Camera Rolls: 317:1-5
Sound Rolls: 317:1-3
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Mildred Roxborough , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 06, 1992, 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.*
OK. Ms. Roxborough, could you, would you talk a little bit about what it was like where you were, where you were growing up in Tennessee, what it was like with the people, how the people lived and the, the general economic and racial make-up of where, where—?
Well, I'll try. I was born in Brownsville, Tennessee, which is Haywood County. It's in the western part of the state, about 52 miles north of Memphis, which is the major city closest thereto. And Brownsville is the, still is, the county seat of Haywood County. And as I understand it, at that point in time it was cattle and farming country as well as there were a number of cotton mills, gins, gins, cotton gins, and the milling of cotton there in the, in the town and the county area as one of the main items for the industry in the area, besides, of course, farming. Cotton farming was a, cotton was the major cop there, and corn, and then assorted fruits and whatever, and then cotton and corn were the two major crops. And that, too, was the basis people worked in the fields. There were sharecroppers and people who were paid a few cents per day for picking cotton, and they were paid on the basis of per pound. I don't recall what the amount was, but this was one of the things.
Who, who lived there? I mean, was it mostly white people, was it mostly black people, was it 50/50?
Well, no. The predominant population for Haywood County was black. The blacks, as I understand it, outnumbered the whites approximately almost three to one. Now, in the town of Brownsville itself, there was a high concentration of whites, so I'm not sure about the balance, but I would say in the town itself, the population would be probably maybe 60/50 [sic] in terms of white versus black, in that county seat. But in the general county, and as I also understand it, according to history, one of the reasons that that was one of the two counties in which blacks, after Reconstruction, were denied the right to vote. They voted through Reconstruction, and then the right to vote was denied them by individuals attempting to [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] and so forth. Anyway, was because of the fear that the dominant population group, which were blacks, would of course be able to run the county and elected the officers who would serve, as they had served in the post-Reconstruction [sic - Roxborough means to say Reconstruction or post-Civil War, not post-Reconstruction] period. My great-grandfather was what they called the high sheriff of Haywood County. I don't know what a high sheriff is today compared to the sheriffs, but that—
OK. Let me ask you, going back, going back to the '30s...
Just move a little bit to your left, too.
To my left?
OK. So, could you tell me again, so, in, in the '30s, then, people weren't, black people weren't, were denied the vote. They couldn't vote.
They did not vote after Reconstruction. At the turn of the century, the last time blacks voted in Brownsville or Haywood county, as I understand it, would be about 1900.
OK. Can you tell me what relations between blacks and whites during the '30s were like? What that...?
Well, they were generally good, depending on who—
Excuse me. Can you start, but incorporate my question, say that race, race relationships, or the relationship between blacks and whites was—
Alright. Certainly. You were asking about the relationship between blacks and whites in the '30s. I think that perspective would depend on with whom you would talk.
One thing. Excuse me. One thing. You don't have to qualify as you understand it, I mean, it's understood, right, that's how you understand it. So we know we're getting your opinion, that you're not a historian, but that's [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
I've been disciplined like that—
I mean, I understand that. So, again, if you could start by, by telling me that the relations between the blacks and the whites, or something.
Yeah. The relations that you were asking about, the relations between blacks and whites, they were good. Actually, they lived, we lived in a checkerboard patterns. In other words, there may have been a black neighborhood, but there were blacks that lived in various parts of the town, alongside whites, one. Number two, blacks worked for whites as domestics or as tenant farmers or as sharecroppers. There were very few black professionals in the community. For example, there was no lawyer, no black lawyer in our community. But that relationship was a friendly one. They know each other, they live among each other. But there was also the understanding that you know your place. And your place was one which was subservient to the whites with whom you were friendly, perhaps, but nevertheless you did function as an equal in their eyesight, nor did you ask as if you were an equal by going into the same restrooms. You had black, colored waiting rooms and colored drinking fountains around the county courthouse and white fountains, so labeled. So there was an understanding of the place, the subservient place, of the blacks to the whites in the environment. The relationships, however, were friendly. But there was a type of patronizing. The whites had generally a patronizing attitude toward the blacks.
OK. What can you tell about your family, your parents? What were they doing during the Depression? How did they earn their living? Were they working? Did they, were they, you know... When you were growing up there, was there enough food on the table? Was it difficult? Can you tell me a little about what it was like just in your family and for your parents?
Well, it was difficult. My parents both were teachers. They taught after World War I. They were married during that war. And they both taught in the Haywood County Training School, they called it at that point, and it ran from grades one through grades twelve. My father was a coach, and he also taught woodworking and chemistry. My mother was an English, math, and Latin teacher. And they worked and made, I think the salaries were, my mother made about $50 a month. Oh yes. That was a, a good living wage. My father may have made a little more. But that's what they did. And they continued to teach through, well, let's see. My father stopped teaching when he inherited an undertaking establishment, which was more lucrative way of earning a living. And my mother continued to teach until, oh, the late '30s. I would say until about 1940.
OK. How did they, with this, with this... so, in the '30s, let's say the middle '30s, what was your father doing, what was your mother doing? How were they earning a living? And was this, and how much were they earning, and was this enough to feed their family?
Well, as I said, my mother was teaching in the '30s. And my father, about the mid-'30s, became an undertaker. And he would earn his money. Now I can't tell you what that income was. I can only tell you that her income was about $50 a month. And his income was higher sometimes and lower depending on who died and who could pay what besides pigs and barrels of corn and other things beyond cash that they, people or their relatives would not have. We talked, they talked about the Depression, and they said to me, I was born in the late '20s, that I was a Depression baby. That's how I learned about Depression. And I said, "What is that?" And they said, "Well, things are more expensive than we can afford." And a pound of sugar at that time, when I was born, after I was born, was five cent per pound. And, of course, a bag, a large bag of corn was 50 cent. We lived on an area where we had a kitchen garden, so had plenty of fresh vegetables because they were grown in our garden out behind the house. But we talked about the expensive clothing, the cost of clothing, which was expensive, buying shoes, a pair of shoes would cost about two or three dollars, which was a lot of money. And we learned, although we were comfortable, we had ample food on the table, we knew that hard times be coming, as I said. As a child, I heard them talking about the Depression. My mother said something about hard times. So one day, she saw me saving a glass of milk. And she said, "Why are you doing that, Mildred?" I said, "Well, Mother, hard times'll be coming!" [laughs] And to me, that was saving for the Depression, because I wanted milk for tomorrow.
Great, great. Thank you. OK. Tell me a little bit, you've told me this before, what was your first contact with the NAACP?
Selling—my first contact with the NAACP was getting a youth membership which my parents purchased for me, and giving me the card, and explaining to me that this was an important card, because it represented something which would be helpful not only to me but to so many people, so many black people who were not as fortunate as I. And that was my very first contact. Then we received magazine as a part of the—
—adult membership subscription. And it, there was an ad in their saying, "Would you sell ?," or something like that. So I said that I would like to sell this magazine as a newspaper boy, does.
OK, we're out.
OK, so starting up again, let's just take it from the beginning, if you can tell me the story of how you came to, to be selling—
How I, how did I did start selling magazine?
Right, but you have to, you actually have to start it by saying... you can't, don't, you can't repeat back my, by saying "How did I? You asked me how I did this." You have to say, "I started selling it"... [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
A declarative sentence.
OK. I started selling magazine after I received a youth membership in the NAACP. My parents had sent away for memberships for the family, for themselves and for me. And after I received this membership card, my mother told me how important it was, and what it meant by way of providing for people who were less fortunate than me, than I, and also to help me when and if I needed help, which would be result of my color and my being deprived of something that was rightfully mine as a citizen. She gave me a civics lesson in the process. Anyway, magazine came with the adult membership. And I was reading it, having been shown it by my parents, and some things I understood very well, and they discussed the issues. There were black authors and poets, and there were articles on civil rights, information about lynching in, in this magazine, and there was also a blank in the magazine saying, "Do you wish to sell subscriptions to magazine? If you do," well, words to this effect, "complete it and return it." And I decided I wanted to sell the magazine, so I completed this, this form, and my mother or father, someone mailed it to me, to the office, which was here in New York, at 69 Fifth Avenue. And soon I received some form with a letter from Roy Wilkins, who was then editor of magazine, saying that "You are now authorized to sell subscriptions to magazine." And I had a little ID, a simple card. And, as I recall, was also five cents at that time. And I received my first consignment of magazines, and I was to sell the magazines, send the money back, and there was a small percentage that you would keep for yourself. I don't remember the exact amount, but that was... And magazine was sold, actually, it was 10 months out of a year and still is, the issues.
So, how did you, how did you sell it? Did you go door-to-door, did [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , when you sold them, what did you do?
I would take copies of in a bag, a schoolbag, a book bag they call it today, I guess, and went to the neighbors to get them to buy this magazine. And they would say, "How much is it, and what is it about?" And I would explain to them that, "This, my mother told me, my father told me, that this could help me what I was in need, and when something wrong had been done to me. And if it will help me, it will help you, too." [laughs] That was my... "So if you buy , you can learn how you will be helped and what is happening and how other people are being helped." [laughs]
Did you sell many copies?
Yeah, I did very well. I sold the neighbors these copies. I was small for my age, short. So they thought, I think, they called me Bo-Peep, and they would say, "Oh, doesn't she make a cute little salesman?" And then they would say, "Well, how much of this money are you keeping yourself?" But seriously, I did do very well, and I would take to school and sell it at school, not so much to the children as to the teachers and the, the adults. And I was not hesitant about trying to peddle my subscriptions everywhere.
Just quickly, to ask you, did you ever try to sell it to white people?
I don't recall whether I did or not. We had a number of white people who came to our house for various reasons, to sell things, to collect insurance, to do different things.
But you have no specific recollections.
But I have no...[inaudible]
I'm sorry. Sure.
Sirens in the middle of the story.
Great. OK, can you, can you tell me, can you tell me the story of how your, what kind of a man, briefly, what kind of a man was your father and how he came to be involved in starting a branch of the, his own local branch of the NAACP, how he got involved in that?
Well, the kind of man my father was a very gentle man. And he also was an avid reader, and he very kind. He was the kind of person who inspired confidences. As a result, the people in the community who had problems brought them to him for help. And I should point out that there were very few professional blacks in that community, and there was no lawyer, for example. We had clergy, one doctor, and one dentist. But he became something like a father confessor, and, as a result, he helped people with their problems, whatever they may have been, if they were in jail, or if they had a marital dispute, or whatever. In this process, he was also cognizant of the fact that blacks were subjected to severe problems and lynchings across the country, in various parts of the country, as well as the indignities that they suffered there in Brownsville. Ours was more of a benign treatment until later, that there were no severe racial incidents. Blacks and whites were just kept in separate worlds and blacks knew and were told what their limits were and what they could not do. Well, my father determined that he would not any longer abide this without making an effort to recapture some of the rights they had in his father's time and at the turn of the century, where there were others getting this kind of freedom in other parts of the country. Hence his interest in the NAACP and his readership of , then the , then the it was called, I think, and these were black weeklies, and then the daily papers, which talked about the various things that happened very casually. If a black were killed, it was treated as just another item. And that was the basis for his concern and interest in the NAACP, because he felt that this was one way that he could work to more effectively and broader [sic] redress the problems in his community and help a greater number of people. And that marked the beginning of his interest in—
So what did he, what did he, how did he go about doing...
Well, as I—
I don't mean sort of the details of, of how he contact the NAA... in terms of the community, trying to get people organized.
Well, they respected him, and he was a well-known figure throughout the community. The community respected him. Both the whites and the blacks respected him. They felt that he was a person of integrity, and he was also what I would call a do-gooder. He really, in the positive sense of the word, was helpful. And he could also negotiate disputes between whites and black effectively, and both sides of the color-line looked on him with respect. And he came from a well-known family in the community. And it was a large family, not just him, but he had five brothers.
OK. Again, let's get to the, let's, let's talk about how he organized, how he went about organizing.
Because of the respect he commanded in the community and the broad contacts he had, both in the country, outside in the rural areas, as well as in the city itself. When he decided to start a branch, he started talking to a group of associates and friends who were black, who were black, to say that he thinks this would be an excellent idea. It would be a means of helping us get better salaries, get better employment opportunities. And the black teachers should get as much as the white teachers by way of pay, and they should be accorded the same kind of treatment. Also, the, the tenant farmers were being mistreated. They weren't being paid properly. And also the sharecroppers. All of these. And so to make, not to be too detailed, but he solicited the support and the interest of the people who knew him and whom he knew. And then he learned of what the procedures were. And then, of course, my mother helped collect the money for the dollar membership dues. And this was the basis for setting up a branch of the NAACP, which was called the Haywood County NAACP, to help the large majority of blacks who were without any redress in terms of the legal system and the rectification of rights.
So what kind of activities did the branch become involved in as they were getting organized? What—
Well, first of all, the branch, the first thing it did, it had a meeting, to chart a meeting to announce the charter and show its pride and commitment as a newly organized unit of the NAACP. They had a, had invited a speaker from another town who was a lawyer who came and spoke about the importance of having a NAACP unit which could—
—effectively work to right some of the injustices and wrongs, as they called them—
OK, great. Why don't we talk now about some of the different activities that, that, that your father and the people who got involved in the organization, the branch, were doing?
Well, some of the activities in which the branch became, the Haywood County NAACP became involved, were: one, they were interested in attempting to equalize teachers' pay, at least to improve it if not equalize it. So a committee of branch representatives visited the superintendent of schools to lay this before them, lay it... my father and my mother was on the committee. That's one issue. The, another problem involved tenant farmers who were denied credit. The only way farmers could survive during the winter months was to get credit from the local store and then pay up when the, in the harvest, in the summertime or whenever. And of course they were being either denied credit or being charged extortious [sic] rates. Complaints were made to my father about the treatment they were being accorded. There were just a couple of stores to which most of the tenant farmers went. So this, again, and they were black, and this again was an issue which my father took up with the, as a branch, not him alone, but his leadership, he provided the leadership for a committee to visit upon these storekeepers and negotiate with them. And they were very nasty. But he also pointed out to them, and the committee did, that this was important, because these farmers provided the produce on which the landowners depended, and which eventually come to their shelves and their market, and it was in their best interest to make sure that these tenant farmers, the majority of whom were black, could survive during the winter so they could harvest the crops. And they made some progress.
OK, let's start again. Again, this is more detail, frankly—
—than you want. OK.
There's another show on tenant farming, and they're going to go into that. So really what I need is almost just a list of—
A shopping list.
Almost a shopping list of just the kinds of things they engaged in.
Well, the branch actively concerned the matter of equal pay for teachers, treatment of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, also preparing people for a campaign to register for the right to vote. And that required going to talk to people about what was important about voting, and that they should be able to write and comprehend a certain level of reading material and so forth. That was another very issue which they addressed. And the matter of the treatment which was accorded blacks who were put in jail for various offensive [sic], offenses, that was another important issue. And the fact that they were really put in a holding cell which was overcrowded and, in other words, it, the, the treatment was not good for any human being. And that was an issue. Other issues involved the ways blacks were treated by salespeople in the downtown or uptown stores, the fact that they were addressed by their first names. Although their money was accepted, they were not treated as the white customers were treated, with the same amount of decorum and so forth. Those were the kinds of issues about which they were concerned, as well as the—
And what would they do with those, I mean, what would, what, what, what would they do to redress those issues?
Well, there was a committee for everything. [laughs] It usually was the same committee. [laughs] But they would visit upon the store owners to negotiate. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes they were summarily dismissed, you know, "Get out of here!" But they would go back, then. At times they would demonstrate. It was a small town, with a courthouse in the center of town. And everything was around it, just as a wheel with the spokes. They would demonstrate in front of the stores. They'd have signs. They went to the courthouse and stood on the courthouse steps with their signs, depending on which issue it was. And at first it was, they were greeted with amazement and derision, but eventually people started noticing them. First the blacks, generally, would not participate, and the more the people demonstrated, and the more... And when I say demonstrated, I don't mean a large demonstration. I mean if they had a committee of six up there, a group of 10, that was a big demonstration. But on the weekends, everybody came to town in their wagons, or if they had an old car of the '30s they'd drive in town for the day to shop and greet each other. It was a social day as well as replenishing supplies, so that they would pass through the crowds, the black crowds that gathered in certain areas on, on Saturdays, to preach about the NAACP and what they were doing. "And have you heard they went to the courthouse and they demonstrated because Joe Jones was jailed and he was beaten?" That was, brutality was an issue, too. These are some of the specific things which were happening.
Great. That's great. Now, can you tell me, then, what kind of danger and resistance... Was it dangerous for them? Was there a lot of resistance to what they were doing? And now I think we want to get into the story of, of the harassment.
Well, at first, the whites in the town thought that the NAACP, as it was beginning to be organized, was a good Christian organization, which would do good just as the BYPU or one of these church clubs or groups who, which existed, would do. Then, as the demonstrations began, and as they began to speak and become vocal, and people, blacks who had been quiet in the past were emboldened by the leadership of the NAACP, as they heretofore, those who had been satisfied and quiet, then they accused the NAACP of becoming a trouble maker, and that my father was the leader of the trouble makers in this town, and that this thing was beginning to get out of hand. So resistance started, and they were less tolerant as a general population. The law enforcement officials had not paid much attention before, but now they started enforcing unknown or little known laws about where you should walk on the sidewalk, or how many feet you should be from the courthouse when you were protesting, or the law about not bearing signs which were offensive to others, or all kinds of contrivances. And it was during this period one of the most important ways of stopping or reducing this kind of, of activity would be to attack the source of income or limit the source of income. So early on, there was a move afoot to make sure that they could secure the names of all the teachers who belonged to the NAACP. And they made it known that they were securing these names. One way or another, they were trying to get members to tell who belonged, and to get the, because they couldn't get the membership rolls, which my mother had. And as a result they would find out maybe one or two names. And they knew that my mother and father were members. So my mother lost her job. She was fired because of her NAACP activity. And a couple of other teachers were also. And then the other teachers became frightened, of course, and they would not come to the meetings. They would support the activities, but not visibly so. They would contribute. We had the tenant farmers, again, who were members were denied credit. They started systematically determining, to the best of their ability, "their" meaning the whites in the community, and the patron fathers of the town, which would involve the city officials. And, you see, one thing which is important to remember about this, the blacks had a pipeline into the white community, so in large measure they could find out what went on at these informal meetings they had to determine how to handle the Negroes before almost the meetings were over. As an example, my father's half-uncle was mayor of the town, so there were ways of getting this kind of information sub rosa, and they could sort of cope or at least prepare themselves for this. And as the controversies heated up, the measures became stiffer. They threw more people in jail. They denied more people credit. And that was a key. Then they decided that it, they should teach my father a lesson. He was thrown in jail on a pretext of violating an ordinance about not disposing of trash at his business in the right way, and he was thrown in jail, and he was handcuffed and struck in the process with brass knuckles. And it was all contrived, but they felt that it was time to teach him a lesson, and that was one thing which was done. The other thing which was done was to start threatening the people who had relatives who died, that you should not send your body of your relative to Ollie Bond, because if you did, you would suffer the consequences. You would not get any more credit, and, or you'd lose your job, or this kind of thing. They decided to subject him to economic pressure, and maybe that would teach this uppity man a lesson. So this is the kind of thing which happened in individual cases. We—
OK. Now, then, then, but then it got worse.
We're going to have to—
OK. Are we out now?
We're out now.
So can you tell me what ultimately, you know, as the violence increased against people and particularly your father, what ultimately happened, what led to his having to leave town?
Yes. The, what ultimately happened in the context of the branch's activity... for about three years, the activity of the branch escalated and broadened. And it was at the end of about three years that the whites realized that this was [sic] just another Christian charitable group, that these people were troublemakers, to put it in the context of what they felt. And, as a result, they felt that it was time to do something about it and teach people lessons. Therefore, they systematically attempted to cut off the income of those people who had jobs, and, if they were self-employed, to reduce their ability to make money from the black community by threatening those who were their clients or patrons. And this is what began to happen in increasing numbers. As a result, people began to feel the pinch. And then there were arrests for various things which most of the people, which they were not guilty, but you can always find a valid reason for an arrest. And they were thrown in jail, people who had never been near a jail in the past, who were people who were law-abiding citizens, for one thing or another, and held overnight in a cell with people who had committed offenses as a means of teaching them a lesson. So these things, these techniques, increased. Then the matter of my father's patrons, or clients, I should say, or those families who would have need for his services as an undertaker, being threatened, his business fell off. So that's...
In the last, in the last take, you talked about that. Now I want to talk about how, how he came to be physically, his life came to be threatened.
Well, what happened...as this escalated, the people, the branch leaders, continued to be determined that they would not be intimidated, that they would continue their activities despite the fact that some of them became frightened, and naturally went undercover, or decided that they would no longer actively participate, although they would provide some financial support. And my father said, "We must go through. We must see if we cannot register. And we have the right to vote, and we have the right to be treated with dignity in this, in this town." And he next went with a group to register to vote. And, of course, they were denied this right. And they were also driven from the courthouse physically. Just the sheriff and some deputies or whatever came and literally drove them from the courthouse and refused to let them enter the room in the courthouse which is where the registrar was. After that, he received threatening calls, phone calls and notes, saying that, "You will die if you do not stop this." They were anonymous, naturally. And a couple of the people, men, who served on the informal committee, were visited at night at their homes. And they were threatened, and one was beaten, and one was arrested. And my father went to, and posted bond to get him from jail. So this is the kind of atmosphere which, in which we were living at, this is the third year, at the end of the third year of the branch. So he was, as I said, he was very concerned about this, but he was not intimidated, and he refused to stop. And finally they arrested him once more for supposedly speeding. And, of course, he was not speeding, but they said he had gone through a traffic light. And they kept him in jail without his, anyone's knowing where he was. And when they brought him home, they brought him home after, when they released him from jail they had beaten him rather badly. And they brought him home one, in the evening, after dark. I was home and in the living room. I answered the door, and two men were there with my father between them. And they opened the door and said, "Here's your Paw. You'd better take care of him, because he's not feeling well." And they threw him on the couch, the living room couch, and of course he was bleeding where he had been hit with brass knuckles. And he was semi-conscious, really not conscious at that time. And I was home alone. Yes. My mother subsequently came home, because she was, I don't know where she was, but she was not home with me. And she came home and called the one doctor that there was in the town, black doctor, to treat him. And, of course, they, they did. But he still felt that he had to do what he had to do. Although his income had trickled to almost a nonexistent level, he still felt that he had to continue to lead this. And there was a minister, Reverend Buster Walker, who was one of the men who had been visited and threatened at night in his, in his home, and told that if he didn't stop he would pay a dear price for the results. And, and he did not either.
OK. Now, let's, let's talk about the night of the burning of the house, and what, and the warning. Tell me that story. Basically, your father's, really, it's your father's last day, last day in town.
Yes. Well, after my father was beaten and his head was lacerated, my mother received a telegram that her brother had been seriously injured in an automobile accident in Kansas City, Kansas, so that she went to see her brother and to see how he was. I was left there in the house, alone with my father, who then they had arranged for me to go and live with relatives up the street, a few blocks away, because my father did not want me there in the house, it was a large house, comparatively speaking, alone. And so I went to live with these relatives. I was in elementary school, of course, there in Brownsville. And he stayed in the house. And this was just before Christmas, a few days before Christmas, when she left. So my father had come by to see me every day as he would come to town to, to close down his business. By the time, that time, there was not anything for him to do for the business, because he had no, no customers. He would take care of papers, insurance papers, and do a variety of things for people, and mostly without pay just to, to help. He told me that he would see me on Christmas Eve. And I said, "Fine," you know. We would have Christmas dinner together at these relatives' house. So he went on about his business. And in the process... I don't know what you want me... I'm sorry. [laughs] whether you want me to tell about my grandmother's—
Can we stop for a second?
So why don't you begin by telling me about, about that night? Was this Christmas Eve?
I had seen my father on the 23rd of December. He said he'd be back on Christmas Eve, and he'd see me, and then on Christmas day he would come to dinner with the family, with the relatives with whom I was living. He did not come on Christmas Eve, but I did not think much about that because we knew that he had different things to do, and that sometimes he also wound up going out in the county to help somebody in the country. So I didn't think anything about that. Then, early in the morning, on Christmas, early in the morning, before sunrise, we heard the fire alarm. In that small town, that small town, a central fire alarm rang, and you could hear it all over the town. And you know that it was a fire. Some type of a siren which rang from the, way up on top of something or other. So we wondered where the fire was, because we heard it. But we did not know until later that morning, after the sun had risen, someone came by, and I don't remember who it was, to say, "You know, the Bond house burned last night," telling my relatives. And that, "It's burned. The only thing left are two chimneys standing. And they don't know, but we understand that Ollie Bond was in the house." That's how I found about the burning of the house. And we immediately went out there. We drove out there in the car, in the family car. I was out there with them, and I absolutely...it was an antebellum house made of wood, so it burned literally to the ground except for those two chimneys. And we did not know that he was not in that house until...and someone said, "We must go and tell Mother," meaning my grandmother, "about this." And they drove to the country, six miles away, and told Grandmother about the house burning. And she said, "Well, we don't have to worry about Ollie, because he left last night. He came to see me early in the day, and I told him he had to go." And she said, "Doctor [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] had come to warn me, and he had told me that if Ollie didn't leave, he couldn't do anything else for him. And I got Ollie to leave town. Reluctantly," she said, "He didn't want to go. But he went." So, and I, they said, "Where?" And she said, "He was going to join Mattye, my mother, in Kansas City."
OK. Then, what happened to the organization when your father left town?
The organization became... they had, they met on a monthly basis, so they met two or three times. Now this is in December. And they met a few times after that, but the membership had fallen, had dwindled—
—>but the officers continued to see each other and to, to try to keep the branch together. And then next comes the killing—
OK, so beginning with after your father, after your father left, what happened, you know, briefly, just what happened to the organization, and then [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] .
That Christmas Eve night, or Christmas morning, after my father left, marked the further decline of the branch because of the, the NAACP branch, because of the pressures which were increasingly being subjected to the people. And left without him as a key leader, they did not have as much of the energy and willingness and the enthusiasm to subject themselves to the pressures which were become almost unremitting. They met a few times after he left, the branch did, although the bulk of the membership dwindled away, so that you had the officers and a few of the members who would come together in homes and meet, as they were increasingly pressured about these activities. Finally, as the pressure continued, the visits to homes increased markedly. Each one was known, so they were intimidated by people coming to the homes, knocking on the doors, and making threats, yelling threats, if they even, even, if they did not come in, telling them what was in store for them. And denying them credit, doing all of those things which were combined, becoming almost intolerable. Eventually, I, I—
Let's, let's—we have to cut because of the siren.
OK. It's quiet. OK. So, you can begin with after your father...
After my father left that Christmas Eve, the membership of the branch dwindled and the meetings dwindled in, in numbers, until a few months later, after a number of visits at night to the members' homes. One of the officers, he happened to be the treasurer of the branch, Elbert Williams, his home was visited, and he was taken from his home in his pajamas and by a group of men in a car he was shot and thrown in the river, the Hatchie River. His body was found a day later floating in the river, having been riddled with gunshot. And following this particularly difficult and terrible crime, he, the branch, became dormant. It did not, the people did not continue to meet. And it remained so for a long period of time. Some of the key members left the town and went elsewhere to live, such as Elijah Davis and Reverend Buster Walker, went to other places to live. They were key people with my father in the branch originally, in addition to Elbert Williams, who was murdered. The branch did not become active again until the late '50s.
Great. Thank you. OK. Now I want to quickly move on to something that's completely unrelated, which is, do you remember Joe Louis at that time, in that time? And was there any, did anybody in your household pay attention to the fact that there was this boxer out there [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
Oh yes, there's, there's a couple things I remember as a child, and that is [laughs], which is a radio program, and the radio, listening to the fights of Joe Louis broadcast on radio, an old modeled radio. We would sit on the floor. And there was much excitement when Joe Louis fought, and when I was a child, whenever he had a fight, people would gather together. Everybody did not have radios, so we would gather where there was a radio. In our living room, it was usually crowded, because we had a radio and we would listen to Joe Louis and root for him and just say, "Beat him! Beat him! Beat him! We know he'll do it!" [laughs] and "He's the greatest!" Yes.
Do you remember when he lost, the night that he lost? Do you have any recollection of that, when he lost to Max Schmeling? He was supposed to win. Do you remember that at all?
Yes, yes. It was a sad occasion. It was very sad, and you thought the world had come to an end. And for him to have lost to a German, that was just awful. They thought they were superior anyhow. This, I'm telling you, voicing what we felt. We, it was a personal hurt and an affront that a German would come and beat the great, invincible Joe Louis. It hurt. You just... And people literally cried.
So do you remember, then, when, two years later, when he beat the German again? Do you remember that?
Yes. I was in Kansas City then. Yes, yes. I remember that.
What was the feeling then?
Oh, it was the, much joy. The world was right again and Louis was on top, and the Brown Bomber, as he was called, and by which he was known in the, at that time, anyhow, reigned supreme. And we knew that he would do it. [laughs]
OK. Can we cut now for a second?
So can you remember how you felt as a young child at that time, when you saw that your house was, that, that your father, that your house was burned down, and that your father might be in it?
Well, it was a terrible feeling. My stomach felt empty. I, I'd never felt like that before in my life. And I said, "Everything I have is in that house. My favorite toys, my tricycle, my father, my rabbits are gone." The world, my world just crumbled. "My father! If I, we can't find my father, I can't live." I was a father's daughter. I was fond of my father. And I, I have never felt since quite that same way, because of those emotions, and my stomach just felt as if it had simply disappeared from my body and there was nothing but a void in me. That's, that's about as descriptive as I can...
That's pretty damn descriptive, I'd say... [laughs]
And as the smoke rose from the chimneys, because there was still smoke, I was wondering if my father were there.
OK. OK, if you can just do, if you can just do that little short bit about you started, you were nine years old when you started selling , it was 1936, so it was the next year.
The, I, my parents read magazine before the branch was organized, and we were avid readers...
Just, just simply, I need the declarative connective sentence.
All right. You don't need anything, OK.
No, no details.
You don't need to know what the magazine is. All right. I think it was 1936 when I started selling magazine. I was about not quite nine, eight and a half years old, and following my great venture selling magazine, the branch, the NAACP branch was formally charted in 1937, which began the branch activity officially.
Great. OK. Thank you.
When my family relatives drove up to the house, or least where there had been a house, it was one of the worst periods in my life, worst times in my life. I, I felt as if my stomach had simply just dropped out of my body. There was a void there. There was nothing. And I could only think, "There was, this was my home. What has happened? My toys, my tricycle, my rabbits, my beloved rabbits that my father was taking care of, and most of all my father, my father who, who, who was there yesterday. And where is he?" And I looked at the two chimneys standing and the smoke rising nearby the chimneys, and I wondered if my father were there.