Camera Rolls: 311:29-31
Sound Rolls: 311:17-18
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Horace Sheffield , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 20, 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. Let's just start talking from the beginning. You moved here from Georgia, your father came first. Why did your want to move up here, do you know?
My father moved to Detroit because, I guess, he was am ambitious person who wanted a better life. And, obviously, Ford became well-known across the country hiring blacks, and he, that was why he came up North. And that was, that was, obviously, that was great out-migration from the South during those years anyhow.
What'd your father do at Ford?
- My father clearly went into Ford's as a laborer, but he became a foreman at Ford's, switched, and that was something that was surely, surely unheard of. And, of course, you gotta know the fact that at the Ford Rouge Plant there, the, Ford had many plants across the country. Now this was one plant where he had fairly well fair employment practices, half a century almost before the, the word was even coined. So he became a foreman. He was a foreman over whites as well as blacks, Department N605, I'll never forget it, that was the salaries department.
If I went there during that time, what would the crew look like? What...?
In all, it was kind of a international nations, I mean, you know, a family of nations. We had Arabs, we had white from the South, you had Poles, Italians. And this was the, this was what they'd call the Old Production Foundry. And, mostly, those were the folks that mostly made up the foundry, blacks and, and the foreign-born. There were a lot of the foreign-borns.
Were there a lot of, were there any racial tensions on the line? Having a, a black foreman?
Well, that was in the days before the union, and Henry Ford ruled that plant with an iron hand. You accepted the conditions that existed at the plant, you know. So, you know,
there wasn't, wasn't any such thing as democratic industrialism, you know, industrial democracy. No, no, no, no, no, you, you, if you griped about anything, you were on the streets.
** And which, which proves that people can get along if they, you know, they don't have another alternative.
Tell me about how your father felt about working at Ford's.
My father really cherished his job at Ford's. He was one of few, clearly, blacks in, in Detroit who had a supervisory job at, at plants, and Ford's was a kind of premier plant, as far as blacks were concerned.
** And it, it, it held over with him until even when the union came he and I felt we, we had a divorce. I had to leave the house, because I was for the union. He, "Ford Motor Company's the bridge that carried us over safely, and I'm sticking with Ford's." So he was very proud of his job. He took it very seriously. And I, I admired him because that was where he saw the basis for his success in life, and, really, it enlarged some other blacks.
There were other black foremen, "star men."
Oh yeah, the "star men," about Mr. Price. Never forget him, he—a "star man" at Ford's, I guess, he would almost be a kind of superintendent, because they had general foremans [sic], all that sort of thing. He was way up the hierarchy there as far as the management side, and he actually had a little star on his badge. You know, they had, they had something like the other fellows, but he had the star on his, and out of respect for Mr. Price, yeah. And you had others, you know, with some, there wasn't a great amount of them, but again, that was a kind of anomaly. Even the skilled the—even the trades, the skilled trades, the apprenticeship programs—Ford had his own trade school. And long before I went out there, blacks, you know, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] men, you know, electricians and what have you. But, but back to your original matter, the, the—my dad really felt a great sense of loyalty to Ford Motor Company, Mr. Ford, as you'd say.
Did he ever talk to you about Ford at home, or about his job and—
Well, that was often, you know, among the men who worked at Ford's, or who worked at Chrysler's or, you know, what have you, they'd talk about their jobs. I guess back in those days with all the repression and other things that confronted blacks there wasn't too much that you had to talk about, and which you could talk with a great deal of pride and pleasure. But he would come home and he would recount some of the experiences during the day, and around the dinner table, yes. And again, I say, and this is all out of his pride of, of having succeeded.
Do you know how your father got the job at Ford, if he got it through his church or...?
My dad, he just went out there and they were hiring, and he got a job. Now, the, later on, later on at Ford's, I guess Ford somehow always had a sense, you know, that one day the union's going to be there, they did from time to time, and the old man was pretty smart. He began to establish contact with the churches in the various ethnic communities, the Poles, what have you. And he, he really Balkanized the plant. That's why the union had so much difficulty, and that's why my dad was so loyal to him. But my dad, my dad's going to Ford's inundated this increasing fear that Henry Ford had about the unions. And he, once that began, he began to really establish all kinds of linkages in the communities. You know, you, certain ministers like Reverend Bradby could give, give you a car, and that sort of thing. You're in Detroit.
If I went to, say, the first AME, or some of the black churches in Detroit at that time and saw Ford workers there, what would it be like?
Well, as I indicated in the outset, there was a real sense of pride in having a job at Ford's. And they not only wore them to church,sometime wore them to church with the badges, but they wore it in the streets, and, you know, really, it'd, it'd, they found out it influenced a lot of ladies, you know what I mean? So it was a, it was a kind of a badge of distinction, so to speak. It was, you know? Yeah, they ,that, that was a great sense of pride in having a job at Ford's back in those days.
Did your father ever meet Henry Ford, do you know?
I don't know that my father did. He never told me that. I don't know if my father did meet with Ford. You know, I wasn't in the plant at that time, and frequently he, he, Mr. Ford came through the plant, but he certainly acted like he did with his great admiration he had for Mr. Ford.
What was life like for you and your family during the Depression?
Well, I guess, I was one of the fortunate ones. My dad worked most of the Depression. And the, about the only, only memory I can have of, of anything even remotely connected with any kind of assistance was, I guess, back—the days the WA...they had flour. You could get flour, that sort of thing. But, but my dad worked mostly through the, through the Depression, and my mother, as they called it back in those day, did day work. And so, we managed, we managed to come through the, the Depression pretty well unscathed.
Did you father ever get laid off?
That's what, that's what, in other words, see what I'm saying is that, that he worked most of the time, and he, he may have been off, but very few days. Yeah, he, he worked practically through, right through the Depression.
What was your neighborhood like?
Well, again, I was fortunate. My dad was able to—in a first class neighborhood. We didn't use the term that much back in those days, but middle class. I know we lived on Beagle back in the 20s, and what have you. I know on Stanford Ave, it was all nice. I lived on the West Side of Detroit, of course, the West Side of Detroit back in those days was a, was a premier black community in Detroit. Blacks here, obviously, you know, per capita wise, earned the highest wages anywhere in the, the, in the country—
—and it would reflect—
OK. Let's go back to the question about you lived on the West Side [sic].
Yeah, I, I grew up on the West Side as I indicated. My dad was able to afford to live in the, in a nice neighborhood. And that was in the early days of, of, the beginning of burgeoning, what became a burgeoning black community. And, surprisingly, black entrepreneurship really was flourishing back in those days. Blacks here earned high, had the highest per capita earnings that by being in the auto industry, and we had up and down Milford Avenue, we had all kinds of black business, hawkers, drug stores, and what have you. And we even had what, citywide, we even had a, a Supreme Linen Supply, Old Gov's Coffee, I mean things we don't even have today. And, you know, as much as we decry, you know, some of the things we faced, there were these kind of islands, you know what I mean, that just contradicted what the, what those who, in retrospect, you know, think of as the, some of the worst days. But I went to a good school, Samson School, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] Schools, I starred in Samson in 1921, all white, there was a Jewish community over in the, my neighborhood. As a matter of fact, as I got a little older, I used to go in an turn the lights on. I got a dime way back in those days to turn the lights on. And I guess they had, they had kosher--
The, the community in which we lived on the West Side was, you know, blacks were obviously a minority, but it was very mixed. It had a good-sized Jewish community. And, and there was a rabbi—a synagogue at Beagle and Milford there—and the rabbi, I'd go and do things for him on special days. Turn lights on, and help him with whatever he—prepared the chickens. Everything I did, he'd give me a dime. And, back in those days, you're talking about sixty-five or something years ago, a dime was a whole lot of money. And I just had great affection for this rabbi. But I also, you know, we had built really good friendships with a number of the other Jewish families, Jewish kids in the area. It was a good school, Samson School, when I first went it was a good school, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] school, and, and I guess, on the whole, with all the other, all the other disturbing problems that black folks had, we in that community really had a fairly good life, good life. You know, relatively speaking, considering all the other things.
Let me ask you, do you remember what you could've, what you could buy for a dime?
Well, let me tell you. For one thing, a hot dog today costs you a dollar, and I could get a hot dog and, and, and a bottle of pop for a dime. At least as I can recall, it'd buy you a whole lot of things. A lot of things. Oh, you could get a shoeshine for a dime, you know. And, you know, in that age, you know what I mean, I was more into going to Harvey Baker's and getting jelly rolls and things like that, see. I had not learned how I could, should have conserved some of that money, let banks have a look at it.
Speaking of banks, do you remember the crash of 1929?
I remember it so well. I remember it so well because a couple years later I begun to get active [sic]. Yes, I can remember the crash of 1929. I can, I can remember seeing, in a couple years, people being put out in the streets. I mean you'd just walk up and down any street and you, you know, or around and you'd see people, people being put out. And I can also begin to see the turbulence that began to grow in the community, people become restive, they take it, put the clothes, put the people's furniture back in the house. And, and the clashes with police, and people marching and all that. Yes, I remember that very well, very, very, well, I—it left a very lasting impression of it.
Did anyone in your neighborhood ever get put out?
There, there were very few. I, there was, I can remember seeing some. I can remember seeing some, but, on the whole, there weren't, it wasn't nearly as I was—saw, as it was in some neighborhoods, in some neighborhoods. But, where they, where they, where they were, there were people demonstrating and what have you about it, yeah.
And, getting to the Ford Hunger March in '32, do you, did your father ever talk to you about that?
Well, see, at that, by that time, look, I was sixteen years old, then. And, and, I was a, I was an activist by that time. I had become an activist then for about four or five years. And so I was aware of it. It was all in, all in the papers, and I didn't go out.
Let me stop you, and let's start that again, but if you could say that you remember the Ford Hunger March.
Yeah, all right, yeah. OK, yeah. Well I can remember the Ford Hunger March because I was sixteen years old and I had become active, I had become active. We organized a little group on the West Side then, I've always been an organizer, called the BBB, the Bad Black Boys, and, see, to use the term black back in that, those days, man, that was a no-no. That was just, gave some sense of our sense of outrage about discrimination. We, we organized things, you know, to get blacks jobs at stores and that sort of thing. But yes to the Hunger March, I remember, because people got killed then. You know, you saw pictures of people being beaten. I remember it very well. And of course my dad was out there, and he, you know, he talked about it too.
What did he say about it?
Well, my, my, you know, my, my dad, as I recall, you know, he, he, he did, did, he really wasn't that sharp in terms of political ideologies and all that sort of thing. It clearly had a heavy communist leadership and, and, let me tell you, I, I say the communists did a whole lot of good things back in those days, but, again, he was pro-Ford. And that was his frame of reference for anything that came, happened that had any relationship whatsoever to Ford Motor Company. He was pro-Ford. That, "Mr. Ford had provided the bridge to carried us over safely," now he was sticking with Ford. So, yeah.
Were you at the Hunger March?
Oh no, no, no, no, no. I didn't get out in the Hunger March. See, that was near Dearborn, and Dearborn, Dearborn, by that time, had become a really a no-no as far as blacks were concerned. No, I—
Did you, by any chance, have a picture of Ford in your home? Did your father put a picture of Ford up?
No, he never reached that point, and perhaps it's only because not one was available [laughs]. Because he surely would've had it if it was. He, you know, went right along with. In later days, he went along with Dr. King. Yes, he saw Mr. Ford as a kind of savior.
Can you cut for a second.
OK, so let's talk about things that, fears that your parents might have had.
Well my dad, and, and particularly my mother were very conscious of the plight that black people were in. We called ourselves colored folks back in those days, colored people [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] . And they played a very active role in the community. My dad, the old West Side Community Relations Committee and that sort of thing. They were concerned about the school, about blacks being the schools, teachers, and that sort of thing. And we held those kind of discussions. I guess much of my, my commitment to this whole struggle had its genesis there, you know. Back in those days, you know, you'd pick up a black newspaper, The People's News or whatever, and it wasn't, it wasn't, you know, strange to see a black being lynched and that sort of thing. And I guess that was typical of, of the average black family. These were major concerns back in those days. While my dad didn't never encounter any police brutality, but it was certainly an issue there. I mean, back in those days, they, they imported whites from the South because they thought they could deal with black folks. And, and, and much of the harshness, much of the animus that development between blacks and police were, had its genesis back in those days. Now those are the things that occupied their mind. They were certainly concerned about maintaining, you know, aesthetically, the, the neighborhood, and that sort of thing. But by and large my dad was a great church person, he went to church dutifully on Sunday and several times during the week, and my mother belonged to the Pastor's Aide Society, and so, very stable people. But they certainly shared the common fears that all blacks had about being second-class citizens. Now even though there, there, there was a contradiction about being back in those middle-class black folks.
Let's talk about the badges, go back to wearing them on Sunday, how people would, you know...?
Well, Ford, as a place of employment, was, was, was certainly sought after by blacks. I mean, there's just no question about it. Chrysler and General Motors, blacks, but somehow Ford's just carried that magic name. And they liked that badge. They were proud of the fact that they worked there. They would wear it to church. And, of course, they also knew that it attracted the ladies, too. I mean, a fellow with a badge on might, you know, he might get offered a date two or three times, you know. So it, it had that effect. But again, I think, fundamentally, fundamentally, it was just a sense of pride of having a job at Ford's. Ford payed well, and of course now many of them suffered the vicissitudes that went along back in those days, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] changeover, this, that, and the other, and, you know, no seniority, being out, out in the streets quite often. But when they got the badge back it was still they put it on. And they'd wear it to church because, number one, it, it would, it—
OK, so let's go back to the badge being an entrée into a better life.
Yeah, well they...I guess you have to realize in those days that blacks, even if you were a Ph.D., you know, you didn't have access to the better jobs. Many of them worked in foundries or worked in the plants. Ford was a premier place to work, and so fellows had a sense of pride, they had a sense of pride in it, to the extent that many of them wear their badge to church. And of course out in, as far as in the community, they wear the badge and that, you know, was kind of a magnet to the, for the ladies, and, and just, I guess, in summary, it really,
it was a kind of pass key to, you know, the good things in life and the community. I mean, you were invited to this or that, you were almost a kind of celebrity in a sense
** Minor celebrity, yeah. You worked at, you worked at Ford's. Yeah.
I wanted to ask you, going back a little bit, to when you were sixteen, around the Hunger March time, you said that's when you started becoming active. Was there friction between you and your father or what, how was that working?
Well, no, my, my dad and I never had a problem in that respect until we tried to organize Ford's some years later. But, clearly, I was on the side of the, the Hunger, Hunger Marches, and my dad wasn't. But I, and that's because I said, three or four years, yeah we're beginning to get active, we're getting to form organizations, and, and our consciousness, our awareness, of the social struggle, obviously, you know, became much greater. It expanded. And I, I, I, from early on I identified with the workers out there. I just somehow, I don't know, it just came about. But I had began to become exposed in high school into, you know, some Marxist groups, yes, some socialist groups, and that began to form, really caused me to begin to form some beliefs of my own. And my dad just felt that really I ought to share his beliefs, and, and, I, I had to do it until I was about eighteen. I said, "Now, Dad, I've got my own!" [laughs] I had my own then, but I didn't tell him, you know.
Could you, would, could you say that your father believed that Henry Ford was, was a friend to colored folk?
Unquestionably, my dad had a very high regard for Henry Ford. And, you know, you've got to take it within the context of that time. He thought Ford...ain't no, ain't no question. I mean, look, I've, I've been a union man all my life. And you, when you cut aside all the things, the anti-union things they did, you know...I went to college by working at Ford's. Many, that's true of many other blacks. And, and, and Ford, Henry Ford, by opening his doors, was really, in a country where wages were the most important thing, he provided wages. And when others didn't. And that's why my dad felt so strong about Henry Ford. He became a farmer now and that was, that was back in the, back in the early 30s, 20s. You know, late 20s and 30s. And so to him that meant something, you know, and he was a farmer for years after the year he got here. So, to him, he just, he equated that with, with someone who—kind of the savior of black folks. And I don't argue with it, because I was there and I know, know, what had happened at that time. I know what it meant for black to hires and others not [sic]. It made the difference. It made the difference that I was—I could live in a decent home. I had decent clothes. I went to school, a good school. So I know what it meant, and, and, and, and unfortunately some of us, too many of us got to revisit those times now, but I mean that's what it was. That's, and that's why he came out to where he was, the position he did.
Sure you don't want to sing one of those songs for us?
One of those songs...[laughs]
OK. One of those songs?
What, yeah, do you remember an old song you could—OK, cut it.
I'll just add, this was another dimension of a—OK.
OK, we're ready.
There's one thing, though—if you worked at Ford's, there was a regiment you had to follow if you wanted to work there. You didn't find people out in the streets openly saying anti, derogatory, Ford, Henry Ford songs. Now, that came after the union got in, and anybody who tells you that they did, believe me, I mean, you know, they've just been eating too many lotus leaves, because that just didn't happen. And really, you know, retribution from Ford's side was swift and effective: You didn't have a job. And I said that even notwithstanding the things that I, the positive things about Ford. But you know, you, you bought a car. See, if you didn't buy a Ford car, you, you had problems. And, and you know, look, sometimes it extended into your own personal life. See? And I because I know people that it did, that, that it did, and of course, you know, the NLRB thing that came later proved that. But, again, I would still say that, that there was many good things that accrued not only black folks, but to, but to the immigrants, the, the people who came over, and who came from Italy and all these other places who were looked down on also. They, they got jobs at Ford's.
This badge was a badge of distinction
** back in those days, sixty, seventy years ago. You know, it might even get you a deaconship in a church. It might, may even get you a beautiful lady.
** Fellows wore this with great pride, openly, and look, you know, if you got out of line with it, you might have a problem, messing with that badge. [laughs]
[production discussion][cut] [slate marker visible on screen]
This badge here was really a badge of distinction back in those days. They, even in the church, they wore it to church. You got respect from the minister. You wore it in the streets, you got respect from the ladies. And so, fellows cherished it. And it got you into places that you otherwise would not have gotten in. It was a kind of a badge of honor. And I, I indicated why people, many people, look to Mr. Ford as a great savior of black folks, but quite a number of them didn't. But this badge spoke for itself. Wearing this badge spoke for itself.