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I'm sitting in the City Free Employment Bureau. It's the women's section, we've been sitting here now for four hours. We sit here every day waiting for a job. There are no jobs. Most of us have had no breakfast, some have had scant rations for over a year. Hunger makes a human being lapse into a state of lethargy, especially city hunger. Is there any place else in the world where a human being is supposed to go hungry amidst plenty, without an outcry, without protest?
We're only the boldest steal or kill for bread and the timid crawl the streets, hunger like the beak of a terrible bird at the vitals. We sit looking at the floor, no one dares think of the coming winter. There are only a few more days of summer. Everyone is anxious to get work, to lay up something for that long siege of bitter cold. But there is no work sitting in the room. We all know it. That's why we don't talk much.
We look at the floor dreading to see that knowledge in each other's eyes. There's a kind of humiliation in it. We look away from each other, we look at the floor, it's too terrible to see this animal terror in each other's eyes.
The Great Depression started in 1929 and lasted through the next decade, it was marked by massive unemployment, hunger, homelessness in a general sense that the country's future was in peril. Grim new economic numbers tonight affecting millions of Americans. Unemployment now soaring to fourteen point seven percent in just the last month.
Twenty point five million Americans losing their jobs.
Worse, the global economic fallout since the Great Depression almost a century ago. That was the warning today from the head of the. And that got us thinking what many Americans are experiencing today might not be that far from what people experienced back then in every corner of the country.
Americans out of work and now in indeed tales of extreme poverty, families and food lines who never thought they would need this help.
And there is no telling how much worse it's going to get is covid-19 continues to impact businesses and local economies everywhere. So we're going to do something a little different in this episode. We're going to hear the stories of people in their own words who lived through the Great Depression for people, for vastly different experiences who come from all over the United States. My name is Henry, right. I never missed a meal, but I postponed a few. Henry Right.
Went looking for adventure in the Great Depression, riding the rails from coast to coast. He learned things about himself and the world with a certain amount of pride. He called himself a hobo, bouncing from city to city, seeking his fortune. Is this thing on? Oh, hello, this is Mary Delozier. She was a writer born and raised in the Midwest. I've lived in cities for many months, broke without help, too timid to get in the bread lines, spent the depression and unemployment offices and soup kitchens talking to people, mostly women, documenting what she saw and heard.
I was so broke quite often I was with no money in my pocket. The most I ever had is maybe one or two dollars. The lease was, well, normally I got 10, 15 cents. You can call me Fong Fong spent the Great Depression in San Francisco's Chinatown, he experienced the era at the street level and the everyday minutia of economic struggle.
Hello, I'm Dorothy Height.
In a strange way, everybody had a feeling of common suffering. There was a kind of sense that everybody's having a hard time.
Dorothy Height grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and when the Great Depression hit home, she was eager to escape to the big city for college. She moved to Harlem in New York, but as luck would have it, the Depression would follow her there. Henry married Fong and Dorothy. Stories captured in oral histories, diaries and essays give us a window into what it was like to live through this time, a moment that often gets reduced to one archetype of Americans suffering their stories.
Their voices are the ones we don't generally here, and we hope that their stories can teach us something about ourselves and what we're going through today. So with that, we give you four lives of the Great Depression. Hi, this is Morgan Brown from Buffalo, New York, and you're listening to Throughline from NPR News. I love the show. This message comes from NPR sponsor Ancestry. You may be familiar with the major events and battles of World War Two, but there are so many more stories to uncover, such as the skill and bravery of the Tuskegee Airmen and African-American squad of fighter pilots, or the Japanese American battalion that became one of America's most decorated units.
Discover World War Two from the diverse perspectives of those who were there at Ancestry.com.
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Sixteen and a half million shares of stock sold in a single day, the tremendous crowds which you see gathered outside the stock exchange are due to the greatest crash in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. Speculation had become crazy like an appendix operation.
It's a good thing to have it over with man sitting in the box all day long out of work, muttering to themselves. The great big sprey the Jazz Age is over all of the clothes of an era. I looked with great anticipation into going to New York and just thought it was the most beautiful of cities and so great. And so I got there and I had the feeling at last I've reached New York. And then when I got down to New York University, where I was going to college in Washington Square, I found there were so many men there and they were all selling apples, little man.
Well, you can always sell surplus apples five cents apiece on the street corner.
They were five cents, but no one had five cents to buy one. And I found that all through the Bowery, which surrounded it. I was almost intimidated by seeing the numbers of grown men just standing with a handout in bread lines all around.
Sons who have lost their grip on life are gratefully happy with the bite of hot food and of course, in Harlem, the churches, everywhere you looked, people were serving soup kitchens and people were really trying to get some kind of job, some kind of way to make a decent living.
Rolling out of Kansas City, July 26, 1930, on the whole west, a for me to be seen and explored was next to lation. About 12 others were also seeking their fortunes from the same side door Pullman train, we traveled all morning in a spirit of geniality. A couple of steeplejack headed to Denver to ply their trade there if conditions permitted kept us entertained with their volubility until we left to peek behind and discovered we were on a drag.
Every day they used to have that foghorn out there blowing boo. Bu, you know, all day long, all night. During the daytime, it probably stopped somewhere in the afternoon, but sometimes it continues all along through the evening and never stop. Why? Because it's always foggy and once in a while you see the sunshine somewhere around half past three, up to half past four, and that's all one day finish. What we know about Fong comes from oral history interviews that he gave in San Francisco's Chinatown when he was six or seven decades after the depression ended, he was a big man.
He wore a windbreaker and an old woolen sailor's cap, navy blue. He didn't say where he lived or his name. He just said, call me Fong.
Some such story is written on the faces of all of these women. There are young girls, too, fresh from the country. Some are made brazen too soon by the city. There's a great exodus of girls from the farms into the city. Now, thousands of farms have been vacated completely in Minnesota.
These pictures of the Minneapolis truck driver is typical of disorders flaring up in various cities show a spirit of lawlessness which has no place in American. Or in the milingimbi, trying to prevent trucks from delivering needed food to the city, farm prices have dropped disastrously. And a man's work no longer brings him a just return. The threat of foreclosure losing out on the spread of the conservative. The girls are trying to get work, the prettier ones can get jobs in the stores when there are ready or waiting on tables, but these jobs are only for the attractive and the adroit.
The others, the real peasants have a more difficult time. I realized there was such pain in Harlem because you had whole families that were being evicted at any time, you could go down the street and there would be a whole family sitting seated whose every possession was placed on the street just because they didn't have the money to pay the rent.
And the marshals would stand there in a merciless way, you'd see little babies and little children and their parents trying to deal with what was an impossible situation. It was nothing to see three or four evictions in any given week. You wonder how I lived, that's a different question. We got a room, there's five or six of us, sometimes we pay rent, sometimes we don't. We got a sack of rice for a couple of dollars and we all cook every day and we eat there sometimes.
One night you see 40 or 50 guys come in and out.
The old guys go to each other's place, sit down, talk all night long before they go to sleep the next day. But as I said, you eat Chinese food. It's very cheap at the restaurant that's famous for rice porridge. Samuelsson They used to cook pig's stomach called the Chouteau. They take the crunchy part from the middle and then sell all the leftover parts of Giusto right outside.
Sam was just only a nickel. The American doesn't know how to eat it. You can see how bad it is.
But those days we used to buy a lot and every few days one guy would go up to Wells and come back with all those Cheetos and an old fashioned rice sack may not have met like that's come from China, 50 pounds of rice. And he brings those Cheetos back and I clean up, get a great big pot and we do it up. Oh, hell. We pour for a whole goddamn half a week all we want to eat. So we got our food one way or the other.
Lots of vegetables, real cheap at the time. And that's how I pass by. After eating an early breakfast, we hit the trail to the scene of action, which was about a four mile hike, most of us got our first glimpse of a forest fire with axes, shovels, picks and crosscut saws. We built a fire trail, working always in the heat of the fire and smoke. For Henry Wright, the Great Depression was a journey.
Born in Missouri in the early 20th century. Henry grew up in an orphanage at age 16. He got kicked out with just 20 dollars and a change of clothes. So with few options, he set out to find adventure. He was a hard five days. We built a fire trail and then on the second night we patrolled the hot spot till dawn. After a very strenuous day, sandwiches and coffee were sent to us around midnight when it was clear we'd be working through the night.
Huge trees needed to be sawed down. They were five feet in diameter with fire streaming from every night. Hold the heat and was almost unbearable. We worked in minute long shifts of four men pulling the saw back and forth with the pitch, running out on the saw and sizzling with eyebrows singed and our clothes burned full of holes. The great trees finally went crashing to the earth. By the beginning of the 1930s, it was clear that the economic crash was no temporary thing.
Thousands of banks have closed. Close to 13 million Americans were unemployed, 25 percent of the labor force at the time. When we come back, the federal government tries to stop the economic freefall. Hi, this is Paul and calling from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and you're listening to three, like on NPR. Love the show. Keep up the great work. Support for NPR comes from Newman's Own Foundation, working to nourish the common good by donating all profits from Newman's Own food products to charitable organizations that seek to make the world a better place.
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In a strange way, everybody had a feeling of common suffering. There was a kind of sense that everybody's having a hard time, you didn't have a feeling that some people were making it and some were suffering, but at the same time, everybody had to compete with everybody for the scarce things that there were.
My fellow citizens, this broadcast tonight marks the beginning of the mobilization of the whole nation for a great undertaking to provide security for those of our citizens and their families who, through no fault of their own, faced unemployment and privation during the coming winter in the shadow of the elevated and Nicholas piece of money and everything can be bought from a necktie where 30 cents flop, which means a place to sleep. The very fact that the young men and women of today have nothing easy to look forward to is a good thing for them because the very thing that is a stumbling block to one man is a springboard to another.
The very thing that crushes one man elevates another, and he have lost the savings of a lifetime. Many are unemployed, although the misgivings of down to the grave concern for the few unchurched steps after sprawl. Unfortunate, who must be up at the crack of dawn a. The best time of Mr. Zero somehow manages to obtain food for men who don't seem able to get it for themselves. It's one of the great mysteries of the city where women go when they're out of work and how.
There are not many women in the bread lines, there are no flophouses for women as there are for men where a bed can be had for a quarter or less. You don't see women lying on the floor at the mission in these free flops. They obviously don't sleep in the jungle or under newspapers in the park. There is no law, I suppose, against their being in these places. But the fact is they rarely are.
Yet there must be as many women out of jobs in cities and suffering poverty as there are men. What happens to them? Where do they go? Try to get into the weeds without any money or looking down at the heel, charities take care of very few and only those that are called deserving. The lone girl is under suspicion by the Virgin women who dispense charity. I've lived in cities for many months, broke without help, too timid to get in breadlines, I've known many women to live like this until they simply faint on the street from privations without saying a word to anyone.
A woman will shut herself up in a room until it's taken away from her and eat a cracker a day and be as quiet as a mouse. So there are no social statistics concerning her. You have guys going around from building to building, selling meat, they support for twenty five cents, thirty five cents a pound cheaper than the butcher shop, and you don't have to walk around. They come to you now during the Depression. I was so broke quite often.
I was with no money in my pocket. The most I ever had is maybe one or two dollars. The lease was, well, normally I got 10, 15 cents. I never missed a meal, but I postponed a few. We went to Oakland on the chili pepper and crossed the bay on the hobo's ferry to San Francisco, the skid row was full of bums. About noon, we passed the St. Francis Church there, about 2000 depression stiffs lined up.
The priest was giving each a nickel as they filed by one at a time, some going around the block to line up again. It's not a very fast way of getting rich. We celebrated Christmas in Oakland. It was on the main drag on New Year's Eve in Oakland that I got in another inevitable fight. It lasted nearly a block past a swell theater and ended up when a voice behind me said, beat it, the cops. I escaped down a side street and down an alley.
Dorothy Height was living in Harlem, New York, at this time. She was a college student and she knew she was lucky she had food to eat, a roof over our head. So she wanted to find a way to do something to help where she could.
Well, there were all kinds of organizing efforts in the churches. One of the most significant ones, I think, was at the time that we realized that we were spending what little money we had and we're getting nothing.
And Adam Powell came into the picture and he organized a people's committee. And what he called for was that we learned to spend no money where we could not work. And he taught us that no matter how little you had, your power was in what you did with it. And that, to me, was an indelible lesson. Dorothy had also seen the Depression destroy her hometown, but it was in Harlem that she saw how resilient people could be in the face of utter desperation.
When Adam Powell called this group together, he said to us, you can take your own condition in your own hands. And that was the time that he started the movement to get jobs on one hundred twenty Fifth Street. In June 1933, Washington became the spawning ground for what was perhaps the most startling egg ever hatched by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the National Recovery Act, and what the NRA was, government control of major American industries through codes of fair dealing.
These maximum hours and minimum wage, Roosevelt come out and he created the word NRA, gave work to people, a lot of guys. But later on, it got so sour, like they got jobs. For instance, I went in on one of them, a railroad job inside Elko. They paid seventy two dollars, I think. And they gave you jobs like that so you can make a living. And I worked there a few months. It was awfully hot, hot like everything.
In fact, you could see the blaze in the afternoon when the sun shines so blazing you can actually see the atmosphere of it. Just the blaze moving around lead and people come back working in the railroad. They come back for dinner. They practically stink because their clothing been in the sunlight so damn long.
And that's the way it is in the working out of a great national program that seeks the primary growth of the greater number. It is true that the toes of some people are being stepped up and are going to be stepped up. But these polls belong to the comparative people who seek to retain the same position, which is opposed by some shortcut that is harmful to the greater good. I lived out there. You don't go nowhere. It's right out in the middle of the desert.
See, that's the way it is. I did it almost any kind of work. But nevertheless, at that time I was nothing but a helper, a waiter, dishwasher and all that. See, they're always trying to push you down to these jobs, no matter how much or how good you are like that. NRA was like all the other things at first you don't realize. But nevertheless, in due time and in the long run, you find out it will never have any advantage toward the Chinese.
I met a fellow on the corner of Wall Street who from casual observance would have been taken for an office worker or a dapper salesman with his Panama hat, his nice suit and his sports shoes after I introduced myself. He said he wasn't having much luck. I've been bombing them right and left since the morning rush and I've only made 290. I thought that seemed like a good day's work at 50 cents an hour. Trouble with me is that they know me too well and when they see me come and they cross the street.
It does give me pleasure, though, to bomb some of those big financiers, but it seems to break their heart to lose a dime. It is appalling to think that these women sitting so listless in the room, they work as hard as it is possible for a human being to work a labor night and day, wash street cars from midnight to dawn and offices in the early evening, scrubbing for 14 and 15 hours a day, sleeping only five hours or so, doing this their whole lives and never earn one day of security, having always before them the pit of the future.
The endless labor, the bending back, the water soaked hands earning never more than a week's wages, never having in their hands more life than that.
By the mid 1930s, more people were returning to work, but this didn't mean life was getting easier. When we come back, the bittersweet path to recovery.
This is Gnomon Con from Salt Lake City, Utah, and I just want to say that I sometimes get goose bumps listening to NPR through lines. I'm addicted to it. Thank you. Support also comes from the Walton Family Foundation, where opportunity takes root. More information is available at Walton Family Foundation. Doug. She rubbed the twig legs of the child, the thin chest, and held the tiny feet in one palm, she lifted one foot and put it in her mouth, get the cold toes in her mouth and blew on them.
She leaned over and glue her breath on the child, and she knew that despite everything, the child had no resistance, it had not had enough to eat. She opened her shawl and laid the child inside close to her body.
If she'll live till spring, she promised it will be all right. There will be food, carrots, tomatoes. I'll plant them myself.
Oh. She knew Jim wouldn't say why he was going to town, but she had read a letter, something about a meeting about seed loans at the fire hall, and she knew that must be where he was going, especially as they began to pass other farmers going to town. She knew everything he thought. I believe in the Constitution. I believe in America. She looked at him with new eyes. When he said that he believed in America, the blood flushed into his face, he was a good speaker.
You're a man, you got the parts of a man, you got rights to you and your we want to do what's right, we want to pay our debts. We always pay our debts. It ain't us who don't pay our debts, brothers. Ed, we want to get away from the scene loans that aren't the ticket, not by a long shot. No, sir. We can't pay brothers. We can't pay. We taken the food one out of our children's mouths to pay what we already paid.
And that's a fact. Nobody can't get around.
It is for the new generation to participate in the decision and to give strength and spirit and continuity to our government and to our national life. Chinatown, the largest Oriental city in the accident in its little park, stands when you steal a statue of Saddam Yat-Sen, the father of New China. Frequent fantastic ceremonies celebrate holiday for home China in the traditional manner, but then around the middle of the depression, the change come along and everything goes zoom. The whole place begins to look different because they start building it up now.
The first thing they change is they change the names before that. Not that there wasn't any bars in Chinatown, but they weren't noticeable nowhere. They were just down beat up places, the bars for low down people and drunks and all that. But during the Depression, a bar changed names to some kind of a club and then all those fancy names comes. Then the same thing happens with the restaurants. Used to be only Chinese people comes in there and very few foreigners comes around.
I mean, people do come in. One of them hung out, the most famous one on Clay Street. But the little restaurants in Chinatown, they used to look down as very low, nothing. But then the change came and these new restaurants sprang up to, in fact, maybe Chinatown is the place that start everything rumbling during the Depression, such as like these dance halls, the bars and all that. But if. In the evening, I like to stroll down to the Hudson at the upper end of Battery Park and listen to the orchestras on the upriver dance boats, Andy Kenley's original Lucky Strike orchestra played to the people on the landing and always had an appreciative audience after taking in Coney Island.
I pulled out in New York after having spent over a month there. Only a few bums know it, but the J.C. Penney stores, which are located all over the country, are allowed to give away some article of clothing to some needy person.
My buddy Slim give the manager a pitiful story of sleeping in cold boxcars at night, nearly freezing to death without any winter underwear to keep him warm. He got the overalls by convincing him of his willingness to work. What farmer would hire a fellow in a suit that made him look like he was from the city? Besides, after he got a job and made some money, he would pay him back. Slim bummed two or three other stores and finally succeeded in getting a flannel shirt.
And at another store he got a bow tie to go with it.
The undertakers are usually good for a pair of shoes, but none of the deceased patrons of that town had anticipated Slim's wants and left any of the right size. And he failed to get a pair at any of the stores. So he bombed the houses until he got a pair. It would have been fewer houses if his feet weren't unusually large. He then had a complete new wardrobe except for a hat. He even went into a barber shop and came out with a haircut all Gradus.
That night we took in another holy roller meeting, Fort Fairfield, Maine. One of the bums got saved just for the fun of it. Of course, as a student, just trying to get through college, and since I only had a four year scholarship to college, I tried and I did make that four years. Give me both my bachelor's and master's. I didn't have much time to get into the nightclubs, but I did have the experience that was so rich in Harlem of little supper clubs where artists who performed downtown would come uptown and there they would serve as waiters and sing.
Or you could walk into any of the places, sticky wells. I forget all their names, Smalls. And there were those who would entertain. There would be good food and there was just a happy kind of climate. And it had a reality based because everybody was aware of the fact that we needed work, but there was also that sense that we had so much still among us as people to celebrate. I'll never forget that. But the last thing I got to explain to you, during the Depression, there's three walks of life.
Time, there's the business throughout Grant Avenue, you see people moving around with their products and open up for business after dinner. There's another walk of life. And that's our kind bums around the street doing nothing just to pass the time away because there's no work, no where the students don't got no work, because they don't know how to do dishes or hard work or anything. They'd rather hire our kind for that. But even us, we don't get no work.
Everything was so dead, there was hardly anything going on. So in the evening, we come out and walk around the street and pass, it was nice summertimes, you know, and we seem to enjoy it very much. After 8:00 or 9:00, we go back and as I said, and then we got all kinds of visitors, comes around, talk all night long, everything, anything that comes to our mind, we make a story out of it and chat.
After riding the rails for almost a year, Henry Wright cut off the train in Bangor, Maine. He knocked on the door of a big house and he asked for any kind of work. They employed him for a day then, too. And as they got to know him, they took him in. He would eventually consider them his adopted parents, though it was never legal and he had a relationship with them for the rest of his life. A few years after arriving in Bangor, he went to a YWCA dance and met the woman who would become his wife.
They had six kids, the fifth of which Marjorie Wright was my mother.
Dorothy Height graduated from New York University in 1932 and went on to spend her life fighting for the rights of both women and African-Americans. She was one of the most influential people in the civil rights movement. Dorothy had an instrumental role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, but unfortunately, because of her gender, her role was largely ignored by the press. However, she did eventually get her due, receiving both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal, as well as being featured on a postage stamp.
President Obama called her the godmother of the civil rights movement. She died in 2010. Mérida Laser went on to write about working people, especially women and the Midwest, for decades. She wrote her first novel titled The Girl in 1939, about the experiences of women during the Depression because of her leftist politics. She came under FBI surveillance during the Cold War and struggled to publish her work. She turned to writing children's books and continued publishing in lesser known places.
The Women's Liberation Movement in the 1970s brought new appreciation to McGriddles writing, which had long explored the themes of gender and sexuality. The girl was finally published in 1978, and other novels and anthologies would follow. In the 1980s, Myrdal would continue to write poetry, fiction and essays until her death in 1996. Fong was interviewed by oral historians in San Francisco in 1970. He wrote, quote, We interviewed Fong on several occasions in Portsmouth Square where he hung out.
We did not have his address, nor did we see him again after the first summer of field research in Chinatown in 1970. You might want to think of Fong as one of the old bachelors who gathered every day on Portsmouth's Square. They never learned his full name. That's it for this week's show, I'm around Abdelfattah, I'm from teen Arab Louis, and you've been listening to Throughline. This episode was produced by me and me and our amazing cast.
I'm Jamie York, who was the voice of Henry Wright, my grandfather. I'm Lawrence Wu and I played Fong. I'm Natalie Barton. I read the writings of Marida Lasser. My name is Kim Myocarditis, and I was the voice of Dorothy Height. The soundtrack for this episode was composed and performed by one of our favorite artists, Honea Ranie. That's spelled Adjaye and IÉ R.A. and I. She has a new album that just came out called Home on Gondwana Records.
You should check it out to hear more of her amazing work and a shout out to the rest of the Throughline team, which includes Layne Kalpen Levinsohn. Julie Kane. Fact checking for this episode was done by Kevin Vogel. Thank you to Jason Fuller and Steve Tyson for their voiceover work. Thanks also to Camille Smiley and Anya Grundmann and a special thanks to Victor Ni, author of Longtime California and to the Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries and for the Mérida Laser Story excerpted from Salutation to Spring by Marida Lasser from Prairie Schooner Vol.
12 No. Three by permission of the University of Nebraska Press Copyright 1938 by the University of Nebraska Press. If you have an idea or like something on the show, please write us a through line at MPEG or find us on Twitter at Throughline NPR. And one last thing we love to hear from you. Leave us a message with your name, where you're from and the line you're listening to through line from NPR at eight seven two five eight eight zero five.
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