Camera Rolls: 311:12-14
Sound Rolls: 311:7-8
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Douglas Fraser , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 6, 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.*
Let's start actually by talking—tell me about what your father thought of working at Ford. And you have to say "my father."
My father worked at Ford's, I guess it would be about '28, 1929, and 1930. He hated it. He thought it was a very oppressive work environment. I don't think there was any great work environments in those days, because he'd worked at Briggs and few other places, Studebaker, but he found Ford's really oppressive. It's basically because of the servicemen and how they treated people. And this despite the fact that my father didn't work on the line. He was an electrician, which is one of the better jobs, but he got of there as quickly as he could.
In talking to your father, your memories of your father, you were a teenager at the time, you were a young man growing up. Was it your sense that workers have to give up something of themselves to work at Ford? You understand what I'm saying? What was the trade at Ford's?
I think what you gave up is dignity. That's what you gave up. I think anytime you work in an oppressive environment you give up some of yourself, some of your dignity and some of your pride. I think that's what you gave up. I think all Ford workers gave it up. They were compelled to give it up and I suppose any people that lived in a totalitarian society felt the same way.
What compelled them to give it up?
Well, because it was their only means of livelihood. I mean, even before the union auto wages were fairly attractive and particularly Ford, of course, with their history. So, relatively speaking, at least, it was high wages and provided for a good income for a family and a decent level and standard of living.
If you had to, again, thinking of it from the point of view of a young man, seeing this through your parents—if you had to articulate that, was there a trade involved, you know, this for that? You know what I'm saying? Did you trade dignity for stability?
Yeah, well that's what you did, but you didn't do it voluntarily. You had this trade-off where you gave up some of your freedom and your dignity in order to provide for what, in those days, was a pretty good living. Again I would liken it I suppose to people in a totalitarian society, because that's what it was. The advantage of course, you had there vis-a-vis the totalitarian society was that if you walked out of the Rouge you got your freedom back.
Did you really?
Oh yeah, I think once you left the factory you were a free American citizen. Now at one time that was not true at Ford, where they used to try to control the workers' behavior outside the workplace, which is part of an earlier of the Ford company.
And they gave up on that?
They gave up on that.
There's a great book called Five Dollar Day and Social Control. Have you read that?
Yes, yes. They used to hire all the sociologists. I guess he was great at hiring sociologists and criminals and boxers. He's very high on ex-pugs.
Full employment for boxers.
Yeah, well, it helped him control the workforce.
As a kid, again with your father working at Ford, you're coming up through high school in Detroit, Henry Ford, well, it's a two-part question. Tell me if Henry Ford was a household word and also what did that persona of Henry Ford represent to you, to an immigrant family?
Well, I can recall, of course in 1930 I'd only be 14 years of age, but one thing that I always, always remember, and this is really before the Depression obviously,
and in our neighborhood I know of no kid that I associated with where their parents were born in America. Nobody.
** It was an immigrant neighborhood. Polish, a lot of Polish. Some Italian, and they went to church on Sunday, great churchgoers, and they used to wear... At Ford, I don't know if anyone's told you, you had a little sort of brass badge about this big and this wide. They used to wear it on their blue serge suits on Sunday, their lapel. And they were proud of the fact that they worked for Ford.
** I'll never forget that.
In church they would wear it?
On the way to church, on a Sunday suit. They'd never put the suit on except on Sunday. Had a blue serge suit on, they'd wear the badge. They were very proud of that.
Doug Fraser interview, take two up.
Before we start rolling here, there's two areas I want you to tell me before we roll, just tell me now if they're fruitful areas. One is to talk about Ford as a wealthy man, as a paradigm or as an example of wealth that you and the people in your neighborhood did not have. Is that something that's worth chatting about?
I don't know how the people in those days—I suppose, I can't vouch for this, but I suppose some people sort of respected wealth or were in awe.
Just say exactly that, and then you can take it on further if you want. After that I also want, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is I think you're probably someone who can speak well to the general idea of power and powerlessness. The reason I'm asking is that one of the things that concerns us in doing this series is that we don't want people, and I mean this with all respect, we don't people to pigeon-hole it as a "labor/management" series.
No. A lot of this took place before the labor movement. When Paul and David got caught up in the party, I've often said this and I'll say it again, there was no alternative. You become associated with radical politics because there's no CIO. If it's CIO I think that's where people would have expended their energy.
Take two up.[slate marker visible on screen]
Ford badges in church.
One of my vivid memories was people on Sundays. It was a Polish community predominately. Some Italians. All Catholic. When they went to church on Sunday they'd have this little badge, a Ford badge on their lapel of all blue serge suits. You know, no other colors just blue serge. They were, in a way, proud of working for Ford, and I suppose when you think of it probably, as I say all immigrants. There's this aura about the wealthy and the powerful, but they soon became disenchanted. Instead of wearing that badge they should've worn a purple heart.
Excellent, excellent. In the workplace at that time, Ford, in particular and the auto industry in general, the idea of power and powerlessness. Who called the shots? Who decided?
The workplace is not only Ford...Ford was a bit more oppressive because it had a private police force, the servicemen consisted of paroled convicts, a lot of boxers and ex-boxers, and they were really the policemen. But other companies, for example, General Motors employed the services of a private detective agency, the Pinkerton Agency, infamous in American history. Chrysler employed the services of Corporations Auxiliary, another spy outfit. But the workplace of those days, and Ford was maybe a bit more severe, but generally speaking was very oppressive. And you didn't have any dignity because
you couldn't question, you couldn't dissent, you couldn't grieve.
** Anybody that protested was soon dismissed. So you didn't have this essential element of dignity, your right to speak back or your right to raise your voice when you're being mistreated.
Do you want to talk a little bit, I'm sure your dad must have mentioned this, about literally not being able to use your voice at Ford, about the Ford silence, the rules against talking. Do you remember? Can I ask you actually, if you did hear about it from your dad, to say "I heard my father talk about it"? OK? Make sense?
Yeah, I heard father talk about
** the absolute oppression at Ford.
** He made up his mind to get out of there as soon as he could find another job, and even saying that, of course, he was an electrician and had a bit more freedom. You had to talk in the course of your work much more so than an individual on the assembly line. An individual on the assembly line just said nothing. You just did your work over and over and over, about sixty an hour. He had a bit more freedom, but even with that additional freedom and flexibility that went with the job, really, not with the system, he found it an extremely oppressive place to work. He used to come home, and I can recall it so vividly because he's a proud man, come from a tradition in Scotland where people were used to speaking their mind, speaking up, and he always did. But he couldn't at the Rouge. It was sad.
I'll come back to Ford and the Rouge in a minute. I'm going to change the subject here. How did you know in 1929 that the crash had happened?
Well, you didn't know it immediately. I'd be thirteen then. You really didn't feel it until your father lost his job and you couldn't pay the rent and then you have a traumatic experience like getting evicted from your house. That will give you the message, clearly. And that happened to so many people, including our family. The fact of the matter is we lived in an upper flat. Then we moved to a single house, and that was the house from which we were evicted, and we didn't know what to do. My father went and talked to the old landlord, and he was glad to get my father, my family back, just occupy the house, because by this time people were taking the banisters away for firewood. and so we lived the remaining years of the Depression without paying any rent, of course with a promise to pay it back, which of course my father did, and it was $15, $20 a month. So you have these memories. I have a recollection of getting coal from welfare and we carried it in by a bushel basket and put it in the basement. I have a recollection and I guess my mother wanted to save my father from the pain, so he didn't go with us, I remember, to get me a sweater for the winter time. I recall, it's a story I tell, where I used to go is a place, Tasty Bread, about half a mile away from the house. I used to walk there and get free day-old bread. They used to slice the wrapper so you couldn't resell it. I think you got it for two cents. We grew a few onions in the yard. My Ma would mix up the onion and the bread. It's like stuffing, it has some similarity to stuffing. I can recall that after the Depression was over I said to my Ma, I said, "Well, why don't you make some of that stuffing and onions and fry it the way you used to. That was good." And she did and it was lousy, but it shows you that when you're a little hungry nearly anything tastes good. I'm not suggesting, we never went to the point where we were starving or anything, but our diet was pretty meager.
Tell me about the potatoes.
Were there ever times—did your parents ever—you know economic distress is very hard on families and very hard on [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] . Start out here, start as you did "Saturday, and I was in bed—"
I can recall the morning that we were notified that we were going to be evicted. I was still in bed, and the first thing that attracted my attention, my mother was crying, and I start listening, and it became apparent that the landlord was there and was regretting how much he had to do it, but he had to get people, he had a prospect, to rent the house and we couldn't pay the rent, and so we had to leave.
** Fortunately we went back to the flat where we used to live and talked to the landlord, and it was a sort of mutual accommodation. He wanted us in there to occupy the house and we of course didn't have any other place to go.
I don't mean to beat a dead horse here but do you remember the furniture being taken out?
No, we moved before the bailiffs came.
Tell me about being involved...start with this. I like what you said. You said, "It was my introduction to social action." Incorporate that.
Yeah, my first introduction to social action was helping people move the furniture back in the house after they're evicted. As I recall how the system worked, when the Sheriff put the furniture out there, the people who he hired to put the furniture out it cost them about two dollars a room. Once it was out on the sidewalk a large crowd would get the furniture and move it back in. It got landlords pretty discouraged over time. But that was my first experience of doing something and feeling good about it, feeling that you're really helping the cause and helping some people.
Tell me about that. I've experienced that in my own life, that wonderful moment when stones have been falling on you for months, and all of a sudden you decide you're going to do something, and you see that maybe you can. You what I'm talking about?
you know, things were going so badly, there were very few victories. There were no victories, as a matter of fact, and it's a feeling of exultation that finally you've won one. The poor people of the neighborhood won one,
** and you've won one when you move the furniture back in the house and the people who were evicted they were so relieved. It was a moment that I still remember, vividly.
Great. I'm going to change subjects again. How did you hear about the Ford Hunger March? How did you get the news?
I really don't have that.
You know that was, I'd be less than ten years. I don't even know...what year was that?
'32. No, I really, yeah, I sort of have a recollection but not vivid enough to tell.
If you could use the word "potatoes", how did they prepare potatoes in your family?
Well, you know when you had very little food you had to be a bit ingenious on you how you prepare it, particularly if you're preparing the same food like potatoes. And I don't know how many different combinations my mother had, and you know the English and the Scotch are really not gourmet cooks, in case you don't know it. But she found so many different ways to cook potatoes, to at least make it a bit more appetizing, although you're eating the same food.
In the early years of the Depression, say '29, '30, '31, was your father politically active in trying to get—to do something?
Well, he's politically active—
I'm sorry, I'm going to stop you. If you could say, "My father."
My father was always a political activist. First of all, when he came to this country he was very anxious to become a citizen. He loved this country. He wanted to be a citizen as fast as he could, as quickly as he could. I think it was five years. And I can recall the first time talking politics in the house because I got a little trouble in school when I was very, very young. I had to be about 12 years old, and it was the Hoover-Smith election. My father was talking about Smith in the house, I guess with other people, so I went to school and of course advocated the election of Al Smith. And I remember it so well because the teacher came down on me so hard. You know, how could I say things like that, almost like I was swearing. To this day I don't quite understand it, except perhaps all the teachers were Republicans. But that was my first experience in speaking up. I'm not too sure I knew why I was for Al Smith, probably because my father was, but in any case after that I can recall the '32 election, when my dad was for Norman Thomas. After '32 when Roosevelt was elected, like so many socialists of those days they became New Dealers, and he remained a New Dealer, I guess, until the day he died.
As a young man what was your reaction to the election of Franklin Roosevelt?
I really followed as closely as a young person of that age would. You know I'd be, what, 16 and thereabouts. He had such a great appeal you know. You'd listen to him over the radio and I was very excited about his election.
Did you, speaking of radio, two part question, did you ever see Henry Ford, or did you ever hear Henry Ford's voice?
I saw Henry Ford once, quite by accident. I was driving down McGraw and there was this odd-shaped car. I guess it must have been an experimental car, and I looked in there and there was Henry Ford. Never spoke to him. I cannot recall hearing his voice. I remember reading about the trial. The trial, I guess a slander suit, someone reaching the conclusion that he was an ignoramus, because he knew so little about so many things. He's obviously a mechanical genius and had considerable ability in that area, but other than that I think he wasn't a very bright, broad man.
Take five up.
Let me ask you one before we roll camera. You did not work at Ford, right?
Again, in those late teen years as you looked around Detroit, like you're in a street car, was there anything that distinguished Ford workers? I mean, we've heard stories that whenever you saw somebody asleep on the streetcar, too exhausted to move, you knew that was a Ford worker. Does that ring any bells?
As you looked around you in Detroit could you tell a Ford worker? Was there a way to distinguish?
Well, you can always tell a Ford worker...if you're on a streetcar during the time of shift changes, and that could be five in the evening, two in the afternoon, many shifts at Ford, many split shifts, [coughs] at such a massive place they didn't have uniform starting times for every department or every building.
I'm going to have you start it again and simply say, "If you were on the streetcar at shift change time—"
If you were on the streetcar at shift change time, that was many times, you could always pick out the Ford worker. I mean, they would just be absolutely asleep in the streetcar. You know, they weren't talking, they weren't reading, they were sleeping. They must have worked at an exhaustive, absolutely exhaustive pace because, when you think back, these were young men. I would guess that there were very few that were into their forties. They were all twenties and thirties.
What happened to you when you got into your forties?
You're just let out. It's what unions used to call, you work at Ford's then they put you on the industrial scrap heap, which you meant you're turned out. The fact of the matter is, in our neighborhood one of the great tragedies in a way, the fathers were laid off, and coming out of the Depression Ford wanted to hire younger people. So the sons of the fathers who were laid off went to Ford's. The way you got hired there, the Chief of Police of Dearborn, the Ford Motor Company owned them, if you paid him $50 you got a job at Ford's. And so then you wind up with a situation, this happened several times in our neighborhood, where the son went to work for Ford and the father who'd worked there for years and was laid off and remained laid off.
This may sound like a funny question but are you a singer? Do you remember any songs from that period? We're asking everybody that.
No. All the songs I knew were Scot songs in those days.
Yeah, I saw Hoover on one occasion. Came to Detroit, and I recall it was at Northwestern Playground and Grand River, and there was a massive crowd, and that worried me, because I thought, "Can this man be that popular?" Of course I was adding to the problem by being out there myself. Evidently people go out to see a President of the United States out of curiosity, but I can recall it because it worried me that so many people were out there to see him.
Do you remember any of Hoover's positions or messages that he was sending to people during the Depression? Were you too young?
The most infamous one was when Hoover says, "Prosperity's Right Around the Corner" and that really became a joke. It's like Bush saying, "There's no recession." Great similarity between the two statements.
Seven up, take seven. I'm going to change rolls.
Take seven up.
What is a moving assembly line?
Well, unless people witnessed it or worked on it, there's really not a full appreciation of how difficult working on an assembly line is. And, you're in one position, your, your work station, it might be about 12 feet that you have to stay within that work station, otherwise you get in the next individual's way. So you're doing this repetitively, usually about 60 an hour.
And the difficulty with an assembly line job is that the job controls you, rather than you controlling the job. In other jobs, you can sort of set your own pace, you work fast for a little while and then work moderately. An assembly line is one pace, there's not a thing you can do about it,
** and that's what makes, in my view, that type of work so monotonous and...it's not very fulfilling.
In the late 20s, early 30s, particularly after the crash, America is kind of crumbling, falling apart. Radicalism.
Well, there was a lot of radicalism around Detroit in the '30s.
On a street that I lived, Daniel Street, there's a communist hall at the very next street, and you used to have a lot of activities, Hunger March to Washington, and activities like that. And a lot of those people subsequently became active in the union. I've often thought that the radical movements wouldn't have had the support that they did generate in the early '30s had there been an alternative,
** had there been a viable labor movement. Had there been a CIO in particular, they would have expended their energies in a movement like the CIO. But the CIO didn't exist. And so, out of sheer desperation, and looking for an alternative, they moved into radical movements that they otherwise wouldn't have moved into.
Just give me a list, a litany of various radical movements.
Well, the biggest, the most, the, radical movement that got the most attention, and probably had the most membership was the Communist Party, the Stalinists. I think without question there were other radical movements around various shades of socialism, and different types of socialist parties, but the way that, that had the greatest membership probably nationally, but I know certainly in Detroit, was the Stalinists, the communist movement.
Just a reminder that we have another question. I will get you out of here. Not only did they not have labor unions then, but can you list me some of the other things that, you know, as Murphy's trying to keep Detroit alive.
I'm thinking of things like Medicare.
Well, I'm talking about federal programs that we now take for granted.
OK, let me, let me, that's a good question.
My kids, they have no idea that there was no Social Security, could you just give us a list of what—
Well, when, you know, there was no unemployment compensation until 1938. The first time I was employed there was no unemployment compensation. And, and, a lot of people, particularly conservatives, demean the WPA. And they say, "Well, all it was, was lake reeving [sic], raking leaves," and that was productive and so forth. But I can tell you from my own experience watching fathers of, of my friends, when they got on WPA, they got some of their dignity back. They were working. And some of the work was very, very constructive. They built, you know, over the country they built bridges, they built schools. But even if it wasn't that constructive, the very fact that people were able to work again for very, very modest wages, but the fact that they worked only very, very few hours a week. And the other social program I think was critical to the future of this country was the CCC.
I'm going to actually—that happens in the time period after our film.
Here's a wonderful metaphor. Did you ever listen to any of Joe Louis's fights?
Any of Joe Louis's fights?
Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Tell me about listening to Joe Louis's fights.
Well, I remember the first time, well first of all I saw Joe Louis fight in the Golden Gloves. And the Golden Gloves in those days in Olympia Stadium attracted 13, 14, 15000 people. And Joe Louis starred as a light heavyweight. In fact I saw him lose his only fight as an amateur. But then, I remember when he was defeated by Schmeling. And we were in the neighborhood, I remember the anger of the blacks when Joe Louis was defeated. It was really disappointment [sic]. And then, unfortunately, I guess some whites thought they would sort of rub it in, you know, and ride through the neighborhoods, black neighborhoods, and, and, in later years that would probably've been killed, those, it was, it was mean-spirited. And then I remember so well because we're very—and I've forgotten the year of the, of the return match, but I remember vividly that I was in a car with about three of my friends just riding around and listening to the radio and Louis knocking out Schmeling in the first round. And I remember both of those fights.
How'd you feel when he knocked him out?
Oh, I thought that was great. But by, see, but by, that's sort of an important lesson in way. See, the people forgot about their prejudice, their bigotry, because no, it was the United States against Germany. It was like, you know, Jesse Owens winning the Olympics, and that's, you know, if they could just forget their prejudice and their bigotry in other areas of our life we'd have a better world.
Very true. Is there anything else that you'd like to add from that period, from '27 to, say, '32?
You've given us more than we came for already, but is there anything else that you know, thinking about the general issue of surviving during the Depression.
The other thing, I don't if Dave or Paul touched upon it, but, you know, you used to go to your friend's house and most of them didn't have electricity, you know. It was turned off because they didn't pay bills. They had kerosene lamps. Some of them but not all—I don't know if the gas companies were more lenient, but most of the houses that I went into in the neighborhood were able to keep their gas going. But some didn't. Some cooked on stoves, they cooked by wood or by coal.
You weren't familiar with people clandestinely reconnecting...?
No. I know it happened, and that's probably why we had the gas. Easier to do than electricity, I guess. Electricity you don't want to mess around with, might get a shock [laughs].
You made it easy for us.
I think we're done.