Camera Rolls: 315:95-99
Sound Rolls: 315:53-55
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Nancy Neale , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 02, 1993, 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.*
Take one, marker.
So if you can tell me about how the government program of the plow-ups affected evictions? You ready?
The government program, the plow-up program which resulted in evictions, was a disastrous one. It was intended to be helpful, instead it helped the planters and didn't help the share croppers, and tenant farmers, and people who were just trying to make it. So it aggravated their situations by a whole lot. And as a result of it, tenant farmers and share croppers were often evicted from their land and, had nothing in the first place, so went from some predictability to very little in their lives, and were often in absolutely desperate situations. So it was a very unfortunate program, probably had good intentions behind it.
Can you say how-
Let's stop for a second.
Take two, marker.
Take one, marker.
Yeah, I said take one.
Just to say how the government program would, of plowing-up, would have led to evictions.
It was intended that planters would cut back on the amount of land that was used for growing cotton, and it was an effort to provide some income for the planters and compensation, which was to be shared with tenant farmers. And many of them kept it so it wasn't available for them in terms of helping them move on or move out. And it also made it possible for a lot of planters to move them off the land, and that's when evictions began in substance. They'd been off and on for a long time, but this is really when it began to be a pretty massive kind of process.
Great, can you say what some of the factors are that you understand that lead up to the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.
Abject poverty was one of the reasons that the union was formed. A lot of people had gotten there living off the land, one way or another, from very poor people to planters who did well. And so there was a whole economy built on growing cotton, and on the climate, all those kinds of things that fit in to making cotton a very crucial cash crop. And from that point, as it became harder to make a profit, as the land got old and didn't work very well anymore in terms of growing cotton, people then could make less of a livelihood. There was less land available, the government program fit into that, and they began to be moved off the land and to have serious problems surviving. The South had been poor since at least the Civil War, and there was a lot of that still carrying on and affecting people, land poor, immense numbers of people who had very little, very little way to make money for daily bread. And so they were affected much more than anybody else, but it was a whole layer of society that was affected by whether it was a good year for cotton, or bad year. When the drought came, that made things even more disastrous. So there was a lot of poverty, a lot of social class differences, a lot of use of power to keep people who were already low income, down, and to keep them from being independent or really able to have any initiative to take care of their own lives.
And can you tell me about some of the early discussions within the union about whether to be interracial, and what did it mean to go with that decision in the 1930s in the South?
Apparently very early, as I recall it, recall my dad and others talking about it, it was a subject of discussion, it was one of the moral issues the union had to face, the other one was violence vs. non-violence, but this was a very early one. And-
I'm sorry, can you tell me what the discussion was?
So you can just start over.
OK. The discussion in the union about whether to be interracial or not started from the very beginning. And people argued that it would be better, because whites had some advantage, to have it all white. People argued that it would be better to have it combined. One man apparently in discussion said, "You can't do it without us, and we can't do it without you." And so it was decided that it would be valuable, and essential even, to work together. It couldn't be two unions, that wouldn't work, so one union. They could then concentrate on all the forces they had to deal with, and not have to cope with the each other and the differences that two different unions might have. There were also other organizations in the South that were interracial at the time, and that had laid a foundation for that kind of idea, it was not entirely new, it was rare still, but not entirely new. So some ground work had been laid for that, and there were people who'd had plenty of interracial experience up till then, and for whom it seemed a very natural, normal thing to do, not normal maybe, but at least essential to do in the formation of the union.
Was there anything that was different about the decision for this union of sharecroppers and tenants to be interracial, was there anything unique about that? Was there anything that was different about what they were taking on in the South during the '30s?
What they were taking on in the South in the '30s was a very strong, powerful system, which had become very settled in in terms of the whole cotton economy. And I think it was clear to them that it was going to be necessary to be unified. That practically speaking, not just morally or in other kinds of ways, practically speaking it was the only way to work it, and there were precedents.
Can you tell me about the discussion around violence and non-violence, I'm sorry, and also what the people carrying guns, you were telling me, and the commissary wouldn't sell them bullets, things like that?
another major discussion was whether or not they should carry guns, because there were guns every place,
** there was a meeting whenever the sheriffs showed up, or the planters, they all carried guns. It was very much a part of the, almost mystique of power that was frightening and controlling.
** And the tenant farmers and sharecroppers that were part of the union had a discussion early on about whether or not they should carry guns, and just in terms of showing self-defense, showing that they also had some rights.
** The argument apparently went back-and-forth, and occasionally it came up again when they were just being harassed so severely. And the decision was that it should be non-violent. There were people like my father who played into that very much, who believed that it should be non-violent. He one time was crossing the Mississippi River into Arkansas and he had been hunting, and he had some shells in the car, and he stopped and pitched them because he didn't want to be found if a sheriff stopped him, he didn't want to be found with any bullets in the car. So it was very clear once they decided that, that it made a lot of sense to be non-violent in their whole approach to it, for a lot of practical, as well as ideological reasons. And the members of the union themselves sometimes carried guns with them. They had a difficult time in many instances finding bullets for the guns because at the stores that were controlled by the planters, the store owners were told not to sell bullets to the tenant farmers and sharecroppers on that particular farm because they might be dangerous. So they had very little access to bullets. And they would still carry the guns symbolically as a sort of match, you know, you can show your power, but we've got some guns, some guns too. But most the time when they carried them into the meetings with them to protect, basically they talked about protecting the women and children who went to the meetings, they had guns with no bullets in them.
OK, can you tell me what the goals of the union were? What was the union trying to do?
The union's major goals were to try to improve life for a group of people who seemed to have, through no fault of their own, become stuck in an economic situation in the South, where they had no say, their rights were totally absent, black and white alike, they had no protections under law, under any kind of situation or system, and they were pretty desperate, in many instances desperate. Life was pretty cheap, and people were killed rather easily. Lynching was going on pretty frequently and—
—there were a few whites lynched as well as many blacks, occasionally women were lynched.
We rolled out.
Take three, marker.
OK, so if you can tell me about the, the vision of how the sharecroppers and tenants ought to be able to live, what the goals of the union were?
I think the goals early one were pretty modest. That somehow-
I'm sorry, OK.
I think the goals of the union early on were pretty modest. They hoped to get life for people to be much better, that they could count on some income on a regular basis, that they wouldn't have to move on from farm to farm because conditions were so bad wherever they went and they'd keep hoping that something would be better the next farm that they'd go to. And so, initially the goals were simple: To improve life for people, also for people to have some sense of what rights were about in this country, and that poor people could have rights, poor people could have some access to a better life. Even if it just meant that you could have at least one good meal a day, or one minimal meal a day, so that their children could be healthier. There was an immense amount of illness, a lot of pellagra, a lot of malaria, other kinds of problems. And in spite of that, there was still, for some reason, some hope. People had not given up entirely, which is why I think they were ready for what the organizers were trying to do. So the organizers in effect, kind of lit a fire, and all the potential was there, it just took some people who had the ideas some experience with organizing. And it came from a lot of different backgrounds, the organizers of the union, but their goals eventually became more substantial in that they thought of setting up model farms, where men and women, black and white, could show that they could grow things together, work together, work for each other, not have to have a major power system in place in order to be productive. And so I think the goals evolved as they went along, and were not so major to start with. They had hopes, but had no idea that a sit-down would be effective, or that a strike, when people would move out from terrible circumstances and even worse circumstances to make a point, could possibly be very effective, but it would be worth trying.
Can you tell me what drew your father to the union, why this was something that he wanted to be a part of?
My dad was a Virginian and he grew up in a family with strong social values. His mother in particular was influential in his development of these values. He took the values about people being equal, being, having rights, having needs that should be met, being responsible and so forth, he took those with him from his family. He was also a very religious person, and in an unusual or fairly unfrequently [sic] found kind of way, in that he could very well practice his religion outside of the church as well as in the institutional church. In fact he never held a church as a minister except early on in his days of training and preparation. He always practiced it out in the field when he got ready to pursue it. So he had been active in a number of organizations earlier, student organizations, a variety of kinds of organizations. His principles were well in place, his values were in place. He thought it was abysmal when people could treat each other so badly across class or whatever.
You were telling me that early on that Mitchell was writing him letters-
-and that he just, you know, knew how to grab and sucker him right in. What do you think he told him about the union, specifically, that drew in your father?
In 1934, a lot of organizations were getting going, interracial ones, but some time during that year Mitchell wrote my dad a letter, and asked him if he knew of any people who would be good organizers for the union. And my dad had already heard about the union and that it was organizing, but he was tied up at the time doing some other work and couldn't get loose to go check it out. Eventually, and he responded to Mitchell, and of course that was a kind of a hook that pulled him in. Eventually, I think the next early part of 1935, Norman Thomas asked him to go and check-in to what was happening in the Delta and essentially check-in to what the union was trying to organize. So that was his motivator to get him there and from then on he became active with it, he was never full-time with it, but he was very active much of his time with the union.
Do you remember what your father told you about meetings, how they would spread word that a meeting was going to happen, what kinds of meetings there were?
There were lots of different kinds of meetings, there were small groups that would meet in homes, sometimes they met in churches, any place that they could find that seemed to be relatively safe as far as they could tell, or quiet so that people, the planters and the powers that be, the sheriffs, did not know where they were meeting. So early on there had to be a fair amount of secrecy and quietness about it, so it was in a variety of kinds of settings that they held early meetings. Then, the net, there was a network. I mean people always have networks, ways to spread the word that something's going on. And, neighborhoods are all sorts of things, they don't have to be just geographical, and there was a neighborhood across the South, and in communities, and across these states. And people spread the word, "There's going to be a meeting," and they had ways to do that, you could do that whether you were hoeing cotton or just passing somebody on a path or a road, and spread the word. So people got ways very quickly of spreading the idea there was going to be a meeting that night in such-and-such a church, and then people would show, and turn up in droves sometimes, sometimes three or four hundred for a meeting.
Can you tell me about the role of music in people's lives and in the union, and you know, what about that music would bond people together, what would it give people?
The role of music is an interesting one, I think that for Southerners it's always been a part of life, and it wasn't novel to use it as part of the union, and for it to be part of the union experience. Most of us grew up singing spirituals, most of us grew up learning some folk songs, most of us grew up singing as we did whatever chores there were around the house, sweeping the porch or whatever it might be. So people sang a lot [laughs] in those days, I don't think that's perhaps so, so frequent now, but sang a lot and it was common to start off meetings. We all knew hymns in common, so there was a whole background of music, and people were creating music all the time about social events as well, which added to the folk music. So it was very natural to pull on hymns, to pull on spirituals, "We Shall Not Be Moved" for example, as a very basic way to draw people together because they shared that as part of the culture, black and white together. And music always helps bond and inspire people, and this was an excellent way, although it was spontaneous much of the time, very natural, sometimes it was planned, but a part of people's expression of, of their hopes, of their distress, of their willingness to come together and try some things to see if they could make life better for everybody.
Getting into the opposition to the union, who, who's the opposition, what kinds of things did they do?
The opposition to the union was very broadly based, it was that economic system that was already in place. It involved planters, it involved cotton brokers, it involved deputy sheriffs, the whole law enforcement establishment, it involved merchants, so there was a whole layer of society which had a lot of power and control over these people who had no place to call home. And that was what was exercised to keep people in their place, white and black alike. And, so out of that exercise of power people were very frightened, people felt harassed, people were in danger much of the time, just to even meet and talk about something that might challenge the powers that existed was threatening to the powers that existed. So out of that came immense fear, immense threat to people's well-being because anything could happen any time. I think because it was unpredictable it added to the terror that could be exercised, and I think that was knowingly done. That the sheriffs, and police, and planters knew that if people just randomly stopped people in their cars just driving around, that that could be scary, that throwing people out of their homes, that stopping people on a road just walking to-and-fro, dirt road some place, and saying they wanted to check on them or move them to some other place, was very effective in having a major amount of intimidation, which was present in every minute of their lives. So it took an immense amount of courage to begin to challenge that and say, maybe together, none of us separately, but maybe together we could pull something off. Maybe we could begin to organize something and say-
-we can't have any more. There's enough, and something's got to get better, we do have some rights just because we're poor. Just because we're poor we don't—
We rolled out on that last one.
Oh, all right. How do you know when—?
Take four, marker.
Just pick up from the question about music.
Music was a crucial part of forming the union, it was essential to it, but it also was a part of the culture at large, it was not novel, it wasn't an effect created, it was basic to it, but also basic to Southerners and their life.
Great, OK, so now if you can talk about the affect of the union on families of organizers.
Families of the organizers were very precariously situated. Many times their homes were shot up, bullets would fly through, people would crash to the floor.
** If there was going to be a meeting there or there'd been a rumored meeting in a home, then often people would drive by and shoot up the homes. So many of the families ended up being sent away from the Delta area, sent to Tennessee, sent to the North East to stay for a while, just to get them in a safer zone because they were greatly at risk. And yet the support stayed with those families, they had trouble connecting with, knowing their family members were safe, who were organizers, but there was a whole network of communicators who passed the word about what was going on, and who was safe, and who was where, so that it was possible for people to keep up with where their families, their dads, were in particular.
If your father were here and he was taking us back to the 1930s, what would he say about what it felt like to live constantly within the reach of violence?
If my dad were here now and talking about, as he did frequently, about the experience of those days, he would be able to communicate so clearly how scary it was, how on a moment-by-moment basis people were in fear of their lives. It was more intimidating than it's probably possible to realize in this country today at any rate. And so in spite of that, in spite of the fear, in spite of the power that was part of the whole plantation system, it was necessary for people to get past being scared, and to organize, and to help people organize. And people came out of the woodwork, who had never had any experience with organizing, who had never known what it was to set up a meeting, and to get people there, and pick a safe place, and be sure that the word didn't get to the wrong people, and all those kinds of things. People came from all over the place, who were just sharecroppers and tenant farmers themselves, as will happen, and he would talk about how it was a combination. The organizers were crucial to what happened for tenant farmers and sharecroppers with the organization of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, but they could never have done it unless the people were ready for it, or many of them were ready for it, unless there hadn't been somewhere some more energy to draw on to get things better, to make things begin to go in the direction of some fairness and justice.
Can you say what happened in Birdsall in 1935 when your father was introducing Norman Thomas to speak there?
In Birdsall in 1935, Norman Thomas had come down and planned to speak to a group of people there. My dad was introducing him, and he had got out only the words "ladies and gentlemen," and a voice rang out from the crowd, "There ain't no ladies in the crowd, and there ain't no gentlemen on the platform. And we want that Yankee so-and-so to get out of here and go back North where he came from." And so that began to break up the meeting at that point, and there was more profanity and more distress about Yankees coming down and telling us what to do, and some, somebody yelled out, "This is the best county in the country, this is the best state in the country. We don't really care much for the constitution," because Norman Thomas had said, "I can speak, it's my constitutional right." And out of that came the reaction, "well we don't pay much attention to the constitution down here. We've got the best place in the world in this county, this is the best state, and we don't need any people coming from up North to tell us what to do and how to do it."
Now the union did a lot of work to get supplies and money down to people in the Delta who were members of the union, can you tell me what kinds of things did people need and what the union did?
There was effort to bring supplies on the part of union organizers, and families, and all kinds of folks that would pitch in and get their cars, who could get their cars to work, and bring supplies of all sorts. Medical supplies as well as food, of any sort, because especially when they were out on strike and living in barns or any old building that was, possibly had some cover, it was essential that they have everything. They had nothing to move with, except what they could carry in their hands and, very little of that, so they needed everything. So there was a regular caravan of cars, of people who would come, and our folks, my family among them, who would carry supplies of various sorts to people who were out on strike, who had been evicted, and a lot different situations. So it was kind of strangers looking after strangers but there was an immense bond there.
And your father would go around the country and talk to people about trying to raise money, trying to raise support, trying to raise consciousness, can you tell me what he did, where he went, what he would say, what he was hoping for?
My father traveled as part of his work a great deal of the time. In one of his reports in the late '30s he talked about having covered fifteen states and made 150 speeches, and many that he'd had to turn down that he couldn't go to. He spoke to student groups on university campuses and college campuses, he spoke before various community organizations, he spoke to various social groups that would ask him to come, so it was a wide variety of audiences who were interested in what was going on, and he, he made clear that, although this was something happening in the South, that it was not the prejudice, and bigotry in the South was not unique to the South, that everybody in the audience had some conscience searching to do. And he had a real knack for helping people feel personally and directly involved in what was happening. Not that they needed necessarily to go themselves because often times that would not have helped, it would have hindered, but to send money, to send whatever they could in terms of supplies. Sometimes people would collect canned goods or whatever might be available and take down so they could be distributed among folks. So there were various kinds of things that he tried to challenge people to pay attention to, often through their religious values and ethical values, often because we were one people in this country and he thought that Southerners in particular had something really to teach people in the rest of the country. He used to say that, "If a Southerner makes up his mind on race, then you can count on him from then on because there is no turning back. It's in his bones. He is not going to be fickle, and be precarious in that belief and support." So it made it very valuable, especially in terms of the Southern states, to go around and talk to lots of different audiences and try to make his connections with them. It was about the union, but it was about the social conditions, economic conditions in the South that he tried to make those points.
And as a little girl who was sometimes in the audience, can you remember any of the ways that the audience would respond to him?
Sometimes people were moved to tears, sometimes people were angry, sometimes people were very quiet and would stand around and talk afterwards in little knots, groups of people. Some would go up and talk with him more. Students often would go up and want to know more, and want to know exactly how they could participate, how they could do something about it, because students were activists in those days as well, more and more so at that time. Depending on the kind of audience he moderated the way he spoke to the audience in terms of the audience interests, the audience understanding. Sometimes he had to start from scratch in describing conditions that existed. For audiences that were fairly middle-class or well-to-do, who didn't have any current experience with real oppressive situations, he really sketched that out. And he often gave graphic examples, stories about a woman who was beaten because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and make it very personal that way so people had an easy time connecting with what he described, and from then on tended to feel connected and couldn't get away from that, it just made a change in the way people looked at it. And that was why he was considered valuable to the union and to some other groups because he had an old style kind of rhetoric, Southern rhetoric, that is pretty much gone these days, but was very powerful. Came out of learning how to preach, but also being able to speak out of a common human situation.
Now, the union was also appealing to the federal government. What did they want the federal government to do and how did your father feel about the government's response?
The union wanted the federal government to respond on several levels.
[laughs] OK, good because I'm thirsty.
OK, you can tell me about the near lynching experience.
At one point, there was to be a meeting of tenant farmers and sharecroppers in Earle, and some three or four hundred people showed up. They were going to talk about what to do as a result of some families being evicted. And my dad was there and several other people who were actively organizing and trying to help people work out what to do in various communities. They had just gotten into the meeting a little ways, and this was a church, and
it was jammed with men, women, and children, and I gather three or four hundred as I recall, people packed in that church. And, through the back doors of the church burst a crowd of men with guns, about thirteen or fourteen of them as I recall, and they stormed the building. And people were so terrified that they came out of the windows taking sash, and glass, and all with them.
** Some stayed and listened to what was going to happen, and just stayed quiet. It was a major event that was marked on everybody's memory. They then took my dad and one of the other speakers. He had said, "I'm not doing anything wrong," when they said, "We don't want you speaking. We don't want this meeting to take place." And he said, "I'm not doing anything wrong, and if you want me you'll have to come take me." So several of the obliged and went up and got him, and walked him out through the back of the church, put him in a car, in the car that he had come in, he was the driver of the car, and at least one or two other people, speakers, were in there with him, and drove off with him, a man on either running board, back in the days of running boards. And the man on his side, by the driver's seat, was holding a gun to his temple.
** He then drove where they told him to, of course, out in the woods.
** And there was a nice big tree with some handy limbs, and one of the men had a rope with a noose in it,
** a very substantial lynching rope. And he knew what it was for, he was scared to death, just scared to death,
** but he also knew that he had a very short time before he might be lynched, so he began to talk with them about, quickly, about what might happen if they killed him. He said, "I'm from out of state and you boys better remember that if anything happens to me, the FBI will be in here.
** And it won't be hard to find you because so many people observed you coming into the church. And they'll know who you are, and they'll know where to find you." So he did that off the cuff and on his feet in terms of a last ditch kind of effort to see if he could stall them off. The men went off to talk with each other. The leaders of the men who had broken in were at least two deputy sheriffs and one cotton broker, and the cotton broker seemed to be the spokesman for the group. And he and these two deputy sheriffs went off to talk quietly and were arguing back-and-forth about whether to proceed. So they came back and they said, "Well you may be right about the federal folks coming in and we don't want that. Will you promise never to come back to Arkansas again?" And he said, "I don't know where my work will take me, I don't know whether I will be coming back or not, so I couldn't make that promise." And at that point they conversed some more and then put him back in the car and rode them to the bridge that went across the Mississippi into Tennessee. And the word had gotten out, of course, because other people had seen the rope, that my dad had been lynched. So the media picked it up and there was general reaction to it, and people calling each other all over the South that Howard Kester had been killed. And people began calling my mother in Nashville, and commiserating, and giving her sympathy, and she was absolutely in shock, just stunned in terms of what could, it could have happened at any time, but that it had happened. And finally I think she went some ten or twelve hours without knowing whether he was alive or dead, and she was able finally to get a call through to the union headquarters and they could tell her that he was back and safe.
Looking back, what do you think your father would say was real important to him about the union?
** would say about the union that it was a crucial development at the time, that people needed some kind of hopeful way to begin to change circumstances. They couldn't continue to live in such abject poverty, and such awful situations. So it was a crucial time for it to come along, it was a crucial development to have the union, and the union meant for many people a possibility to challenge the establishment, a possibility to say "No more, we can't have any more of being treated this badly. We've got to be able to get a long, we've got to be able to work it out together."
And what do you think he was proudest of? Was there a moment or a feature about the union that he would have been most proud-?
I can't think of any moments that, alone, that stand out, in terms of his telling about those days. There were lots and lots of moments that stood out in his recounting, and other members when they'd get together talking about what had gone on in those days, how they felt about it, what the outcome was, who was there, all those kinds of things that they would talk about as they would reminisce about those times. But he was very proud of not only the people who came together who were so diverse, who were organizers, but really proud of all the people who just had the gall to come together for those meetings, to even show up, put your life in danger, to risk their children's well-being, whatever well-being there was, and safety, to go to those meetings as for example in the church that I just described. And he was proud that people seemed to emerge whenever there's a need, and can come from low income, whatever kinds of cultural background, social class differences, and work together. And out of different beliefs, and different values, put something together, create something, that worked for that time, in that period of history in the South, that began to say, people can organize and get together, they can cross all these different bridges and differences, and somehow can stand up to the establishment, the powers that be, and say, we have to talk.
Do you think that he felt that it laid the groundwork for future efforts to bring black and white together?
There's no doubt that he believed that the work of the union and other related organizations in the South at the time laid the groundwork for much of the changes in the South that were to come. That the union evolved through various stages and other groups then picked up and were able, with various working groups, to say, you have a right to talk to your bosses, you have a right to have decent working conditions, you have a right to have bathrooms on site, water available when you're working all day in the fields. So there were evolutions that took place of the union, and other groups as well, and those are some of the things that he would have seen as inevitable because movements like that don't stop. They plant a seed the seed of an idea and hope, and those ideas and hopes continue to be there whatever kinds of expression there may be, whatever forms of expression there may be in organizing various kinds of groups. But people can't do those things by themselves, they have to come together. And I think those organizers knew that, and at that point we're ready to say black and white together, we can find some way, some ways, to begin to stand up to the planter system and challenge the status quo because things have got to change.
Can you tell me the story about the man and the woman behind the plow?
My dad told a story fairly often, and it was always with emotion, he was a man who was easily moved by what he saw and felt. But this story as he recounted it, in a rural North Carolina area as he was driving on one of his many trips, he and my mother were in the car and they saw a man and a woman plowing, it was almost highlighted against the horizon, saw them plowing a big field and they noticed something very different about the pair. The man was behind the plow and he had his hands on the plow-
-he was using his strength to hold the plow in place, and to be sure the furrows were straight.
We rolled out.
Marker, take six.
One of the stories my dad used to tell with a lot of feeling, as he recalled it, was of driving with my mother down a rural North Carolina road. And he noticed a field that was being plowed very close to the road, but there was something strange about the plowing scene. The man was holding down the plow and guiding it through the furrows, but apparently the couple had lost their mule or their horse and had none anymore because the woman was pulling the plow instead of the horse or mule. And it was very, very difficult work, he got close, about twenty feet to her, and saw that sweat was just pouring off of her. She was exhausted, but that was the only way that they could farm that year apparently was, without a horse or mule, was for her to play that part. And he was always very moved by that story and thought it really set the tone and example for what was happening in a lot of places in the South with such serious poverty.
Can you tell me what you know about the Missouri Roadside Demonstration and your father's work in coordinating the relief, and also the trip then when you were helping to deliver some of the medical supplies?
The Missouri Roadside Demonstration was probably and early sit-down in terms of people getting off of their farms and saying, "We're going to be by the side of the road, we're going to be where people can find us, and see us, and not be hidden anymore." And so people came off their farms, moved out, found any kind of shelter, put up tents, put blankets and sheets over shrubbery, whatever they could for shelter, and camped for several weeks. And it was crucial to feed those people, so many people got in their cars and moved along to try to help bring various kinds of supplies to them. They had nothing with them, they came as they were from their homes and were camping without any kind of supplies, and kind of bathroom facilities or food. So people brought them those kinds of supplies and there was quick exchange, and people saying "hello" and "thank you" and then moving on to other places. I can remember one time as my mother, and dad, and I drove in our old Chevy down Highway 66, on one of these relief efforts, that we stopped at a very weathered old barn, it was set back I guess a hundred feet from the highway, and out of this beaten up old barn came tons of children. And I was about three or four at the time, and had been riding in the back seat of the car in my usual seat, but perched on a carton of Vick's Vapor Rub. And what we were carrying in the Kester car was many cartons of Vick's Vapor Rub because that was a stand-by for everybody in those days, rub on the chest or rub around the nose, when people had colds and various kinds of infections. So our job was to deliver the Vick's Vapor Rub and we did. And one time I got very tired of being little and unable to move and stretch, so I got out of the car and went in with my folks to deliver some Vick's. My mother had said, "Don't stay and you can't play because we've got to get going, and there's so many illnesses that none of us can afford to get sick. We're going to have to keep going, so we'll let you out and you can run and just greet the children, but then we're going to need to go to the next place." So I ran in, and my folks were carrying cartons and so was I, and all these children poured out who were very thin, very raggedy, in a very damp, grey day as I recall. But they were laughing and they were glad to see us, and there was immediate trust. And, so I remember handing my box over to some children and my parents handed theirs over to some grown-ups, and we went on to the next place, but I've always had an indelible memory of the barn, of those children pouring out, of their thinness, of runny noses in the days of no Kleenex's, their friendliness, and they were just acting like all children, but under, and living in terrible circumstances. So it was an early lesson for a young child to learn that people could help people, but also that some people could be very mean to other people and cause them to live in very grim and sad circumstances.
The federal government, what was the union trying to get from the federal government, what were they hoping for? What did the government do or not do, and how did your father feel about the government response?
The union had several hopes
** from, for, from the federal government. On a major level they wanted the government to stand for and act out justice, and to see to it that people got their rights, and got the kind of protection from the law regardless of economic circumstances. So, on the larger level it was important that the government, federal government take a stance that would say to everybody else including the planter system, "There is law and order in this country, and it will be on the side of people who
** are not terribly important in the social scheme of things, as well as on the side of other people as long as you do what is legal and proper."
** So they wanted that kind of response. They also wanted better legislation. There were some acts passed early on that were detrimental to the sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and that was very disappointing early on. There were hopes that FDR would be a strong president and eventually he got better informed, and I think that was very much because of Eleanor Roosevelt's influence on him. She came to meetings, she came to see what people, what conditions people were living in, and so she would go home and say, "I'll see that Franklin has these tomorrow, or has my notes on this tomorrow." So there was a way to connect through her eventually and there was some improved behaviors coming from the federal government. But early on, a lot of disappointment because the legislation that was put in place protected the planters as it were, helped them survive financially and made it disastrous for the planters, or for the, excuse me, for the low income people who were tenant farmers and sharecroppers and depended on that system for some kind of life. And, it made life worse for them rather than better. So there was immense disappointment early on. They continued to make trips to Washington to try to get to the Secretary of Agriculture, a variety of kinds of folks, and did have various meetings. Sometimes investigators would come down and say, "Oh these are just Negroes or colored-people, and we can't do anything. There's nothing the federal government is going to get involved in." And another investigator would come and do it, and do it right, and take the word back. There were testimonies before various congressional committees, in effort, on the part of the organizers, and they would take people with them who were tenant farmers and sharecroppers, members of the union, and they would give the direct description of exactly what went on, case examples.
And what did it all amount to, in terms of what the government did or what the public did? Was the public mobilized, did they do something?
Certainly the union had an affect on people's, many people's consciousness, as kind of a consciousness raising effort. Through all the speeches, and talks, and lectures that my dad and others gave, through its actual organizing efforts, the meetings that people had who were directly affected by the system, people who heard about it, the press I think had some awakening in terms of what was going on here, and ways that they could do a responsible, reliable job in connecting parts of the society. So, there wasn't a major change made probably in, in people's living situations, and those changes sometimes don't come very fast. But the seeds were planted, and a different kind of seed was planted, and the old cotton seeds that had been planted. And that notion was a very positive one, a very hopeful one, that common people could come together, organize themselves from whatever differences they came, and work out ways to demonstrate their need, to let the country know what ought to be done, to actually try to communicate to the whole country that the need was immense, but not just there, that workers in a lot of situations had disastrous working conditions. And that people who were in owners and managers roles had major responsibilities to those workers, whether they were in the fields, which is where the poorest of the poor have usually continued to be, or whether they were in a factory. So there was a lot of awakening and connecting with who these people, what these people were trying to say, which applied far beyond where they were in a few impoverished, Southern states, but had implications-