Camera Rolls: 317:06-07
Sound Rolls: 317:04
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Muriel Outlaw , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on , 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.*
Scene three, take one. Sound roll four, camera roll six.
Tell us how, now we're talking specifically the Thirties, so I guess at that time you were becoming or you were a teenager at that point, and—
Not quite, I said becoming a teenager. [laughs]
But I'm thinking sort of the Depression, and in the Depression, can you describe the neighborhood you were living in at that time? Who lived there, how they got on together, how they got along in terms of livelihood and that sort of thing?
Well, it was a Sicilian, predominantly—
OK, one thing I'd like you to do is you sort of have to incorporate my question, which would be to start off by saying, "I lived in a predominantly—"
Oh, OK. I lived in a predominantly Sicilian neighborhood. There were a few black families, there were a few Norwegian families down the block, but the block itself was primarily Italian and Sicilian. It was a nice neighborhood to grow up in. We all had backyards, you raised vegetables, our neighbors killed chickens on Sunday mornings, you know for dinner, roasted coffee on Saturdays, the whole neighborhood smelled of coffee. In the Fall they made wine, so the neighborhood smelled of wine in September. It was a good neighborhood, and I was happy there as a child.
How did the, how did your family and other black families get along with the Sicilians, and how—?
Well. We had no problems, they had no problems as far as we could tell. The kids were all friendly, played ball in the street, slept over. You went to each other's houses for dinner. They shared the wine. When my father made wine it usually had vinegar, so he gave them vinegar and we got wine in return. But, no it was a nice neighborhood. It was a poor neighborhood, it wasn't a rich neighborhood, but nobody knew they were poor. It was the kind of thing that nobody had fancy clothes, there weren't a lot of cars. If you had three cars drove [sic] up and down the street during the day that was a lot of cars, you know. So the kids played in the street. We turned on the hydrants in the summer time, and for election day built bonfires in the street. And as fast as the fire department came and put it out, we built another one, you know. It was that kind of neighborhood.
Can you just say explicitly on camera for me that, you know, that, that, the black, that everybody got along well, Italians and blacks, we all got along well? In other words, so that we know that we're talking about racial mix.
Well, in my neighborhood Italians and blacks, and the few Norwegians we had down the block, we all got along well together. The kids all went to school together, we all played together every day. The adults didn't socialize as much because the Italians didn't speak English. The kids spoke English in school, but they spoke Italian at home because their parents were all immigrants. None of these were first generation Americans. The kids had been born in Italy and brought here as two and three year olds. So, like we were first generation Americans, but they were all immigrants.
Move to your right a bit for glasses' sake, Stephen.
Oh, over here, this way?
OK, and what about your family? Where did your family come from, and how did life around your house change after your father, you know when the Depression came on, I understand your father lost his job.
How did things change from before when he was working to when he lost his job, and how did the household change?
Well my parents came from Barbados, which was then British West Indies. It was a colony of England. Prior to my father losing his job, I guess which is about 1937 or '36, the household was fine. It was, well we were raised as middle class kids even though we didn't have a lot of money. But my parents came here as middle class immigrants. My mother never went through Ellis Island. My father went through Ellis Island, but not my mother. After my father lost his job then, things were really tough, but fortunately I had, we had a large extended family. I had all these aunts, my father's sisters, so that—one of the things I hated was having clothes passed down. I hated it. My cousins who were all older than I was would pass down their, like their coats, or their dresses, or something, you know, and I'd have to worry about taking things up, taking things in, and I just hated wearing hand-me-downs. To this day I hate it.
Great, great. Well, and what about your father though, who was a very proud man, what, how did it effect him to have been, to have lost his job?
I think he, well you have to understand that West Indian parents were, tough parents. They were cruel. In these days we probably would have called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. They believed in, they did not believe in sparing the rod. They used the rod very frequently. I ate lots of meals off the mantel piece because I couldn't sit down. It seems to me I got whipped almost everyday of the week. But my father, became kind of withdrawn. My father was a warm, loving man, and he was no longer this outgoing. When I was little my father never went out of the house without taking me with him. I went every place with him. My mother says that's how I got diphtheria because my father took me to somebody's house where diphtheria was around. But dad became withdrawn, he didn't spend as much time with his children, and I think a lot of his cruelty came out, and I think it was partly because he no longer felt that he was doing what men are supposed to do: taking care of his household and bringing home the money, bringing home the bacon if you want to call it. But, he, there was a difference.
OK, great. In 1935, well let me ask you this, do you think it was any harder or easier for blacks to survive the Depression than for whites?
I think so.
OK, can you refer to me whether you think it was harder for blacks than for whites?
I know that when I came out of high school I couldn't get a job, and I came out of high school in 1938, I couldn't get a job anyplace. And finally, I went to work in the garment industry, I was punching nail heads. They were wearing dresses that had nail heads all over them. And my cousin had answered an ad and she had gone to this place, and then she got me a job there. Well she went off to college the next year and I stayed on and worked there for about a year-and-a-half, had gotten several raises-
OK, but now remember my question was, do you think it was any harder for blacks than for whites?
And again, incorporate my question. If you do think so, that—
Because there were no jobs for us. Especially for women, unless you were going to do housework. When I came out of high school, I came out with an academic degree. I was supposed to go to college, but there was no money for college, and I couldn't get a job any place. Nobody was hiring black girls. The department stores didn't hire you, you know, nobody hired you. So that unless you worked in a factory or went into housework, which I did both, you didn't have, you didn't work, you stayed home.
Great, OK. I remember you telling me a story, and if you could tell me again the story of in 1935 when Mussolini and Italy marched on Ethiopia, how your father re—how your father reacted to that? Now remember you're living in an Italian neighborhood.
—how he felt about that?
Daddy didn't react in the street or anything, he didn't—
OK, now again, could you start by saying, when—
When Mussolini bombed Addis Ababa, my father came home, it was in all the papers, you know, big headlines, and my father came home very angry, very upset, and we had pictures like "The Blue Boy" on the wall, and there was some other pictures, and Daddy took them all and tore them up, and he said, "Not another white face will hang on the wall in my house." He was disturbed about it. But nothing was said, as I remember, in the neighborhood about Mussolini, about Ethiopia. I can't remember the Italians celebrating, or the blacks feeling, and voicing those feelings outside of their own homes.
OK, can you tell me a little bit about, how we doing on film? How we doing?
We're about to roll out.
OK, well then—
Let's just change.
Scene three, take two. Sound roll four, camera roll seven.
OK, so can you tell me about the exp—who Colonel Julian was, and the exploits of Colonel Julian?
Colonel Julian was known as the Black Eagle. He was a pilot, one of the few black pilots around in those days, and he went to Ethiopia to fly for the Ethiopian Air Force. You have to understand, they had one airplane, and Colonel Julian crashed it. He came back to the United States, and this didn't really effect his standing in the black community. He was a man who was very dapper. He, people always spoke to him when he walked down the street. I've been with him when he got on a bus and the bus driver saluted him, the police saluted him. Everybody thought he was a great man, you know, and he acted like he knew he was a great man. He always carried a crop with him, especially when he wore his jodhpurs and stuff. And he was a handsome, well-turned-out, I mean dapper. That was Julian.
Was he, I mean was he a man who was respected, was Colonel Julian a man who was respected, or was he like a, was he looked upon as a joke or a real man of stature, or was he—?
Oh, no, the Black Eagle was respected. He was not a joke in the black community. He, he was something, someone, to look up to. He at least had made an attempt to do something about Ethiopia, when the world didn't do anything, you see. The United States and all the rest of the people just turned their backs, but Julian went, at least he tried. That's the way people felt.
Great, that's great. OK, your father was a fan of Joe Louis, as you have told me in the past, can you tell me what it was like on the night of a Joe Louis fight for him, and for you? You know, did he listen to the fights, did people come over, what was his feeling about Joe Louis?
Well Joe, you have to understand, Joe Louis was a hero in the black community. Here was a young, untooled [sic], black man who couldn't talk hardly, and he was just beating everybody. And when he fought, my father, just like most of the other black households in the neighborhood, they all had the radio on. And I'd be, of course I to this day cannot stand prize fights. I think it's barbaric. I think for people to make all that money to stand up there and beat each other up is a disgrace. And when I was growing up, because in those days I didn't have any choice about what was on the radio, I used to go in the bathroom, stuff my ears with cotton, take my book, and go in there and sit down until the fight was over. And I'm not sure whether it was all just because I didn't like fighting, or whether I might have been afraid that maybe Joe Louis was going to get knocked out. I really don't know. It might have been six to one, and a half a dozen to the other.
Why would you have been afraid if he'd got knocked out?
Because he was sort of a symbol, you know, and to have him knocked out—
I'm sorry can you start by saying, "I was afraid, I thought I might've been afraid if he'd gotten knocked out—"
OK. I might've been afraid that if, that he would get knocked out because he was a symbol in the black community, and it probably would have been kind of disgraceful, that's not the right word. It probably would have been sort of traumatic if he had been knocked out.
What happened, how did you react when he did get knocked out?
Oh by then I was over all that. I no longer had the same feelings about him, I was grown up then. And it didn't, it didn't have any effect on me.
No I mean early on when he fought Max Schmeling and everybody thought he was going to win, and then he got knocked out.
Knocked out. I really can't even remember how I felt.
OK, OK. You told me once that somebody, and I can't remember who it was, called the West Indians "black Jews." Who called West Indians "black Jews" and why did they call them that?
OK, can you start off by saying, "American blacks—"
OK, American blacks, well, number one, American blacks and West Indians did not get along very well. American blacks felt that West Indians were coming into this country, taking all the jobs, and once, they used to say, "Once one West Indian got in, then his whole family got in." And they called them "black Jews" because they said we acted just like Jews. "You got one Jew in, you got five Jews. You got one West Indian in, you got five West Indians." And we're, West Indians are, to me we're like all other immigrants. All other immigrants have the same goals: education, employment, and a house. And these were the goals of the West Indians. And, education was a thing that was stressed in all West Indian households. You had to go to school, you had to get an education because it was something that no one could ever take away from you. So that if you did badly in school, oh lord. If your teacher had to complain about you, you got whipped, because—
Excuse me, I'm going to move on to another thing. Did your, because you also told me another thing about your father, you said he fought in World War I.
And he was aware of the whole bonus thing, did your father, can you tell me about your father being a World War I veteran, and whether he got involved in any demonstrations for the Bonus, you know for the Bonus marches?
Well my father had come to the United States not too long before the war. And when the war broke out he went to the British Embassy to enlist in the British Army, but they told them that since he was in the United States now, and that he had planned on staying here, that they thought that he ought to enlist in the American Army, which he did. It was the 24th Infantry, the same regiment that my brother served in Korea with. My dad stayed in the army afterwards and went to, with Pershing chasing Pancho Villa. So they went down to New Mexico and stuff like that. And I think it was also the first time my father became aware of discrimination and segregation in the United States. I remember him telling me about the train going through Southern towns, and the black soldiers not being able to go in places and buy things, and how on the platforms you would see groups of whites, and then groups of blacks. And he said that, from what he could gather, he would never want to go south, and he never did. My father never went any further than New York.
OK, forgive me for interrupting, but the part I want to get to is afterwards during the Depression, early in the Depression, about the Bonus Army, whether he joined the Bonus Marchers in Washington or any of the demonstrations in New York, did he get involved in that activity?
As a veteran, not as a soldier now, but you know, now he's a World War I veteran.
No my father did not take part in the Bonus Army in Washington. He had brought up the idea that he should go, because at that time he was out of work when they had that Bonus Arm—that tent city erected in Washington. But my mother, who was a very strong woman, who is, decided that my father should not go. He should not go and leave her there with four children. So he ended up not going. I don't know whether it bothered him or not, not participating, but I know that he and a lot of the other men that he knew were upset because the government had promised them a bonus when they came out of the service, and they had not received it. And they received something like, I think, after the Bonus Army, about a year or so later, it was something like $300, $400 was the bonus they got.
So your mother convinced him not to go. Did he march in any other demonstrations in New York or anything like that?
No, not as far as I know.
Not as far as I know.
OK, does anybody else have any other questions that-
—a Depression joke, does she have?
A Depression joke?
Sound roll four, camera roll seven.
OK, when the Bonus Army was being formed, to go to Washington, my dad raised the question to my mother about his participation, and my mother vetoed that idea. She felt that it was more important for him to be home, to take care of his family, than to go down to Washington to protest not getting a bonus after serving in the army.