Camera Rolls: 311:06-11
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 December 6, 1991, 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.*
...three members of your family.
Take, take your time.
In, in April, starting in April of 1925,
my father, my uncle, and myself, individually went to the area where people were congregating,
** waiting for the employment office to, to open. Later, that became a, a, an enclosed parking lot. At that time, it was in the process of formation. So, for five months, five months, day and night, we waited for that employment office to open.
**It wasn't a very happy experience, except that there were so many other people that it didn't take very long until
you felt that you were a part of, of humanity on the move.
** Where they were going, sad to say...while later on I discovered that there were different categories, different experiences, different nationalities, different languages, different races, at the beginning you could only, I could only see that some people didn't have any light in their eyes. They didn't have any life. They seemed to be... I didn't know that there were such people. People who had never had a job, or people who came there because they had worked for 30 cents an hour in many states. I had come from Pennsylvania, where my father had worked for 40 cents an hour for Carnegie, the great luminary!, you know, who gave us libraries. He was fired when he said he would, had been promised 42 cents and they failed to produce. They called him a troublemaker. But amongst those people, and I, I guess I was very talkative, intrusive. I, you move around.
Let me interrupt you for just one second. This is making a little bit of noise. There we go. Tell me some more about the lost souls in the parking lot.
Well, there, there, I met people who came from war plants, who liked to talk about what they produced during World War I. Some said they delayed coming to Detroit, because they had hopes, they had been told, they, they believed that those war plants were going to get started again, because we're, we're, we're going to go to war against the Bolsheviks. And they were thinking that, "I'd work seven days a week. Even 35 cents an hour seven days a week is going to be good money."
Give me just a list of where people came from, who left their souls, from, from where, where were they from? Just a list of the places.
Oh, these, these people came from the various states of the Union. Some had accents that, that, that I could barely figure them out, and I was quite a linguist already, because I had travelled with my dad in Europe on land reclamation as an agronomist, and at age 12, age 10 even, I could speak conversational Spanish. And my grandfather, my paternal grandfather, came from Alsace-Lorraine into Italy, so I had occasion to go to the city of Metz in Alsace-Lorraine, had gone to southern Germany as well. So I was able to, to, to, to converse, a little bit of German, and particularly my Italian was pretty fluent. They came from every state in the Union. Some were talkative, and some were like blocks of cement. They didn't seem to, there didn't seem to be any life in them, and I, you know, they were real, real difficult studies. But as I was saying earlier, some of them were miners. A lot of them were Italians, from the minefields of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia. They used to like to brag silently because they didn't want the company to know about the battles they'd been in. And they talked about blood.
Were there people from the American South, blacks and whites from the South?
There were no blacks, no blacks. There were white Southerners, farmer boys from the various states. The most interesting types, from my point of view, as I later got to know them, were those that had had the same experiences in life that I had, with, with the fascists.
Say, tell me one thing, just so we have it on film to be it clear. These were all people waiting to get work at Ford's, am I right? Can you tell me that?
They were waiting to get work. I'm not saying, well, the statistics that I discovered was that a million and a half in the nine year period before the 1929 crash in the hopes of getting jobs at Ford's. I understand that a lot of people from other countries wrote letters to Ford, saying that they wanted to come and work there. They had heard about the five dollar day, eight hour day.
Why would they want to come work at Ford's?
Well, because if you had had no job, or if you had been working for 35 cents an hour, and you had a chance to get 62 and a half cents an hour for the first six months, which amounted to five dollars, and then the, the, the possibility existed, the promise was, was made, that, that if you qualified you would get six dollars. You, your lunch period was for 15 minutes. It was paid for by the company. You worked three shifts. In some cases, it was already evident that, if you lived in the city of Dearborn, or if you intended to buy a house in the city of Dearborn, you would be treated with more consideration. At the, besides, there was a depression in United States. I had seen it in Italy, but I had become a bit of an expert on, on legislation dealing with quotas on migration. I had seen plants in Italy that had made munitions and other things for the war. And the owners had shut the plants, and they'd gone away. Some of them had gone to England, become dukes, married the, you know, an English... And they used to come only, I saw this with my own eyes, they used to come periodically on a ship with their horses, their foxes, their red coats, to hunt. And then they would all go back again, you see.
Let me interrupt you. Standing out in the parking lot, with all these men waiting to get work at Ford, what did, in your mind, in their mind, what did Henry Ford represent?
Well, this, this is very interesting, especially for me. My father had made me read every piece of literature that he could get a hold of. He received half a dozen papers back in Pennsylvania. And I arrived in New Castle, Pennsylvania in, in the Christmas of 1923. Immediately we went to school, started in the first grade, and within the first six or seven months I went through nine or ten grades. So we were a family that, we were aware. We lived with my aunt and my uncle, who were intimidated because we were surrounded by Klans, groups who burned crosses.
I've going to have to have, get you to try to stay in Detroit. [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] How was it after you came to Detroit? You had, you had become learned in Pennsylvania, but once you were here...
Well, the, the, the specific answer that most people had for coming to Detroit was the publicity that had been given to Henry Ford...[wild audio] PAUL BOATIN: ...negative publicity, derogatory publicity. Henry Ford was accused, by the introduction of the eight hour day, of destroying capitalism.
We left off with publicity that, tell me about the publicity, and then take it from there.
As far as I know, the many papers that I saw actually made headlines, and while manufacturers were working people 10 hours a day, maybe places 14 hours a day, were unhappy about the introduction of the eight hour day. Workers responded. But, more than that, they responded to the fact that the difference between 30 cents and 62 and a half cents, and eventually 75 cents, is something you can't sneeze at.
You want to tell me about when you finally got a job? Or did you finally get a job at Ford? You waited in the parking lot all those months. What happened?
I eventually did get a job
in August of 1925. And I wound up working in the foundry machine shop on the midnight shift.
** But you had conveyors coming from the foundry past the machine shop to be machined there and then to continue on, on conveyors, to the motor building, which was in the direct line of service. And some of the same people that I had met in the parking lot, they were almost all, we were, we were buddies. And the, as I think back now, the long conversations that had taken place in that parking lot as you waited, night after night, day after day, all of a sudden came to a stand still. No talk. No walk. Don't leave your job without permission, not even for a drink of water, not even to go to the toilet. Not one step away from your operation.
** And you noticed the change in, in atmosphere. You also noticed the change in expectation. You also noticed the change in perception; those people who were politically mature and alert that this guy that was publicized as being the enemy of capitalism was running a, particularly, you know, those that had had experience, I compared it to fascist Italy in many respects. They didn't hit you over the head, but you certainly were, were under constant, continuous control, you know.
Is it safe to say that he treated his workers like children? Would you say? Or...
Well, he, he, he was accused by who, who want, people who wanted to criticize him, but benevolently, criticize him but not, not too negatively, that he, that it was Ford's paternalism, he meant well, that he wanted the, the men, the husband of the family to work, that he wanted the family to go to church, no beating of the wife, no drinking. If that was the original intent, when the workers showed dissatisfaction at the way they were being treated on the job, these same people who were, who, who, who were paternalistic policemen became infiltrators of families, of communities, Italian bocce games, dance, dances. And they were looking for agitators, looking for troublemakers, was the favorite, the favorite term. Particularly when the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, which were not too known in this area, but had established a reputation for being strong fighters out in, in the fields of the Midwest and in the mines of Arizona, and so forth. I, I remember, there was a little woman, no criticism, five feet tall, Matilda Rabinowitz, I think. She was arrested. They splashed her, they made her look like a giant in the front pages, of the, of the Detroit Times, which was a Hearst newspaper as, as though she was going to carry the Ford plant away in her pocket, you know. And then, then, of course, Bill Haywood, Big Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and others, they were denounced as agitators even before they got to town. There was, in other words, the process of intimidation took place in the plant, took place in the neighborhoods, it took place in the publicity in, in the news media, which were, were controlled by them. It was all negative.
I want to ask you about, speaking of publicity, the image of Henry Ford, the picture of Henry Ford, you know, there are some countries where you go around and see pictures of Christ, or there are some place you go and you see pictures of Elvis Presley. Just, was Ford's picture visible around, do you understand what I'm saying? Did you see it hanging up in, you know, stores, or homes?
Well, it, it, it's funny that you should be asking me that, because, later on, this may not be pertinent for a long-winded discussion, but I did visit, I became the driver for one of the union organizers and he told me, "You mustn't talk to anybody because they don't want to be hurt. They don't want to be..." So they left me a little living room. From where I was standing, I could see diagonally across the little hallway into a bedroom. I saw part of the bed, and on the wall there was kind of a stain, where a crucifix had been. But no longer a crucifix was there. A picture of Henry Ford was laying over the bridal bed in the place where the cross had been. I must say that as soon as the union came in, the wife took Henry Ford and put the cross back.
I need you to say one sentence for me so we know where you were. Can you say, "I was in a worker's home"? Do you understand what I'm saying?
Yes, yes, I... This happened in a worker's home, and I'm not saying that this worker was bad, I'm not saying that he was a chicken, I'm not saying that he was a coward. I'm saying that the process of intimidation compelled that worker, who had a family to support, to demonstrate publicly, to his many friends and to anybody who might come in, that he was on the right side. That he, he wasn't one of these agitators.
Great. Great story. One your captions, correct me if I'm wrong, one of the things you wanted to talk about was move, the moving assembly line. Do I have that right?
Do you want to tell me about that?
Yeah. You see...
Remember that people will not hear my questions.
Yeah. It, it, it, I think it's necessary to, to, to understand the, the mentality which eventually leads to the destruction of nations, to a kind of cannibalism, even between companies. Ford, by, before the first World War, was selling between 11,000 to 15,000 cars annually. It was getting rich, was getting rich. But they felt that they were not getting enough production, that it was possible to make greater profits. So a gentleman by the name of Frederick Taylor was the inventor and developer of the mass, continuous mass assembly line, came to Ford's, and they gradually began to introduce the assembly line at the Piquette Plant, which was off Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, into the Highland Park Plant, and by the time the Rouge Plant buildings were erected, the mass assembly line had been perfected sufficiently that they felt... Well, they called it scientific management, scientific management. And books and articles were written about it, written about it. And, you know, this was really the beginning of, of the, of the, of the, of, of, of chaining people to a continuous line where the switch, the speedometer that regulated the speed of that line, was exclusively under the control of, of management.
In the Ford plants, who called the shots? Who had, who had all the power? Who decided all these things? Did you, did the workers decide?
Without a union, with the pervasive fear, the continuous lambasting, you, you were under the control. So intellectual and peon, articulate worker and silent worker, the deaf-mutes, Ford bragged...
Now, when we start, you're going to start with telling me about the, tell me about the deaf-mutes, and remember that people will not hear my questions. You're going to have to say "deaf-mutes." OK?
Yeah. Well, Ford, at various times, particularly on a program that they had on Saturday nights or Sunday nights, I forget, called "The Ford Sunday Evening Hour," and on a paper that they bought, the Dearborn Independent, they used to brag their great deeds. The hiring of deaf-mutes was one of the things they pointed to. After I gained the confidence of these deaf-mutes, and I was able to, to communicate with them. There was no question about it, in their mind, they felt that Ford had hired them because their fingers were agile, more agile than, than an ordinary worker. And they couldn't talk, therefore there was no talk, no wasted movement. Everything was for the company. They said, "We know, we know."
Describe to me, if you walked onto the shop floor of the Rouge, 1926, what would you hear? Describe the noise that you would hear. What would you, what sound would you hear inside the factory?
Well, my first experience was on the midnight shift. It is said by some that the midnight shift was not as noisy as the day shifts, more, it's believable. But you had punch-presses, drill-presses, conveyors running, in some cases blowers blowing. So even if you wanted to talk, you couldn't very well. You would have to shout. And, also, I discovered, for the first time, a new thing: that American workers like to chew a lot of tobacco and a lot of snuff, particularly if they're working on midnight! And I saw some of them, of course, going to a water fountain with a big... side of their face full of tobacco, drink water, or even snuff. But, it, it was all, all, all very interesting, and you didn't really have time to listen to the noise. All you heard was your own heart beating. And sometimes your consternation took over, and you'd
ask yourself, "I waited five God damn months on that parking lot across the street to wind up with this?"
** And when I, I must say that when I asked myself that question, especially, I forgot to tell you, I wouldn't lie, I was only 16, just a little over 16 years of age. I was shooting for the five dollar day. They gave me three twenty! 40 cents an hour! 40 cents an hour! And I must also remember and give credit to poor, ordinary young men with whom I associated out on that parking lot, some of them were, who had, toothless, who had had a terrible life, could not speak too well, could not express their thoughts, but they told me, "You tell them you are 21!" And they nicknamed me "The Big Dummy" afterwards, because I wound up working right alongside of them, they were getting top pay, and I was getting three twenty.
How did Ford feel about hiring foreigners?
Ah, that's a very... You see, as a matter of fact, I indicated earlier that there were periods where, where you felt like you were going out of your mind. And then you, I, personally, fell back on, on the fact that there were a lot of Italians there. I had met them before we got the job, and, while I couldn't talk to them, out of the corner of their eye, if you had an argument with your boss, out of the corner of your eye you could see these people were expressing their support, you know. And you felt proud, "Well, I'm not alone, and together we will win!," you know. It was a, it was a, what a learning process.
Was it fun?
laughs No. But, but it was satisfying in its own way.
OK. We'll talk a little bit about your, your, can we talk about your family during that period?
Were you living at home at that time, with your mom and dad?
Well, my, I came here from a hiding place in the swamps of Comacchio, near the city of Ravenna.
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ...when you were in Detroit?
What I'm trying to say is that my mother and two brothers and a sister remained behind. Because, for one thing, we didn't have enough money. For a second thing, you were supposed to get a get a certificate of good conduct from the police department. And if I tell you that we got our certificate of good conduct from France, thanks to my grandfather, having been born in the city of Metz in Alsace-Lorraine, and that we could not, once we had all the papers ready, we went to Genoa, we could not board a ship. We went to Naples, we could not board a ship. And we were warned, incidentally, you know that Genoa is on the western coast of Italy, we were warned to take the train by the eastern coast, so we wouldn't go through the city of Rome, where the fascists were then displaying their, their, their violence, and to bypass Rome to Naples. But in Naples we could not get a boat. Finally, again, France came to our salvation. We bordered a French ship, the Providence, in the city of Palermo in Sicily. But my mother and the rest of the family were in Italy, and did not come here until 1929. I was living with my father, living with my aunt and her family.
1929, which you just mentioned... How did you find out about the stock market crash in 1929? How did you hear about it, or did you hear about it? Did you know something had happened?
I, I have to confess to you that, at times, as I think back, I think I was becoming influenced by all of the propaganda, that if you work hard, and if you made a little few investments, everybody in America was going to get rich. So I was surprised. I can't claim that I knew that things were going to get smashed up, but I, as I analyzed it, I could see that we had been living a big lie, that
the propaganda made us feel as though we were all members of a gigantic corporate structure, was going to distribute gold to everybody, you know, the low people and the high people.
** And we did not suffer, the poor people did not suffer as much as the rich people. I don't know of a single worker that jumped out of the window, but there were some bankers that jumped out, who, bankers who, who did not leave their house unless they were, they were under guard, in the front and in the back. And
But you had, the poor people had hard times after the crash, didn't they?
People had a hard time, that is true. And I recall that Detroit was being advertised as the city in America which had the largest number of privately owned homes. And so, when the Depression came, we found another, other evidence of generosity on the part of the average guy. The guy who had a two-family home did not, and he was laid off, because he was only a worker, he did not evict his tenant because he didn't pay rent, because they were all in the same boat. People were evicted, in the main, from apartment dwellings, that were managed and owned by, you know, corporate structures. So, and it was very long after the, October 1929 crash that some of these same people that, with whom we had established a liaison in the plant were then, having come from farming sections of the, of the United States, had gone 15-20 miles out of town and grown carrots and rabbits, they supplied us. It was the easiest thing, to get a bag of carrots from a Ford worker. But even small business people, even storekeepers trusted. The, it was only, it was only the top, I don't know, 10, 15, 20% who, who were, who were real cruel. The majority of the people, the majority of the people stood together, even though different interests, the shopkeeper and the worker, the bar owners, so forth...
Individual machines. Did you want to talk about individual machines?
Well, the Ford Motor Company, as part of this "scientific management," was the, introduced on these continuous assembly lines, was so happy. Later on in life, I remember seeing the pictures of Charlie Chaplin, of _City Lights_ [sic][Boatin is referring to Modern Times], where he walks down the sidewalk performing the same jerking motions that workers performed in the plant you knowmakes machine noises, but the company wasn't satisfied with that. They were forever striving for perfection. But were, were, individual machines were involved, performing individual operations on each piece, I should say successive operations on each piece, the company continued the old, you know, pressure method of just standing over your head. And you had two types of pressure.
If you had, say, a row of 10 punch-pressers, or 10 drill-pressers, they would always put on of their favorite boy, one of their, the Italians, they would call them "gallopini," RUN RUN RUN, to turn out pieces fast. Then they'd pile them up on the next guy, then the next guy. So by the simple process of having a fast operator, a speed king, at the beginning of the line, they speeded up all 10 machines, you see.
** But they also had individual, another, another form of, of control, you always had a supervisor or his appointee, usually a servile person, would stand over you with a three by five card with your name up at the top...
I'm going to have you stay right where you are. I'm going have you start that over. Lean forward like you were. It looks good. You can lean forward like you were. I'm going to have you start again. You said you always have a supervisor leaning over you with a three by five card. You can start...
Yeah, where, where punch-presses or drill-presses were performing individual operations, where it was possible to count the pieces that each machine processed, you had a supervisor or, or his appointee, usually some, some person who would take orders, servile, not a bad person necessarily, because he'd been promised that he would be made foreman possibly, with a three by five card. Each, one, two, three and then put a bar across, five, see. Then he'd say, "I've got to tell you. I have to tell you," and some told it, said it not very nicely, "Joe made two pieces more than you." So, rather, then you were intimidated. And then he told the next guy made three pieces more than you. So he had these poor workers competing with one another, you know, each one trying to save his job by out-producing the next guy, the form of very cruel, very cruel competition. But then you had another type. You had a foreman who modified his behavior. Sometimes he was mean as hell, but at times he'd come in with a soft tone of voice, and he'd say, "You know, today could be my last day on this job as your foreman, because the day shift produced more than you did. And you better get the, get the, get the lead out!" You know, that was a favorite expression of the plant. You girls know what getting the lead out is? You don't? And, of course he, he'd finalize that warning by saying, "And the next boss you get after..." laughs yeah.
It was no laughing matter, I'm telling you.
Did you have to bribe your foreman sometimes, you know, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] hold on. I've heard stories about, you know, you'd paint his house, you'd give him a crate of wine. Do you want to tell me about that?
That is a ludicrous chapter all by itself. And it went from a gallon of homemade Italian wine to the whole house being taken over by members of supervision where the, the wife brought in other women and they just cooked and cooked and cooked, to going to the foreman's house to paint the house, to lay brick if you were a bricklayer, or whatever. And in some cases, I hate to say, I, I even hate to think of it, but we all accepted the proposition that, that there was even some bedroom trafficking, bedroom favoritism. And this other aspect of this is particularly during the terrible years of the Depression, where it, it, there were two or three years when the company did not change models, from '28 to '32. The first model, there's a 1932, OK, well, that took a couple of years to produce but that was only a schedule, a, a skeleton crew left at work, so you were always told, "For $300, you can, you can be in there, you know. You can be in there." And there were some people who tried it, for, in, in, there were some sad developments, also. I remember one person who paid $300, worked one week, and then he was out. Another person bought a car, worked a couple of weeks, then he was out, but he still had to make the payments on the car. He had made a down payment on the car, but, I mean, it was just a no-end proposition.
I want you to repeat something for me you said earlier. When you, you started to do an imitation of what a Ford worker, the jerk that he would do on the job. Do that again for me.
Well, in some cases, the company hired small-bodied people, who could crawl inside of a, of the trunk compartment and do whatever work needed to be done there. The same applied to the front end of the car. The same applied to the bottom end of the car. But they selected people, speed kings, again, and for operations that were not complicated, but required speed, required agility. So that if a person could screw two nuts on, in half the time that most people would take, actually, he would be speeding up the next guy and the next guy and the next guy after that. Because if he put in nuts that means that the guy preceding him had to put in the carburetor, or put in the distributor, put in the fan, or the water pump, so forth. So there was a combination, a scientific, a dastardly scientific combination of time-studied moves with the single aim in mind not to make the job better, not to make the job lighter, not to provide for the safety of the worker, but for the profits of the company to be increased with each successive move that they made. And it, you know... I don't have the statistics, but I think it's appropriate, possibly, to point out at this time that, of the millions of people who came to Detroit and Cleveland and Akron, to the Northern manufacturing cities, many of them just couldn't take it and left. The turnover at Ford's, turnover at Ford's was fantastic, so much so that the company began to cry later that it was costing the company too much money to train people, you know, or that type of thing, because, because people would, would, would not stand for the persecution, the torture, the imprisonment which the job amount to. Wives complained when their husbands came home they were impotent, they were incapable of functioning in any sense, with the children or with them, you know. They weren't husbands anymore, they weren't men anymore, you know.
What did you have to give up to work at Ford's?
I think the way to describe that is by introducing my father and my uncle and me at the very beginning of this thing, in April, when we decided to go to the Ford plant. My father, who was a giant intellectual, who had fought the fascists, said to my uncle, "It's better if you walk by yourself." And to me, he said, "You walk faster, anyway. You walk by yourself." The process of intimidation existed in the city. Already, you were introduced to, to, to, to a condition where the people were fearful.
So, that tells you that you, you went through a baptismal of, in which you lowered yourself, you lowered yourself. And, in spite of the many conversations that took place in the parking lot during the five months when you waited, you could always tell that people thought more and knew more than they expressed, because that same fear was, was, was pervasive.
I want you to describe for me, if I walked into the Rouge, I've never been in there, but if I walked in there in 1927, and I was up high, and I looked down at the shop floor, can you just describe for me what I would, what I would see, what the men would look like, what the machines would look like? If you had to paint a picture for me of what it would look like from above.
Well, it, it, there are various, there are differences between the various operations. If you were up in the air, and you looked at an assembly line, depending on how high you were, you'd think you were looking at a bunch of ants, because the immediate job would be lighted, but the, the rest of the atmosphere was not necessarily all that bright, so you concentrated, watching, "What's that guy doing? What's that guy doing? What's that guy doing?" And you saw, the, the same motions, people looked like, like, like caricatures, like marionettes, you know. And, but you also saw a tall guy, usually bulky, fully dressed, with his hat on, and if he faced you, you would see that he was a star man. And they would, they, they, their task, their job was to make their presence known to the workers and to supervision. In machining operations, like, for instance, machining a crankshaft, most people don't know what a crankshaft is, but it's the prime mover, it's the thing that drives the pistons up and down into the combustion chamber, you see, and they're usually made of steel. The motor block may be made of aluminum, or some other material, but the crankshaft is made of steel. And it's heavy. And there's no way of putting that thing into the machine to grind the bearings without lifting it up with your arms. And you saw that the workers who were picked for that job were usually burly, because a little guy could not reach that far in the machine, but that even the big guys grimaced and strained, and, later on, when there was more freedom in the plant because of the union, reported getting hernia, ruptured this, that, and the other thing. So, and people didn't talk. People didn't associate. People didn't move away from their jobs. They looked like they were fixed, except for their arms, you know, that they were liked fixed images in your mind, that, except for Charlie Chaplin in City Lights [sic][Boatin is referring to Modern Times], on the job, was also a marionette. This hand movement, later on it had become part of his body, so he'd be walking around on the sidewalks of the street, he'd, and his hands keep jerking. You've all seen City Lights [sic][Boatin is referring to Modern Times], you know what, well...
I'm going to cut you off so we can change film.
Set the stage for me. Tell me about the 1930s. Tell me about the stuff that led up to the Ford Hunger March. That's what you were just suggesting, right?
Some very, some very interesting developments occurred amongst ordinary working people when the crash came. Working people are, are, are generous. They, they didn't celebrate the fact that some, some, some bankers were in trouble or that they were losing millions of dollars. We, we, we were beginning to devote our energies to, we had learned that there had been an organizer, an IWW organizer by the name of Joe Hill who said, "Don't cry, organize!" And we were beginning to do just that. And Unemployed Councils, first with two or three people, first some in neighborhoods, some on a citywide basis, were formed. The first six or eight months, I've got to confess, were spent in indecision. There is a place, downtown in Detroit, called Grand Circus Park, that had beautiful grass, that had shrubs. We spent days and nights, for the first eight or nine months, on Grand Circus Park. We listened to speakers, we became speakers ourselves.
** About a block away, at Penny Cafeteria, was organized, where for five cents, you had breakfast, you had lunch, and then at night you got a cup of boiled water, and you put some ketchup in it, and you had tomato soup. Five cents, five cents. I saw the same type of cafeteria in Cleveland, as a matter of fact, later on. From Grand Circus Park, of course, to say nothing of the fact that Grand Circus Park was a fertile place for agitators, now we had the agitators! But who sat with us, who stood with us
** , had literature, and the people who gathered at Grand Circus Park were usually the 16, 18, 19, 20 year olds. Fertile field for, for, for the building of, of the movement. So by March 6 of 1930, nationally, under the leadership of the Communist Party, and the, with the help of the Unemployed Councils, a gigantic march to Washington. [The speaker appears to be conflating the Ford Hunger March, which occurred on March 7, 1932 under the direction of the Communist Party, with the Bonus Army March, which occurred in the summer of 1932 in Washington, D.C., while mis-remembering the year.] I did not go on that Hunger March. I, I've always tried to justify it in my own mind by saying that, in a sense, I wasn't really a Ford worker, that I knew so much, I was so scholarly, and I had to study, and I knew languages. I wound up in Chicago and, as a matter of fact, the 1929 crash, as, as, as hard as it sounds, did do me a favor, because I went to work in the Translations Bureau making $100 a week. You may remember that Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward had great big shipping houses where letters would come from all over the world, but particularly from Latin-speaking countries, for a pair of shoes, a pair of pants, and so forth. And I worked there, I could've had a job for years, but the temptation was to get back into the struggle, and periodically I would appear in Detroit. So, I was in Toledo, was in Toledo, thumbing my way back with some other guys, when I got news of the shootings that occurred on Miller Road on the day of the Hunger March. When I left Detroit, I had left a little 1927 Model T Ford,
Stop right there. Let's roll... Start with, tell me about the Model T.
I left, I left my...
Start with, tell me about the Model T.
I left, I left my Model T Ford. I was the only, by then, my, the rest of my family had come here, and I was the only one that had a car. So I was going away. I left my little 1927 Model T Ford with one of my brothers. I came from Toledo, jumped in the car, I heard my brother hollering, "Where are you going? Where are you going?" I rushed over to Miller Road in time to pick up one of the wounded guys, and I took him to the hospital, and took him to, on West Jefferson Avenue, the Delray Hospital, and, so I was an actual participant in the deepest part, when the shooting, the shootings occurred. But
I came there, and the air was full of tear gas, and the people were shaking the ice off of their clothes from the water hoses that the fire department had turned on them, and some people were crying. But experiences like that it really tested people. It brought out some wonderful qualities, I think of it, gee.
You think there was some heroism there?
Yeah, there was. Really, there was. A woman died recently in California whose daughter currently lives in California, by the name of Alston, Alston. She wrote a book, the title of it, "One Who Was There." And she was a teacher and inspiration for, for all of us. Although she was ill in later years, mentally she was always strong and an encouraging force. But, but, but people did not, what I'm trying to say, on Miller Road, people did not run away for cowardice. They tried to avoid the violence that was being performed against them, the water hose, icy water that was being blown on them, and they tried to, they dropped to the ground when the Ford henchmen and the police first began to fire. And, you know, one is reminded of the, of the shooting at, in Ohio, where you have a picture of a young woman bending over one of the students that lies dead on the ground. That, that story.
Did it change you, being there on, did it change you for the rest of your life being on Miller Road?
Well, I had already, you know, with my experiences with fascism in Italy, I already had a bullet in my body from the fascists. I remember the hiding place in, you know, you know... You wouldn't believe, my mother placed me in charge of my father in Italy. We both had bicycles, but every evening it was my job to deflate my father's bicycle tires so that he wouldn't go away to any of the meetings, you see. You know, you, those things live with you.
The story I want you to tell me again, a second time, because it's so extraordinary... Can you give me a short version of the fact that you went to this massacre at the Ford factory in a Model T Ford? laughs I mean, that's an extraordinary thing. I mean, just give a, what was that story again?
Well, I, I grabbed the car from my brother, pick it up from there, and he shouted after me, and I dashed over, not knowing, really, what I was going to do. But, driving down Miller Road, towards the plant, by then had become impossible, because the violence and the smoke and the water hoses were driving people backwards. But the fact is is as soon as I got to Dix and Miller, somebody motioned me, and I saw some people laying on the side, and, in no time at all, emergency situations, drive, the wounded person is loaded, you keep, get the car going, and you don't ask questions. But, but, well, inside of me, inside of me there's something that's saying, "Why weren't you here at the beginning?!" You know, and it makes you feel bad. So, you grow, you grow, whether you're criticizing yourself or, or, or, or trying to understand the events, the Depression, I mean, you know, the fact that, that people would give you, you know, their chicken, their eggs, and their carrots, and there was so much understanding not in spoken words, not in spoken. Every worker in the city of Detroit that wanted to have, that liked carrots, could have a bag of carrots in his house. It was just that specific. And the apples came later, but basic foods.
This is something we've been asking everyone. A lot of people ate a lot of potatoes during the Depression. Tell me about potatoes. Tell me all of the things you could do with potatoes.
Well, I never had to do any cooking. laughs And we were not, contrary to what most people believe, we were not spaghetti eaters, either. And contrary to the fact that some Northern Italians that live, that come from the lower regions of the, of the Alps like to eat polenta, we were not polenta eaters. But my mother had just come from Italy; there was a process of adjustment. We had been gone from Italy six years. There were family difficulties, no money in the house, nobody working. We, we existed as a family, we all ate together, there was always a bottle of Italian red wine on the table; we always drank it mixed with water. And there was always conversation at the table.
Potatoes at the table?
Well, there were always potatoes. Potato is, yeah. I've, I've always enjoyed eating potatoes with the skins and all, you see, so that was an easy way to do it. But yes, the various forms, various forms, and, as a matter of fact, potatoes were probably more important to, to Italians than carrots. Carrots, you don't grow carrots in Italy, because Italy was devastated by years of floods, so you only have clay. You have very little topsoil except in the valley of the Po River and places like that. And carrots were not too well know. Tomatoes and potatoes, yeah. And, yes?
Well, let's pick it up, as you did earlier, introduce Rivera after the Hunger March. Does that make sense?
Well, permit me, but I, I planned to introduce Rivera and his work as an admission by the Ford Motor Company that all that goddam agitation against the people about agitators and so forth actually reverberated against them.
Let's do that.
And they brought Rivera in to, to put a nice color, you know, vivid pictures, on the face of the Ford Motor Company.
Why did they have to do that?
Well, the Ford Motor Company had bought, during the Depression, the, the newspaper in Dearborn called the Dearborn Independent, with editorials in the front. That, from our standpoint, was not a victory for Ford's, was not a victory for the manufacturer, it was an admission that their position needed to be strengthened by increased propaganda. They also sponsored a musical program, on either Saturday or Sunday nights, I'm pretty sure it was Sunday, and they had the editor of that paper, whose name I, escapes me, make a long-winded speech in the Ford Sunday Evening Hour interlude, you know. And that's when the Ford Motor Company acquired its fame of being antisemitic, because there were specific antisemitic pronouncements, you see, to the effect that everything would be all right if it weren't for the, you know. They said they believed in fairness, but, actually, they had very few blacks working there, you know. And all the blacks they had, incidentally, had the dirtiest jobs in the foundry. And when, in 1937, in order to force me to quit, they took me to the foundry to work. Everybody became black. I became black, I worked there for a few days. We all became the same, because there were no ventilators, all that sand, you know. And, later on, we won a judgment against the Ford Motor Company on silicosis, because they were killing workers, they were killing the blacks. But they passed themselves off and, regretfully, there was only one black preacher in the whole city, Reverend Charles Hill, who understood that. And the rest of the blacks preachers, because they were able to place a guy on the job, and blah blah blah blah, were all, you know, stunned into silence or stupefied into silence.
I'm going to have you bend this toward Edsel and Rivera.
The, the fact that the, the Dearborn Independent was presumably a paper, Ford Dearborn people, but there were others. The articles were reproduced. The comment by the Ford speaker on the Ford Sunday Evening Program were reproduced. Criticism developed. Unfavorable publicity developed. In the mean time, the militancy of the workers, the resistance, the opposition, to the program, or to the pronouncements of the President Hoover, "A chicken in every pot, a car in every garage," which was repeated was repeated by Ford, he said, "That's my program! A car in every garage! Fits right in with my..." He became ridiculous. The position of the leaders of industry became ridiculous. Then, it was at that point, that Edsel Ford, the son, who had been criticized by his father by not, by not taking sufficient interest in industry, in the wonderful thing that his father created, hired Rivera, Diego Rivera. It was very interesting. Diego Rivera had spent no time in the United States, very little time. He used to talk about "the stones of Mexico." The number one topic was the tierra, the land, and the stones of Mexico. He, they, they played a role, as those stones were something that fortified your, your, your soul. He had come here from Europe, but he had just come from the Soviet Union. It was known that he was a member of the Communist Party. They, some people even criticized Rivera for accepting the job. There was a, an attempt, understood later, by Edsel, who was a different type of individual, to put a nice face on the Ford Motor Company. It, it almost seemed as though Edsel or his advisors had measured the pulse of the people so that the arrival of Rivera in the city of Detroit, and the Hunger March on Miller Road coincided. Well, after the killings on Miller Road and the, and the cry that went up, the 100,000 people that dissipated in the funeral, and the failure of the prosecutor Harry Toy, in spite of his continuous exclamation, "I got him! I got him!," he was going to arrest all the agitators, all the troublemakers, outside troublemakers, couldn't, had no success. The governor, Governor Frank Murphy joined forces with us, and he, yeah, an atmosphere was created that was favorable to the workers. Therefore, Rivera gaining access to the Ford plant, even the, the servile workers, I don't say that all the workers that had remained in the plant during the Depression were necessarily company stooges, they had no choice, but even they felt a breath of fresh air, because Rivera was, was actually a very perfect graphic artist in addition to being an illustrator, a muralist. And there's a difference between a muralist and a portrait painter, you know. One is exact, the other one exaggerates. When Rivera began to transpose his designs onto the walls of the art museum, the art museum became very popular. They had guards at every door. They had to announce special hours when you could come in, because people were coming and coming and coming continuously. There wasn't very, too, too much of a, of a Latino community, but they came from near and far, the Latinos and, and everybody. I left home every day to go look for a job. Actually, yeah, I went to the art museum four days a week, until Rivera's wife, Kahlo, warned that he isn't doing any painting. All he, he wanted to talk Italian, he wanted to talk Italian. laughs And there he was, you know, it's almost ridiculous. They had allowed him $25,000, Edsel Ford, $25,000, a whole contract, for, with that money he was supposed to pay the Ford workers that he had, buy lunches for volunteers like me, maintain his wife, who, who lived there. She was a little woman, looking down at him from the balcony. She was on a level with the parapet, just her chin above it. They had cut the planks for the scaffolding from raw trees in the woods, and they weren't planed, so every once and a while [makes pained noise], you'd have to pick some, a piece of wood out of his pants. He was tall, not very healthy looking, but he was vigorous. And, you know, that guy's painting, once the material is placed on the wall, he immediately has to follow application of the color, because the process is that the color is drawn in, you see. So, he'd go working to 12, 1:00 at night. Really, he was a, was a giant. And he was a very, a very interesting man. But the point, the point that needs to be made and emphasized, two points, first, that he was brought there, and that, in the eyes of the workers, represented an admission by the company that they had misbehaved. And then, when his murals were destroyed in New York by orders of Governor Rockefeller, but they were not destroyed in Detroit, that was another victory for the people, even though they were not articulate, there wasn't anybody making speeches, there are clippings that thickened in the [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] and papers, and a defeat for the Motor Company. And, even though it took several years before a union was organized, in, in fact, the Ford Motor Company was the last place to organize of the major industries, we began to feel victory in our nostrils.
That's a great analysis of it. That's great.
Let's, how, did you feel victory in your nostrils prior to that event, I mean, around the time of the Hunger March, or around the time of the Unemployed Councils?
Well, I don't, I don't want to sound like a great reader or a super intellectual, but I had read Tolstoy. I had read some of the, "The Life of Jesus Christ." I never raised the question whether Jesus Christ was a creation or whether he actually ever lived. But Jesus Christ was a liberator, a liberator who was killed because he was too much of a liberator. Some of the expressions which come from the Bible about chasing the moneychangers out of the temple, or that if a camel can go to heaven then a rich man can go to heaven, or said in reverse order. And I was a great admirer of Lincoln. I had quite a collection of the little books printed by the Haldeman Printing Company in Kansas or some place, so that I never felt depressed. Maybe I fluctuated ideologically, and maybe I, maybe I was a dreamer, but I never forgot the silent strength of those workers that gathered outside the plant, waited for five months. That patience of theirs was not weakness. It represented determination. And I always said if you fight long enough you're going to win.
Tell me just that one sentence, "If you fight long enough, you're going to win."
Well, in this, in this period, when a lot of people are saying that the world is falling apart, but that it fits in here or not, I think of the great contribution that a man like Mandela is making to the progress of the world. He is holding a conference of 26 disparate political groups in South Africa, which is teaching, if they had done that in the Soviet Union years ago, or in Italy, if, if the people in 1922, when fascism was created in Italy, or when the Nazi Party, you know what Nazi stands for, the world the initial? You know, don't want to. The point is, the point is, the point, the point is that nobody standing alone has the answer to the problems of the world. And those large masses of an articulate, some of them desperate people, have been my lifelong teachers from that parking lot, inside the plant, silent, you know, some of them voted against the union, some of them even, even participated in beating up, you know, in joining with the Klan as they did down in Louisiana just recently. But people are great teachers. And listen to people. They don't have speculative dreams, they don't fly away, they live close to the soil and they believe in realism, and they stand by that. The guys that have two cars in every garage, two televisions to pay for, and so forth, they're not going to take the Depression now or later, and they didn't take it at that time.
At that time, in your heart, did you feel there might be a revolution in the United States at that time?
I have trouble answering a question that has to do with whether there was going to be a revolution then. I did not believe those people who later criticized Franklin D., President, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who accused him of having saved capitalism. I think it takes a lot of... It's easy to call a strike. It's easy to make a revolution, probably. But giving people the things that they, that they want, that they dream about, that they've been denied, is hard. No, I don't think the American people during the Depression years in '29 or for several years after were, were ready for, for revolution. Forms of rebellion, protests, but no revolution. I did not think that there was going to be a revolution.
I just have one last question. Did you ever see an eviction take place?
A couple, a couple. I did not think, incidentally, that protests represented a solution, a basic solution. Putting a family back may have been, may have given you satisfaction, or given your little group satisfaction, may have strengthened you for the other fights to follow, but we knew if we put them back, put the, put the people back this afternoon, and before night is come, or maybe before the next morning, they'd be out again. I was strong. I've always been strong. In spite of my flightiness, I had a tendency to recite poetry and to even write a few poems. I've always been practical. Protest is not enough. If you call a doctor, you don't want him to give you a lecture on how sick you are. You already know you're sick, that's why you called him! You want him to, in addition to, to, to, to the prognosis, you want him to prescribe a cure. And I've always taken a very practical approach. It's what you get in your hand that counts, the bread on the table that counts. And don't waste time on stupid, half-baked solutions. Don't make speeches about promises you can't keep. Count the things on your finger, one, two, three, and deliver. That's been, you know, that's the tragedy of President Bush now, and it's been the tragedy of a lot of other leaders.
All right, tell me, say these words if you believe in me. "It's the tragedy of President Hoover."
The tragedy of President Hoover, that once he had uttered the first two words, "There is no Depression," he felt that he had to live up to it. He came through as a very, for an engineer, he came through as a very ignorant person. But I must say that I never believed that Hoover was responsible for the Depression.
The system, the, the hot air that they had pumped into the heads of the American people, that everybody was going to become a millionaire, you know, typical of the junk, junk bonds that were pushed by well-known people, expert economists, and bankers of great fame, you know. Does it make sense to pay higher interest on a bond...
I'm going to cut you off on that thought. laughs It was a different era. Let's cut for a sec.
...sometimes they get chased out. But, she said, "Why don't you talk about women and children, what, what, what their life was like during the Depression?" And she gives me this...
Tell us about women and children during the Depression.
Well, my wife Ann, who was then 10 years old, she was the oldest of four children, remembers that she had developed a way of her own, of judging when the father was laid off and when the father was back at work. Her family had a favorite pie, pineapple pie. When they were not eating pineapple pie, it meant that the father was not working. But as soon as pineapple pie appeared on the table, everybody laughed. It wasn't necessary to, to make any announcement. The pie meant that dad was going to work again. laughs If you, if you don't put this on, you better not come back to Detroit. laughs She's a very tenacious person.