Camera Rolls: 102:93-94
Sound Rolls: 102:52
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 November 1, 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.*
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] —to, to help your family survive? And the other thing I'm, well, let's start out with that, for now.
So, Virginia, what was your mother like, and how did she help her family to survive in 1931?
Well, there's only word I can use to describe my mother: she was heroic, in every sense of the word. And she kept us fed when there was literally no food in the house. At night, when we were hungry and sometimes the littler ones were crying, she would mix up a concoction of hot water, canned milk, and sugar, and give it to us to calm the gnawing in our stomachs. And then she would put us to bed promptly so that hopefully we would fall asleep before we got too, too hungry. And it did work. And we never had a name for that concoction, we always referred to it as "hot water, canned milk, and sugar." To this day we talk about it. And she baked. She supported us. She put food on our table with her baking. She made bread, rolls, cinnamon rolls. They were lovely, the smell was so great, but we didn't get to eat any of them. They were sold to neighbors, and later on, as her fame spread, we would take the wagon and deliver them to areas farther away from our home, always within walking distance. We ourselves got our bread from the bread line at the church. And my little brother and I would take a wagon, a little red wagon, and we would go down the alleys so the other neighbors wouldn't see us, and we would line up at the church, and we would be given bread that had been returned by the baker because it was stale. That was genuine humiliation. And my mother got soup bones, free soup bones, off the butcher, and she made pea soup, and bean soup, and potato soup. We had potato soup coming out our ears. She was heroic.
I wonder if you could describe again the, the idea of going to the church to collect, to get this day-old bread, and put the alley part at the end.
So, how did you get, what kind of relief did you get?
Well, we were on the welfare part of the time, but the welfare rolls were always being cut back, and my father did get part-time work, and we'd be cut off again. So, we got our bread from the local church. They had a bread line every morning, and people in the neighborhood who were hungry would line up, and according to the number of people they had in their family, they would get so many loaves of stale bread. We were very humiliated by that, and my brother and I would take a wagon, little red wagon, and go down the alley and hope no one would see us.
You know, many people have said that relief makes people stop looking for work. Does, does this have any truth, in your experience?
Well it may be true of some people, but it certainly wasn't true in my family. We hated being on relief. We hated the sneers that were given to us, even by teachers in schools. My mother was such a proud woman, and she would've given anything if she could have gotten off welfare.
That's OK, let's cut for a second.
I mean, it's just something about goes right to my heart, and I was, I wonder if you could talk about what it must've felt like, what it felt like for an eleven-year-old child to see all this happening around her.
Could I answer that now before we start to film again? What bothered me more than anything was the arguments that my mother and father had at night. Arguments because there was no food, and arguments about sex, because my mother was afraid there'd be another child. And I used to lie there and put the pillow over my head and just really quiver inside, and for years afterwards I could never stand to hear anybody argue. I was an appeaser for years; I would do anything to avoid an argument, because it would remind me of those nights when they were screaming at one another.
Now, I, I want to tell you that we were rolling at that point. Is that alright?
Well, that's okay if it's okay with you.
That was a wonderful response. Looking around your neighborhood, at the people in your neighborhood, were, were you frightened by that, by what you saw around you?
I was frightened by the evictions, and I think that my mother lived in fear that we would wind up on the streets. And I know years later my father would say, "I always kept a roof over your head," as a means of justifying. He seemed to think he needed to justify so poverty-stricken in those years. But we'd come home from school and, and there would be, on the walk home, dozens of people with their furniture out on the street, and they'd be sitting out there and some of them would be weeping, the children would be crying, no place to go.
Let me cut for a second.
Well, a lot of people bartered, that is, if you did something for me, I'd do something for you, and that probably was the commonest way. And then some people doubled up, for instance, my father brought home a homeless couple, a couple who'd been evicted, and we kept them with us for weeks, even though there was no room. And once my mother took care of two little boys, four and five, whose mother was ill, and the social worker brought them around and said they had no place to go, and they stayed with us. So people doubled up with relatives, they doubled up with friends, there really wasn't much else that you could do. Some moved out of state, of course, those more, more fortunate ones who had relatives in other places. For many, it was just a battle to survive each day.
Did you feel like it was a battle?
Well indeed I did, and I felt terrible about my mother, just terrible. And there wasn't anything we could do. We could try not to complain, but when you're hungry and when you're cold, and you're small, that's very difficult.
Let's cut for a second.
The, the number of insane people in the—in Detroit rose by 70% during the time that you were a small child. And, what's your reaction to that?
Well, there were at the end of, of the line. When you feel helpless and hopeless, which many people do, there's nowhere, no place to go. No place. And so some of them retreated into mental illness, and I know some of them killed themselves.
Yeah, the, the suicide rates were incredibly high during this period. Nineteen people per hundred thousand, which is very high.
But good intentions didn't do you any good, experience was no good.
I'm sorry, could you start that again.
Good intentions, you were saying.
Good intentions didn't do anyone any good, experience on the job was no help, the fact that you were a good, honorable American citizen didn't help. My father was especially indignant because he was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and veterans were being put out on the streets. What do you do when things look hopeless? My mother, of course, was so busy working her fingers to the bone and caring for eight children, I doubt she ever considered any kind of retreat.
We were talking before briefly about your, you, you had said that you had twelve people sitting around the table all starving to death.
Could you describe how, what led to that?
One day my father came home with a disabled war veteran and his wife. He had met them at a local bar. The man had a mangled hand, mangled by a hand grenade in World War I, and they had been put out on the street, put out of their apartment, and they had no income. So he brought them into the house and told my mother they had no place to go, and he said, "I told them they could stay here for a while." My mother was no at all happy because there wasn't enough food for ten, and here we had two more adults to feed. But, we just got that much less. That's all. And the twelve of us just sat around the table and we ate what we had, and we all went to bed early.
Do you remember any specific eviction stories on your street?
I can't remember anyone on my street, but I do remember one of my girlfriends, who said that they never answered the door, because they were afraid someone had come to put them out. That's as close as I got to a personal friend being evicted.
There were a lot of homeowners losing their jobs, too, right? I mean losing their houses.
Oh, sure. They could pay the, their mortgages. And usually there was some delay between the last payment and the time they were evicted, but they were evicted like everybody else. Renters, homeowners, if you didn't pay, you got evicted.
Lot of foreclosures, and—
Speaking to that issue, what were the values of the more well-off people, the employed people, at this time, toward poor people?
They sneered at us. They really did.
Sorry, sorry. Could you start out by saying that people who were working, who were rich, were--
Oh, OK. People who were working, who had jobs, people who were wealthy, independently wealthy, sneered at the poverty-stricken. They sneered at us because we were considered lazy, we were considered morally inferior. Some of them thought we were dirt. And the very fact that city funds were being used to support us really didn't sit well with some of the rich. It really didn't.
Great. Could we cut for a second?
I wonder if you could describe the situation for homeowners, and just, and start off by saying the, the people who owned homes or homeowners—
—were in a jam, too.
And couldn't pay their taxes. Whatever you wanted, however you wanted to do it.
So, it was a bad situation for homeowners.
Oh, indeed, yes it was. Homeowners couldn't pay their taxes, they couldn't make mortgage payments. They were being evicted also. So it really didn't make any difference if you were out of work, if you had to pay rent or you had to pay a mortgage payment, if you didn't have the money, you were out in the street.
And there were a lot of people going out in the street.
A lot of people. Every day you could walk up and down any block and see belongings sitting out there, mothers sitting there crying, children crying, fathers trying to look brave and in command. It was really pitiful.
OK. Let's cut for a second.
—out of automobile plants and...it was a time, for example, when Henry Ford was laying off more and more people. It went to an all-time low with 37,000 people employed in August of 1931. Do you remember any people losing their job at Ford?
Well, there were a couple of men in our neighborhood who worked at Ford, but we really didn't know them personally.
OK. Could you describe the Lower East Side?
Well, it's, it was, at that time at least, a neighborhood primarily of single homes. Many homeowners, but some renters, like ourselves. Frame homes, for the most part, small lots, narrow lots. You could stand in our bathroom and reach over to the bathroom next door. An assortment of nationalities, not an ethnic neighborhood by any means. Few first generation people, Americans, in our neighborhood, but a mixture of Italians, Belgians, Scottish people, German people, Irish people, just solid middle class working people, working class neighborhood.
OK. Let's cut, one second.
So, you're an 11-year-old girl, and you're walking down the street of, on the Lower East Side, and there are these groups of people meeting. Can you describe that scene for me?
Well, we did pass those groups, and we knew that somehow they were involved in complaints about the situation. But it was such a struggle for us, badly and cold and hunger [sic], that we really didn't pay a lot of attention to them.
Did you feel like you were on the edge of survival?
Oh indeed we did. And my mother was so anxious, and her anxiety was contagious. And it was the not-knowing so much of the time that, you know, you just didn't know where your next meal might be coming from. And that, that was really horrible.
OK. I wonder if you can go over that again. Someone slammed a door. Let's cut for a second.
Did you feel like you were on the edge of survival?
Well, we certainly did. And my mother was so anxious, and the anxiety was contagious. We didn't know from one day to the next where our next meal was coming from. It was horrible.
The last time you phrased it, you said, "It was the not-knowing."
Oh, OK. All right, it was.
Could you, well did you feel like you were on the edge of survival?
Well, we certainly did. It was the not-knowing, not knowing where our next meal was coming from. And out mother was so anxious, and the anxiety was contagious. It was really horrible.
In, with my own children, you know, if I were, if I didn't know how to feed them next, I mean, I get nervous when I run out of bananas! I can't imagine what the pressures would be on you, on your mother and father.
I'm surprised that my mother stayed sane. I really am, because there was just, it was too much to bear, really, to see eight children going hungry, and going cold, without coal in the coal bin. But I think she survived because she knew that she had to take care of her eight children. And so she was always so busy doing that...she, she was a survivor.
It'd take a lot of survivor instinct to make it through that.
It certainly did.
Do you remember that there was a march on, on the Ford River Rouge Plant?
Yes, I remember it very well, and I remember seeing the pictures in the paper, and having my dad talk about it. But no one in my family participated.
How did you feel that these people were killed?
Well, I was frightened, naturally. I mean the fact that we were hungry and we were cold was one thing, but that people were being killed because of it just made the situation that much worse.
Apparently business people were quite scared of what was happening.
Well, yes they were, because there was a lot of talk, a lot talk against people with money, and what some called rabble-rousing. And sure it was frightening. It's always frightening when there's a mob, and especially if they're demanding something that you have.
OK, let's cut.