Camera Rolls: 317:27-29
Sound Rolls: 317:15
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Asbury Smith , 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.*
Reverend Smith, we were just talking about what, what drove you, what motivated you as a young man, to become involved in the anti-lynching campaign, what was it that was so passionately powerful about, compelling about this issue for you?
Yes. Well, you see, I was born and raised within, well, just right near Salisbury, and graduated from Salisbury high school, and Princess Anne is only about fifteen miles down, and the family that lived there, so this was home to me, this territory was home, and when I knew it there was a lot of good will and friendliness between the races. When this happened, it sort of knocked all that to pieces, and of course that aroused me quite, very deeply and fundamentally in my whole attitudes towards the citizens of the community, because we were friends, and, you know, part of us had gotten the wrong end of it, and it was pretty terrible.
So what did you decide to do?
Well, what I tried to do was to call attention to what should be done and how people should relate to one another, and hold up the idea that we were all part of the family of God, and that a black man had as much right to his personal liberties and his views as a white man did, and you can't have a citizenship in which you have two types of citizenship, a white citizenship and a black citizenship. There's only one American citizenship. The black man has every privilege the white man has, to fulfill whatever talents he has and whatever needs he strives to respond to, so, my job was simply to try to hold up the American ideal and apply it to the local situation. That was what I was trying to do.
Can you,[coughs], can you tell me how the people reacted when , H.L. Mencken and came out with some pretty strong statements about the Eastern Shore. Can you tell about what, how the Eastern Shore people reacted when they...?
Well, the crazy thing was, H.L. Mencken is a stupid man. He called it all kinds of, ignoramuses, and people that, gospel-thumping, and all that kind of stuff, and names, he called it all kinds of names he could think of, and then expected the people to respond when he said something positive. And of course, what they did was they reacted to his negative statements, and his positive statements didn't catch on at all, and it was... well, you can't do that, you can't call a person a skunk and a scoundrel, and then say [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] on this level or that level.
What specifically did the people do to , when took a stand, what did the people do?
Well, some of the people down there reacted negatively, overturned his trucks, and they canceled some business and sent it north, instead of carrying it on normal channels. They threatened to do this on an extensive scale, but it never happened. It was only a slightly-lived thing and never had a fundamental impact on the situation, but it was threatening, and I suspect it could have been tragic, could have... what they were threatening was to try to get Delaware to make our state a part of, the Eastern Shore part of Delaware, and, you see, change the whole, the whole political situation. But it never got anywhere, it was just talk.
OK, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] . The people of Princess Anne claim the lynching was done by outsiders, do you believe that? I mean, was there any credence to that, or...?
Well, the outsiders might have been people who didn't live in Princess Anne, but they lived in the county, they lived on the Eastern Shore. They didn't come in there from distances, it was local, local people who lived, we'll say, in the county or nearby. There weren't, not people coming in from Western Shore, or places like that, it was an Eastern Shore [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
You were telling me before, in fact, this is what you testified in the Costigan-Wagner Hearings, that [coughs] these things can't happen without local support.
Can you tell me about that?
Well, any kind of reaction to a very controversial issue, has got to reflect a strong public opinion of some type, and of course public opinion is not a thing that exists alone, it is contradictory, I mean, some public opinion contradicts other public opinion, and you can't just use the word to cover the whole discussion. What happens is, public opinion in one section attacks public opinion in the other section, and you arrive at some kind of a, you have to eventually arrive at some kind of—
But can you tell me specifically about the people on the Eastern Shore and their attitude towards lynching, and whether you feel like this was an environment that might have supported it in some fashion? [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ?
Well, there's no question that the Eastern Shore people had a group of people, they really did it, they were the ones that did it, shows they approved it or they wouldn't have done it. So, there's a—but I think it would be true of most any community in the United States, you find, on any vital issue, people are radically divided. Some people believe in radical action in one direction, some in the exact opposite, and they're divided that way. Same thing happened in California, they had a big lynching out there, and the people were just on two opposite sides and they fought each other out that way. That's not unusual.
OK, but you told me, can you cut for a second?
OK, so let's, let's try it again, and just tell me about, those feelings that you have about the community. For this is to happen, the community, there must be some support for it in the community.
Yes, I think it's, on the face of it, it's obvious: people wouldn't come and set up a lynching situation unless they believed that was an appropriate action to it, otherwise they approve it, they wouldn't, wouldn't do it. So, the fact that they, a lynching mob gets in there, why, it shows that they feel that's a viable way of handling a problem. Of course, people who are more detached and can look at it more objectively, they don't approve it, it doesn't mean the community as a whole approves it on the Eastern Shore, not true at all, but there was a minority there, and they had enough social approval that they were able to get away with it.
Great, OK. Now, you were telling me, can you tell me about your parents? You don't have to go into a lot of detail, but your exchange with that gentleman at the Maryland State Legislature hearings, when you went in there and he asked you who you were and where you came from. Can you tell me about that incident again?
Well, when I appeared before the State Legislature I was thirty years old, and the place was, so many people come to support this bill we had introduced, it was supposed to be held in the Senate room, and they couldn't get in there, so they moved to the House of Representatives, and it was crowded to the deck. We had there the cream of the black community, and we had in some of the intellectuals and some in the leaders of the liberal white community, for example Elizabeth Gillman, whose father was the first president of Guthrie College, he was there. Margaret Young was there, who was a leading Quaker and a family of million, multi-millionaire family. I mean, they were people highly respected in the community, although they were a little liberal in their points of view. So, I was giving leadership to this particular point of view, but I did have back of me not simply the liberal crowd, I had back of me some of the leading citizens of the state. They saw the folly of this, and they were anxious to correct it, as was I.
So, what happened when you sat down in the chair?
You mean when—
You sat down at the testimony and the man was talking to you, the State Senator.
Well, I can't recall exactly...
He asked you where you were from, and—
Oh yeah, he asked me where I was from, and that was in a hearing we had, it crowded the whole House of Representatives, they couldn't get in the Senate, we crowded them out. An enormous crowd of people there, and the cream of the crop of the black people, and the liberal community was there, people like Elizabeth Gillman, people that, it was really a very impressive group. They had not selected their leader, but when they got together they insisted that they wanted me to do it, and I was thirty years old, and we had people there who had national reputations, who were, and had been in this field a lifetime. But they wanted me to do it because I had recently published material in this field, and they felt that being younger was probably an effective thing. The man who was chairman of it just looked down at me, and he couldn't understand it. All these people who were nationally known and highly professional, had money, trustee, that social thing, and here I was a thirty-year-old kid coming there and trying to tell them what they thought and speaking as their representative, they couldn't understand it. So, he looked down at me, he said, Son, where are you from? He was sure I came from New England, or someplace, not from Maryland. So I said, Salisbury, Maryland, where this lynching occurred, and the whole House burst into a great burst of laughter.
OK, great, OK. Thank you.
Can we cut for a second?
While we were in there, I asked you, and you had a very good answer for why, if there were, if states had an anti-lynching law, why was it necessary or desirable to have a federal anti-lynching law? What was it about a national law that was so imperative?
Well, I think there are states and there are times within the state that laws get, action gets, take place that is not socially approved and is not socially desirable, so if you take any issue, whether it's race, or economics, or whatever it is, and you get a national feeling on it, then you have something that you can look to for guidance, so it's perfectly important to keep the national on this level. But sometimes a state leads nation where they should go, so-
But you were telling me before—
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] , sorry.
We have to—
So why, why is a federal law important, why was there such a movement for a federal law?
Well,a federal law, of course, would have precedence over the state, and federal law has national reaction and international reaction, it holds up and gets a body of public opinion which no local community can support. You get millions and millions of people, and they become concerned about this. Even though it may not be entirely popular, if it, if it's anywhere near the media, or above, in the majority, the above majority, it has enormous power. So, that's why a thing like that on a national level has such enormous effect on local situations. Of course, all these things are controversial, and that means there are people on both sides of the question who, who look at it more than one way.
OK, let me ask you, and this is the crucial question we talked about in the library. What is it about lynching that, that, I mean, that moves you, that's so terrible. I mean, you have a feeling about, something about the social fabric that's at stake here. Can you tell me how, your feelings about that?
Well, lynching is an example of a community living by emotion and by prejudice, and by their own personal standards, with no written, or respect for individual rights. Even a man who's the greatest criminal, who has done the greatest crime that could possibly be thought of, no matter what it is, under the American system if a man murders his wife and his children and family, the whole bit, he still, under American law, is entitled to a hearing before an impartial court with a representative, a lawyer to represent him, to present his case. He has individual rights, but in a lynching situation, you don't even have a, you don't have a jury to indict, you don't have a jury to try it, you don't have a judge to make determination, you have none of the legal machinery. It's simply mass action, and therefore is a very dangerous thing, because if it's right, why, I guess it would be all right, but, it's, the chances of it not being right, of it being unbalanced, is overwhelming, because it's just a, just a mob without any controls and legal restrictions. They're not within the framework of American justice system, which requires the opposite, not just individual emotion pouring out in response to an individual situation, but requires—
OK, can we cut for a second?
OK, so my question is, and we talked about this before too, when you went to the Costigan-Wagner Hearings, and you testified, did you feel like it was going to be successful, did you feel like, or did it matter that it was successful, was it just the fact of the hearings?
Well, my material I presented to them was very brief. They were holding hearings there for, must have run to a couple weeks. I sat there all day, maybe two days, and I got in touch with the person who was in charge of it and I said, I can't do this, I can't be running from Baltimore over here and spending thirty days running over here like this. I said, You'll have to tell me when I'll be, when I will be heard. So, he said, Well, tomorrow morning, first thing, you'll be on the air. So I went over there, nine o'clock it was, and they put me on immediately and then went back to their other work. But then that was in the file, and when they, you know, when they organized it they put it in where they wanted to. But that's how I managed it, because I just couldn't spare the time.
But tell me what you thought, whether you thought this whole effort to have, to have a federal lynch law, was, was going to be successful. Did you think that they would pass it, did you think it would actually happen, or was it just making a statement?
Well, I think the thing I was involved with was a state law. I believe I was not involved with it when it was national law, and of course, state law it would have the state in back of it, and the national law I think was another matter, and I don't remember just what my reaction to that was or whether I testified there or not.
Well, when you told me before, you thought that, like, that even if the federal law didn't work, it didn't get passed, that it had an impact on—
Oh, there's no question in my mind that federal law—
Can you tell me that?
That federal does have an impact, no question about it. There many people who respect the thing... federal law represents legal public opinion, one might say, and when you get law, it really is the fabric of our society, if we don't operate by law then we operate by emotion and we operate by, lack of protection of the individual, it's a very dangerous system. Laws, while it [sic] has its [sic] faults and weaknesses, and sometimes people get very disgusted with it because it drags out and drags out and you hear a lot of foolish testimony, but it's the only protection we have for individual freedom. Without law, there is no protection of individual freedom, for individual rights. The law is our, really a sanctuary, and a very, very important factor.
Great, OK. Thank you. Can you cut for a second?
So tell us about the passion that was behind this, because people did say that, when you were a young preacher, you were very impassioned about this stuff. What, what was—
Well, I certainly was, because to me, it represented the whole heart of democracy.
You certainly were what, if you could—
I certainly was very much in favor of individual worth, and individual personality, and respect for individual personality. When you get to the point when you have two societies and two laws, one for black people, one for white people, and you deny the black community the protection of the law of the white community, just inherently, for being white, then you set up an impossible situation and sooner or later, it's going to break down.
Right, but I want to know why you were so concerned, why did it affect you so much, what was it about your background or who you were that had you so impassioned about this?
Well, I felt it was the essence of democracy. In other words, if you don't, if you don't treat all citizens with the same respect the law demands for, it's best, then you have an oligarchy of some type.
Can you cut for a sec?
All right? To me, this was the essence of religion, that you had respect for individuals, and it didn't matter whether black, white, rich, poor, good or bad. Even a criminal has rights. He has the right to be heard, he has the right to present any defense he can think of. For example, a man may kill his mother and his children, but if he, he has the right to come in [sic] court and say, I was insane at the time, I was temporarily insane, and bring a psychiatrist in to testify that that is correct. He has a right to bring a personal defense, and I think that individual right is the very foundation of democracy, and if you, uh, and to have the individual right to extend to all citizens is the essence of it also.
What would you say, what would you say to the people who felt like, you know, we have to protect our womanhood, or we have women that we have to protect from these George Armwoods [sic] and these people, and this is the way we're going to do it. Was it...
Well, I think, if they, if they don't follow legal procedures then they themselves are as big a problem as the man who's committing the crime. The only way you can operate a society is to operate by rules that are imposed not in times of crisis alone, but in times of calm, reasonable expectations-
Cut for a second?
So, what kind of a place was the Eastern Shore to grow up in?
Well, the Eastern Shore as I experienced it was more of a home-like thing, and that is, the family and the love of the people were all there, very sincere, very deep and very satisfying. The weakness of the Eastern Shore was that they had not come into the modern world, they had not given the Negroes the rights that they themselves demanded for themselves. Even my town, they loved Tilly and Lotty, but they had to stay in their place, they had to be at the, in the kitchen or in the wash-tub. They didn't have them to dinner to sit at table with them, or if they did have them, why it wasn't, they didn't have them, they didn't attend the social meetings, they didn't get involved in the decisions. They were a minority and had very little to say in the democratic process. They didn't vote, for what large part [sic]. When they begin [sic] to vote, why, they begin [sic] to get more rights, but in the early days of this movement they weren't voting at all, they were—oh, that's not correct, but it was very slight votes, very little political influence.
OK, good. Cut for a second.
With Walter White.
Well, my relationship with Walter White was, meetings I had with him personally at Hopkins University. The man who was in charge of the Y there got him to come there and speak, and I attended the meeting, and after it was over we went to this man, whose name was... went to his home, and Walter White was there and we had a long conversation. So, I had a real close personal contact with him. And—
What kind of a man was he?
Well, he was a brilliant man, there's no question about that. He had a brother, well, I'm getting mixed up in mind with the ones who were, who were—
OK, let's cut.
So, tell me, so, you think there was some connection there with the Depression and the economics?
Well, I think that unquestionably economics had a big part to play in any social reaction, the whole community gets it, see, I was operating in a rural community, and [sneezes]. Excuse me.
Did you change the camera roll when you were there? Camera roll twenty-eight. OK.
Twenty-nine. Camera roll twenty-nine.
OK, Lisa, OK, you're settled, right? Yeah. Good, thank you.
OK, can you tell me again what the connection that you feel between the tough times, and the lynching, and the anti-social behavior, what those connection [sic]?
Well, I think when people have difficulty getting bread and butter, and getting clothes that are decent to wear for your children, and food on the table, and, you know, the basic necessities of life, I think they tend to get a little disturbed. I think that things happen in that environment that wouldn't happen if, if it were more prosperous times. I don't think there's any question or doubt about that. I think that in times when the economic level is not such that it meets the normal demands of normal people, it encourages anti-social conduct, I don't think there's any doubt in the world about that.
Great. Thank you.