Camera Rolls: 102:42-46
Sound Rolls: 102:25-27
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Shelton Tappes , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 28, 1990, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
I'm going to start out by asking you to describe the city of Detroit when it was in its heyday in the late '20s, you know, when it was at its peak. What kind of place was this?
Well, in, in those days, Detroit was a very alive city, a lot going on, but mostly high automobile production, intense competition between General Motors and Ford Motor Company, the Chevrolet versus the Ford. And there was some signs of a diminishing Ford production, because the car had begun to, to lose its position in the market. That is the Ford I'm talking about. And it wasn't selling like it had in previous year. So the danger signs were there. And Ford Motor Company started to make plans for changing the model from a, the old Model T to a new, new car. There were the indications of a possibility of Ford putting out a new, new type automobile. And the rumor was quite rife around the city.
Was, was Detroit like a city of high life at that time?
Well, my feeling is that it, it may have been like the heart of industrial America, and that people really—it was a boom age in, in the earlier part of the '20s.
In, in, in the earlier part of the '20s the, the city was very alive with activity, and automobile production was at a height. Money was in high circulation. And the people seemed to have just about anything they wanted. It was a land of plenty in many respects. But suddenly there was a—the boom just faded.
What was your image of Henry Ford? As a young man coming to Detroit in the late '20s, what, what are you, what kind of power did he have?
Well, myself, I thought Henry Ford was the epitome of success. All I had ever heard was the, the tremendous success that he had made as a manufacturer. His invention of the Ford car was legendary. Many of us thought he was the richest man in the world. Our thoughts of success were how much money a man had made. I don't know whether he was a millionaire or not. Nowadays you can be a ball player and be worth a million dollars, but in those days that was quite an achievement, to, to reach the stage of being a millionaire. So Henry Ford was idolized as a success, knowing that he was in his 30s before he ever got, got a start in life, really. So he was an idol the average working person who didn't know his politics.
OK. I'm running out of tape.
OK. Let's cut.
What do you notice in, in 1929? What happened to Detroit in 1929?
Well, it seemed like the bottom dropped out. All of a sudden, there were no jobs. People were having difficulties of various kinds, and I think somewhere along there the banks began to close. I was in my late teens, early '20s, and I could feel it because I couldn't get a job, you know.
I can't believe this.
OK. Let's cut.
Mr. Tappes, could you describe your neighborhood, where you lived in Detroit, what it felt like, smelled like, sounded like, looked like, particular people that lived here?
Well, it was quite a congested neighborhood that I lived in. Of course, all of that has been destroyed now. In fact, a freeway runs through a considerable amount of the area in which I grew up. It was a neighborhood of many nationalities: Polish, Jewish, black, Italian. And most of us were the sons and daughters of factory workers or factory workers themselves. The youngsters spent most of their time on the playgrounds playing softball or whatever. The parents mostly out of work in those times that we're speaking of, out of work. But when they did work, they either worked in the General Motors or Ford Plants, Chrysler. But was not year-round, even if you had a job in a factory. They had the change-over periods, and I think the average work time for a year would be approximately six months. Even in the years when I became a factory worker, a Ford worker, the work time was never from January to January. Usually, it was from December to about April or May, and then down until the fall. After Labor Day we'd go back to work.
Can you give me a, a?
Excuse me. Can we stop for a minute?
Can you give me a visual of what you'd see in your neighborhood, you know, people on stoops or whatever it looked like? What did it look like?
On a given day in the summer time, when it was very warm, why, you'd be out on the steps, children playing on the streets, sidewalks. Different sounds in the city those days were vendors, horses and wagons, you know, selling whatever vegetables, fruits, and things like that. And in the winter time, why, it was usually somebody selling coal. You didn't have gas heat like we have nowadays, so we burned coal to keep warm. And the supermarkets did not exist in those days. You had the corner grocery store or the corner bakery or whatever. Nothing like it is today.
Can you tell about how the people would get coal in your neighborhood when times were tough?
Well, of course, most of the coal was sold off of horse and wagon vendors. But, there came a time, especially during the Depression, when people didn't have the money to buy coal. The trains used to go through the city and hauling coal and other products, of course, to the various places where it was sold. And, and going through our neighborhood, the young fellows would get up on the train and throw the coal off. And the whole neighborhood would descend upon that area with any kind of container that they could carry, and fill them with coal, and take them home. This wasn't unusual, this was usual. Whenever the word got through the neighborhood that the coal train was coming, why, everybody rushed to the railroad tracks and the young, young men would get up on the train and throw it off. And it's a funny thing we weren't challenged. It was something they seemed to expect to happen, so it was passively permitted.
Great. How did you?
Can we cut for a second?
Mr. Tappes, could you tell me how people got along in your neighborhood?
We had a common problem. We, we didn't have too much food, and a lot of us couldn't pay the rent on time. So were closer together in those days. The neighborhood was a composite of the various nationalities, European imports, Jewish and black and whatever. And we had a common problem. We needed jobs. We needed food and all the other things that make up for a, at least a comfortable life. So we had a friendly atmosphere that brought us together. Despite different religions and nationalities, we all, we were all Detroiters, and we had the same problems.
In your mind, did something happen to your image of Henry Ford after he shut down the plants in 1931?
The, the one thing that stands out was the fact that there was no organized welfare program in the city. If people wanted welfare or help, they could go to the offices, and probably after going through a considerable amount of red tape maybe get a check or some allowances. But it wasn't something that was guaranteed to be a continuing thing. If you got an allowance now maybe for one or two checks in consecutive weeks, why, then it would stop and you would have to go all over again. And consequently, there were a considerable number of families in need of food and, and, and help. And
somebody brought the question of so many of the people who are out of work being Ford workers. And since the Ford Motor Company was down on this retooling situation, they felt that Ford had a responsibility for these people.
** And there was some kind of agitation to get Henry Ford to respond. One of them, of course, was the Hunger March in '32. But at the time I'm speaking was when the agitation had become so intense that the Ford Motor Company responded with a $100,000 donation to the city welfare program. And of course the sources who had been the root of the agitation figured it out that, with approximately 30,000 Ford workers out of work in and around the city, that he was giving them about three dollars a piece, you know, so this wouldn't go very far. But that, that is an indication of what, what the feeling was in, in those days at that time.
OK, stop. Are you all right?
So, how, I mean, did, did people work with each other in your neighborhood?
Well, there was a sharing atmosphere in the neighborhood. Whoever had something to share with others, they, they would call and let them know. If Mrs. Hoberman had a big pot, you know, her pot was filled, why, her family was taken care of, why, she would call the Schwartzes or whoever was next door or across the street or whatever and invite them to share, or send it to them, you know. That wasn't unusual, it was usual, and especially in those families that had no regular income or intake of food or money or whatever. Another thing was sharing of clothing. I can remember a couple of years there when my, my family was unable to buy me a pair of shoes. But I had shoes, because the neighbors' sons had outgrown theirs or whatever. See, this was a common thing among the—
—the, the neighborhood folk. Share and share alike.
OK. That's fine. I've, I've, I've got enough of that.
How did, how did you and your family get by during this period, 1930, '31, '32?
Well, the women were the basis for our continuing to make it, so to speak. My mother did day's work, and my sister, although she was in school, had, had to leave school and took a job as a domestic. She worked for a, for a couple who had two children, and she remained on the premises and worked. She made I think something like seven dollars a week, and of course keep. My mother did day's work, which I think was forty or fifty cents an hour. So we were able to make it that way. My brother and I were in school. I was in high school, he was in grammar school.
Now, you said at one point you worked in a bowling alley.
Yes. I would, this way I would assist the family by setting pins in a bowling alley. They paid us, I think it was five cents a line, as they called it. But usually I could make a dollar and a half, maybe two dollars a night.
Your family lost some money in the bank closings. Can you describe how your mother and sister lost the money?
Well, we had, the savings were in the bank, and when the banks closed, you just couldn't draw any money out. So we had to wait until the bank holidays were over. In the mean time, the, wherever they worked, the people paid them in scrip [sic]. The city of Detroit, I think it was, I'm, I'm not sure whether it was the state of Michigan or the city of Detroit that issued the scrip, which was paper money for the most part. There were some—
But what did it feel like to, to have saved this money, to put it in a bank you think is rock solid, and then to not have it? How'd it feel?
Well, remember you're asking me a question of something that happened 50 years ago, so my remembrance is not too clear on how the family reacted. I do know that my mother was very, very sad, and she cried a bit. My stepfather was very unhappy. But we had to manage, so I don't even remember when they got it back and how we got it back. But I know it was quite a considerable amount of time before we ever got it back. Roosevelt was by then President of the United States. So the, he declared the bank holidays that resulted in the closing. But what money my family put in savings was not money that they used. That was sort of nest egg money, so I don't think it hurt us as much as it did other families. We sort of deprived ourselves of any luxuries that might accrue from spending from the savings. And working families didn't have great amounts of money in savings anyway. So, but it was a traumatic experience to, to know that you could have nothing. And that was the feeling at the time, that it's all gone. But it, in time, it did come back, you know.
Can you tell me about Grand Circus Park? What, what, what was happening there during this time?
Well, Grand Circus, Circus Park—
Sorry. Could you start from the beginning, with "Grand Circus Park"?
We have to hold on just about a minute.
Could you tell me about Grand Circus Park?
Grand Circus Park was a place where people gathered to express their feelings about various subject matter. It was like, what is it, Hyde Park in, in London. It was a place where the various [pause] groups of political persuasions would come and express themselves. From early morning 'til late in the evening, why, various speakers would take the podium and, and speak their opinion on various subjects. This was where the early advocates for unionism spoke out. And it's where I got my, some of my early understanding of what unionism meant. And it was there where I met the people who persuaded me to join the Auto Workers' Union, which preceded the UAW by several years. The Auto Workers' Union welcomed anybody who lived in Detroit and who either worked in an automobile plant, had worked in an automobile plant, or might work in an automobile plant. And the fee for joining was 25 cents. And the dues were whenever you had the money to give them some dues money. But they, they did hold meeting in various places around the city. And they invited anybody who was willing to listen to them to come. And they, even then, they were shooting at the Ford Motor Company. Their, their whole aim as to organize Ford Motor Company. But their success was not great. And I think mostly because there weren't too many people working at Ford at that time, because of the shut down. And people were so anxious, Ford workers were so anxious to get back to work that they weren't too receptive to the idea of joining an organization that Ford certainly wouldn't embrace.
Do you remember the Unemployment Councils?
Oh yes. I remember the Unemployment Councils very much, yeah. The Unemployment Councils were probably the better organized group, groups, in and around the city. And they reached more of the people who were the wage earners, the people who were responsible for family sustenance. The, the Councils were made up of various facets. Some of them were, had the responsibility of taking care of people who were put out of their homes, you know, set out in the streets. They had committees that, once the sheriff had removed these people's furniture and properties out of the house, once they lived, why, this committee would go back and place the furniture back in the house, which meant that the landlord would have to go through the process again, the, the, through the court, and have it done again, which would take at least a month. And, of course, with so many, it would probably take several months before these people would be removed again. So, that was one of the activities of the Unemployed Council. But the, the, I think the most important thing about the Unemployment Councils was the fact that they had continuous meetings of the unemployed and the people who were concerned with employment. And these meetings were, were weekly occurrences.
And, and in this way, they were able to bring the people together and hold them together, and it was easy for rallies to be organized because of the closeness of the activity generated by the unemployment council.
Can you tell me about that? Can you start by saying that, you know, "I was on the, I did work with the Unemployment Council"?
Oh yeah, I can say that.
Go ahead. Tell me about your involvement with the Unemployment Council.
Well, as a member of the Unemployment, we called it the Unemployed Council, as a member of that council, I was put on the housing committee. And as a member of the housing committee, it was my job to go to situations where people were being removed, people's furniture was being removed from their houses. They were being put out of their houses.
—stood by and watched the process by the, the sheriff department. And after they had taken all of the properties and placed it on the sidewalks or on the street, and left the premises, then we would precede to replace the furniture back into the house. And knowing that the legal processes would require that the landlord go through the procedure of getting a court order again. And there was such a glut in the courts at that time of people being evicted that it'd be some months before this particular case could be re-established.
—buying time for the families.
What kind of things did you hear in, in these meetings in the Unemployment, Unemployed Council? What, what, what were the words spoken or the arguments made?
I think most of the conversation was, revolved around resentment of the attitudes of the owners of the companies, the Chryslers and the Fords and the General Motors people who everybody had knew had nice salaries, nice homes, and plenty to eat, had their yachts and their summer homes and all this sort of thing. And the people who were, felt that they were producing all of this for them were the ones who were hungry, couldn't pay their rent, and who were laid off, out of work, and couldn't even afford to buy the automobile that they were making, even though that car was less than $1,000, you know. It's, it's hard to believe. The first car I ever bought was $595, four-door sedan, radio, heater. I was unable to pay for it. They repossessed it.
A lot of people were scared of Communists. Was this a real threat? What was happening?
I don't think that was a real threat in those days. Communism was never something that the working class was afraid of.
Can you start again?
I said Communism at that time was not a real threat among the working people. They didn't, they didn't spend a lot of time concerned with that, although the Communist Party was active organizing, and so was the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers' Party. There were a number of revolutionary groups who were moving in and among the unemployed and the result was that there was a considerable amount of—
—what do you call it, activity among the different revolutionary groups. Socialists and Communists, I guess, were the more prominent. But there were others. This was not a, a major problem or factor in those days among the unemployed, in my opinion. And I don't believe that the leadership of those groups were too unpopular among the unemployed. I can recall one occasion. An announcement was made at the Grand Circus Park meeting that there'd be a rally.
They gave us the date and all that sort of thing. I don't recall the date at the time, but I think it was, I believe it was in 1932. And a number of us who were at this meeting decided that we would go to this rally at city hall when the, when the date arrived. So we did go. And that's where I got my first, I gave my first attention to the, the, the Communist Party's program, because at that program they, they, they presented the candidate for governor of the state of Michigan. And he was a black fellow. His name was Billups, Joseph Billups. And I, I was sort of enthralled to see this group of people who had selected this black fellow for governor. I—it was something I just didn't expect. It's the only way I know how to put it.
And he was very, very outspoken, and presented himself quite well, I thought, you know. Very impressive. And then he introduced his wife Rose, and they announced that they were going to make a tour of the state of Michigan campaigning for governor, and this tour was going to be his honeymoon, their honeymoon. But that was probably the, the most outstanding revolutionary that I, I encountered at that time.
Did their arguments make sense?
In some respects. I was—
Can you start that again? Can you just start that response again?
In some respects they made sense, because they were talking about the needs of the people and the fact that being out of work was not a necessity, because the companies could provide work for the people if they had a mind to and that they, they called for more interest in the welfare of the working class by those who were of the wealthy, wealthier people. So in general the program that we, we heard was directed toward the needs of the working, working people.
OK. Let's cut for a second.
Some people say Frank Murphy was a good guy. Why?
Well, I think Frank Murphy was considered a good guy because he came along at a time where, when he was needed. And he seemed to have a heart and concern for the welfare of folks. And he, he did those things that were necessary to try to address the needs of the people. He was a good mayor, very good mayor.
He was a pleasant change?
Yes he was. Yes he was, a very pleasant change, because he looked in a different direction. The others were pawns of the wealthy, and he looked toward the needs of the people.
OK. Let's cut. Good.
What kinds of things did Frank, Frank Murphy do? How did he change things?
Well, you're asking me to go back many years.
All right, cut for a second. You want to think about it?
Were Ford and Hoover linked in your mind?
Tell me about that.
Oh yes, they were, they were definitely linked, because Henry Ford went on the radio and spoke—
—when it appeared that the vote in Michigan was going to go Democratic. So he personally—the only time I ever heard Henry Ford's voice was then, when he spoke in favor of Herbert Hoover. And consequently, there were a number of leaders, self-appointed leaders, I suppose, who organized, or tried to organize, neighborhood Republican enclaves in behalf of Herbert Hoover. I don't think they succeeded.
I, I rode about on the Baker Street car. That was the name of the line that went directly to the Ford Rouge plant. This car line did. I didn't go all the way to the Rouge plant on the, on the car, because when I got to Dix Avenue I could see the people running from the plant. So I got there on Dix. And I asked some of the people what was, what was the matter. And they said, "They were shotting at us!" So very foolishly, instead of running away from the plant like these people were, I went toward the plant. And
I saw people who were bleeding and then I learned from a couple of fellows that some people had been shot and he said he thought one had been killed.
** And then, of course, I reversed myself, and I decided I was going the wrong direction. And I was helping some people who had, who were bleeding. You could see that they had been hit. I don't know who did the shooting. They claimed that Harry Bennett and his gang did. There are various points, statements about it, but I didn't see who did it. All I know is that the people I saw were injured from shots. And so most of them insisted on going home, because they didn't want the company to know that they had been involved. These were people who were Ford workers, evidently, and who didn't want the company to know that they had been involved in the demonstration. But the original idea was that there would be a march toward the Ford plant down Miller Road, and another one that would go down Dix Avenue toward the plant. They would meet at the intersection of Dix and Miller and then march to the plant. Something happened and they, they didn't get together. But they, they did congregate on, on, on Miller Road and start their march when the shooting started. After the, after the march, they were supposed to go a place, at that time they called it Baby Creek Park. The name now is Patton Park. And there, they were supposed to, there would have been a picnic and speech making and all this sort of this. But of course the shooting and the scattering of the people just destroyed all those plans. I got there late, because I overslept. I was nineteen or twenty years old at the time, and as youngsters are in those days, at that age, I didn't make time. And having to go out on a trolley cart, too, well that consumed a lot of time, going all the way out on a trolley cart. But that is my observation of what happened.
How, how'd you feel about what you saw?
How did what you see affect you?
Well, I was appalled. It was hard to believe that people who had nothing but a few signs, and women and children and, you know, men, women, and children in the group...
There weren't a lot of women, but there were some. And there weren't a lot of children, but there were some.
** And it was, it was a terrible feeling, hard to believe. And of course it was some time later before we realized that four people had been killed. And later there was a fifth. It was a black fellow that was killed later, who died later, I should say. But it was, it was a terrible feeling. I just don't know how to describe it now, but I, I can remember that I was just appalled. And there I got a determination that I was—
I'm still rolling.
I got a determination that I was going to see it through, you know. The Ford Motor Company was going to be a part of the United States. As we, as we used to say in those days, "We're going to make them a part of the United States."
And it was there that you got that?
Yeah. That's where I got the feeling, I got the feeling.
You were at the—how did the city of Detroit, the people of the city of Detroit, react?
There was quite a feeling of sorrow that permeated the city. And there a number of demonstration. I can remember some of them in the various halls around town, the Swedish hall, the Finnish hall. The Polish had a hall in Hamtramck. It seemed like everybody was generating some kind of activity in and around the happening, and eventually there was a large gathering of folk. And they presented the, the bodies in, in the caskets. It was, it was sort of a mass funeral. And then there was a march down Woodward Avenue. Must have been, oh, 25, 30,000 people marching down Woodward Avenue in protest. So there a considerable amount of activity that went on at the time.
What, what was—put yourself in that election. It's the first time you're voting.
Well, as I said before, it's the first time I ever voted. I had just reached the voting age. And I had learned a considerable amount from my activities in and around the city that, that, about politics and political attitudes and what the different parties stood for, and all that sort of thing, so that I knew that the country needed a change in philosophy. And all of this was wrapped up in a promise personified in Roosevelt. So my feeling was that a new day had, had arrived. This was bolstered by the fact that some of the people I admired, for example the governor Excuse me a minute.
OK. All right. Let's roll again.
—was wrapped up in the fact the, the governor was so strongly a Roosevelt supporter. And Governor Murphy was a hero to the working class. He was a hero. And the fact that he supported Roosevelt was sufficient for most of the people in, in and around the city of Detroit. So there was a lot of hope wrapped up in the election of Roosevelt. And we had every reason to believe that he would lead us out of the wilderness, so to speak. And, as you know, his programs did a lot toward—
Well, my Uncle Sam was the first in our family to ever go east to the nation's capitol.
** But he went as a member of the Bonus Army, and he told the family that he was going because he felt compelled
** to be a part of the activity that was generated to see that the bonus was paid off.
** And when he decided to go, he called the family together to let us all know that he was going. And, see, my, my uncle was the only boy in a family of eight. All the rest were girls. And they were very close, and he called his sisters together to let them know what he was going to do. So—
He felt that, as a member of the armed forces, and who had fought in France, that he was entitled to be paid his bonus money. And he also felt that it was his duty to join his fellow workers, fellow service people, and go to Washington.