Camera Rolls: 311:27-29
Sound Rolls: 311:16-17
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Gwendolyn Edwards , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 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.*
Well, let's start with...can you tell me about the first thing you remember of coming to Detroit?
Yeah, I didn't like to come to Detroit, but my sister had a love affair with somebody that my mother thought was terrible, and so she moved us out here. My mother worked on a, in a sorority house and a fraternity house in the University of Nebraska, and, as I say, I thought I was part of this sorority. Girls spoiled me rotten. [laughs] And they, I wasn't real happy moving to Detroit, but we moved here anyway.
What kind of, what kind of town was Detroit? Was Detroit a jumping town, was it a quiet town, was it exciting?
I don't know. We never, we never—I never had an opportunity when I was little to, you know, to make any, lots of friends. I'd got to school and come home. [laughs] But it was pretty nice. It was a pretty nice town.
Tell me about how you went to work at the Rouge.
I went to work at Rouge. I think it was 1929. And
at first I worked in the glass plant. I made windshields. Windshields ain't funny to lift, you know.
And sometimes we would make five and six hundred a day
** , which ain't funny. A windshield every five or six minutes. And it was pretty hard work. And then I got active in the union, but I didn't, I, I never, I was sometime the chairman of my, my unit, but I never did go work for the, you know, the UAW.
What, when you were working on the windshield line, at the Rouge, tell me, if I looked up and down the line, what kind of people would I see working on the line?
Every kind of people. Men and women, few women. We were the first women that worked at, as I say, in 1929 we went to work at the glass plant. But were the first group of women that came, that went. They have a lot of women now, but, we laid [laughs] we laid a place up for them, because they didn't have any women before we came. And, I was...
What other kinds of people? What kinds of race worked the—what kinds of ethnic people would be there? What...?
Every kind you can mention. Every kind you can mention. There were a lot of Polish people, and comparatively few black people. We were about the first black people in the plant in 1929 in, in the glass plant. It was supposed to be kind of an elite job, you know, it was too good for black people. And then at first I made cores. Do you know what a core is? Well, a core is what you make out of sand and wires to, to, and then they pour, let's see, pour a, really, what they pour over, you know, the, the...
To make engines?
To make engines, yeah. To make...
To make engine blocks.
Yeah. We made cores. And men didn't like that job, so they had women doing it, because it was, you had to stick—
What, what happened was that, that, the, OK. What would happen was that the, the men resented the women coming on the plant because they didn't think they were strong enough to lift, you know, windshields were pretty heavy. And if you're working with, on the other side of the line with somebody that's wishy-washy, you'd get yourself all cut up. But, actually, they, they, after we, they saw we weren't actually dumb, saw we, we, we did, as a matter of fact, we did better work than they did when we got to it, because we were going to show them that they were wrong in the first place.
Did you have to do anything special with the foreman because you were women?
Oh, no. No I, we've always had pretty good foremen.
Tell me exactly what did you do, explain to what your—
The line is, is, well, you know how wide a windshield is. Well, she's on one side of the line, I'm on the other side, lifting the glass. But the glass comes in. There are, there are people who put the glass on the line, the next people put the vinyl in between, and the next people put the top on, and the next person cuts all the extra vinyl off around the line. And then it goes into an oven and gets to be a windshield. But they're pretty heavy. Windshields are heavy.
Were you allowed to, were you allowed to talk?
Oh, sure. We yelled at each other, sang everything else.
What did you sing?
[laughs] Union songs. [laughs] We were very, we were very unionized, because we, they, in the first place, they didn't want women on it, on the glass. They didn't think we had any sense, you know. And they didn't think that they would want all of us cutting ourselves up. But we, they, they found out that women were better on the line than men was, because the men would stop and smoke and everything else, and when the glass would be coming down the line and they'd be lighting their cigarette and all that stuff. And they, they found that women were better off than the men on the line, because we, we had, oh, maybe six or eight people. Was there any in there? Did you, did they, did you see the line in there? In that—
No, I didn't see the line. We have some, we have some movies of the line, though.
Oh, you have them.
We found some old movies [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
Oh, well, you know what I'm trying to say.
You're in it.
Yeah. And they'd walk all the way from where we worked in the glass plant to Gate Four, which is about a mile. And sometimes we had to work overtime, and it'd be midnight and all that stuff. It was kind of different.
Did you ever see Henry Ford?
Tell us about that.
Yeah, he, he, he came, he came through every once in a great while. But we weren't allowed to talk to him or anything. We didn't stop him and say anything to him. I never said anything to him, but I've seen him many times...the Ford family would come through quite often.
Was the place kind of buzzing when they came through?
No. No. There'd be, we'd know when they were coming because everybody would start cleaning up everything. [laughs]
Tell me that once again. Tell me they knew when they were coming.
[laughs] We'd know they were coming because they would, they would start sweeping the floor. There wouldn't be allowed a pin on the floor or anything when they were coming through. So then we'd straighten up and fly right to—never know when they were going to show up. But they, the Ford family, came in quite often.
When you first started working at the Rouge, what did, what did Henry Ford represent to you? Did he, was he an image of success, or good, or evil, or did he represent anything to you?
Oh, no, I liked Henry Ford. He was nice people. He really was nice people [sic]. And he'd come through, and he'd speak, you know, he'd be [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] pass by like a freight train passing a tramp, he'd come by and say hello and, and stuff. He was nice. He was really nice to work for.
What about Harry Bennett?
Well, he was a bastard. He, he thought he owned the company. He would throw his weight around all the time. And, no, I don't think anybody liked Henry Bennett
** , Harry Bennett. I doubt it very much. I don't know where he is. Is he still in the company?
He's gone, well, he, he needs to be gone from the company.
Did the, when you're working on the line, did the line always go at the same speed?
Except when we'd slow it down. [laughs] We'd slow it down every chance we got, because it was hard work from eight hours lifting every two minutes, big heavy windshield.
How did you slow it down?
Stop it. Stop it and get a minute's rest. [laughs]
Then would the company crank it back up?
Oh, yeah, they'd come, say, "Here come the foreman," that's, that's the only way we could see the foreman, for him to see the line stop. He'd come over, "What the hell is wrong with this line?," you know, real mean.
Hold on, we have to change film.
When we talked on the phone, you told me about your, your sister and your mother, the kind of work that they were doing. Can you tell me about that? This is while you were working at the Rouge?
my mother did day work. She'd go like to your house today, and his house tomorrow. And her, his house the next day. And she did day work, washing and ironing.
** My mother was also a very good cook. She, when we lived in Nebraska, she was the cook in a sorority house for several years. I lived in Lincoln, we lived right almost on the campus of, you know, University of Nebraska. And I wish we'd have stayed there so I could've gone to school there. But we moved out her in Detroit in, I can't remember what time, what time we came here. I think it was something like 1929 or something like that. And then I got this job at Ford's, and had never seen quite so much money. I was, I thought, I thought I was wealthy. Bought myself a car.
** Matter of fact I bought myself a car every year, and got active in the union.
What kind of car did you buy?
Ford. I was mad at everybody else who didn't buy a Ford.
If you were going to work for Ford, I thought you ought to go buy a Ford.
** And my car is sitting over there on the lot there now. I got a car, but it's about four years old now, but I haven't been able to buy a car since, but it runs just as good.
When you were working at the Rouge, did you work every day all year round?
Nuh uh. Not Sundays. Not Sundays. We had very little Sunday work. And a lot of times we didn't work on Saturday, too, but we didn't, we didn't work on Sunday.
Did you ever get laid off?
Yes. Not often, because, see, you can store windshields. You can store them for years. And, when times would be rough, and the plant would kind of go down a little bit, we'd still work, because we could always store the windshields. We made all the glass...the glass in the doors, and the glass all the way around the car. But I worked mainly on windshields. I guess I could, big and fat and healthy, and [laughs] I worked mostly windshields the whole time I worked in the glass plant.
Can you tell me what it sounded like in there?
It wasn't as noisy as you'd think, unless somebody dropped a windshield on the floor. [laughs] But it wasn't very noisy. It wasn't too noisy.
What did it smell like?
They, you ought to go, go out there and look at the, at the plant, out in the glass plant out at Ford's. Something to look at. You wouldn't believe your eyes, because there were mostly women working on it. Well, it was, I hadn't been there for several years, but I'm sure that they work women half to death like they always do.
Do you remember the hard times, the Great Depression?
Yeah, I remember very, very well the hard times, the Depression. We didn't have enough money to...we had a house that we were able to keep. But, other than that, we didn't have very much time, and then very much money to...we had enough to eat. You can tell from the, that I haven't missed too many meals. But the, it was, you know, hard times. And, my sister did day work. She'd go to your house and clean, and then her house tomorrow, and his house next day, and she would, she did day work, and we managed very well.
I want to ask you to not rub your dress, because it makes a noise that we hear.
Can you hear that noise? Oh, I'm sorry!
He's got ears like a coyote.
Did you ever hear of, what was the mayor of Detroit? Do you remember Frank Murphy?
Yeah, I remember Frank Murphy very well. Yeah. Yeah, we were very fond of Frank Murphy, for some reason. I've always been pretty active in politics.
Was he, did you feel that Frank Murphy was your kind of guy, was on your side, was, was a—was he a friend of the working man and working woman?
I think so.
Was he an enemy of the working man and working woman?
I think he was very, very, very fond of the working class people.
I want to go back to Henry Ford for a minute. Did you ever stop to, in those days, when you're working at the Rouge and you saw Henry Ford once and a while, did you ever stop to think, to imagine what kind of house Henry Ford lived in?
No, it didn't, didn't, didn't bother me at all. I thought probably that he had a big ranch type home somewhere, but I didn't know about it and I didn't care about it, to tell you the truth.
Have you ever been out—
I don't, it, it, Edsel Ford used to come. I never did see Henry Ford. Edsel'd come through a lot, but Henry never did, never did much travelling in the, in the plant.
Tell me, tell me some more about Harry Bennett. I want to hear more about Harry Bennett.
Well, Harry Bennett, I never came, and I, I never came in contact with him, but from people that did, they didn't like him. He was generally disliked for some reason. I don't, really don't know why. I really don't know why. Not, not just black people, everybody disliked him. [laughs]
Well, the, between the black people and white people, in the Rouge, were there racial tensions between the blacks and whites in the plant?
No, no. After we got working together we'd be friendly just like we were the same age and the same place and just neighbors. It was something. We, we, we never did have much tension at the glass plant. No, no, no racial differences, you know.
How did you, how did you get your job at the Rouge? Did you have to go wait in line or did you go to your church? How did you get your job?
No, I went out to the, to the employment office. Told me they're tired of seeing me coming, so they gave me the job. I just kept going out there. I'd go out maybe twice a week, and finally they gave me a job. I just was determined I was going to work at Ford's, because that was big money in those days.
Tell me again why you wanted to work at Ford's?
Well, I figured that, that I could make it, my life a little more...see, my mother had two girls. My sister was nine years older than me, and she, I figured that I could help her if I made some money so she could stay home maybe one or two days a week anyway. She worked all the time. She worked for some of the wealthiest people in the city.
In the Depression, in the hard times, do you think that, that women were particularly important in helping the city survive, in helping people survive?
I think so, because, see, as I say, women wanted somebody to come and, and keep them, keep the house clean rather than keep it clean themselves. And it was just one of those things, you, you could almost always find a job doing housework.
So, so women were key to survival?
Yeah, that's true.
Can you tell me that in your own words?
[laughs] Well, actually, the, the, in the first place, women don't, don't like much doing housework anyhow. And, if they can get someone to do it for little to nothing, they'd hire them.
Good. Let's cut for a minute.
Ms. Jeffers [sic], I'm going to have you sit up, if you will. Could I have you sit up straight in your chair?
How did you hear about the stock market crash?
How did I hear about the stock market crash? Well, I read the, I—years ago I started reading the paper religiously, every day, so I, naturally, I would get it right there first hand.
Do you remember, did the stock market crash have a big effect on things?
No, it had a big effect on things but it didn't have any effect—one minute, what year was that?
It didn't have any effect on me at all. See, they, they, the only money that was coming in the house was my mother, who did day work, and me, who worked at Ford's, my sister, who did day work. And we always had a very nice house, piano, everything in the world, everything we thought we wanted, we'd work hard to get it. And I really didn't suffer during the Depression, not by any means.
What sort of, in the, in the hard times, during the Depression, even though you didn't suffer, what kind of food did you all eat?
[production discussion][cut][slate marker visible on screen][change to camera roll 311-29][change to sound roll 311-17]
Ms. Jeffers [SIC], in the Depression years, can you tell me what you all, the kinds of food that you all ate?
We ate good. We, yeah, as I say, my mother worked day work, and when she'd come home she'd be loaded down with—she'd stop at the store, and—
Do you remember in 1932 there was something called the Ford Hunger March, when a lot of unemployed people went to the Rouge factory? Remember that?
I can't remember that because I, we didn't, we didn't, we didn't, the glass plant didn't participate in that at all. We were—
Do you remember hearing about it?
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
Do you, do you remember hearing about when all the people got shot at the Rouge Plant at the Ford Hunger March?
Oh yeah. I heard about it, but it didn't bother me because I, I wasn't anywhere near it.
Where did you hear about it?
In the paper.