Camera Rolls: 311:14-16
Sound Rolls: 311:09-10
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Virginia Nicoll , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 7, 1991, 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.*
Mark one. Second sticks.
OK, actually, I know it's a little bit out of order, but why don't we, why don't we start there? Let me ask you, how did you, as a young girl, how did you hear about this thing called the Ford Hunger March?
Well, my dad was a great reader of the daily paper, and he would read it from cover to cover, and then he and my mother would discuss things. And of course there were pictures, and I could remember seeing the pictures and hearing my dad talk about it. He thought it was deplorable, but on the other hand he was not a Ford worker, so, at times, he sympathized with Henry Ford.
Feel free to wave your arms and move around. Did you as a little kid have any feelings about him? I mean, do you remember hearing about people being...?
Yes, as a matter of fact, when I heard that people had been killed I was horrified because we were hungry and we were cold, but when it got to the matter of killing, that was something that was really outside, well outside our kin, I guess I could say. And, well, we just thought it was terrible.
Good, good. Should we talk about your mother?
Where's a good place to start?
Well, I could start with the fact that we were hungry and Mother decided to try to get credit from the local grocer so she could buy some flour and some yeast and some other things and start baking. And...
Tell me about the baking. Tell me about the baking.
OK. When Dad couldn't find work and the bills began to pile up, Mother decided that she would start baking and sell the baked goods to the neighbors. So, she went to the local grocer and asked him if she could have credit for flower and yeast and sugar and other things that she needed, and she began making bread and rolls, cinnamon rolls, to sell to the neighbors. Her fame soon spread beyond the immediate neighborhood because the baked goods were so good, and people started giving her standing orders, some of which we would deliver while they were still warm. And on the days when she baked, the most wonderful aromas would float through the house, but we didn't get to eat any of the finished product. We had to sell that. Instead we got our bread from a local church where there was a breadline. They gave out bread that had been donated by a local baker to needy families and my brother and I would take a little wagon down the alley to escape detection by the neighbors and we would stand in line to bring the bread home. And when there was too much to eat right away Mother would make a big bread pudding, huge pudding in a big roasting pan. She'd throw in a few raisins and some water and some canned milk and bake it and that would be our dinner. It wasn't particularly nourishing, and it wasn't always palatable, but it was better than going to bed hungry.
Did you ever go to bed hungry?
Oh, many times we went to bed hungry. In fact, there were days when there was no food in the house whatsoever, and Mother would give us a drink made of hot water, canned milk, and a little sugar, and would go to bed early and hope that we'd be asleep before we got too hungry. It wasn't so bad being hungry, but when we were both hungry and cold, that was terrible. And when that happened we'd go to bed with our coats on, and we'd pile newspapers over the blankets in order to keep warm.
I'm gonna have you...the story about your mother baking is such a good one, I'm going to have you do it again for me. And, in this one, you can simply begin by telling me as vividly as possible about the smells in this house from this talk, from this baking, and then you can say, "But we couldn't eat." Do you see what I'm saying?
Tell me about the smells for the baking.
That's amazing about the newspapers on the bed.
Oh, that was terrible, you know, to have to go to bed with your coats on and then pile newspapers on top of the blankets was very miserable.
Nicoll, mark two.
Now you can, as I said, slowly, and with some relish describe the smells. And then...
When Dad couldn't find work Mother decided that she would try baking and selling the baked goods to the neighbors. And on the days when she baked the most wonderful aromas would spread throughout the house. Oh, it would smell so good! But we never got to eat any of the finished product. Instead we went to the local church to stand in a bread line to bring bread home for our meals.
** And when there was too much bread to be eaten immediately, Mother would make a huge bread pudding in a big roasting pan. She'd throw in a few raisins and some water and some milk and bake it and that would be our supper. It wasn't particularly nutritious, and it wasn't as good as the bread or the cinnamon rolls that she sold to the neighbors, but it was better than going to bed hungry.
Let's continue talking about, you know, you're a little girl, and lying in bed. And I'd like you to tell me about hearing your parents argue.
One of the worst things about that era for me was listening to my parents arguments. After we got in bed at night they would begin to argue, argue constantly about money, argue about sex. After the eighth child was born my mother was terrified of another pregnancy, particularly after Dad was laid off. And so they would argue. And when Dad was home all day long doing nothing, he was full of energy when he went to bed at night, but Mother was exhausted from the baking and caring for her eight children. So I would lie there, quivering all over, and I'd put the pillow over my head and just pray that they would stop,
** but it went on and on endlessly. I finally started having chest pains at night and I became afraid that I was going to have a heart attack and die in the night. I had to share that fear with someone so I told my mother. But that was a big mistake. She decided that I was too busy, too involved in school and at church, and that I needed to stay home more and get more rest. The more I stayed at home the more of their arguments I heard and the more I was exposed to her anxiety. It was a massive anxiety for a ninety pound woman, which hung over the household like a pall. I got worse, and I started getting up in the middle of the night, sitting in the living room all by myself, convinced that if only I could stay awake until daylight I would be OK. I don't know how long it lasted. It seemed a very long time. I guess maybe I got better when our financial picture improved, or maybe I just learned to cope a little better.
That's extraordinary. What, what drove your mother to survive through this?
My mother was a very, very proud woman, and she was very, very proud of her children, and she loved them very dearly, and I think it was her feeling that she was responsible for what happened to them that kept her going. A lot of people committed suicide and one time Mother and the two younger children got food poisoning from eating tainted food and she had to be rushed to Receiving Hospital to have her stomach pumped. Later she was accused of trying to kill herself by ingesting poison but she would never have done anything like that. She had a family to care for.
Did—by the way when we're talking don't be afraid from time to time to remind us that you were a little girl, because the audience will need to be reminded of that.
Was it your perception as a little kid that your parents, your mother and your father both would ever blame themselves, for...you understand what I'm saying?
Yes, I understand what you're saying. My father was very laid back, and he never felt that he never felt that he was in any way responsible for circumstances, but my mother blamed herself.
My mother felt that there must be something wrong with her personally to have this disaster visited upon us, and she also, I'm sorry to say, in a way blamed my father because she thought really if he got out there and scrounged he could find a job. But there weren't any jobs, and I think in the long run my father's attitude made more sense, because there wasn't anything he could do about the situation. But Mother just kept thinking that if only she worked a little harder or tried a little harder or if only she were a little bit better person, that things, things would work out for us.
Can we, can we live with that bump on "person"? Can we talk about evictions for a minute?
Sure. I'd love to talk about that couple that came to stay with us. There's a terrible story about him. You won't want to use it, but—
Let's cut for a second. Actually, why don't you tell me the story?
Nicoll, take three up.
He would occasionally have some change in his pocket, and he'd go to—
When Dad couldn't find work he went to the Serviceman's Bureau operated by the Red Cross to assist needy veterans and their families, and a few days later a social worker came out to the house with two little boys, aged four and five, who were homeless. She wanted to know if my mother would look after them temporarily for five dollars a week each, and because we needed the money Mother agreed. There were no beds for them, so they slept on the living room sofa, one on either end, and when they went to bed at night we all went to bed. We really resented those kids. They took up so much of Mother's time. They hung on her constantly, their noses running, whining for their own mother. We called them "the Little Snivelers" but at the same time we were aware that the money that they were bringing in was buying our groceries. We had two other visitors, too, who were most unwelcome, a man and his wife who my father knew through the Veterans of Foreign Wars. They had been evicted from their apartment, put out on the street with all of their belongings, and Dad told them that they could stay with us until they could find other quarters. Mother was furious, because there wasn't enough food for ten, let alone two additional ones. And they sat side by side at the table, and I can still see her sitting very erect, very grim, never saying a word. She knew she was taking the food out of our mouths, and we knew it too. I don't know what happened to them when they left, and I really didn't want to know because there were so many others in the same boat.
Tell me about walking around in your neighborhood and seeing the evictions.
When I was in junior high I was about eleven or twelve, I would say. Almost every day one year on the way home from school, I would see people sitting on the street with their possessions, people who had been evicted. Mothers crying, children crying, fathers trying to look as if they were still in command of their destiny. It was heartbreaking.
Did the fear, remembering that the audience of this film will not hear my voice, can you talk a little bit about the fear of eviction hanging over your own family, if it did?
Oh, it did. Yes indeed. My mother had two great fears during that era. One was that she wouldn't be able to get medical attention for her children when they were sick, and the other was that we would lose our home, that we'd be put out on the streets like so many other people were put out. I think that probably the main source of her massive anxiety. Fortunately it never happened to us, but it could very well have done.
Let's cut for a second.
Let's start there, how you, how it dawned on you as a child that you were going to be going on relief, that there was a problem.
Eventually we had to go on relief. There were bill collectors at the door all the time, and they were threatening to turn off the gas and turn off the lights, and sometimes they were turned off. And the grocery bill was increasing, the cost of the groceries for Mother's baking, and since it didn't appear that there was a job in Dad's future he finally went to the Welfare Department and applied for relief. And we were approved, but it was the most humiliating time. Social workers came to the house, and they looked in our cupboards to make certain they were empty. They looked in the coal bin to make certain that was empty. They wanted to make sure that we weren't trying to defraud the government. And Mother was constantly criticized for her large family, and she began going to a birth control clinic that was operated by the Detroit Board of Health, where they dispensed contraceptives, free contraceptives to needy women. And one day on the way home, riding three streetcars and carrying her youngest child, she dropped the package and went back for more, and when she told her story she was in an absolute panic, of course. They called her a liar and said she just wanted to indulge herself. On another occasion, when she ate tainted food with the two younger children and had to be rushed to Receiving Hospital to have her stomach pumped, they accused her of trying to kill herself. It was not only a humiliating experience, it was degrading, and it seared my mother's soul.
In the...you're a, a young woman growing up, and the world is crumbling around you. Is that correct?
In the midst of all that catastrophe, was there anything...was there any sense of seeing any kind of heroism around you or seeing anything that gave you strength that human beings might be able to make it through this?
Yeah, I thought my mother was a hero. And we—
Can you start that again?
OK. I thought that my mother was a hero in every sense of the word. We tried very hard never to burden her with our problems, because we knew that she had so many much more difficult problems to field, and despite all of the anxiety and her many cares she was always kind and loving.
And I know when she made us our drink, our hot drink at night when there was no food in the house, we were twice comforted. Once with the drink itself and once with the love with which it was given. But she was a hero.
We were going to begin with the menu. Give me a list of stuff that [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
OK. All right. Sometimes the butcher would give Mother a soup bone with a few shreds of beef hanging onto it, and she would make soup. We always enjoyed that. Other times, he would give her pork liver that he was going to throw away, because it was so vile, strong, and bitter no one would buy it. Or it might be a beefheart that she would stuff with a bread stuffing and roast. My dad thought that was a delicacy, but just looking at it made me feel sick. No matter what it was, no matter how unpalatable it might be, it was never enough. We were always hungry.
Mother used to make potato soup, big soup kettle, big soup kettle, with a few onions thrown in. She's make it with water, but then she would add the canned milk that was always in the house. And we liked that, and especially if we had a little leftover bread from the bread line to go with it. That was a pretty good evening meal.
Great. I'm going to have you redo a story for me. Going to get bread from the bread line. Can you just begin with you and your brother, and I think you took a little red wagon.
Yes, yes, yes.
Can you mention the little red wagon? Can you take us, briefly, through the back alleys to avoid being seen going to the bread line?
My younger brother and I used to take a little red wagon and go down the alley to escape detection by the neighbors to stand in line at a local church for bread that had been donated by a baker for distribution to needy families. We tried not to be seen. It wasn't always successful, and I was especially embarrassed, because I was very active at the church, sang in the junior choir, and went to Girl Scouts there. But we would line up with all the other needy families for so many loaves of this and so many loaves of that, and...it wasn't the nicest chore, and I don't know why we were selected for it.
I'm going to have you do one other story once more for me. And I apologize for asking you to repeat it. The story about going to sleep at night and hearing your parents argue.
OK. I had my own personal battle with anxiety. I was OK in the daytime, but when I got in bed at night I would start to worry. That's when my husband—
You can start again.
I had my own personal battle with anxiety. I would OK in the daytime, but when I got in bed at night that's when the problem would begin. That's when my mother and father would do most of their arguing. Arguments about sex, arguments about money. My mother was terrified of another pregnancy, so they were constantly arguing about that. I would lie there, quivering all over, praying they would stop, putting my head underneath the pillow. Pretty soon I began having chest pains in the night. I began to fear that I would have a heart attack and die. And I had to share that fear with someone so I told my mother. But that was a big mistake. She decided that I was too busy, too involved at school and at church, and that I needed to stay home more and get more rest. The more I stayed home, the more of their arguments I heard, the more I was exposed to her massive anxiety. It was a fearful burden for a little girl.
Let's just have silence, just for one moment. I was trying to get you some room, it's kind of [laughs]
I'm going to have you say one word, one line for me once again because we had a door closing. Can you simply say "It was a fearful burden for a little girl"?
Yes. It was a fearful burden for a little girl.
Did—I'm going to ask you about Henry Ford. As a little girl, did the name or the persona of Henry Ford mean anything to you?
[laughs] Yes, indeed. Henry Ford was greatly despised in the city. It was felt that he was cold-hearted, uncaring, after all these thousands of men who had worked for him were in need. And he wouldn't do anything to help.
Let's cut for a moment.
After my father got laid off—oh, OK.
Let me remind you not to look right into the lens.
Oh, OK. I'll look at you. OK. After my father got laid off, he decided that he would try to sell roofing. But nobody was buying. People just weren't buying anything. They didn't have any purchasing power. But he kept at it for a period of months and finally he just gave up.
In the midst of the Depression Dad finally found work, part-time work as a boiler operator with the City of Detroit Public Schools. And we were all elated. The elation was short-lived. The governor, without warning, closed all the banks in the state. He called it a bank holiday, but no one was fooled. Then, the city went bankrupt, and couldn't meet the payroll. So Dad was working and now he had travel and other expenses, but there was no money coming, so in so we were worse off than before. After many weeks, about two months, it must've been, of payless pay days, the city started issuing scrip [sic], a kind of promissory note redeemable at a later date, and Dad got all his back pay in scrip. But most of the merchants refused to accept it, they wanted money to pay their own bills. And those that did accept it, like our grocer, discounted it. Panic was spreading through the city. It just seemed as if the entire financial foundation was crumbling.
If you would feel comfortable saying this, can you, can you tell us that it was like Monopoly money or funny money?
Only if you...
Yeah, I can say that.Do you want me to say the whole thing again?
No, no. Just, just a, a sentence or two about, you know.
OK. The city started issuing scrip [sic], and Dad got all his back pay in scrip. But scrip was akin to Monopoly money. Most people wouldn't take it. It was redeemable until a later date. So panic was spreading throughout the city. It was if the entire financial structure was crumbling.
Great. Let's cut.
My shoes were completely worn through. And mother told me I had two choices: I could stay home from school, or I could go to the school clothing drive and ask for a pair. I didn't want to do that, but on the other hand, as I was on my way to the counselor's office, I was visualizing this nice new pair of shoes that had been donated by a merchant to the drive. When I got there, the only pair that fit was a hideous, ugly pair of orange shoes that looked like a pair of flatboats on my big feet. But I wore them, and I decided I would go to school early the first morning and be in my seat before any of the other students arrived. Well, that might have worked, but the girl who sat in front of me was already there and, as I came walking down the aisle with these ugly orange flatboats, she burst out laughing. And soon, all the other students in the class were gathered around pointing at my shoes and just having a great old time. Finally, thank heaven, the teacher came in, and ordered them all to their seats and gave them a severe lecture about their unkind behavior and nothing more was ever said. But boy, was I glad when my mother had enough money to buy me another pair. [laughs] It was a terrible thing, just terrible. [laughs]
Do you want to talk a little bit, I don't know if this is true or not, but talk about, about being a little girl. And it's important that you remind us, the audience, that you were a little girl...in a world that was falling apart, in, where the—what are [sic] the saying—the center would not hold.
Did you have a sense that maybe, maybe the, maybe your family wouldn't make it, you wouldn't make it, the country wouldn't make it that...you know that kind of terror that children can have?
Well, when I thought I was going to die I certainly had that terror. I just felt that we couldn't live, that certainly I couldn't live through it. It was too much. Are we on?
Yeah, actually, you can tell me that again.
I felt that we weren't going to make it, certainly that I wasn't going to make it. I was convinced that I was going to die one night.
** Things were, things were terrible. And I didn't see that there was any hope for us.
Was it particularly hard being a child, when you didn't understand what was going on?
And cut. That's fantastic.