these kinds of things just said openly in relation to the president and Mrs. Roosevelt.
Now, let's change gears here. Let's ask these questions from the other program. Can you tell me about your work with Walter White and the anti-lynching campaign?
I owe a lot to my really understanding the nature of discrimination to the opportunity I had while I was working at the Harlem YWCA, to work along with Juanita Jackson, who is now Mitchell, with the NAACP. Walter White and Thurgood Marshall, later Roy Wilkins, were just people came our little meetings. We had rallies in Harlem, we had torchlight marches and the like. And it, it was an, it really was for me a liberal education. At that time,
the NAACP was way down on 5th Avenue, and whenever there was a lynching, they would hang out a black sign that had white words on it that said "A Man Was Lynched
** Today." And when that happened, we would have a rally and have Walter White come and talk with us and tell us what it was all about, or Thurgood Marshall would speak with us. And then we would call the young people out of Harlem,
** and wear black armbands and go down to 42nd Street, and
** silently march around 42nd Street,
** wearing black armbands and wearing and selling, even, little buttons that said, "Stop Lynching."
So, what did you feel like, and what did the community feel like when that sign came out? I mean, was it something that the whole community was aware of, and there was this feeling? What was it like?
Lynching was so real that when we saw that sign there was a sense of rage.
** And when I look back and see the people like Juanita Mitchell and Kenneth Clarke and James Robinson, and all the young people then, the fact that we were willing and ready to, to do something, and so we joined together and did our marches to work off that steam, really. I remember we brought Angelo Herndon, who'd been on a chain gang for just a simple act, we brought him to Harlem. And at the Mother Zion A.M.E. Church we had hundreds of young people gathered. And James Robinson wrote a, wrote the poetry, and the, the whole script, for an act in which young, our young men, stripped to the waist, with the chain attached to their arms, chained themselves to the, to the choir loft in that church. And if you could just think of their saying—
—for Angelo Herndon, "Set my people free!"
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The young men chained themselves, using automobile chains, to the brass railing of the church choir loft. And if you could imagine what happened as you had a meditation, a service of worship, in which they repeated Angelo Herndon's words, "Set my people free! Set my people free!" And these young people then, against that, hit the chains, so that you had a feeling of what it was like to be a young person on a chain gang and put out there in the hot sun and struggling, just because they were trying to get their freedom. I think this was the kind of thing that, it, it's hard to imagine now, because you don't hear much about lynching. But it was that battle against lynching that stopped lynching. It's more subtle in later years, but at that time it was very blatant.
Were there other segments of the community that didn't control their rage the way that you were able to channel your rage into marches and formal protests? Were there other people that were talking about doing other things differently?
Well, there were all kinds of things happening, but I think that the, the organized efforts, through, for me, the YWCA and the NAACP, through the church, all of those organized efforts were really what saved Harlem. It, it really gave us a way to work through. The opportunities to have advice from people like Ashley Totten and A. Philip Randolph, to have the kind of guidance, oh, and how could I ever forget Charlie Houston, because it was he really spelled out for us what, what the struggle really was, and helped us to understand that we had to band together. He always said, "Now remember, the quickest way to your freedom is through the ballot." So long before we started some of the other kinds of voter registration efforts, the, through the NAACP's effort, through the kind of thing that I enjoyed, and working with Juanita Jackson-Mitchell on, that we, we, we began to, to feel that there was at least a nucleus of people in the community who were determined to work for change.
Tell me what Juanita Jackson-Mitchell was like as a person, and any personal stories that you have.
Well, Juanita Mitchell, first of all, is so, was so articulate. She was a dynamic speaker but a great thinker. And, you know, she later became a very distinguished lawyer. But a lot of that legal talent showed up in the planning of the strategies. The, the, the strategies that were planned to harness, and we had some 88 youth groups in Harlem were all harnessed together. I look back and wonder, you know, how it was that we then go so many different groups to come together. And I don't mean just come together once a year. That we had meeting two and three times a week, young people working on the problems, on the national youth, what we thought could be a national youth act. We were so active that I remember when Eleanor Roosevelt in one of here columns wrote, she said, "All of my active friends now," as I looked, as she looked at the McCarthy Era, she said, "I will advise them, talented as they are, to stay out of government." And it really meant for us that you had great negative forces working against it who wanted to immediately label you as radical or communist or something else. But still we had this nucleus of people who worked.
Under the WPA, so many
** of our people
** who had good education and talent found jobs. And I think that we
** could, can never play down the importance of the WPA. Without it, there'd have been many who'd have simply lost some of their skills and their talent.
** And there were not only in the theater, but in other, in other aspects of life, they were given a chance to work. I liked the idea that, as we look at it today,
** that so many programs that got started then through WPA workers laid the foundation for a better future.
Tell me about the evolution into the WPA. You know, the CWA, PWA, and then to the WPA, because of the, the problems that were experienced with those other programs.
Well, I think with some of the problems, but one other thing that I want to mention is that during the national, during all that period of what was called the national recovery period under the New Deal, there was a very critical element that was brought in when the President Roosevelt brought Mary McCloud Bethune to Washington to be his advisor in the National Youth Administration. So that you had those who were experienced getting opportunity through WPA special projects, that were rendering services in the community providing what people needed, helping them with their housing needs, helping them with their education, adult education classes. All kinds of things that were supported. Music classes, and, and the like. And Mrs. Bethune in the National Youth Administration gave young people opportunities to work. I remember using their skills when I worked in the YWCA, where young people were trained how to be assisting a person in an organization, in an agency. All of those were kind of saving and conserving our talent and kind of giving people a chance.
Let me ask you something that just occurred to me. Go back to the garment workers. You told me you were a garment worker in college. Do you remember the 1933 garment workers' strike that happened as a result of the NRA?
In 1933, what, the time of the garment workers' strike, I was just finishing college. I think I identified with that in a way that helped me come to understand the importance of organized labor. And I'm, that's part of what was my upbringing, because I understood, and I had a, actually a little speech that I used to make about the fact that one could work all day and still not earn a living, not even be able to live, be able to pay for your needs for that one day. And I got that out of my own experience in the garment industry.
Let me ask you one more quick one. In terms of Harlem, the NRA, in Harlem they would call them the "Negro Removal Act."
The "Negro's Ruined Again." Can you talk to me about that?
The reason...Harlem really had such bad experience that it looked like everything that came along worked against us. When they talked about the National Recovery Act, we called it the Negro Removal Act, because what it meant was that those who were, lived in fairly decent housing, houses, were having less and less of a chance to stay there. And it was hard to anyone to move. And as any kind of new housing was developed, then we were the people who were displaced, never to return to where we had been before. So it looked like every piece of progress meant that, as, as black people thought we would get the advantage of it, instead, we were the people who were displaced. So we were moving out.
Let's stop. How much we got?
The Negro Removal Act was also part of what we used to call the getting rid of Negroes whenever there was any call for equal pay. We were paid one, one wage, and white workers were paid another. I won't even talk about the fact that women were paid even less than that. And the, Adam Clayton Powell's whole drive was to help us understand we not only needed to be employed where we bought and where we spent our money, but that we needed to have equal pay for work. And I think A. Philip Randolph pressed that through to us, that we needed to use our power to see to it that we eliminated those barriers that kept blacks at the bottom no matter how hard we worked.
Can you tell me that the, that the National, that the NRA was referred to as the Negro Removal Act?
The, the NRA also got to be known as the Negro Removal Act, and it also was the Negro Run-Around.
Say it all over again.
It was also called the Negro Run-Around.
All of it.
The, the National,
the NRA got also to be called the Negro Run-Around, and that's what we thought we had, that no matter how hard we worked, we came up with the least good job and with the least good pay.