Interview with James Byrd
Interview with James Byrd
Interview Date: December 20, 1992

Camera Rolls: 315:61-63
Sound Rolls: 315:34-35
Interview gathered as part of The Great Depression .
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Editorial Notes:

Preferred citation:
Interview with James Byrd , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 20, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.

*
INTERVIEW
[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
[camera roll 315:61] [sound roll 315:34] [slate marker visible on screen]
[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 1

[production discussion]

INTERVIEWER:

Testing. I'll tell you when. When I do like that, you can start.

JAMES BYRD:

Well this was a beautiful town.

INTERVIEWER:

You've got to tell me Aliquippa, remember?

JAMES BYRD:

Aliquippa was a beautiful town. It had, whole town, everybody would live downtown. And I, when I come through there, I come home, got off the plane, off of the train. See, the train was running through here then, and, man I look at the folks, "Oh, boy." Everybody was working, and I come up here on the hill where I come to met [sic] a lady and two, her two children at the station, and I come to here. She brought me up on the hill here, and I was pretty dumb, you know, about, I had never left home and it was just wonderful to me.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 2
INTERVIEWER:

OK. Now you began working J & L in 1937. Tell what your job was.

JAMES BYRD:

In '37, it was in April, I started as a laborer, getting coal, coke, shoveling coke, shoveling tar, shoveling salt. Then I went on, after that I went on the battery. When I went on the battery, I was coke guide man. I was a coke guide man for a pretty good while. Then I went to a coke guide man to a door jam man. Then from a door jam man to a door machine man.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 3
INTERVIEWER:

Now describe the working conditions. What was the work like?

JAMES BYRD:

Well, the work was like, see it was a oven, and they was built, and it was built tall and they poured the coal in the oven, and they cooked the coal up. Cook it till it get coke. Then they'll push it out in the hot car. Then they carry the hot car to the wall. From the wall to the coal handler that'd be loading it in the car.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 4
INTERVIEWER:

Now was it hard, was it dangerous, was it dirty work? Describe the work for me.

JAMES BYRD:

Oh man, that's the hardest job I ever worked on. And then, you know that was a hard job, but I learned it and liked it. It was hard, all of it, and it was dangerous, too. Yeah, and some, one or two, one fellow got killed on the job. A guy didn't let it round back far enough and hit the mud bucket. The mud bucket your  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]  goes in. You shouldn't, it's about, the doors about pretty close to twelve foot. You had to climb up and down. They had a elevator on the machine going up and down, you'd do this, and when that—

INTERVIEWER:

OK, we need to stop because of the airplane.

JAMES BYRD:

—of why it was dangerous. See the top of it where they poured the coal in, they had a lid on there, and you had to, and if you step on one of them lids, you allowed to get burned up just like that. See that's, that's the dangerous part of it. That's one. Then you had to be careful not to walk. You can go up and down there. They wore wooden shoes all the time and kept it clean, but it was awful hot, and, see, the hot car man and ladder car man, and the dope and the pusher, man all of them worked together as a—in other words, it was a team work job, took team work to do, to operate that, and make coke the team way.

INTERVIEWER:

Now, was it hard to breathe and—

JAMES BYRD:

Well you had to have, I had a mask on. I had a mask on and I had goggles on, and I had, and knew you had them hot seals like in front of you, and they was hot, and when you take one of them doors off, you stand on this side and clean it off. Then the other guy, you had two men to do that, one on one side, one on the other to clean them off. And then the man that operates the machine to pick the door up swung it around. Then he could move away. Then you had a coke rack. You fit in there, you run it in just like that, and that's the way you put it on and take it off.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 5
INTERVIEWER:

Now when we talked on the telephone, you told me about how certain ethnic groups, particularly black people, ended up with most of the hard jobs. Can you tell me that again?

JAMES BYRD:

Yeah. Most at, to begin with, making coke—

INTERVIEWER:

We're going to stop again, there's an airplane.

JAMES BYRD:

Well, the black people did all the hard jobs, all of them. And let me see, I'll tell you how many white jobs: there was a heater and helper. That was the only, that was a white job. Now all the other jobs, now none of them was easy and then not dangerous at all, but he didn't, wasn't no pressure on him when he go up on the top of the oven, it wasn't no pressure on him, but the only thing he would do, just walk around and take tests. But when I go up there I got to sweep, I got to push the lid on, I got to take it off. I got a unc—a nephew broke one of them that played the  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]  like that. And when, that's on the top of that. Now on the pusher side and the coke, all of them had to work together. All of them had to be a unit, in a unit. There wasn't a—now in the pusher when I first went there, they had mostly, was furnace on the pusher. That was white. Now, when a fellow named—well, you, you waited until I got a little bit old 'fore coming to ask me questions. See, because I know his name but I can't call it right then.

INTERVIEWER:

OK, well you don't have to tell me his name, just tell me the story.

JAMES BYRD:

This here was an Italian fellow. He taught the fellows from down in Virginia and all down in North, wherever they come from, as long as they were white, he taught them how to heat. When he got his time coming to heat, they wouldn't give it to him. They did him just like they did us. We were, let me see how long it took us to before we could go all the way to get heater helper job. It was, I had been there about twenty-eight years before I could move up to a heater helper, a heater.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 6
INTERVIEWER:

Now tell me about how J & L sort of dominated the town. You know, I want you to tell me about J & L's relationship with the police and tell me about the plans that existed in terms of where people lived.

JAMES BYRD:

Well the Plan, well this here's Plan Eleven extension here. No this here's Plan Eleven, where I am, I'm on the extension. Well, there was a whole lot of, that's the foreign peoples and the Negroes was up here in these two plans. And down in Logstown it was foreign and Negro and Latvian. Now in the Eight, Twelve, and Plan Twelve, Plan Eight, Plan Six, you couldn't go. I couldn't go up there. You and I couldn't go up there. [laughs] They wouldn't...

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 7
INTERVIEWER:

What would happen to you if you went to a Plan where you didn't live?

JAMES BYRD:

Oh, I don't know, anything. I don't know what all would happen [laughs] around there. I know they didn't allow you there. No, you wasn't allowed there. It wasn't allowed there. Now that was a, you want to, but all the Plans now is you can live in any one of them.

INTERVIEWER:

OK, but don't tell me about now. You've got to keep me back in the '30s, okay?

JAMES BYRD:

Back in the '30s? Oh, back in the '30s.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 8
INTERVIEWER:

Now tell me, why did they have these Plans? Why did they do the town like that? Why did they divide it up that way?

JAMES BYRD:

Well, they had white jobs. They call them American people, Englishmen. That was a white job. The other jobs was honky jobs. The other jobs was Negro jobs. Now, they didn't want you to do a steel job. Don't care if you knowed [sic] it there, if you could do it. They didn't want you on it. They don't care what...now take the carpenters—

INTERVIEWER:

OK, we're out of film. We have to change. Remember I told you—

JAMES BYRD:

See I joined just before, just a little bit before the big strike, the first one. The first one, that was a bad one. And when the strike was, I stayed in, and when I come home, my sister-in-law told me, "Don't talk, don't talk, don't talk, don't talk." She knowed [sic] a lot of stool pigeons in the town, what you call stool pigeons. They're the people there, they could tell everything the other people had done, what they had done. That didn't last too long because when the election come, all of those people were put out, see, them bad folks like, let me see what's this old guy, his name...he was a Chief of Police, Mark, Captain Mark, yes. Yes, yeah, Mark, oh boy, then they, well he stayed up, as you go into work, he had a big office up there. Then,[laughs] after they put them all out, I seen him down there working on the, in the labor end of town, working on a labor job.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 9
INTERVIEWER:

OK, but the story I want you to tell me is what you told me back in the kitchen about how when you first joined the union and you asked them if they could protect you, and you said, you gave them fifty cents or whatever, then you went and joined the other union. I want you to tell me that over again.

JAMES BYRD:

So you want to go over that?

INTERVIEWER:

Yes sir.

JAMES BYRD:

All right. I joined both of the, I joined the twenty-five cents union, the first—

INTERVIEWER:

Can you call it, can you tell me the Amalgamated? "I joined the Amalgamated", can you tell me that?

JAMES BYRD:

I'm going to tell you both of them.

INTERVIEWER:

OK. I want you to call it Amalgamated.

JAMES BYRD:

Right. This here was CIO. The first one was the CIO.

INTERVIEWER:

Let's stop for a second. OK?

JAMES BYRD:

Well, when I went and joined the company union and, why, I went to join the company union. They had a lot of the colored people was joining it. They wasn't joining the CIO, and I went and joined the company union. I gave them a quarter, and I asked this man, I said now, "If I lose my job without a cause, could you, would you save it for me?" He said, "It all depends." He didn't say he could and didn't say he couldn't, but I didn't take a chance. I went to the union, I talked with them, and I told them, I asked them, could they, would they save it? She said, "We'll go all the way." And they did go all the way. They fired me, but I, Lord didn't lose no time. They fired me on a Sunday, on a Sunday morning, a Sunday here about twelve o'clock. I told the man he had to give me a spare man. I said, "If you don't give me a spare man, I'm going home." "No," he said, "No." I said, "Well, I'm going home." He said, "If you go home, I'm going to fire you." I said, "Well, you just got to go to firing. I'm going. I, I can't do it like this. I got to have a spare man." All right, that happened. I come home that Sunday evening. Then Monday morning I go down to the office, the union office, and I was talking to the secretary, the finance secretary and the President, and they was telling us that, "Well, we're going down there and talk with them." Well, we went down then and talked. We won, won the case. I got my spare man on my side of the job, but the other man on the other side of the job, he didn't get nothing.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 10
INTERVIEWER:

Now I need for you to tell me like you were just saying, before you told me that story, and it was very good. You said you went to the union. I need for you to tell me, just tell me, "I went to the CIO" as opposed to "the union" so that people will understand which union we're talking about, and then I can edit it in later. Can you just tell me, "I went to the CIO."

JAMES BYRD:

Yeah. I went to the CIO and he, they told me, "We'll go all the way. We'll go just as long as if, you had to go to the Supreme Court." They would go all the way.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 11
INTERVIEWER:

Good. Now, can you tell me what FDR meant to the steel workers?

JAMES BYRD:

Who?

INTERVIEWER:

Roosevelt.

JAMES BYRD:

He was the greatest man ever lived.

INTERVIEWER:

You have to tell me his name.

JAMES BYRD:

President Roosevelt, the greatest man ever lived. If  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] . He was, he opened up everything. I remember one day we were going to work, and I heard him say, "You can fire my people and lay them off, but I'll tax your concern and feed them. I heard him say that. I heard that on the radio. Boy that man, you know what I'm saying? If it wasn't, I wouldn't be living like I'm living if it wasn't for that man. That man, ain't no President in this country, never was, you can count all of them, Lincoln and Washington and all of them, none of them wasn't no good, wasn't as good as he was.

INTERVIEWER:

OK. Why do you say that? Tell me why you say he was—

JAMES BYRD:

He fixes where he told the people—

INTERVIEWER:

You've got to tell me his name again.

JAMES BYRD:

Talking about President Roosevelt?

INTERVIEWER:

Yeah.

JAMES BYRD:

President Roosevelt told the people that [sic] got to join the union. He, the man called the unions, "How come, how come they kill so many people down there?" He went and rocked them out and this man, when the company commences laying them off, he said, "I'm going to tax your concern and feed my people." Oh man, that man, I can't mention what he, I can't mention I don't know what. I don't know the words to say what a great man that was. And I'll tell you another one right behind him, Truman—

INTERVIEWER:

OK, but that's out of time, so we, I mean I know Mr. Truman was a great man, but we really can't use that for this show. Now, tell me a little bit more about these, about these company spies, these stool pigeons.

JAMES BYRD:

Some of these stool pigeons? Man it was a gang of stool pigeons in this town. They'd, see I come up here and I wanted to bring my wife up, and I was working on the job, and the boss, I told the boss I wanted to be off to go meet my wife to come to, I had to from here to Pittsburgh to get  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] . She come in on the B and O. And I said, "I wanted to be off so I can go get my wife." He said, "What they're having up on the hill?" I said, "I don't know nothing about what they're having on the hill, what they're doing up there." I said, "I don't know nothing about that". I said, "What are you talking about? What do you mean about it?" Well, I said, "I want to go get my wife, now." He said, "OK, then". After I told him I said, "I don't know what the others folks do, and I got to tell you about what they thought, you know, all the way down the line there." Did you get Roy dying there? You don't know nothing about Roy dying? Well, the world, see that I couldn't talk about nothing before, after the war, or while the war was going on.

INTERVIEWER:

OK, let's stop for a second.

[production discussion]

JAMES BYRD:

The bad part about it was on the Georgia chain gang. Now, we went up, when you worked there, you had, they didn't have, I didn't have no lunch hour. You had to eat or you had to make your own lunch hour. You were to see, you pushed so many ovens an hour, and we had done pushed so many ovens, we were sitting back there eating, and Bill Hall, that was the big boss, he come up there, and I looked and seen them fellas running, running. "There come Hall! There come Hall!" I looked and I said, "Looka here and I still sit." I didn't run. Why, I was there, I wasn't scared, so, I said, "How come you all run?" "Didn't you see old Bill Hall?" Now, now you couldn't, you gotta be on the job. You got to eat the sandwich with your hand. You got to keep it going. Yeah, man and them same fellas, they run to tell Bill Hall everything. Terrible, work up here and whatever you do, they're telling. Whatever happened was on the, yeah, they were telling. Stool pigeons.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 12
INTERVIEWER:

Then, what would Bill Hall do? I mean, how did he, how did he talk to you? How did he treat you?

JAMES BYRD:

Well, see, he talked to some of them bad, but he didn't talk to me bad. Me and him got one of  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]  his cousin Elwood. [laughs] Yeah. And me and him, we had some awful times, me and Bill Hall did.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 13
INTERVIEWER:

Now, we're getting there. We're almost finished. This will be the last.

[production discussion]

INTERVIEWER:

You tell me that, well what you start [sic] to tell me before?

JAMES BYRD:

John Cleveland.

INTERVIEWER:

Yeah, ready?

JAMES BYRD:

John Cleveland you know—

INTERVIEWER:

Wait a minute. You don't have to even tell me the guy's name. You can just tell me there was this guy that was working three jobs and whatever.

JAMES BYRD:

He was—a  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] . Then the door machine man had to go to the toilet. Then he was operating, he was  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]  and running the door machine. That's two jobs. And all right, they had carbon in the oven. Then the boss and the heater helper come up and told—then the boss told him to get the tam bar[?] and go to cutting the carbon out of there. And he told the boss that he couldn't do both of, all that. See, I'm a  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] , I'm not a door machine man. and they fired him. Fired him on doing that 'cause he told them that. And I told him I said, "Why don't you join the union? Now he went instead of going to the union, he went up to the main office; and then they, they just, they just ignored him up there. They didn't do nothing for him. I told him, I said, "How come you don't join the union? They'd have come down here and fight your case for you". But he wouldn't do it, and he got fired. And when they got ready to fire me, I was ready for them. Yeah, I was ready for them.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 14
INTERVIEWER:

OK. Now, tell me about the Republicans out in Aliquippa. You know when you went to get your job at J & L, did they ask you about your political party?

JAMES BYRD:

No, wait, wait now. That's who I got a job with. They wouldn't have done that...stool pigeons. They [laughs] I got a job you know. I, see you got to learn how, I learned how to get in good side with all of them, and I got the job, and I worked eight months, and I got laid off. I was laid off eleven months, I come back, and I, no, after this, in, that was 1939. I had—at that time they just had done in Pennsylvania. They had workmen's compensation. Now I got workmen's compensation for thirteen weeks. You know what I got a week? Twelve dollars. That was in 1939. I got, drawed [sic] all of that. Then I went back to work. I got a job on the WPA here.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 15
INTERVIEWER:

OK, let me ask you something else now. When you think about the union, you know about organizing and all of the strikes and the violence and the firings and all of that, do you think it was worth it? Tell me why it was worth it.

JAMES BYRD:

Well, it was worth it. All right, when I started to work out there, sixty-two and a half cents an hour, that's the first job I, oh, in fact, all of them during the  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] , for that's when it was done. And, as the union grow [sic], as the union made progress, every contract you would get a little bit more money, a little bit more money every time a contract come.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 16
INTERVIEWER:

So the money was what it made it worth it?

JAMES BYRD:

Oh sure.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 17
INTERVIEWER:

Now let me ask you something else. In terms of the way races got along within the unions, the blacks, the whites, the Croatians, the Serbs, the Italians, did everybody get along or was there any discrimination within the union?

JAMES BYRD:

No, no, no, not too much. It was, you know, they would fight for...I didn't never drink none. I never did drink none. I know when I was with...Man, I can't call the man's name [laughs]. We would come in up there, going in the, well, not all, the whole, all the beer garden were down on Franklin Avenue, and there was young trouble. All of them didn't allow me. And the Blue Bell down there, we would go down there. That's where you'd stop in and get a cup of coffee. The white man could go in there, but me, nuh uh.

[missing figure]poVa3HB_1_A
QUESTION 18
INTERVIEWER:

Let me ask you one last question. Now, all of this happened during the Depression. You started at the end of the Depression, you went through the Depression and so forth.

JAMES BYRD:

I wasn't here during the Depression.

INTERVIEWER:

Well, wherever you were during the Depression. Did the Depression change you?

JAMES BYRD:

Yeah, yeah, wait a minute. I can tell you where I came from and I'll tell you what they done to me.

INTERVIEWER:

No, that's OK. I just want to know, I'm not, let's stop for a second. I'm not asking where you were and what they done to you. I'm asking, you were in Georgia, right?

JAMES BYRD:

Mmm.

[end of interview]