Interview with Lement Harris (Pilot)
Interview with Lement Harris
Interview Date: July 16, 1990

Camera Rolls: 102:61-67
Sound Rolls:
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 Lement Harris , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on July 16, 1990, 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
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[camera roll 102:61] [sound roll ] [slate marker visible on screen]
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QUESTION 1
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

Speak.

INTERVIEWER:

Mr. Harris, in 1928, Herbert Hoover was elected in a landslide victory, he was considered an American hero.

LEMENT HARRIS:

I remember that.

INTERVIEWER:

Can you explain that, why he—?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, the republican party was going big guns and he was supposed to have a great war record, a great engineer. I think that I was one of those that were less enthusiastic than the majority. Want to know why?

INTERVIEWER:

Yeah.

LEMENT HARRIS:

Oh. The head of the health department at Harvard was a doctor, Dr. Alfred Wooster, and he was the head of the Red Cross in Switzerland during World War I. And he met and shook hands with every American prisoner who at the end of the war came out through Geneva. When the last prisoner was gone he had thousands of tons of food and he knew that there was hunger in Germany. And he cabled Hoover, as food administrator during the war, asking his permission to send in this food. It would not go to the army, he would see that it went to civilians. The reply was an order which was immediately carried out. All the food was loaded on flat cars, moved on the rail to a place where there was a high terrace, and dumped overboard to spoil. This Alfred Wooster told me and I never forgot it. So I wasn't very enthusiastic about Mr. Hoover.

INTERVIEWER:

Let's cut a second.

[cut]
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

Speed.

INTERVIEWER:

How did you first get news of the drought?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, of course there was a farm depression developing even before the crash, and after the crash of course. And, so we just decided to go and take a look at it, both in the South and the Midwest. That's what I was doing in that year in 1931.

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QUESTION 2
INTERVIEWER:

When you were traveling around, did anything strike you about the South? Did anything make an impression on you?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Oh, sure.

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

[sneezes]

LEMENT HARRIS:

I saw poverty I'd never seen before in my life. [laughs]

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

I tried to get it out in your question.

INTERVIEWER:

[laughs] That's the first time I've ever experienced that, a sneeze in the middle of an interview. Let me ask that question again. When you were traveling around, did anything impress you?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Very much. [coughs] I never had seen such poverty as I encountered everywhere, particularly amongst rural sharecroppers, and of course worst of all, black croppers. And we made it a point to visit all types of people—landlords, sharecroppers, tenants—and I'll never forget what I saw...Perhaps I can illustrate it. Dr. Alexander, who was a well-known Southern person concerned with social affairs, described to us an incident near Macon, Georgia where the gas company sent a man out to turn off the gas in a house where a woman and a number of children lived. And when he arrived she was unable to pay the bill. She said, "Please give me time to finish cooking." He says, "No, I, my instructions are to turn it off right away." He went in to where she was cooking and to his horror he saw in a basket the head of a dog and then realized that she was cooking a dog for the children as the only food she had in the house.
** He returned to the gas company, did not turn off the gas, reported this, and the head of the company, Macon, Georgia, drove out there, saw that it was true, gave the woman ten dollars and left. This was the kind of situation that existed in those days...not a bit exceptional.

INTERVIEWER:

OK, let's cut for a second.

[cut]
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QUESTION 3
INTERVIEWER:

OK, so could you tell me, what's the national context for giving relief to a place like Arkansas?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well of course there wasn't much in 1931. The Red Cross made statements that no one would go hungry, no one was going hungry, but they weren't very accurate. And very little was happening in the way of relief until some incidents took place in the South.

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QUESTION 4
INTERVIEWER:

Now, Herbert Hoover had apparently solved the crisis in farming with the Federal Farm Board, hadn't he?

LEMENT HARRIS:

No, that was an emergency measure. It appropriated—

INTERVIEWER:

I'm sorry, could you start by saying "the federal farm board," just identify—

LEMENT HARRIS:

Sure. The Federal Farm Board was an emergency measure. I think that President Hoover was under—and his administration—was under great pressure to do something because the farm population was suffering, along with city people, but probably more severely. And so he set up a farm board in precisely, my opinion, the wrong fashion. He named to the board outstanding representatives of what we've come to call agribusiness. The one on it that I remember and knew something about was a man named Shilling of Minnesota, who was a very large dairy man and had little relation to the problems of the average dairy farmer. And the money was spent, I can't recall just how, but it was generally understood that the whole measure did not directly affect the needs of the working farmers of the country. And as soon as the Roosevelt administration was elected, shortly after, they just forgot about the Farm Board and so on.

INTERVIEWER:

OK, thanks, let's cut for a second.

[cut]
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QUESTION 5
INTERVIEWER:

So could you describe to me that area of the country?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well as you know—

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

I'm sorry sir, I was not set  [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .

INTERVIEWER:

Just start again.

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

Not ready.

INTERVIEWER:

You can start anytime.

LEMENT HARRIS:

Oh, well as you know, in that winter of 1931 I started a national survey with one other person, Harold Wear was his name, and we slowly went through the South, stopping in all kinds of places, and saw the cotton fields, although of course that wasn't cotton picking season, just the stalks were there. Got into some of the sharecropper homes, noted that in these homes it was really quite moving to see they would use slick paper from magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and cover up the cracks in the wall to keep the wind out. You might see pictures of a well-dressed woman, but as you go into one of these homes from the outside, there were no windows and it would take some time for your eyes to become accustomed. And the first thing you'd see is some faces of children, you know that were there, and you'd begin to realize that you were in a home in which there were almost no facilities that you could really call home-like. And outside of one of these I was shown, rather proudly, the family cow. But the cow was the smallest cow I ever saw, I could tower above it and put my hand down on it. About twice the size of a goat, I'd say, and with an utter, oh, maybe six inches across. That was the source of the milk for that family. It gave about a cup a day when it was fresh...short part of the year. A very valuable addition to their...this is the level. So we went on to the area that we had heard about, England, Arkansas. And as we entered town I saw four or five men in overalls with brooms sweeping the main street and for all the world making a spectacle of themselves. And we inquired and found out that these men had to sweep such horse manure as was on the streets as a requirement before the Red Cross would consider giving them anything. So we went in to see the Red Cross-

[roll out]
INTERVIEWER:

We just—

[cut]
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QUESTION 6
[slate][camera roll 102:62]
INTERVIEWER:

So, Mr. Harris, could you describe how you first arrived? What you saw when you first arrived in England?

LEMENT HARRIS:

I think so. We had looked forward to coming to England, Arkansas because we had heard of what had taken place there. So when we pulled into town, first thing I noticed was a big sign, The Bank of England, Arkansas. Then I saw four men out on the street with brooms in their hands—new brooms, not used very much—who were sweeping such horse manure as might be on the street and we inquired and found out that it was done by or required by the Red Cross before they would even consider you eligible for relief, which we—Harold Wear and I, who was my companion, discussed this a bit. Then we decided to go out into the country and see the person who had become a little bit famous there, his name was H. C. Coney, a cash tenant who lived maybe five, six miles from England, Arkansas. And we drove up to his rather unpainted house. Looked to me as if the outside boards were pretty far apart and when we went inside we saw that he too, like the sharecroppers we'd seen in Alabama, had used paper to cover up the cracks. But the floorboards showed cracks and you could see the ground underneath them, and of course that made it pretty drafty, and it could be cold in the winter there. Coney welcomed us, and we immediately told him why we'd come. He says, "I'd be very glad to tell you what happened." I looked around the room and I saw two books. One was a bible, the other was a geography book. And I particularly noticed a kind of a dim representation of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper up over his fireplace and hanging on a nail was a gasket from a car kind of covering up part of the picture, but there it was. And Mrs. Coney was there, and some children running around, and we said, "Mr. Coney, we know you went to town and led the farmers to get food. Tell us what happened." "I'd be glad to." And he says, "I was here, and I was in the same condition as about everybody else, and all of the sudden a woman comes up and she says, 'Coney, the kids hain't at [sic] for three days, what do I do?'" And Coney said, "Something went right up in my head, and I says, 'You stay here. I'll get food for you.'
** And I took the woman,"—he meant his wife—"got in the truck, and we went out to somebody's place where the Red Cross was supposed to come and there were people waiting around there. And I got up and I says to them, 'We all need food, and if any of you are not yeller [sic]'" he said, "'you'll come to town with me now and we'll get food.' And they all came. And I filled my truck, and other cars joined, and by the time we got to town we had several hundred cars. And we went to the mayor and he didn't know what to do, so we went down the main street. And...the big grocery store in town was run by a man named Ben Hye, and we thought that was the right place to go. And we got there, and there's a pretty good man in town named Morris, Lawyer Morris, Morris, and he got out in front of Ben Hye's store and he says, 'I know what you're here for, and give us a half hour and it'll be no problem.'" And Coney said, "I got right up on the truck, I wasn't going to hide or crawl under a car or anything, I let everybody see me, and I says, 'All right, we'll give you the half hour, but we've got to have what we came for.' And Lawyer Morris says he got on the telephone and he called up Little Rock, Arkansas, the capital, Red Cross, and he says, 'Look, the farmers are in town, hundreds of them, if you don't give us authorization they're going to take the food.' 'All right, we authorize.' So they authorized $2.50 worth of food for everybody and we took it, and we went home."
** And Coney said then, "Every two weeks after that, we were able to draw $6.00 worth of food from the Red Cross." Well, when we went back to town, we thought we'd talk to the Red Cross man. So we went up to his office, and he was sitting behind his desk, and he was affable, and told us what a fine job the Red Cross was doing. And as we were talking a young farmer in patched overalls came in. He was embarrassed, kind of didn't know how to get started, and the Red Cross guy was ignoring him. So I spoke up and I said, "I think this man wants to talk to you." "Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes." And the man gave him a piece of paper and the Red Cross guy looked at it. The paper was a prescription slip from a doctor—I saw it afterwards because I saw the man afterwards—and it read, "This man req—this man's baby is suffering from pneumonia. He requires a bottle of Vick's Vapor Rub" and several other equally small items that I don't recall. Red Cross man looked at it and shook his head, "Nope, nope, we don't give out prescriptions." And the young fellow got all red in the face and I thought he was getting ready to swing, but he turned around and went out and we interviewed him afterwards. Well then we went to see Lawyer Hye—I'm sorry—Lawyer Morris.

INTERVIEWER:

All right, let's cut there for a second.

[cut]
INTERVIEWER:

Why was this man embarrassed? Why would the peo—was it common for people to be embarrassed, why?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Possibly, I used the wrong word. He was a young father with a family and children, and his baby was sick. Maybe he wasn't embarrassed—first place he was embarrassed to have asked for help, but in the second place, the refusal, and so heart as a manner made him visibly angry and that's why I thought he might take a swing at the Red Cross man. And, all red in the face, he went out. Understand?

INTERVIEWER:

Mm-hmm.

LEMENT HARRIS:

I sure could understand.

INTERVIEWER:

OK, let's cut for a second. That was good.

[cut]
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QUESTION 7
INTERVIEWER:

What effect did the England food riot and what you saw in the South have on you?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, the word riot was commonly used, but there was no riot. As Lawyer Morris said to us emphatically, "Everything was quite and dignified and no one was threatened or hurt." But it was a demonstration that carried an insistent demand, which was heard, and the proof of that is that just a few days after this event...on separate occasions in the United States senate, old Hattie Caraway, senator from Arkansas, and Robinson, Senator Robinson of Arkansas—national figures, both of them—were up on the floor of the senate and referring to England, Arkansas stating the farmers that arrived, and it's time for the Red Cross to really concern itself with the conditions of the people there. So that I was always impressed how one, in itself, small incident could affect the whole nation.

INTERVIEWER:

Cut.

[cut][slate][change to camera roll 102:63]
INTERVIEWER:

Could you go over that story that H. C. Coney told you before? Could you tell me it again?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, when we met Coney, I immediately knew that I was dealing with an exceptional person because there was no hesitation, he says, "I'd be very glad to tell you what happened, every detail of it." And so he told me how he was at home one day, and things were pretty rough. They didn't have much food in the house. And a woman, a neighbor of his, came and she was crying, and she says, "Coney, my kids hain't at [sic] for three days, what do I do?" Coney said, "Something went right up in my head and I said, 'You're going to get food.' And I took the wife and we got on board the truck and we drove over to a neighbor's house where the Red Cross was supposed to operate. And there were people hanging around there waiting. And I got up on the truck and I says, 'Listen to me.
** We shouldn't wait any longer, we're hungry. If you aren't yeller, come with me and we'll go to town and we'll get food.'
** And they all came with me. And we filled the truck, and there were a few more trucks, and quite a crowd we all came to town. And by the time we got to town there were a couple hundred of us. And we went to the mayor. The mayor didn't know what to do or say, so we left him and went right down the main street and there's a big grocery store there run by Ben Hye. And we passed a smaller store on the way and the guy who ran that store, he got all excited and he yelled to his clerks, 'Let them take what they want, keep the cash register,' and he collapsed. And when he came to he said, 'I'll give $1,000,' and Coney says, 'I know it's true because somebody heard him say it and told me.' But they didn't stop there, they went to Ben Hye's grocery store. Well, Lawyer—"

INTERVIEWER:

OK, we have to change the focal length, OK, but Coney didn't stop there?

LEMENT HARRIS:

No.

INTERVIEWER:

Could you stop by saying that? But Coney didn't stop there...

LEMENT HARRIS:

But Coney didn't stop there. He and the whole crowd went to the big store, Ben Hye's place. And there was a man in town named Morris, Lawyer Morris, and he knew what was going on. And he got right out in front of Coney's—Ben Hye's store and he said, "Listen, I know what you want, I'm for you, but give me a half hour and we'll do it legal." So Coney told me, "I got right up on the truck, I wasn't going to hide, right where everybody could see me, didn't crawl under the car or anything like that. I said, 'We'll give you the time, we'll wait,' and Morris went to the telephone and called up Little Rock, Red Cross there, headquarters of the state, and said, 'Look, the farmers arrived. They've got to have food. You better authorize it right now or they'll take it.' So they authorized it and every farmer got $2.50 worth of groceries and they went home with it." Coney says, "And since then, all of us who needs it, we've come down and every two weeks we get $6.00 worth and it kept us going till the next crop."

INTERVIEWER:

Let's cut. That's great.

[cut]
INTERVIEWER:

Please tell me that story about visiting the Red Cross worker.

LEMENT HARRIS:

Sure. After we left Coney we decided we'd have a talk with the Red Cross representative in town. So we went to his office, he was there behind a desk, received us very affably, and gave us to understand that the Red Cross was doing wonders. And as we were talking with him a young farmer came in and stood there waiting to speak to the Red Cross man, but he was being ignored so spoke up and said, "Look I think he wants your attention." So only then he said, "Yes, what is it?" And the farmer gave him a piece of paper and stood there. I later saw the paper, it was a prescription from a doctor saying this man's baby has pneumonia and urgently needs a bottle of Vick's Vapor Rub and certain other things, just very small things. Red Cross man looked at it, "Nope, we don't give out prescriptions," and passed it back to the guy. The farmer, young father, stood there all flushed. At first I could see he was embarrassed by asking for help, but then I saw he was visibly angry. I thought maybe he was going to swing at the guy, but he didn't. He turned around and went out. Short enough? [laughs]

INTERVIEWER:

Perfect. I'm going to close—

[cut]
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QUESTION 8
INTERVIEWER:

—this, how it would affect your own personal psyche, you know, how it changes you as a person? Did it change you?

LEMENT HARRIS:

This was a brand new experience for me. As I said before I had never seen poverty with this character before. And I also was witnessing racism in a violent way against the black farmers who were in the same situation. So that, I guess for the first time in my life, I was convinced that these were problems so enormous, there was something I wanted to find some way of doing something about it. I wanted to make my life impinge on it. It was probably the Coney incident and some of the scenes in the Deep South I saw that had this affect on me.

INTERVIEWER:

Great, thank you.

[cut]
INTERVIEWER:

What did you realize about it? What made—you decided to do something about it. What was the essence of what you wanted to do?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well at that time I didn't know. At that stage it was just finding out what the facts of life were. It was only later that I found the area that I could function best in and that was working with farmers as I did in Minnesota and out from Washington. And that was the medium that this all led to.

[cut]
INTERVIEWER:

What was wrong, in your opinion, with the way the Red Cross was giving aid? Did you think they were doing bad with it?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Yes, I thought they were giving the absolute minimum that they possibly could, and that it was only events like the England, Arkansas march that caused any real loosening—

INTERVIEWER:

Could you start again and say the Red Cross—

LEMENT HARRIS:

Pardon?

INTERVIEWER:

Could you start again and say the Red Cross.

LEMENT HARRIS:

Yeah.

INTERVIEWER:

Start off and say the Red Cross...I thought the Red Cross, or just name it as an organization so—let's cut for a second.

[cut][slate][change to camera roll 102:64]
INTERVIEWER:

So I'm just going to ask you these questions again and then we'll go on to the Red Cross. So, what did that, what did the England food riot really mean?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, you know, I think that President Hoover was the author of the phrase used in those years, "rugged individualism," as the ideal. Well, that's all right. In pioneer days, rugged individuals opened the country. But here was a situation in which whole groups, a whole community, had to get into action and prove itself extremely effective, without the people knowing that they would be so effective. That was a big change.

INTERVIEWER:

That these people had grouped together.

LEMENT HARRIS:

That's right, as opposed to solving it yourself by working a little harder, planting a little more, or so on.

INTERVIEWER:

Let's cut for a second.

[cut]
INTERVIEWER:

—you could put those thoughts into whatever package you want. What did the England food riot really mean?

LEMENT HARRIS:

It meant a great deal. Prior to that time the slogan that you heard everywhere, I think originating with President Hoover was "rugged individualism," that'll solve everything. That wouldn't solve the situation that existed in England, Arkansas area and all through that southern area. It required a small, but effective uprising of people whom everyone could recognize were demanding what was their due. And it...it did change things, had an enormous national effect. That was something new.

INTERVIEWER:

That was great, that was just wonderful. What was the press-

[cut]
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QUESTION 9
INTERVIEWER:

—the press, what was the big press reaction, what was that all about?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well I was still traveling through and I didn't see much of it. I wrote up what had happened, it was published in , I was glad to see, and saw that the $26.00 that they paid me was sent to Coney and he wrote me a letter that he warmly appreciated it because he needed money badly. And he said that he heard from maybe twenty-five other people from around the country and some of them sent money and he got over $100.00 from them. Pleased him mightily. $100 went a long ways in those days.

INTERVIEWER:

That's great [laughs], that was wonderful. That's the response I was looking for. The—oh, God I'm confused now—why was Coney's action perceived as un-American or Communistic?

LEMENT HARRIS:

I think it was only so perceived by local people who felt, as one man said, Coney quoted him, "You've done a million dollars of damage to this community." And they suspected that there was big political motivations. the only motivation was hunger and personal needs shared with the whole community.

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QUESTION 10
INTERVIEWER:

OK, that was great. I wanted to ask you, who are these people who showed up at that? What kind of people are these that showed up at that store in England, Arkansas on January 3rd? Who were they?

LEMENT HARRIS:

They were a mixture of tenants, both cash tenants and share tenants, and even very small farm owners, all of whom were running hungry. So they were the kind of people you can thoroughly respect, but they were in deep trouble and, as they knew well, and I guess everybody knows, it wasn't their fault.

INTERVIEWER:

That's great. Cut.

[cut]
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QUESTION 11
INTERVIEWER:

I'd like for you to give me—

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

Second slate.

INTERVIEWER:

H. C. Coney, who was, can you, please describe H. C. Coney.

LEMENT HARRIS:

I'm not sure I can. My memory doesn't distinguish him in appearance from others. Plain guy wearing rough clothes...sparkling face, and quite able to laugh. I had, for some reason I had a football along with us and I saw his kids half-grown running around and I got out of the car and said, "Would you mind if I gave this to your son?" "Oh," he said, "he'd love it. He'll kick the hell out of it." So I did and that's kind of the guy he was, no pretenses.

INTERVIEWER:

Open.

LEMENT HARRIS:

Wide open.

INTERVIEWER:

Could you say "He was a wide open guy...." Could you say that H. C. Coney was a wide open guy?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Yes, he—

INTERVIEWER:

Could you, just by saying his name so that he's—

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, the best description of H. C. Coney is that he was wide open, he said exactly what he thought, he told exactly what had happened, he didn't care what happened to him. He just believed what he had done was right, his wife backed him up, and he never—I didn't have to ask him twice to tell me the story.

INTERVIEWER:

What happened to him afterwards?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, I heard from him, I corresponded with him, and come the next season, planting time, he along with most the other tenants and farmers there applied for loans to put in a crop. And...had to go through channels. And he noticed that everyone else around him was getting their loans and he wasn't. So he made inquiry and he was told, "Well, we don't, we don't got it." So he went to the headquarters at the county seat or somewhere around there to find out. "Oh yes, it came through, you were authorized. We turned it down." "What'd you do that for?" Says, "You've done a million dollars worth of damage to this community, that's why we turned it down." "Well," he says, "I'll do something about that," and he went back and he went to the local bank where it's supposed to go through, and went several times and raised all the hell he could, and he finally got his loan. Well, then another little incident happened. An appeal was made to give food. Well he was a farmer and he says, "Well my wife and I made a nice package. They didn't have to ask us twice," he says. "And we tied a string around this and put nice things in it. She put in a dozen jars of food that she canned, and it's real nice. And we wrapped it up, put on it 'From H. C. Coney,' and turned it in. A little while later we went to the headquarters where they were handling this and looked around for our package, it wasn't there. I inquired. "Oh," they said, "we saw your name on it. We took that off immediately. We weren't going to have you get any glory we can tell you that."

[cut]
INTERVIEWER:

And he?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Now I've forgotten it [laughs].

INTERVIEWER:

It's all right. Let's move on to something else, OK?

[cut]
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QUESTION 12
INTERVIEWER:

Because it's just, in my opinion it's a very accurate nutshell of what the system's like. So, go ahead sir.

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well the...my survey was the whole Deep South, and I—

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

Excuse me sir, could you just start that one more time for me?

LEMENT HARRIS:

My survey was of the whole of the Deep South, and I didn't, I couldn't make the same remark as truthfully about the England, Arkansas situation because, as far as I observed, there were very black population there. But I had just come through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, where of course there is a very heavy black population and it did seem to me that the conditions of life in which the sharecroppers, share tenants, and working hands lived and worked, was really scarcely different from the conditions I've read about under slavery. These people were living on almost no cash, and were constantly in debt to the landlord, and he could put them out at any time, and lynching was not uncommon. I encountered one case of that that a landlord told me about. So, I think one can say, that at that time, the condition of black people working in the South was akin to slavery, not much advanced.

INTERVIEWER:

What about the white sharecroppers?

LEMENT HARRIS:

That was pure poverty and hunger.

[cut][slate][change to camera roll 102:65]
INTERVIEWER:

—five right?

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

Sixty-five.

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QUESTION 13
INTERVIEWER:

I'd like to go back to this point about what the conditions were like for white sharecroppers, tenant farmers...what was it like?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, of course we met and talked with quite a few white tenant farmers as well as black, and as far as living conditions were concerned, identical. The houses they lived in, their speech, their problems. All of them was suffering from some form of hunger. There was no joke that pellagra was widespread, that disease of malnutrition. So the poor whites, and that's most of the small farmers of the South in those days, were in as serious a fix as the blacks. The only advantage they had, as one guy said, "I'm not black."

INTERVIEWER:

Who had the power?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, the most significant, prominent people in the community were the owners of big plantations, like pre-Civil War, and they had tenants instead of slaves. I don't know how much—they didn't have much political power, that resided in the cities and the big centers. But they were carrying on the old traditions, and some of the old traditions were pretty nasty. If you wish I can tell you one such incident.

INTERVIEWER:

Is that the story about the plantation?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Yeah.

INTERVIEWER:

Tell me about it.

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well...we drove up to a sizable plantation. It had the standard, white-painted house on a hill overlooking the farmlands all around it, and the owner was sitting out on the front porch, kind of a veranda, and with white columns around of course. And he greeted us, "Sure, would love to talk with you." Says, "You came at the right time, the missus and her girlfriends are inside there but it's much more pleasanter here, sit right down." We didn't comment on that. And a little small talk and a nice cool drink, and we could look down out there in the fields and we could see what he called his "hands" working in the fields, all of them were black. And I think just to pass the time and tell us what was common place around there he says, "You know we had a little incident here just a week or so ago, a white man got into an argument with a nigger. And I knew what was coming, so I sent word to all my hands not to sleep in their homes that night, come up and sleep in my shed out there. And they did, men, women, children, all of them, all piled in there. They knew too. And so, you know how the boys are when they get excited. They came, came to the house of the person that had the argument. It was all over a storage battery, who owned it or something, all over a battery. And they came to the house of the black fellow and he wasn't there, he had sense enough not to be there. His brother was there. He says, "You know how the boys are when they get excited." They took the brother...killed him. This was just to pass the time and tell us what was common place in those days.

INTERVIEWER:

That's good.

[cut]
[missing figure]Tt5rswE47G8
QUESTION 14
INTERVIEWER:

Mr. Harris, how did you find out about the Bonus March?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, I was in Washington and preparing for a farmer's conference that, by pure chance, was coming to Washington in December of that year. That would be 1932...'31...'32, '32. And, to my surprise, at the very same time, the unemployed staged a march into Washington that December and the bonus army vets from World War I, the Bonus March, came to Washington of I don't know how many thousands of veterans demanding that the bonus that had been voted by Congress and never paid, should be paid, amounting to in those days quite a large sum, $600. And they came for that. And they organized a camp and I was interested because one of my close friends, whose name was Otto Anstrom, a North Dakota farmer and a veteran of World War I, he was part of the march, I saw him. And he said, "Come on over. I'd like to show you Camp Anacostia." I did, and it was organized in military fashion, after all they were all military veterans. Streets were lined, everything clean, tents put up straight lines and so forth, latrines where they ought to be and so on. And Otto even told me that he rather enjoyed when he was in the latrine and it was big enough to have more than one. He'd tell some outrageous story, then he'd go back and wait. It'd take about a half hour for that story to get back to him from somebody else, it'd get around the camp real fast. So they were disciplined, visited congressmen and so forth, and in one instance they occupied a [sic] abandoned house, federal building it was abandoned, and this went on for quite a long while, at least three, four, six weeks maybe. Finally, the administration, President Hoover, ordered them to abandon that house, federal property, you can't be there. They refused. Then he issued an order for them to leave town. Well, they didn't pay any attention to that. Then he sent for the troops, and I think it is of interest that leading a group of cavalry and a couple of not too formidable whippet tanks came down the avenue in front of this Camp Anacostia, and in command was General MacArthur.

INTERVIEWER:

OK let's, let me, what I'd like you to do, let's cut.

[cut]
INTERVIEWER:

OK, so can you tell me what you witnessed that day?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Yes, it was the day that the army was called out, and I wanted to see it. So it was not easy to get close to Camp Anacostia at that time, but I had a press card, and I used it and got through police lines, and viewed the advance of some cavalry and a couple of not-too-formidable looking whippet tanks just in case. And I was interested to note that the commander of this army contingent was General MacArthur, the General MacArthur. And that there were two majors present. One of them was Major George Patton—

INTERVIEWER:

OK, why don't we start out, let's cut for a second.

[cut]
INTERVIEWER:

So tell me what you witnessed on that day, it was July 28, 1932.

LEMENT HARRIS:

Of course I was aware that a big event was occurring and I wanted to see it. So I had a press card and I used it to get through the police line
** which would otherwise have blocked me off. And I was standing in front—on the highway—in front of Camp Anacostia, where the bonus camp was, and I saw, advancing towards us,
** an army contingent consisting of some cavalry, some marching troops, a couple of not-too-formidable whippet tanks,
** whose purpose wasn't too clear to me. And they marched down and formed a military stand in front of the camp. And I suddenly realized that the commander was the Chief of Staff of the United States at the time, General MacArthur, and that assisting him were two majors
** who were later to become extremely famous. One was George Patton, Major George Patton
** then, and the other was Dwight D. Eisenhower,
** who participated in this affair. And of course after certain delay and certain demands and certain refusals on the part of the occupants of the camp, the order was given to march forward with tear gas and drive the bonus men from the camp. Well I wasn't present for that, but my friend Otto Anstrom, the North Dakota farmer veteran, was present and described very graphically how the men who had been under fire in Europe—and this was nothing new to them—kept the proper distance and when a cannister of tear gas was thrown at them, part of the time they'd throw it back
** because not everybody of the troops had gas masks and that caused a fair amount of commotion. But they of course gave way as the men with their fixed bayonets moved forward. And then when they got to the center of the camp—

[roll out]
LEMENT HARRIS:

—they visibly went to work burning up the tents and all the equipment that was in it, and I had a perfect personal feeling because I had lent to Anstrom—

INTERVIEWER:

OK, we've got to hold on.

[cut]
[missing figure]Tt5rswE47G8
QUESTION 15
[slate][change to camera roll 102:66]
INTERVIEWER:

So describe to me how you moved into Washington, please.

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well after I completed the farm survey, we decided to set up a little office in Washington. We called it Farm Research, Inc. And pretty soon, many of the places we had visited on our tour were planning to send delegates to Washington to petition the government for relief and other necessary things. And since I was there and had met them, I was asked to prepare the conference, which I did. And so about 300 farmers gathered in Washington on December 7th of 1931...Yes, and—

INTERVIEWER:

Oh wait a second, I think that might be the end of the year conference, the thirty—sorry let's cut for a second.

[cut]
INTERVIEWER:

But, what happened for you in December of 1931?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well I, when I completed my farm tour, I came to Washington and several of us, with Harold Wear participating, set up an office which we called Farm Research, and we began to put out a little paper out to the farm communities where we had just been, and pretty soon we realized that there was preparations going on out there to form a march and come to Washington and-

[loud squeal]
INTERVIEWER:

Let's cut.

[cut]
[missing figure]Tt5rswE47G8
QUESTION 16
INTERVIEWER:

What I wanted to ask you about sir is the sense of mounting pressure in Washington, and what I'd like you to do is start out by saying when you moved there and what you were doing there. And then what you witnessed in terms of the mounting pressure. So would you describe that?

LEMENT HARRIS:

I think I arrived in Washington mid- or late-1931 and I set up there in order to coordinate a growing farm movement. I wasn't aware then that this was the beginning of really a unique and historical moment because, though I was busy contacting many of the farms and farm groups I had met on the survey, but at the same time the unemployed were becoming more and more restless and planning a march into Washington. And the veterans of World War I who had been promised a bonus were...decided that the only way they'd get it was by coming to Washington and demanding it. And a large number of veterans marched in an set up Camp Anacostia. So with this confluence of farmer, unemployed labor, and veterans, a very unique situation had developed in Washington and the pressure on the administration was considerable.

INTERVIEWER:

That's great, thank you. Can you—

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

Do you hear that noise?

INTERVIEWER:

Yeah, is it on the take?

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

Cut for a second.

[cut]
[missing figure]Tt5rswE47G8
QUESTION 17
INTERVIEWER:

Could you describe the Hoovervilles that you saw?

LEMENT HARRIS:

The Hooverville that I remember most clearly was in California at the confluence of the two rivers, the San Joaquin and the Sacramento. And it was along the banks, a series of little tracks, and one guy in particular we talked with was a watchmaker and he had all his tools and equipment with him, but no job. And just over here, just within site of where this Hooverville was, was a warehouse, and outside the warehouse was a great pyramid of rotting beans. And two men had sort of climbed up on these rotting beans, they poured used cylinder oil on top of it to keep it from smelling, and they were digging in trying to find some beans that were edible beyond where the cylinder oil had gotten. That was the hooverville that I visit—witnessed.

INTERVIEWER:

So who were these people in the Hoovervilles?

LEMENT HARRIS:

I only know the watchmaker, the rest of them were down-and-out people who had no job and were just living in these shacks they put together with nothing, just boards, and waiting for things to change.

[missing figure]Tt5rswE47G8
QUESTION 18
INTERVIEWER:

Could you tell me your sleeping bag story? I mean, how did you feel about the riot of the vets, did anything about it bother you?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well, I wasn't present when they actually burned down the camp, but my friend Otto Anstrom, the North Dakota veteran and farmer who was there, gave me the whole picture because he was part of the group that stood there in defiance of the soldiers that were marching. And he invited me to come and see the camp after it had burned down. And I said, "By the way Otto, I loaned you my Abercrombie and Fitch sleeping bag, a very expensive sleeping bag, where is it?" He laughed, biggest joke in the world. He says, "By order of the President of the United States, it's been burnt to a crisp." "Well," I said, "That doesn't make me love the president too much." And it is true that my sleeping bag and his clothing and the tents and so forth, and the people's possessions, what little they had there, were all burnt down and destroyed.

[missing figure]Tt5rswE47G8
QUESTION 19
INTERVIEWER:

That's great. Now you'd seen all this stuff, you'd seen England 1931, you'd seen the farmers come to Washington, you'd seen the unemployed march, you'd seen the bonus people coming in, what did all this mean?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well it meant that the people had come to a state in which they required some kind of action. And of course this was followed by many other developments, not least of which was the labors organizing and then organized under John L. Lewis in the CIO. And so, I think we can say that what occurred in 1931 was the beginning of widespread popular movements, and then of course the Roosevelt Administration recognized and did something about it. And today when I compare the, in particular the rise in dignity and considerable power of the black people of America, the contrast with the state of the sharecroppers then, and the many cities and congressmen and other political offices that black people now occupy, shows that America really has advanced quite a bit. But, there's plenty more to do.

[missing figure]Tt5rswE47G8
QUESTION 20
INTERVIEWER:

Now, you changed your political orientation at the beginning of 1932, why?

LEMENT HARRIS:

I guess it was the first time that I was aware of the extent of the social problem confronting my country...and so, it gripped me, and I've been involved in various aspects of the farm movement ever since. And, if you care to read about it, I've written it all up in my book entitled, , being my experiences in the Soviet Union and in this country, mostly having to do with rural, agricultural affairs.

[missing figure]Tt5rswE47G8
QUESTION 21
INTERVIEWER:

What does your heart say about this period of time, this period ending with the defeat of Herbert Hoover?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well it's exciting. It tells me that in the end there is such a thing as people's power, and I've always believed it and now I'm sure of it...we need a little of that today I would say. We have a few problems today that I know about like the inter cities, and the farmers, once more in trouble.

INTERVIEWER:

Let's cut.

[cut]
INTERVIEWER:

—happened to him, as a person?

LEMENT HARRIS:

I thought that he would become, at that point, a pathetic figure. When Phillip Smith of Pennsylvania, one of our farmer delegates, himself a quaker also, interviewed him very gently and so forth, Herbert Hoover said, "There's nothing I can do," and "The power's been taken from me." And he looked sort of crumpled, and he went out of office a disappointed man.

INTERVIEWER:

Did you want Herbert Hoover to win?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Pardon me?

INTERVIEWER:

Did you want Herbert Hoover to win that election.

LEMENT HARRIS:

Oh no.

INTERVIEWER:

Why?

[cut][wild audio]
LEMENT HARRIS:

I felt that he was not...he was not trying to solve any problems, except by methods like the Farm Board, that helped the upper level, and not the people who were really suffering. I thought he had the wrong approach.

INTERVIEWER:

Was that all right?

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

No, we just have that on sound.

CAMERA CREW MEMBER #2:

I think you should ask that again, if you want.

INTERVIEWER:

I'll take it voice-over.

[cut][slate][change to camera roll 102:67]
INTERVIEWER:

—unemployed marches, you'd seen the bonus march...had Herbert Hoover listened?

LEMENT HARRIS:

I really don't think so. He was caught by surprise. Everyone I think remembers his speech in which he said, "A chicken in every pot, and a car in every garage." And then wham, came the 1929 crash, caught him entirely by surprise, and most of the country. So when our delegation met him, he seemed...just helpless. I even felt sorry for him. And he pretty soon disappeared from the scene and these forces that I saw developing, coming from the heart of America, the unemployed,
** who were workers, used to be in the factories and so on, farmers, who used to have real farms and were in danger of losing them, and the bonus marchers
** who were veterans of World War I, each a big segment of the country's population, all were rising up and making their feelings and demands felt. And it really did usher in a new state of affairs,
** which Roosevelt, in its due course and due time took advantage of.

[cut]
[missing figure]Tt5rswE47G8
QUESTION 22
INTERVIEWER:

Do you think Herbert Hoover had a tragic flaw?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Did...what?

INTERVIEWER:

Do you think Herbert Hoover had a tragic flaw?

LEMENT HARRIS:

Well I don't think he was as humane as he was pictured. After all he was the food administrator during the war, and he was known as the great engineer. When more facts were known, he was a pretty ruthless person. And that, in my opinion, is a serious flaw for a President of the United States. And so he wasn't sensitive to what was happening...and he lost out.

INTERVIEWER:

OK, excellent. Cut.

[end of interview]