Camera Rolls: 313:01-08
Sound Rolls: 313:01
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with St. Clair Bourne , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 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.*
Mr. Bourne, what was Harlem like in the 1930s in terms of the culture?
In 19—around the '30s, Harlem culture was, as I recall, the last part of the Harlem Renaissance. This was a time when people from downtown would come up to Harlem to have a good time in what were called the "night spots," such as the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn. Those are two best known. Also, though, the cultural part of Harlem stemmed from the really, the, what they call the Renaissance, the writers and artists, but the writers particularly, such as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay—oh, it's hard for me to remember sometimes some of the names, but there was a whole group of gifted writers. Oh, Langston Hughes, of course, is one of the most important. Well, that was the cultural Harlem that was generally known.
OK. You mentioned the Cotton Club.
Can you tell me a little bit more about Harlem as a playground for rich whites?
The Harlem of the '20s and up until the beginning of the '30s could have really been called a playground for the rich whites, because this is where they came to actually just discard their inhibitions and have a good time. They felt no compulsion to control their behavior, to put it frankly. And, in a sense, as I recall, it seems to me that they were like the traditional wealthy nobles going among the common people, except that the common people they were going among were also uncommon people.
Now, these, as you refer to them, wealthy rich nobles, to your knowledge, would they have any other contact with the residents and people of Harlem other than coming up here and just for fun?
These people that came up, actually, their contact with, with Harlem as almost exclusively the playground part, like the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn. They seldom had any contact with the people of Harlem other than when they were up there, and the only people in Harlem they had contact with then were the people who were working. There was waiters, or the performers. Of course, you know, they didn't even have too many taxi drivers in Harlem that got them, because they'd come from downtown.
Tell me a little bit more detail about [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] . Tell me a little bit more about this contact with only waiters and, and workers within the club. Why was it like that?
Well, when they, when they, when they came to Harlem, they came looking for a good time, and they had known about the existence of these clubs. But in the clubs they would see Negroes, this is what we were called then, [cough] as their waiters, you know, and various services, but nothing else. And—
Mr. Bourne, you were talking about the Cotton Club.
The Cotton Club was probably one of the best known night spots in the country back in the '20s. But it was a night spot and a playground for whites only. The only non-whites you would find in the Cotton Club were the service workers. There were no customers, I mean. All the people who were in there to be entertained were white. Even local people, if they had the money, and not too many, of course, did, but if they had the money, they couldn't get it.
Now, can you give that back to me basically saying the same thing, but not make it specific to the Cotton Club. I mean, night spots in Harlem were that way.
Well, you see, I, frankly, the Cotton Club and Connie's Inn were the two major spots. There were other night spots in Harlem, but they were not exclusively playgrounds for whites. There, whites and blacks, or Negroes, could be found. But these were the smaller places. But the two major spots were, well, Connie's was so lucrative as businesses that the management felt that they could afford to keep the Negroes out and attract more whites.
Now, we were talking about what Harlem was like in the '30s. You just gave me the cultural stuff. What was it like in, in its relationship with the government?
During the '30s, those were the days of the Depression. In fact the Depression was generally considered to start around 1929 with the, the Crash, as they called it. And Harlem didn't, actually the Depression didn't seem to make as much difference to Harlem as it did to the other people, only because the lack of employment and the scarcity of money were hardly a new thing to the Harlemites. They were always existing in a, unfortunately, a low economic level.
And did the government, the people in power in 19--, in the early '30s, it was Jimmy Walker, and after that O'Brien for a short period, and then La Guardia. Did they regard Harlem as part of their constituency? Did they respond to the needs of that particular community?
Well, when you talk about—let me stop that, break. I don't want to start that way. Well, back during the Depression, Harlem was of course a part of New York City, but the local government, as is always politically customary, will only give you as much attention as you give them support. And back in those days, the Harlem vote as a whole was not big enough or decisive enough to control any election. Therefore, I don't, I don't think that I can remember that the local government was responsive in terms of politically rewarding Harlem. They did only what they felt they had to do. And it wasn't too much impetus at that time, because most of the interests, the concerns, of the Negro community, went beyond New York. I mean, they were interested in such things as anti-lynching, and that sort of thing.
Now, did you see a change in that from, from, from, say, the Walker administration to the La Guardia administration, or did things just continue as they were?
No, I think the, I, I believe that somewhere along the line around that time there came a change, but I think part of it was a reflection of what was going on in Washington. You see, when Roosevelt came in '32, he initiated certain actions which would, could be described as sort of a social or sociological revolution, you know, the various labor relations acts and NRA. These were acts that Roosevelt pushed through to cope with the economic situation with the Depression. I don't think that I can honestly say that he was doing this, at least in my belief, to help any specific group, Negroes, white, or anything else. He just wanted to get the whole economy going. But since it was impossible to improve conditions for one group without having something come down for another group, the Negro situation was slightly improved as a result of that social revolution, and I think that that was reflected in the city government, too. For instance, Jimmy Walker was a playboy, I mean, he, he was for the life, man, and to that degree, he didn't, he wasn't any threat to the Negroes. The people who could play ball with him got a little taste. But it was La Guardia, when La Guardia came along, he was what I guess we'd now call a diplomat. In many ways, he more a maverick also. He said what was on his mind, and he didn't really seem to care whether it was conforming to any particular party line, or—
—anything else. Excuse me.
We were talking about, prior to the roll change, differences between Jimmy Walker's administration and La Guardia.
Back at the time of the Depression, New York had also experienced the Jimmy Walker thing. I don't know how many people would remember that, but Jimmy was sporting life. When La Guardia came in, he came in as a reformer in a sense. And little Fiorello La Guardia, he was short and stocky, and quite a, quite a character in a sense. He was a maverick. He spoke his mind. And I think, as I recall, most people felt that he was real sincere in what he was trying to do, whether they agreed with him or not. He was no great Moses leading people to freedom, but, at the same time, he did not try to maintain the situation as it had existed for years before. There was a little lessening of the barriers, and most people that I recall thought that La Guardia was a pretty good man.
In terms of the situation as it existed before, what was the relationship like between Harlem and the Police Department? We talked about Harlem and the government in particular. Tell me about Harlem and the, and the New York Police Department.
The police have always been a bit of a problem with Negro communities, primarily because, from the outside, the police were predominantly white. Maybe I shouldn't say it that way, but the fact of the matter is many times people put on the uniform of a policeman and somehow feel that that gives them a status more or less above that of anyone else. They are all of a sudden the sole defenders of public probity, and integrity, and that sort of thing. However, there always were some who were unable to let their own personal prejudices not influence their attitudes, so that there was a tendency on the part of the Harlem community to view some police with a certain amount of suspicion. This was slightly offset by the fact that at the same time they began to get a few more Negroes into the Police Department. For instance, those were the days when Jesse Battle, Sam Battle, became the highest ranking member of the New York Police Department. I think he became a captain, as I recall.
You said that Harlem, in many instances, viewed the Police Department with suspicion. Can you be more specific? Can you give me an example, tell me why?
When in, in Harlem back in those days, the policemen encountered a situation where you would either have to intervene or make an arrest, there were occasions when, whether rightly or wrongly, he would be seen to be exercising undue force. Now, I can't honestly say that the community was always right, because it's only human if you are doing something and someone comes along, a policeman even, and he interferes with you, you resent him. Now, if the policeman feels that he has to do certain things to stop you, he's going to do it. You in turn are not going to be slow to say that he's being unfair. So, I, I can't judge that, all I can say is that any number of instances where police actions were questioned by the community on the basis that he was only doing this to us because we're not white. And, but that was a situation, and I suppose it still exists.
What about schools? Do you remember schools much during the Depression? What, what were schools like in Harlem?
The schools in Harlem back in those days were pretty good. In the first place, they weren't as crowded, I expect. I suppose that was because the population wasn't as great, but they only had a regular session from 9 to 3. There were no half-sessions as we have known later. And a great number of the teachers in Harlem—
Schools, you were talking about schools.
The schools back in the, those days, the '30s in Harlem, were pretty good. As I remember, course I had finished public schools, yes, had finished my education in the early '30s, but they were all 9 to 3, there were no half-sessions, and there were quite a number of Negro teachers in most of the schools. The, as I remember in Harlem, the principal schools, PS 89, 185th Street, and PS 109, 140th Street, those were for boys. 119 was girls, at 133rd street, and there was one at, I think, 184, down 120-something street. These were all public schools. Wadley was a high school, and it was one of the best high schools in the city. That was 116th street, for girls.
Now, now did the community participate in the schools? Were they active and very supportive of the schools? Describe the feeling. Can you remember?
I, I remember back in those days that there was a great deal of parent activity and parent [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] in the schools, and I think that's one of the reasons why the schools seemed to get, do better. There was parent activity and parent interest, more so, I think, than perhaps later.
We're going to change up here and talk about FDR. 1929, stock market crashes, '32 elections, FDR versus Hoover, FDR wins with a huge landslide, now he comes into office, and the country has great, great problems. Do you remember his first fireside chat?
I remember when FDR was elected in '30, in November '32. It was in March 4th, 1933 that he actually was installed, or inaugurated, as they say. He started off his fireside chats, I can't remember exactly when, but I know I used to hear most of them. And what I remember about them mostly is that this was where he worked his charm. He was at his best in really charming the whole country with his fireside chats.
Would do you mean, charming the country? I mean...
When you'd listen to the fireside chat, and when he finished, you might not have been able to say particularly everything that he was talking about, but you had that feeling that, "Oh, everything is going to be better." That's why I said it was charm. It wasn't necessarily accomplishment. It was charm.
Mr. Bourne, what was the general feeling of blacks towards FDR?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a rare politician in that his success was his charm. He knew how to manipulate people, and this includes the Negro community as well as every other. From the time that he was elected that I remember, he, everything he did was viewed as, "Well, he's helping us." Nobody ever raised a question as to whether it was designed to help us, and when I say "us," I'm talking about the Negroes. But a certain amount of it did come through, because what he did was engineer what I think they would now call a social revolution. He, for instance, I mean, he was responsible for putting through this legislation to you know, the Labor Relations Act and NRA, and then he created these various agencies, the WPA and things like that, to provide some kind of employment for people during the Depression. It was supposed to help everybody, and if it helped everybody, it helped some of the Negroes, too. So, that's why they thought, he was a pretty good guy.
To your knowledge, was there any racism or discrimination within those works programs?
As I recall, however, the programs could not possibly escape the practices which had existed as long as the United States existed. I mean,
there were always people within those programs who operated them in accordance with their own personal feelings, and some of those personal feelings included the belief that Negroes weren't entitled to as much as anybody else.
** This created, of course, a number of protests. The whole New Deal, or whatever you wanna call it, was not by any means a pure attack upon discrimination or bias or race hatred. No, it was an economic movement which brought with it, of course, certain advances, but did not necessarily shake off all of the ills of the American society.
OK, we wanna move on now to the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaign. Can you tell me what were the circumstances that led to it?
Back in, back in the '30s, Harlem was a Negro community which existed by shopping at stores which were white-owned, [cough] The...
Do you need some water?
I guess it might help.
I'd like you to start that all over again.
Yes, in Harlem around the 1930s, the,
the community's shopping area was 125th Street.
** That was the major shopping area for Harlem. The stores there sold everything from furniture to groceries to practically everything. But the stores there were all owned by whites and they also, their staff, sales staff, and the whole visible staff was all white.
** So, there was a group, a small group of men who suddenly decided that something had to be done about it. They organized something called, as I recall it, the Harlem Labor Union, and they started a campaign in Harlem telling people that we should have those jobs. Why should we not, why should all the white people come in here, get those jobs and then go home and take the money out of Harlem? This gave rise to a slogan, "Don't buy where you can't work."
** And it also triggered a campaign that went on for a few years.
Now, who were the people you said, a group of men, but can you be a little more specific and tell me some of the people that led this, this group?
Yeah, some of the, yeah, I remember some of the, some of the men that were, were the leaders, the original leaders in that "Don't buy where you can't work" thing. There was a man named Ira Kent. There was a, well the one I remember mostly was a colorful figure who was known as Sufi Abdul Hamid. Sufi Abdul Hamid was the name he was always known by, but I happen to remember very dimly that, I don't remember his real name, but I know he came out of Georgia originally. [NOTE: Sufi Abdul Hamid was born Eugene Brown in Lowell, Massachusetts.] However, Sufi adopted the turban and the robes of the Arab, and he began to be very well-known and eventually could be very thoroughly hated by the white merchants because he was a, an imposing figure. He was a pretty husky man, and he adopted a facial scowl most of the time which was somewhat intimidating so that Sufi, long before the Muslims of today, had established in the minds of those white store owners a negative attitude.
Can you tell me about Reverend Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell's involvement in the "Don't buy it" campaign?
The, that, the, the, that campaign about "Don't buy where you can't work" very soon attracted the attention of a number of local ministers, chief among them being the Adam Clayton Powell Jr., I mean the young minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church, and Reverend John H. Johnson who was an Episcopal minister at St. Martin's Church. That was at 122nd Street in Lenox Avenue. I know John, I knew both of them. In fact, John H. Johnson was the minister who performed my marriage. And they associated themselves with the movement. As ministers, they had a congregation, they had people to follow them. It also, I think, gave a certain amount of credibility to the movement, over and above what they would have gotten from these organizers in the streets. As a matter of fact, that campaign did much to project Adam Powell into the political arena.
So did the church become the driving force behind the campaign?
The church became, began, became a supporting force behind the campaign. I don't think that it would be fair to say that the churches became the major driving force, because Kemp, Sufi, and the rest of those fellows never dropped out of it entirely. They were always up there and they were very active. And although they were, there may have been times when people may have been critical of some of the actions they took, overall, I think they have to be given credit for not only launching the movement, but staying in it.
So this "Don't buy where you can't work" campaign, did it work? Was it successful?
It was ultimately, I think, quite successful. In the beginning, a few of the merchants began to cave in a bit and resorted to what would be the normal way. They would hire a Negro and put them out front in the sales force. This was, of course, what we now call tokenism. It wasn't enough, however, because the people were becoming aroused and, in addition, conditions were still bad. So, the net result was that there developed a real split between the community and the 125th Street merchants.
Do you remember pickets and demonstrations, or any events in regard to the campaign that stand out in your mind?
The campaign really developed steadily, and one of the things that became a regular thing were pickets. They paraded with picket signs in front of various stores. Sometimes up and down the whole block, sometimes they'd pick out a certain store to focus on it. And they would wear these signs, "Don't buy where you can't work." They also used to hand out leaflets at the subway stations, and they did everything that they knew that they could do to propagandize throughout Harlem. This, I think, helped to build up the feeling, a feeling which had a very violent climax.
Can you tell me about that climax?
That violent climax that I mentioned was the Harlem Riots of 1935, March 19, 1935. And I will always remember it, because I was with the New York Age then as a city editor, and we were in the position of being the first paper to discover the riot and it was something...I think I'd like to tell you about it, may I?
Mr. Bourne, can you tell me about the conditions that led to the Harlem Riot?
In, back in the early '30s, the middle '30s, the Harlem community was seething, undercut, under the, under the surface. You had to be there to really be aware, but feelings were running very high. The "Don't buy where you can't work" campaign was going full steam, but the success was not going as fast as people wanted it to. They weren't getting the jobs, and most people seemed to believe that the white merchants were determined not to give in, which of course intensified their anger. One of the things that I will never forget was in March of 1935, I was a city editor of the New York Age at the time, and the riot was on March 19th. But to me, I like to tell this story because not too many people probably can remember it. The star of Green Pastures had died the previous week. The man that played, Richard B. Harrison who played the Lord in "Green Pastures," he had a big funeral at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. We of course covered it, took pictures. The Age went to press on a Tuesday night. Like most of the weeklies, they'd go to press in the middle of the week, although they were dated the succeeding Saturday. We were supposed to be on the stands on Wednesday. Well, we were all set, we knew that Richard B. Harrison's funeral was going to be the front page feature with a big picture. And because it had happened over the weekend, our copy was prepared early. So it was around two, two-thirty or thereabouts on Tuesday afternoon. We were ready to lock up. As I think I may have told you, the press was downstairs. The Age was the only Negro paper in the city that had its own press on premises. But we had a young would-be reporter, and I remember his name, Eddie O'Neal, I think he lived in the Bronx. He'd been around, hanging around with for several months and we were get, bringing him along. He was learning pretty well. He was restless as kids would be I suppose, and I'm saying that although I was just a few years older than he was. He said, "Well, nothing else to do," he's just going to just go out and see what's happening. And about ten minutes later, the phone rang and this was Eddie O'Neal. He says, "I'm down on 125th Street and there's a riot starting." I said, "Come on Eddie, come on." He said, "No, it's really a riot." So I had promptly called down to the press room where the manager editor, Ludlow, Ludlow Werner, and told him, "Eddie said something about a riot on 125th Street, I'd better check it to make sure." So he said he'd hold it rather than run. So I went down to 125th Street. We were at a 135th, so it's only ten blocks away.
As I got to the corner of 7th Avenue and 125th Street, the crowd started surging up, breaking windows.
** There was a riot starting. There were just a few policemen and they were trying to keep out of sight, because this crowd was really on the rampage.
** So, I tried to find out what was happening and finally I got from several people the story that, in
** I think it was Woolworth's, I think it was Woolworth's or Kresge, one of those department stores, a kid whose name was Lino Rivera, they said that he had been caught stealing from the counter, and the manager and a couple of people had taken him down in the basement and beaten him to death. The crowd believed this and they were mad.
** They were surging up and down 125th Street from 8th Avenue over to probably Madison Avenue, and then they went up and down a couple of the avenues, Lenox and 7th, for a few blocks. The riot started around three o'clock in the afternoon and it began to peter out around 3AM. But
** it was a very interesting thing for me, because once we had established it, I went on back, I told Eddie to keep calling, I went back to the office, and we promptly broke down page one to leave a column. And Eddie would call in pieces and we would put together a story. And I think it was around six o'clock in the evening, we had copies of an extra down on a 125th Street, selling it to the rioters. In the meantime, the, the dailies, having heard about it, sent reporters up. The reporters found their way to the New York Age office, and they made that their headquarters, because they were all white and the temper of the crowd was such that, they admitted it, they were afraid to go into it. So what they did was stay there. When I got the report from our people, we had some other people by that time around, and I would feed them, and then they would get on the phone and phone it down to the papers, so that we were in a sense a press service for New York daily newspapers on the Harlem Riot. In fact, most of them got their lead from our first extra. But there's another part to this. Along around
** 2PM, 2AM, I got a call from Jesse Battle down at the 28th precinct, which was 123rd Street
** on the West Side. He said they had found the boy.
** He wasn't dead. So I hurried down there. By that time, we, some of the white reporters went with me. We went down there. Lino Rivera was a youngster, I guess he looked, he may have been fourteen. I'm not sure how old he was. These people apparently had caught him trying to pilfer a little something from the...they took him out the back door and told him to go home. But the people didn't know this. And he was home in bed while these people were rioting up in the street to avenge his death. It was quite a thing.
But now tell me was Lino Rivera just the incident, I mean, was this riot going to happen and that was just the thing that set it off?
I have always felt that that riot was due to happen. Lino merely happened to be the trigger.
** He was the detonator in this particular case, but if he hadn't been there, they would, would have had to invent something. There was going to be a riot, because that was the temper of the community.
** And it was heading in that direction. But, of course, that is when I think that I can say it was a tugging point that made that campaign really successful, because after that riot, there wasn't a storekeeper in 125th Street that would have dared to try to hold out. As a matter of fact, the mayor appointed a committee to investigate, and they subsequently reported a few months later, as is the case, what everybody knew: that there was discrimination in employment on 125th street.
What happened with that report? I mean did, did the government take any action?
Oh, yes, the government, the government did take action. They, they, they, in their own way, helped to persuade these employers that they'd better hire some people, and then they began to hire Negroes in the stores. And there's, once they had enough Negroes in the stores for the people to see them, the anger gradually began to decrease and people were going back in there to buy. But for a long time, they insisted on seeing some Negro salespeople before they would buy.
As I remember that report, one of the things that they said led to the riot was housing condition. Now, did the government do anything in regard to housing conditions in Harlem?
Well, it's, let me see now, there were a number of other results from that riot.
I'm thinking about the Harlem River Houses.
That was, that's the Metropolitan, I think the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was the first one. Yes, that was one of the results also. The housing conditions in Harlem, like any community where the local residents don't have too much to say about it, were horrible. I mean, you know landlords, landlords, regardless of race, creed, or color, as a matter of fact, they tale advantage of the situations. But there was a need for housing, and Metropolitan Life, as I recall, was one of the earliest to set up housing. But, of course, even then that was not as pure a, an effort as one would like to think, because what Metropolitan Life had done, they had created a housing complex downtown for whites and then they created the, the Upper Harlem River Houses. I don't mean the low-rent project, this was the first, what do you they call it? I'm trying to remember the name of it and I don't, but it was a, it was a housing a complex for Negroes up in Harlem.
I have two more questions for you. Did La Guardia come here?
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Mr. Bourne, can you tell me more about the riots, particularly, more detail about what you actually saw, and how you think people actually felt as they're out there?
That riot is something I don't think I will ever forget. When I first got down there, this was the first time I had seen what was really a mob scene. There were, the street was filled from, it was almost wall-to-wall people, and they were angry to the point where you could see that if you got in their way, they didn't care who you were: you in trouble [sic]. I saw people actually picking up bricks and stones and throwing them at these store windows to break them. They were in a destructive mood, and it was one of those things that I was frankly, I wasn't too happy and, too, I was a little afraid myself, because even though I, most of the people knew me by sight, because after all they know the local newspaper people, but at that particular time, if you got in their way, they didn't care who you were. They were mad at the whole street, and they were shouting all kinds of things. And they were destructive. There was really, they were trying to destroy, because they were venting their anger, that's what it seemed to me. And it was really something that I will never forget, because it's the first time I'd ever been in a riot like that.
Now you, you go to press, the paper comes out. How did the government respond? Did La Guardia come to Harlem?
Not that night. I never saw him that night.
Did he come with, any time within the next couple of days to your knowledge?
I'm just, well, I, what I am trying to remember is if La Guardia made any personal, if he made any personal appearances in Harlem in connection with rioters, it was a few days afterwards if at all. And it wasn't like trying to calm the people or speak to the people. He would appear, say, at a meeting of, say, the committee he appointed, but I don't think that I recall La Guardia—it may have been, but I don't recall him appearing in Harlem as a, you know, trying to calm things down himself. I don't recall that.
This is the final question. Did FDR's New Deal programs, I'm talking about the New Deal, not the, the stuff that happened after '35, I mean after '36, after the second election. I'm talking about the New Deal. CWA, PWA, NRA, those kinds of things. Did they represent any significant change in terms of the government's relationship to people, particularly in terms of the government's responsibility to the people?
When we, when people start talking about FDR's first actions when he entered the presidency in coping with the Depression, because that's what they were as far as I understand it. Everything he did brought about some changes, but these were changes in terms of stimulating or creating employment for people. It was sometimes made-employment like, what is it, the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, that was, that was probably a precursor to the Peace Corps, except that it was in this country. CCC was an organization, they took young, young fellows particularly, unemployed, at loose ends, and set them up usually out in other parts of the country doing—
Well, when, when Roosevelt's New Deal, when he started his attempts to bring us out of the Recession, he created a number of agencies. And since then, of course, one has to wonder what was the net effect. I remember at that time that they created employment for people, sometimes it was made-employment, and because of that wide-spread effect, it helped all people, not just any one group. But it only opened the doors for them. If you try, at least as far as I am concerned, if you try to assess Roosevelt's impact, I would say—no, that's not what you want.
I'm going to stop again, I think that—
When FDR's actions to get us out of The Depression created jobs, it also brought about what I always called the beginnings of the social revolution. And this did have an effect, I believe, on the Negro community, because it brought about certain changes, opened certain doors that had never been opened before. But it only opened the doors. It was something that could only continue if the Negro community itself was willing to take further action and keep pushing, because I frankly am unwilling to say that FDR was necessarily going to lead a charge through the doors. All he did was open them. It was up to us as people to get through and keep things going.
What about us as people, I mean beyond just black people, what about us as people, us as Americans, to push the government to respond to our needs? Talk to me about that.
When I say us as people, of course, I mean, I was talking about the Negroes. Actually, the whole program was opening doors to a certain extent for all people, and when I say it was up to the people to go through the doors to take advantage of it, I guess it would apply to all people. However, I have to throw this in. Nothing there necessarily was going to automatically eliminate or abolish or even diminish the prejudices which seems to be a part of human nature. So I don't think we could realistically expect the white community to push as rigorously for the equal attainment of the benefits to the Negroes. It's up to the Negroes to do that. But everybody could have benefited. That's why I call it a social revolution.
And do you see any fundamental change in terms of the government becoming more involved and responding to the needs of people? Like Hoover just sat back, had this wait-and-see attitude, which was sort of prevalent prior, even in, in administrations prior to his. But Roosevelt, I think, was a person of action, and he moved the government to a different realm of responsibility. If you feel that that's true, can you talk to me about it?
I believe that Franklin Roosevelt and his whole effort did deepen the sense of responsibility of the government. As a matter of fact, I think you'll find that some of his opponents used that as a major criticism, that the government was taking over and not letting private enterprise run things as they always had. And that last part is one of the best reasons why I disagreed with them. They always had run them and we weren't getting anywhere.
In, in FDR's actions, his actions to get us out of Depression, he did a lot of things I call social revolution. Now blacks were not necessarily included in as a specific beneficiary, because these programs were for all people. And what those programs did, as far as I can see, FDR, he made a big crack in the social situation in this country. But he couldn't do much more than that. It was up to the people to widen that crack and to bring about the eventual solution of the social problems which they faced.
Give it to me again looking this way...basically the same thing. You're a pro. You got to do it quick because you're—
Yeah, running out of time. The whole thing you want again?
Yeah, as much as we can get done.
As much as we can get done, all right. FDR's actions when he was trying to cope with the Depression brought about a kind of a social revolution. But it was not something that was specifically for blacks or any specific, it was for all people. And that whole program did make a substantial crack in the system, but that's all he could do. He couldn't do any more than that. It was up to the people to widen that crack—
—and go through it and bring about the eventual solution of the social problems which everybody faced.
When one starts to assess Franklin Roosevelt's social revolution, I think it has to be kept in mind that blacks were not necessarily included as a group, a special beneficiary of those programs. They were for everybody. And what FDR did was to make a nice big crack in our social system. But that's all he could do. It was up to the people to enlarge that crack, and thus make it possible to, to go on and bring about the eventual solution of the social problems which confronted us...you liked that, huh?
FDR's New Deal programs was not specifically designed for Negroes alone; it was designed for everybody. And I think that's the way it worked. But it, all he could do was make the crack in the system that he was dealing with. He couldn't do any more than that. I think it was up to the people, all of us, to move forward, enlarge the crack, and hopefully be able to go through, and hopefully to solve, which hadn't yet been solved, the social problems that still confront us.
Can you tell me, can you tell me a little bit about what you know about Walter White and his activities with being, with lynching and the NAACP, and how it all got started and how he got involved in it?
Walter White was, he got with the NAACP because of—
Let's start again because—
Walter White, who was probably the best known of the earliest executive secretaries of the NAACP, originally went to work for him as a field man in the South. And the reason they hired him was because he looked like white. And
his assignment was to
** circulate and as often as possible become a witness to lynchings. He, more often than most people knew, was able to mingle with the lynch crowds, because he looked white,
** and he could see, and this way he gained a great deal of firsthand information.
** He could attest to what went about the lynchings.
** So he became very important to the NAACP, and that's one of the biggest reasons why he became the executive secretary, and I think that should explain why the NAACP's major interest was in lynching.
OK. I'm going to ask you about that, that last part that we were talking about, because it's a puzzle to me. We're talking about the Depression now, the '30s, there's a lot of issues confronting the black Americans, you know, the economic issues, there's discrimination. Why of all the issues do, do you feel that lynching, the anti-lynching law, became the passionate devoted issue on the NAACP agenda, on Walter White's agenda?
Well, in the first place, I've—strike it. In, around that time, lynching had become one of the horrible things that was happening throughout the South. It was murder. It was also one, something, the kind of a thing that's most easily understood by people, so it be, it would be a very, it would seem like a very good thing to make as a major target. And as I said, I think, before, White came into the NAACP as the expert on lynching.
How did, how did this, how did this, you know, the, how did this affect, this issue affect the issue up in Harlem? You know, most of the lynching was happening in the South. People were pretty far removed from it. How did, first of all, how did, how did Harlemites become aware of, of, of how, of this going on, and how did they respond to that as an issue for themselves?
Well, although lynching was predominantly in the South, and I say predominantly, it was not completely and exclusively in the South but it was, most of it was done in the South. But the reports coming up one way or another, either through the press or through witnesses, made most of the blacks in the North, I know in New York, they were well aware of these things going on. And, you have to remember also that although there were blacks in the North and blacks in the South they weren't separate. As a matter of fact, there was a family relationship there in most instances. They, most of them had people in the South, families in the South. I dare say that in more than one instance, a person who was lynched in the South had relatives in New York. So it was a direct relationship which was of concern, and of course on top of that, the NAACP, to the degree that they were able, used the publicity to keep this before the public eye.
How did they publicize it? What, what did they do?
Well, the NAACP had a number of ways of doing it. They usually made The Oppressed, as it was called then, but they also had a regular, what they call a news service. The NAACP put out weekly news stories and sent them, circulated them, not only to the Negro press, but to the daily press. And occasionally some of them would get into the daily press, too.
Now let me ask you some more about the NAACP. Was it perceived, how did people perceive the NAACP in, in Harlem, in the black community? Were they aware of it? Did affect their lives? Did they think it was an effective organization, or was it just a symbolic, was it just a symbolic thing for them? How did they react to it?
In New York back in, back in the earlier days, the NAACP was regarded as a, not an assembly, it was an organization. But the problems that they concerned themselves with were, admittedly, perhaps not as close to the blacks in New York as they were to blacks in other parts of the country. And I think one has to remember that although the NAACP headquarters was in New York, they had branches all over the country, that the real strength for the NAACP was not necessarily in New York, it was those branches, all throughout the country. That's where their power always has been.
And what were they doing at the time? What was the NAA—what were those branches and what was the NAACP...?
The branches were altogether in this NAACP campaign against lynching primarily. That was the first order of business.
Now why, why do you think that they, why do you think that ultimately they didn't get the anti-lynching bill passed? Why didn't that happen? They tried and they tried.
Well, they got an anti-lynching bill passed, but it took a long time. And the biggest reason was that the Southern congressmen and the Southern senators, all of whom at that particular time enjoyed seniority, which meant that they headed various committees, they were in position to block anti-lynching legislation, to derail it, or even when it began to get more support, their last resort was a filibuster. That's what got in the way of the anti-lynching legislation, the Southern support, Southern opposition.
Now FDR, for example, privately—
FDR privately, to Walter White, implied that he supported a federal anti-lynch law, but he never, he never came out and supported it publicly. Why do you suppose he didn't, why do you think he didn't do that and do you think he was being hypocritical or...what was going on with him?
I would, I would say that FDR was being political, not hypocritical. FDR, you must remember was a Democratic president. He was the head of the Democratic party. The Democrats had what we called the Solid South. He could, they, they could always count on the South supporting a Democratic candidate for president. If FDR had gone public at that time in opposing, I mean supporting, anti-lynching legislation, he would have faced a rebellion from his solid constituency in the South.
Now the fact that there wasn't an anti-lynch law, federal anti-lynch law passed, would you therefore consider that the whole anti-lynching campaign was a failure?
The, when, the fact that a federal anti-lynching law was not passed was hardly reason to claim that the campaign was a failure, because ultimately, they were able to outlaw it. It just didn't happen at that particular time. And, but I don't think it would be fair to say that the, the campaign was a failure by any means. As a matter of fact, if the NAACP had not kept on and persisted, it might have been much later before they were able to get that bill passed.
I've heard the NAACP referred to as a middle class organization? Is that true, and, if so, what do you think they mean by that?
Well, the NAACP at the, in the later years may have been referred to as a middle-class organization. I don't know whether you're discussing it in terms of back in the '30s or...
In the '30s.
Well in the '30s, I don't think you could, anybody would really have thought of it as a middle-class organization, because the bulk of the NAACP membership was outside of New York, and in these small towns or not-so-small towns, and particularly, ironically enough, throughout the South, because that's where such an organization had the biggest meaning. And that's where you will find a great, if anybody were, were able to do the research, you'd find that the majority of the real heroes of NAACP were in the South, where it was much more dangerous to be a member.
OK, Great! The Jews were instrumental in starting up the NAACP and they were, they were active in it even, even throughout the '30s. Why do you think that there was a such a strong Jewish participation in that organization?
The history of the relationship between Jews and Negroes goes way back. There are strong parallels as I see it in their experiences in this country. The one exception, of course, being that I suppose any Jew who might wish to could sidestep a good deal of discrimination merely by not admitting Jewish faith. A Negro could not deny his racial identity. The Jews also were much, much more experienced. They have a background of experience in organization. The Jews also were very strong in labor organization, particularly in New York, and so they would welcome and would encourage the support of any other groups to help swell whatever they were doing. Also, I like to believe because, it's my own personal experience, that there were a number of Jews who actually were moved by a sincere interest, you know, in trying to improve the lot of the Negro, because they felt kinship with them.
OK. Good. Did black, and again, I'm thinking of the people in the community, did, did, did the Negroes in the community at the time, did they resent the participation of Jews in the NAACP? Because, you know, you talked earlier about the "Don't buy where you can't work campaign" and a lot of those stores were Jewish, so there was, there was perhaps some resentment towards Jews on the one hand and yet then the Jews are also in the NAACP and, and, and moving things along that way.
This Black/Jewish relationship can create some puzzling problems, because as, as you have, may have pointed out, on one side of the fence you had the store owners in 125th Street, a number of them, most of them were Jewish. Well, this was just because apparently they were the kind, they were inclined towards that kind of entrepreneurship. Now it is true that the "Don't buy where you can't work" did create animosity, and against the store owners who happened to be Jewish, but somehow that never jumped across to the NAACP, in the sense that the Jews who were very active in helping to get the NAACP going. There, there was no, they didn't link the two somehow. I, I can't explain it any better than that. I mean, it was not a question of a universal antisemitism or anything like that. Those Jews that were working with Negroes, or with blacks, were fine. Those who were identified in the situation where they were considered to be a part of something that was disadvantageous to blacks, they were not fine.
OK, let's, we'll move on to, we'll move on to Joe Louis now. Can you, can you try to sort of go back and recall for us what it would be, be like, you know, in Harlem or where you lived when, you know, in Joe's heyday, in the, I'm thinking still in the '30s. Now, on the day of a fight, how would people, how would people, did, did people anticipate it? And what would they do when the fight, during the fight, and, and if he won afterwards, how, what, how did the community respond to this?
Well, when Joe Louis came into the boxing scene, he quickly generated adulation because he was good. He was a very good fighter and he could, seemed to be able to beat anybody he faced. So in a sense he became a something of an idol. And whenever he was having a fight, whether it was in New York, as it often was, or any place else, there was always a, a lot of eager anticipation. People expected him to win. In other words, they were just waiting for another victory for our boy, with one sad exception: the first Schmeling fight. That was a bitter disappointment in Harlem, as I remember, because people that couldn't go to the fight, and most of them didn't get to the fight, they listened to it on the radio. The night that he fought Schmeling the first time, and Schmeling finally beat him, when the fight ended, you could almost feel it. I can't say it was a moan, you know, a lamenting, but there was a feeling in the air. Everybody was really let down. It was a,
it was almost like a funereal air that descended on Harlem. And by the next morning people were going around as if they'd lost their last friend. Joe had been beaten. It was hard to believe.
** But it was very shortly afterwards when they found out that Joe was going to be able to get a fight with him again. Instinctively, everybody began to say well, he'll get him this time, next time. So they got over it.
What, the weekend before he had the second Schmeling fight, he managed to, to manipulate things so that he fought Braddock and he won the world's championship. How did, how did folks in the community respond when—
When he won the champion, the title?
Oh, it was Christmas, New Year's, every holiday all boiled into one. They were actually dancing in the streets that night.
** Because, you must remember, when he took the title from Braddock, it was the first time that a black man had become champion since Zack Johnson.
Did you ever go to one of Joe Louis's fights? Were you ever at any Joe Louis fights?
Oh yes, I—
And if you were, and if you were, and if you were, what, what, what, what did it feel like to be at a Joe Louis fight?
Well, in the first place, when I was at the fights, most of the time, I was a sports editor, so I was in the press room. As a matter of fact, I always remember, I was one of those at the, the second Schmeling fight. I almost turned my head and missed it myself, he went after him so fast. Yeah, I was at, a number of his fights as, as a sportswriter. And I was also at his training camp a number of times.
Was there any, was there any segregation or in, at the fights themselves? I mean is, was there any separate seating? Or any—
No, in the first place, the fights that I was at was all, all in New York, you know, Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden, place like that, no segregation there. As a matter of fact, it would have been suicidal for the promoter to try to.
So then I get, then I get to the point of, you know, we talked about Walter White. There are other people, you know, Mr. Randolph, there were all kinds of black politic, when I say politicians, people organizing for the betterment of their people.
Today we call them activists.
OK, activists, thank you, academicians, they're all kinds of people, why Joe Louis? Why was Joe Louis the guy who captured the imagination of the people? Why was he the hero? He seemed to be the hero of the '30s. Why a boxer?
Well, now, I don't think it was quite accurate to put it that way. Yet may have seemed that way.
Joe Louis occupied a position that was unique, but he was by no means the biggest hero for Negroes, or black people in those days. He was their athletic idol. He was the representative of man who by force could beat anybody that stood up against him, but—
So we were talking, let's start again with talking about why Joe Louis was such a hero to people, why, why this boxer was such a hero?
Joe Louis was something of an idol to his fellows, but he was not in the sense the big leader and a big hero, the most important black man. Joe was more a symbol of athletic prowess or strength. He was in a sense doing what maybe the average black man would like to have done, beat any white man that he had to fight. That, I think, was more what Joe represented, because, you, the, the, it would be inaccurate to think of Joe in the same terms as you think of people like A. Philip Randolph, Walter White, W.E.B DuBois, Walt Wilkins, you know, no. He was not in on that level at all. He was an idol, but he is more like the present day athletes. Nobody thinks of them as anything but super athletes or supermen in the sense of physical achievement.
But the people loved him in a way that they didn't love Walter White, or I think the people loved him. They were dancing in the streets.
They were dancing in the streets, not because they loved him, they were dancing in the streets because of his victory, not him. He was just the one that gave them a reason to dance in the street, but you, I think you have to be careful there, and not think that Joe became the sainted idol of all the Negro race, because there were some people, some blacks who would say, "Well, he's a good fighter, but what's a fighter?," you know.
Going back to Schmeling a little bit. When we talked about this some on the phone, let me see if there's, if there's anything to this. Was there much made when, when Joe Louis, either in the first or in the second, or both, was there much made of the fact that Schmeling was a German and was a Nazi? And was there much rallying around—
Well, you have to remember that was the early '30s. This was a time when Hitler was more or less in his ascendency. Now the linking of Schmeling and Joe and the, in, the, into...I'm trying to get the right word. Bringing in the fact that Schmeling was a German or Nazi had nothing to do with the black people. This was done by the white media and it was, I suspect, I always felt that it was encouraged by the government, the federal government, which was quite busily building up anti-Nazi propaganda.
But you did say in your, in your earlier conversation with Dante you felt that perhaps after the first Schmeling fight, maybe that did more than anything to solidify black feeling against Nazis. I think—
Well, to a certain degree, a number of things, it helped to do that. You must remember there is Jesse Owens going over in '36 to the Olympics and winning everything in sight, but then he was reported being snubbed every time by Hitler. That was part of it too. And you must remember that blacks, Americans, too, in the sense that they are susceptible to American media, they could read and hear all of the propaganda that was being pushed out on the American people against Hitler, I think rightfully myself...
Then let me ask you something. Do you think that Joe Louis was being, in a sense, being used by the, by the American media, and by the government, and by the establishment, to promote a point of view?
Well, of course! He was there.
OK, can you start that as, as a whole sentence, you know, you...
Oh yes! Actually, the, the, the bringing in of Schmeling's Nazi connections in connection with Joe and his fights was nothing more or less than a realization, as I see it, by the American government that here was a handy situation which they turned to their account. They, in other words, to a degree, you can say that they were using the whole situation, using Joe and everything else to help their propaganda effort along. Joe had really nothing to do with that, per se.
OK, cut for a second.
Let's talk a little bit about Eleanor Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt's relation to the, to, to, to black people, and black people's relationship to her. How did people feel about her and, and how was she perceived at that time? Now, again, we're talking about the Depression.
Eleanor Roosevelt was generally well-regarded as a gracious lady and a fine woman. In fact, I would say that many people liked Eleanor better than they liked FDR. She made it a point to get out and get around so that she got to know a whole lot of black people. And a whole lot of black people had some contact with her at one time or another. That's not to mean that she had everybody was her warm friend, but they all, at least they knew her. And whenever she had anything to say, as far as the blacks were concerned, she said it right.
Did you ever meet her?
Oh yes. It was impossible not to meet Eleanor, because she was always every place. When I say I met her, but that doesn't mean that she would ever have remembered me, because I was just one of a number of people.
Do you have any particular moment or, or occasion that you remember of meeting, coming into contact with Eleanor?
No, actually, the, the, I, yes, I have a, I, I wasn't coming into contact with her but this I can say. At one time, she and Mary McCloud Bethune, who, I don't know if you know of her, she and Eleanor occasionally would be appearing some place together. And photographers, that was a real problem, because Eleanor was white and Mary McCloud was very black. And in those days you had to expose for one or the other. It was not easy to get them in the same picture without one of them suffering from the exposure.
Now with just our last, our last question. We talked about Jesse Owens and, and what do you remember of his, his victories meant. Particularly, it was only a couple of months before that Joe had lost to Max Schmeling. What did this mean to the black community, and to, and to America as a whole, you know, and to, and to all of America, and, and the feeling about Nazism in Germany?
Well, I knew Jesse Owens, of course, like, I had met him. I mean, I was covering sports among other things at the time. I didn't go over to Germany, another fellow was over there with him, but his victories were played up back here. The, the black press played them up as victories for a black man just like they would have played up Joe Louis. The white press played it up as a victory by an American over the Nazis. Now just how much the black community bought from the media, the white media, I don't, I can't say. But Jesse Owens was just another athlete who had the admiration of the black people because of his victories. He was good.
But didn't it mean for him in the same way that it was for, you know, Joe Louis became accepted by white people as a champion, and so did Jesse Owens. Did, did that mean something to black people that here is you know, "OK, one of our own is being accepted by, by the white folks"? Does that, does that have any—
Not...both Joe Louis and Jesse Owens may have appeared to have been accepted by the white people. They were accepted really just in terms of their accomplishments. But neither Joe nor Jesse gained too much from it. Joe, as you may know, later on, had financial difficulties, because as far as the black community is concerned, even the IRS didn't give him a break that they thought he deserved. Jesse Owens, by the way, also, I met him again, years ago, years later, in, in Chicago when he had a, I guess it was a PR firm or consulting firm. Jesse wasn't doing too well either, because as you, they say that he was accepted by the whites, but he wasn't rewarded by the whites, not really.
You want that one more time? OK, let's try that again about, and just succinctly, after he came, after Jesse Owen's victory, he came back, he was, he may have been accepted, but not rewarded.
Yeah, well, when Jesse Owens hung up all his victories in Germany, he came back, he was a hero to America, you know. But he was viewed by the whites as he was great, because he had won for America, but he never was really rewarded by the whites in the sense that most people think of rewards in this country. They never made things any easier for him and I don't think he profited financially very much either. I seem to remember some years later he was at the time racing horses. I mean, he was running against a horse. And for an Olympic champion that's hardly a step up.
Great. Thank you.