Camera Rolls: 313:45-48
Sound Rolls: 313:24-
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Adam Clayton Powell III , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 22nd, 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.*
In 19—let me think how I can tell this to a family [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] [laughs].
And the year has to be within, from '32-'36.
Yeah, it's, it'd be the early '30s...in the early '30s, my father was supporting McKee for mayor. He was very much a well-connected New York politician, he was Cardinal Spellman's lawyer, he was very central to the Catholic Church in New York, he was newly-elected President Roosevelt's choice to be mayor, and my father was McKee's Harlem campaign chairman. LaGuardia won that election in a, on a Fusion platform. Fusion meant many things to many people. To some it meant LaGuardia himself, who was half-Italian and half-Jewish in business politics, which was then controlled by the Irish. To others it meant political fusion, because he was bringing together different parties, different opposition parties, but after he was elected, with a great deal of optimism among Liberal and Progressive forces in New York City, things did not always go smoothly between him and my father. In fact, things rarely went smoothly between him and my father, especially in the early years, and my father used to refer to him mockingly as a Liberal, he called him a Liberal, so in print it would look, "The Liberal Mayor," but if you heard him in person it was the "Liberal" mayor. LaGuardia's nickname, little flower, which was a term of endearment, even affection in some communities, my father would always turn it in a sarcastic or sardonic way, he would say, "the little flower has wilted," "little flower is fading," so things that might appear in print as neutral or even favorable things that my father said, he actually said with a great deal of sarcasm. So, many people downtown in New York, reading the newspapers, would think "Oh, that's a complimentary thing that Powell has said," or at the very least something neutral, whereas if you were there, on the corner of 125th Street, or in the Abyssinian Church, hearing him say it, you knew it wasn't entirely complimentary.
Of course, politics changes from day to day, and political alliances change from day to day, seven years later LaGuardia endorsed my father for city council.
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
OK... many of the members of our church came from the South, some came from the islands, and in that huge wave of migration in the early part of the 20th century, right up through the 30s, and 40s, you had a lot of people coming to New York for a better way of life, same thing that motivates people moving anywhere, almost anywhere. I remember so many people in the church telling stories of how hard it had been when they were growing up in the South, and how they had heard that the North was the Mecca, and there was even a joke that my father used to tell, that even though the Whites may own New York, and the Whites may run New York, but the Blacks enjoy New York. That was what people heard throughout the South, you've got to get to New York. Of course, you get to New York and times are pretty tough, especially in the Depression, people in Harlem had a hard time getting work even in Harlem, where less than one percent of the work-force of many businesses in Harlem was black. You had people running up against discrimination in Harlem that they hadn't really expected to find, they'd known, their parents would certainly have known first-hand the days of slavery, and they come to the North, they come to this paradise, and find little money, discrimination in Harlem, in New York City. This came very much as a surprise to many of them, probably to most of them, they could look up and see the buses going up and down the streets of Harlem, all white bus-drivers—no blacks were allowed—in New York. At the same time, the IND subway had just been finished, a New York City-owned, brand-new subway system with subway lines running through Harlem. Only whites could be employed there. Blacks could be employed as toilet attendants, but nothing else. This was in New York. The telephone company opened up a new exchange for the then-brand-new dial system on 146th Street, in Harlem, and the vice-president of the telephone company testified, in public, that he would not hire black workers to work at that exchange. He also said off the record he wouldn't hire Catholics or Jews. This is in Harlem, in New York City, and in the 1930s. Even on 125th Street you had the thoroughfare, the main east-west street in Harlem, where most people did their shopping, you had department stores, you had the Woolworth's Five-and-Dime, you had dress shops, you had all kinds of stores, and blacks could not work behind the counter in those stores. That, of course, became the centerpiece for the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaign, and it was remarkable that these things were going on in Harlem. And probably now, when we look back on it, it sounds like something that may have been going on in Mississippi or Alabama. It may have been going on in the 19th century, but these were things going on in New York City in the middle third of this century.
Tell me more about the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaign and how, I guess, for lack of a better description, "pissed off" your father and other Harlem residents were, and how they came together, and what they did about, what they did, and your father's role in particular.
Well, there's an antecedent to the 125th Street campaign, which was actually started by my grandfather, Adam Clayton Powell Senior, the pastor of the Abyssinian Church before my father took over. He had an informal, and what my father probably would've called a much too polite protest. He would go to store-owners and bring them receipts brought by members of the Abyssinian Church, saying, "look how many thousands of dollars our church members are spending at your store: you really should employ black workers." Didn't get anywhere, just ran up against a brick wall. When my father got involved in the campaign, he was a, always, an advocate of more direct action. He would play off one store against another. I can remember, he and I would walk down 125th Street, this of course was years later, but he would still have the memories as if they had just happened the day before. He would say, "Oh yes, Thursday we began picketing over there, then we set up a line over at Woolworth's, and Woolworth's was the key one, when Woolworth's went, everybody went, it was the end, it all happened so quickly. Oh yes, I remember that five-and-dime store over there, we had to picket there, they wouldn't talk to us, wouldn't even meet with us." There was a restaurant, called Frank's, which was near the end of 125th Street, and my father said "We always stopped here, we never closed down Frank's, because after our campaign finished and we had blacks employed at all these stores, and all these establishments up and down 125th Street, I said there should be one place in Harlem where black people could go to eat, and be waited on by whites."
Now— [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
Now, you just told me that they brought the stores in line, but how did the government respond, and how did they feel about [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] , particularly LaGuardia, and your father's relationship with him, was there any prodding from your father to get him to get involved and to try to get these businesses to do the right thing?
Yes. Well, let me rephrase it as a complete sentence. When my father used to talk about that campaign, and he did quite often, it was obviously a central memory for him and a central event in his career, he used to discuss how the "downtown forces," as he would call it—City Hall, government—didn't seem to be that interested in this campaign, and it was part of an overall pattern that he saw. Even someone who was viewed as a progressive, such as Fiorello LaGuardia, when he was mayor, was willing to compromise on points that my father thought were simply beyond compromise. Whether it involved employment, whether it involved housing—they had a bitter clash over housing, public housing in New York, housing that was made possible by the city of New York, even if it were built effectively with subsidy from the city by private companies. Because in the 1930s, in New York City, you had major housing projects going up which were segregated, not de facto segregation, but overt, explicit, no-blacks-allowed-in-this-housing-project.
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No one knew what was really going to happen, it was just amazing, they said "Well, we think it'll happen, but who knows," and so watching these guys grab something with their hands [laughs] sounds like...
OK, so, housing, you were...?
In New York City in the 1930s, even with a progressive mayor, you still had the construction and operation of new housing, public housing or quasi-public housing, housing subsidized through the city, built by private companies, which was segregated. It was not de facto segregation because of housing patterns, it was explicit, mandated segregation. The managers of the housing project said that "We will not permit blacks to move in." This was a central dispute between my father and LaGuardia. LaGuardia saw a supply of new housing being built which would be available at a reasonable cost to the people of the city of New York. My father looked at the same project and saw public dollars indirectly subsidizing a housing project from which Harlemites would be barred. There was no compromise between the two of them on this, LaGuardia said "Yes, I want this to be built," my father said "No way, unless blacks are permitted," and eventually there was a compromise, which was the Harlem river-houses, which grew out of other pressures and the Harlem Riots, which provided housing for black people in Harlem. But that clash over the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Housing Project, which was an explicitly all-white housing project, was central and also typical of the kinds of disputes that they had, between a mayor who viewed himself as progressive and getting services for most of the people, and this minister from Harlem, as yet unelected to anything, but a community leader seeing city services being denied to black people in Harlem.
Tell me about their relationship in regard to the public works programs, in particular the CWA, PWA and the racism and discrimination that was in those programs. I read somewhere in one of the articles we talked about, where your father referred to LaGuardia and his administration as Fusion-
-for Fascism, right [laughs].
If you could you just talk to me about that a little bit?
Well there was, let me just look down for a second, there was another quote, I just want to get it right—
Hang on, just let me get settled...OK, it's all yours.
There was a very high level of unemployment, very difficult times, very little money, few jobs, a difficult time in Harlem. Everyone says that when the rest of the country has [sic] a recession, Harlem had a depression. Well, now the rest of the country was in a depression, so things in Harlem were even worse. I remember my father saying that members of the Abyssinian Church, of the children who were in those families, sixty-three percent were under-nourished. Sixty-three percent. That was such an omnipresent force for change that, even before the New Deal and before the city welfare department, my father, and his father before him, had organized private relief efforts. My grandfather, the minister, pastor, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., out of his own pocket donated one thousand dollars to start the first soup kitchen, and my father ran it, with volunteers. This was before there was a city welfare department, before the New Deal agencies came in. Around the same time, my father formed a committee of wealthy whites from downtown, who would make donations, and every week, he would describe to me how every week this truck would come and deliver two our three thousand dollars in cash to Abyssinian Church to pay people. These were not giveaway programs. Everyone who received any money from this program had a job assigned to him or her, they were cleaning up the community, they were providing services to the community. My father said that he was determined not to have it as a giveaway program, he said "If it takes a man or woman standing in one spot and cleaning that one spot until it shines, they're going to be working to get their money." You can imagine what happened. Even with two or three thousand dollars a week, that was only enough to pay, even in Depression-level salaries, that was only enough to pay a hundred and fifty, or at most, two hundred people each week, and word spread like wildfire through Harlem that there was money, cash, for those willing to work. Very quickly, there were lines of thousands of people at the Abyssinian Church, wanting to work to get money, clearly beyond the scope or capacity of these privately funded projects. So, when the government became involved, through the Roosevelt administration, and brought in all of the CWA, and all the NRA and the other programs, there was a great deal of hope that now there would be millions of dollars coming into Harlem for relief, to put people to work, to alleviate hunger, that this finally is the answer. And so,
the disillusionment when that money didn't seem to find its way into the pockets of the people who needed it in Harlem, was severe.
** I remember my father talking about the New Deal, those early days in 1933 and '4 , and saying it was just an alphabet soup, a Greek alphabet, people didn't know how to translate CWA into jobs, into money. People didn't know how to get it. So the money was going somewhere, but it wasn't going into the pockets of those that needed it in Harlem. And especially coming after the very modestly funded private efforts, which were just two or three thousand dollars in the case of the program run at Abyssinian, where people saw all the money being loaded off the trucks and being handed to people who needed it, to have millions of dollars coming into New York from the federal government, and then not seeing it, people were very disillusioned. They said, "What's happening here, where is the money going, why can't the people who want to work and want to feed their children, why can't they get this money?" It was... we can only imagine now how much of a disillusionment that must have been.
In regard to those programs, particularly those PWA programs, they received an enormous sum of money, I think it was 44,000,000 dollars, to complete the Triborough Bridge, which goes right into Harlem, I think at 125th Street. I have an article from the New [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] newspaper that says that "after the struggle to get the money," it says, "funds for Triborough allocated to bring jobs to Harlem," and then all of a sudden, when it comes time to hire they find that they're not hiring black people. Do you have any-
Well, I remember the headline, the headline was "Prosperity for Harlem Workers." Thousands of people saw the headline, "Prosperity for Harlem Workers,"
here's this huge project, they're going to build this huge bridge to connect Harlem to Long Island and the Bronx. Huge project, people all thought this would be a great boom to Harlem, a supply of jobs, money flowing into the community. Then, to turn around and discover that the people running the Triborough Bridge Project had no intention of hiring black workers,
or if they had intentions of doing so, they mysteriously didn't, and you can look at the photographs of the bridge under construction today, and you'll see all white faces, this a bridge which on the Manhattan end of it, ended at 125th Street right in the heart of Harlem.
Do you remember your father ever speaking about, not necessarily that particular situation, but that situation along with other racism and discrimination that had him and other members of Harlem disillusioned with Roosevelt and the New Deal, and LaGuardia? I mean, they came in with the idea of being more inclusive, and yet, the kinds of things that happened with the Triborough happened.
What I think was not anticipated—no, let me restate it—even in my lifetime, I can remember my father referring to difficulties that he was having within the liberal progressive coalition, and he could trace some of those problems back to the days before he even held elective office, when he was a young minister in Harlem, in the Depression. You had these huge progressive coalitions supporting Roosevelt for President and then, in New York City, LaGuardia for mayor. But once Roosevelt and LaGuardia were elected, they had a very different role. They were now governing relying on different elements of these coalitions that didn't always see things the same way.
Around this time in the early '30s, you have a newly elected President, Franklin Roosevelt, a newly elected mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, both elected with broad, liberal progressive coalitions. But once Roosevelt and LaGuardia got into office and had to govern, pieces of those coalitions didn't always see things the same way, and the friction, the disagreements between my father and LaGuardia and between my father and Roosevelt really centered on how these elements of the progressive coalition, once their candidate was elected, proceeded to go in different directions. In the Triborough Bridge, one of the key constituencies for LaGuardia and Roosevelt, for that matter, were the trade unions, but quite often, the trade unions would be obstacles to hiring more black workers, and so suddenly you have this progressive coalition now debating and fighting within itself over just how progressive they were really going to be. That was a debate which kept going, a tension that keeps going to this day, but in the early '30s, when you had these newly-elected progressive leaders, particularly in New York City, there was an element of, disappointment is too mild a word, frustration, that, all right, now we have our progressive man in office, in City Hall and in the White House—where are the jobs? Where's the money? People could see every day in the newspaper that multi-million-dollar programs were enacted, and millions of dollars were flowing into New York City, and thousands of jobs were being created, but in Harlem you turn around and ask, where are they? Why haven't they come north of Central Park? And that central tension really wasn't resolved until World War II, when there was so much money and so much work, that there was prosperity throughout the country.
Much of that tension and frustration comes to a head with the 1935 riot, March 19th. Do you remember any conversations with your father in regard to him trying to warn LaGuardia about the tensions and the frustrations that existed there, and talking about LaGuardia coming there or not coming there or his totally ignoring Harlem? Just that whole situation.
There's a tension there, my father's nickname—that's impossible to cut, let me start again.
My father's nickname was "Flaming Tongue," and he had heard that people in City Hall, in the LaGuardia administration, were very wary of this minister up in Harlem, that he could arouse people,
** he could bring them down by the subway to City Hall, have a big rally on the steps of City Hall. Things were difficult, everyone knew times were tough—who knows what this young minister, this brash young man might do, this flaming tongue of his. So when he came downtown and talked to LaGuardia, and warned about the difficulty of conditions, the frustrations, and how, really the conditions were right for a major, major problem in Harlem to suddenly erupt.
** What he heard back was, "yes, we know times are tough, but you may be part of the problem, because you're stirring up those people." And so you could just imagine what some of those private meetings were like. We now can see some of the private correspondence within the LaGuardia administration and between LaGuardia and my father, where there was a great deal of mistrust by the LaGuardia people, "What is Powell up to?" And there was certainly mistrust on the part of my father, "Why isn't City Hall dealing with this?"
** It's almost as if they were talking in different dialects of the same language. Yes, it was the same language, but different dialects. When the riots happened, the spark was a familiar one to us today: it was the rumors, inaccurate, as it turned out to be, rumors of a boy having been beaten in a store. It happened very quickly. My father's word
which he told to me later, was to LaGuardia, was "I told you this was coming. You've got to address this, you've got to come up here and do something about this."
Some of the people around LaGuardia, even before the mayor responded, would say things like "Well, it's the Communists, it's the radicals, maybe it's Powell," because after all maybe it's in his interest to stir things up like this. But there was so much damage, and so much destruction up and down 125th Street in a very short period of time, that the city had to respond, and it was clear that it was, in the term that was used then, a "Race Riot." You had storeowners putting up signs in their windows trying to keep their windows from being broken and trying to prevent looting, storeowners putting up huge signs saying: "This store run by colored people," or early on, "This store employs colored people." Even some of the Chinese had signs up, "We're Colored Too." This all sounds like it could be out of today's headlines, but this was the 1930s in New York. It was very clearly a split along racial lines but it was also very much a split along economic lines, that the money and the programs designed to combat the poverty of the Depression, simply had not filtered through into Harlem, to help the people
** in Harlem.
After the riot, though, LaGuardia comes to Harlem and tries to enlist your father's support, he comes to your father's church, could you talk to me about that? And your father's response to that?
[coughs]. I was waiting till the phone stops... I don't remember my father discussing his public response to LaGuardia, that's a matter that's on record anyway, but his wariness about City Hall continued, especially as the negotiations—now you're getting into the years when the political negotiations are beginning, the political forces are beginning to come together that will eventually create a City Council seat which my father would occupy, and then not long after that, a Congressional District in Harlem. And so, there was a wariness that continued, probably matched by LaGuardia, that, yes, let's try to work together and do something, but, who knows what he's really up to, how long this commitment's going to last. Things are going to quiet down, and then what'll happen? The struggle isn't over yet, and the struggle isn't going to be over for a while, we'll see how long our—what was his phrase—how long our "campaign friends" will be with us. That was a phrase, "campaign friends," that he used for years. They're your friends when they're running for office, they come up here and they campaign, then you don't see them again. Where are they? They're downtown somewhere, but they'll be back for the next campaign.
Now, after the riot, there's a commission, a blue ribbon commission, or panel, or whatever that's formed, and come back with a report that tells LaGuardia many of the things that your father has been telling him. He holds the, he holds the report-
Wouldn't publish it, right.
Talk to me about that report.
Well, the report, which was held confidential and wasn't published until a newspaper got hold of it and published it-
Tell me, I mean, make it inclusive, you have to tell me that "the report after the riots."
Oh, oh I see, right, yes, OK. After the riot, the mayor convened a commission. The commission investigated the causes of the riot and produced a report on Harlem riot. The mayor decided not to publish the report, but to keep it secret, and it remained secret until a newspaper was able to get and publish it sometime later. My father's view was that there was nothing surprising in the report, in fact there was nothing in the report that LaGuardia hadn't been told before the riot. The conditions were bad in Harlem, the various points covered by the report all were simply covering items that had been either been brought up in earlier discussions with LaGuardia and his correspondence with LaGuardia, in newspaper reports—
OK... I'll talk about Harlem Hospital as an example. After the riot, after the mayor's commission, after the commission report was made public, there were some responses by government to the long-standing complaints of people in Harlem. One example, Harlem Hospital. Here's a hospital that's called Harlem Hospital, it's in the middle of Harlem, surrounded by black people. Black doctors had a terrible time getting into Harlem Hospital to practice. Harlem Hospital had segregated eating facilities, nurses who were black had a separate dining room. Hard to believe that this was going on in the 1930s in New York City. Not Mississippi, not Alabama, New York City. And before the riots, my father had worked with some of the doctors to try and open up Harlem Hospital, but it was after the riots that the government finally began to respond, to open up the Hospital to black doctors, to integrate all the facilities, and also to integrate all of the emergency room operations, all the medical operations, because sometimes you would have a black woman or man arrive at Harlem Hospital in the early 1930s and not get the level of treatment that a white person would get. This finally began to change after the riot, but there were still some institutional problems. My father was concerned that once the emergency goes away, once the rioting is off the front pages, that the attention of the people downtown and the backing of the people downtown, would start to go away, familiar story. And that is when he used to say that he began to focus more and more on institutional change in elected politics in New York, that Harlem, to be a player downtown, couldn't rely on the good intentions of elected white officials. Harlem had to have its own elected and appointed black officials downtown, at City Hall, in the rooms where the budgets are being carved up and where all of the goodies are being distributed. You had to be at that table. That effort led to the City Council seat, which he finally won at the end of the decade, of the 1930s, and that in turn led to the creation of a Congressional District in Harlem. Harlem was always represented, people could always vote, it's just that the way the district lines were drawn, it was always pie-slices, a little bit of Harlem would vote with this part of the white community there, this little part of Harlem would vote with this part of the white community over here. So you had Harlem represented by Vito Marcantonio, a very progressive congressman, but as you can tell from his name, Italian. You had Harlem represented by members of city government, mostly white, and so the big push after the riots, the big institutional push after the riot, was to change the way Harlem elected officials, to unify the strength of the black vote, to create a force that would elect black men and women to local, and then in the 1940s, to national office.
How much influence, if any—I mean what's the legacy of LaGuardia and FDR in terms of their opening up the government and being more inclusive? I mean, particularly in New York City, I mean, Italians, Jews, Blacks, if you were anything but Irish you were shut out, OK. On the federal level, blacks weren't really participating in the electoral process heavily before Roosevelt and, I mean, there were lynchings and whatnot going, how much did they open up the government to be more inclusive and give more people a shot at this dream called America?
Well, politics in Harlem changed a great deal in the 1930s. At the beginning of the decade, you still had much of the black vote, most of the black vote, historically going to the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, the party that freed the slaves, and it was really Franklin Roosevelt who on a national level and in Harlem began to bring that vote into the Democratic Party, where it has remained, more or less, ever since. In return, that gave my father and others the clout to go in and say, "OK, we now want to be, if we're the ones who are contributing to your majority, if we're the ones who are delivering these votes for you on Election Day, we want to be there after Election Day to be working with you." So it was a major change, certainly in New York politics, where city government had been the preserve, really, of the Irish, to the exclusion not just of black New Yorkers but Italian New Yorkers, and Jewish New Yorkers, and everybody else.
suddenly you had the beginnings of the opening up of City Hall, first to this mayor who was elected, who was himself Italian and Jewish, and then by the end of the decade, opening reluctantly or otherwise to somewhat more influence by the black community.
** This was not a panacea, this was not a paradise that's suddenly been reached by 1939, but at least it was having some influence in the process, whereas before, the influence had really been as distant outsiders. And now at least you had a few people inside when that door closed and there were decisions being made inside that room. You had one or two people from Harlem, one or two people from parts of the Bronx that might not have been represented before, one or two people from Brooklyn that might not have been represented before. If you were to take a snapshot of that room in City Hall where they all gather and close the door and make the decisions, if you had taken a snapshot in 1929 and a snapshot in 1939, some very different kinds of people were in the room ten years later than had been the case at the end of the 20s.
Tell me about your father's feelings regarding government responsibility and the expansion of government [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
Because with Hoover nothing was happening. How did your father feel about what the government could and should do?
Well he had some somewhat[laughs]I've got to restate it, yeah. My father had some somewhat controversial views on the subject of government assistance and how it should be delivered. Probably going back to his experience with the programs of the early 1930s and the beginnings of the New Deal, he never completely trusted the established power structure—the power structure, a phrase he used often—the established power structure to deliver money or services to people who really need it. He always used to try to deliver money or services either around the power structure, to get money directly to people, or in creating totally different structures. Sometimes this sounds like conventional politics, "Oh, Powell's building his own political machine," look at some of the clippings from the late '30s and early '40s, "things he was trying to create for his own benefit." But if you go back and look at what he was writing and saying in the '30s, it really was the very same concept, which is, government must be the last resort of people who have no other alternative. But that the link between the people who need it, and the government that has it, must be a direct link. The more people that get in the way, they're going to be the people who get the money. That was his objection to the CWA, that was his objection to a variety of government programs in the '30s, and '40s and '50s and '60s, and was a central tension between him and the established power structure, the mayors and the others who wanted that money to go through City Hall rather than directly to Harlem.
One last question. Robert Moses, you had told me a little bit about your father's thoughts on Robert Moses.