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INTERVIEWER:
Testing. I'll tell you when. When I do like that, you can start.
JAMES BYRD:
Well this was a beautiful town.
INTERVIEWER:
You've got to tell me Aliquippa, remember?
JAMES BYRD:
Aliquippa, beautiful town. It had, whole town, everybody was lit downtown. And I, when I come through there, I come on, got off the plane, off of the train. See, the train was running through here then, and, man I look at the folks, \"Oh, boy.\" Everybody was working, and I come up here on the hill where I come to. I met a lady and two, her two children at the station, and I come to here. She brought me up on the hill here, and I was pretty dumb, you know, about... I had never left home and it was just wonderful thing.
INTERVIEWER:
OK. Now you began working J & L in 1937. Tell what your job was.
JAMES BYRD:
In '37, it was in April, I started as a laborer; getting coal, coke, shoveling coke, shoveling tar, shoveling salt. Then I went on, after that I went on the battery. When I went on the battery, I was a coke guide man. I was a coke guide man for a pretty good while. Then I went from a coke guide man to a door jam man. Then from a door jam man to a door machine man.
INTERVIEWER:
Now describe the working conditions. What was the work like?
JAMES BYRD:
Well, the work was like, see it was a oven, and they was built, and it was built tall and they poured the coal in the oven, and they cooked the coal up. Cook it till it get coke. Then they'll push it out in the hot car. Then they carry the hot car to the wall. From the wall to the coal handler that'd be loading it in the car.
INTERVIEWER:
Now was it, was it hot, was it dangerous, was it dirty work? Describe the work for me.
JAMES BYRD:
Oh man, that's the hardest job I ever worked on. And then, you know that was a hard job, but I learned it and liked it. It was hard, all of it, and it was dangerous, too. Yeah, and some, one or two, one fellow got killed on the job. A guy didn't let his ram back far enough and hit the mud bucket. The mud bucket your [inaudible] goes in. You shouldn't, it's about, the doors about pretty close to twelve foot. You had to climb up and down. They had a elevator on the machine going up and down, you'd do this, and when that—
INTERVIEWER:
OK, we need to stop because of the airplane.
JAMES BYRD:
—of why it was dangerous. See the top of it where they poured the coal in, they had a lid on there, and you had to, and if you step on one of them lids, you're liable to get burned up just like that. See that's, that's the dangerous part of it. That's one. Then you had to be careful not to walk. You can go up and down there. They wore wooden shoes all the time and they kept it clean, but it was awful hot, and, see, the hot car man and ladder car man, and the dope and the pusher man, all of them worked together as a—in other words, it was a team work job. Took team work to do, to operate that, and make coke took team work.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, was it hard to breathe and—
JAMES BYRD:
Well you had to have, I had a mask on. I had a mask on and I had goggles on, and I had, and then you had them hot, hot seals like in front of you, and they was hot, and when you take one of them doors off, you had to, you stand on this side and clean it off. Then the other guy, you had two men to do that, one on one side, one on the other, to clean them off. And then the man that operates the machine to pick the door up swung it around. Then he could move away. Then you had a coke rack. You fit it in there, you run it in just like that, and that's the way you take, put it on and take it off.
INTERVIEWER:
Now when we talked on the telephone, you told me about how certain ethnic groups, particularly black people, ended up with most of the hard jobs. Can you tell me that again?
JAMES BYRD:
Yeah. Most at, to begin with, making coke—
INTERVIEWER:
We're going to stop again, there's an airplane.
JAMES BYRD:
Well, the black people did all the hard jobs, all of them. And let me see, I'll tell you how many white jobs, there was the heater and the helper. That was the only, and that was the white jobs. Now all the other jobs, now none of them was the easy and the not dangerous jobs. But he didn't, wasn't no pressure on him when he go up on the top of the oven, it wasn't no pressure on him, but the only thing he would do, just walk around and take tests. But when I go up there, I got to sweep, I got to push the lid on, I got to take it off. I got a unc—a nephew broke one of them that plate to jump up like that, it'd blow you off of there. And, when, that's on the top of the oven. Now on the pusher side and the coke, all of them had to work together. All of them had to be a unit, in a unit. There wasn't a—now in the pusher when I first went there, they had mostly, was furnace on the pusher. That was white. Now, when a fellow named—well, you, you waited until I got a little bit old 'fore coming to me, asking me questions. See, because I know his name but I can't 'call it right then.
INTERVIEWER:
OK, well you don't have to tell me his name, just tell me the story.
JAMES BYRD:
This here was an Italian fellow. He taught the fellows from down in Virginia and all down in North wherever they come from, as long as they were white, he taught them how to heat. When he got his time coming to heat, they wouldn't give it to him. They did him just like they did us. We were, let me see how long it took us to before we could go all the way to get heater helping job. It was, I had done been there about twenty-eight years before I could move up to a heater helper, a heater.
INTERVIEWER:
Now tell me about how J & L sort of dominated the town. You know, I want you to tell me about J & L's relationship with the police and tell me about the plans that existed in terms of where people lived.
JAMES BYRD:
Well the Plant, well this here's Plan Eleven extension here. No this here's Plan Eleven, where I am, I'm on the extension. Well, there was a whole lot of, that's the foreign peoples and the Negroes was up here in these two plants. And down in Logstown it was foreign and Negro and Latvian. Now in the Eight, Twelve, and Plan Twelve, Plan Eight, Plan Six, you couldn't go. I couldn't go up there. You and I couldn't go up there. [laughs] It wasn't allowed.
INTERVIEWER:
What would happen to you if you went to a plan where you didn't live?
JAMES BYRD:
Oh, I don't know. Anything. I don't know what all would happen [laughs] around there. I know they didn't allow you there. No, you wasn't allowed there. It wasn't allowed there. Now that was a, you want to, but all the Plans now is you can live in any one of them.
INTERVIEWER:
OK, but don't tell me about now. You've got to keep me back in the '30s, OK?
JAMES BYRD:
Back in the '30s? Oh, back in the '30s.
INTERVIEWER:
Now tell me, why did they have these Plans? Why did they do the town like that? Why did they divide it up that way?
JAMES BYRD:
Well, they had white jobs. They call them American people, Englishmen. That was a white job. The other jobs was honky jobs. The other jobs was Negro jobs. Now, they didn't want you to do a steel job. Don't care if you knowed it there, if you could do it. They didn't want you on it. They don't care what...now take the carpenters—
INTERVIEWER:
OK, we're out of film. We have to change. Remember I told you, every eleven minutes?
JAMES BYRD:
See I joined just below the, just a little bit before the big strike, the first one. The first one, that was a bad one. And when the strike was, I stayed in, and when I come home, my sister-in-law told me, \"Don't talk, don't talk, don't talk, don't talk.\" She knowed a lot of stool pigeons in the town, what you call stool pigeons. They're the people there, they could tell everything the other people's done, what they had done. When, that, now, that didn't last too long because when the election come, all of those people were put out, see, them bad folks like. Let me see what's this here guy, even name...he was a Chief of Police, Mark, Captain Mark, yeah, yeah, Mark, oh boy. Then they, they had, there, he stayed up in the, as you go into work, he had a big office up there. Then,[laughs] after they put them all out, I seen him down there working on the, in the labor end of town, working on a labor job.
INTERVIEWER:
OK, but the story I want you to tell me is what you told me back in the kitchen about how when you first joined the union and you asked them if they could protect you, and you said, you gave them fifty cents or whatever, then you went and joined the other union. I want you to tell me that over again.
JAMES BYRD:
So you want to go over that?
INTERVIEWER:
Yes sir.
JAMES BYRD:
All right. I joined both of the, I joined the twenty-five cents union, the first—
INTERVIEWER:
Can you call it, can you tell me the Amalgamated? \"I joined the Amalgamated\", can you tell me that?
JAMES BYRD:
I'm going to tell you both of them.
INTERVIEWER:
OK. I want you to call it Amalgamated.
JAMES BYRD:
Right. This here was CIO. The first one was the CIO.
INTERVIEWER:
Let's stop for a second. OK?
JAMES BYRD:
Well, when I went and joined the company union and, why, I went to join the company union, they had a lot of the colored people was joining it. They wasn't joining the CIO, and I went and joined the company union. I gave them a quarter, and I asked this man, I said now, \"If I lose my job without a cause, could you, would you save it for me?\" He said, \"It all depends.\" He didn't say he could and didn't say he couldn't, but I didn't take a chance. I went to the union, I talked with them, and I told them, I asked them, could they, would they save it? She said, \"We'll go all the way.\" And they did go all the way. They fired me, but I, Lord didn't lose no time. They fired me on a Sunday, on a Sunday morning, a Sunday here about, oh about twelve o'clock. I told the man he had to give me a spare man. I said, \"If you don't give me a spare man, I'm going home.\" Now he said, \"No.\" I said, \"Well, I'm going home.\" He said, \"If you go home, I'm going to fire you.\" I said, \"Well, you just got to go to firing. I'm going. I, I can't do it like this. I got to have a spare man.\" All right, that happened. I come home that Sunday evening. Then Monday morning I go down to the office, the union office, and I was talking to the secretary, the financial secretary and the President, and they was telling us that, \"Well, we're going down there and talk with them.\" Well, we went down then and talked, got, I went. We won, won the case. I got my spare man on my side of the job, but the other man on the other side of the job, he didn't get nothing.
INTERVIEWER:
Now I need for you to tell me, for you to just say... before you told me that story, and it was really good. You said you went to the union. I need for you to tell me, just tell me, \"I went to the CIO\" as opposed to \"the union\" so that people will understand which union we're talking about, and then I can edit it in later. Can you just tell me, \"I went to the CIO.\"
JAMES BYRD:
Yeah. I went to the CIO and he, they told me, \"We'll go all the way. We'll go just as long as if it had to go to the Supreme Court.\" They would go all the way.
INTERVIEWER:
Good. Now, can you tell me what FDR meant to the steel workers?
JAMES BYRD:
Who?
INTERVIEWER:
Roosevelt.
JAMES BYRD:
He was the greatest man ever lived.
INTERVIEWER:
You have to tell me his name.
JAMES BYRD:
President Roosevelt? The greatest man ever lived. If, if, Pre- I, he's, he's, I don't, and, it, we was. He opened up everything. I remember one day we were going to work, and I heard him say, \"You can fire my people, fire my people and lay them off, but I'll tax your concern and feed them. I heard him say that. I heard that on the radio. Boy that man. Uou know one thing? If it wasn't, I wouldn't be living like I'm living if it wasn't for that man. That man, ain't no President in this country, never was, and you can talk all of them, Lincoln and Washington and all of them, none of them wasn't no g- wasn't as good as he was.
INTERVIEWER:
OK. Why do you say that? Tell me why you say he was—
JAMES BYRD:
His speeches where he told the people—
INTERVIEWER:
You've got to tell me his name again.
JAMES BYRD:
Talking about President Roosevelt?
INTERVIEWER:
Yeah.
JAMES BYRD:
President told 'em, told the people they got to join the unions. He's the man called the unions, \"How come, how come they kill so many people down there?\" They went and locked them out and this man, told the... when the company commences laying them off, he said, \"I'm going to tax your concern and feed my people.\" Oh man, that is, that man, I can't mention what he is, I can't mention, I don't know words. I don't know the words to say what a great man that was. And I'll tell you another one right behind him, Truman—
INTERVIEWER:
OK, but that's out of time, so we, I mean I know Mr. Truman was a great man, but we really can't use that for the show. Now, tell me a little bit more about these, about these company spies, these stool pigeons.
JAMES BYRD:
Those company stool pigeons? Man there was a gang of stool pigeons in this town. They'd, you know, I, see I come up here and I wanted to bring my wife up, and I was working on the job, and the boss, I told the boss I wanted to be off to go to meet my wife to come to... meet her she had to go with me into Pittsburgh to get meet her. She come in on the B and O. And I said, \"I wanted to be off so I can go get my wife.\" He said, \"What they're having up on the hill?\" I said, \"I don't know nothing about what they're having on the hill, what they're doing up there.\" I said, \"I don't know nothing about that\". I said, \"What are you talking about? What do you mean about it?\" Well, I said, \"I want to go get my wife, now.\" I don't, I, and he said, \"OK, then\". After I told him I said, \"I don't know what the others folk do.\" And I got to tell you about what they thought, you know, all the way down the line there. Did you get Roy dying there? You don't know nothing about Roy dying? Well, the world, I can tell you, you said I couldn't talk about nothing after the war, or while the war was going on?
INTERVIEWER:
OK, let's stop for a second.
JAMES BYRD:
The bad part was working the Georgia chain gang. Now, we went up, we, when you worked there, you had, they didn't have no, they didn't have no lunch hour. You had to eat, or you had to make your own lunch hour. You had to, see you had to push so many ovens an hour, and we had done pushed so many ovens, we were sitting back there eating, and Bill Hall, that was the big boss, he come up there, and I looked and seen them fellas running, running. \"There come Hall! There come Hall!\" I looked and I said, \"Looka here.\" And I still sit. I didn't run. I was there, I wasn't scared. So I said, \"How come you all run?\" \"Didn't you see old Bill Hall?\" Yeah, now, now you couldn't, you gotta be on the job. You got to eat the sandwich and you got to keep it going. Yeah, man and then, them same fellas, they'd, they'd run to tell Bill Hall everything. Tell Bill, tell what, up here and whatever you do, they're they're telling. Whatever happened was on the hill, yeah, they were telling. Stool pigeons.
INTERVIEWER:
Then, what would Bill Hall do? I mean, how did he, how did he talk to you? How did he treat people?
JAMES BYRD:
Well, see, he talked to some of them bad, but he didn't talk to me bad. Me and him got to, come up to one of the worstest cussin's there ever was. [laughs] Yeah. And me and him, we had some awful times, me and Bill Hall did.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, we're getting there. We're almost finished. This will be the last.
Series
The Great Depression
Raw Footage
Interview with James Byrd. Part 1
Producing Organization
Blackside, Inc.
Contributing Organization
Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, Missouri)
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Description
Episode Description
Interview with James Byrd conducted for The Great Depression.
Created Date
1992-12-20
Asset type
Raw Footage
Genres
Interview
Rights
Copyright Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode).
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Duration
00:24:35
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Credits
Interviewee: Byrd, James
Interviewer: James, Dante J.
Producing Organization: Blackside, Inc.
Writer: Malkames, Rick
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Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
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Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
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Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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Duration: 0:22:30
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Duration: 0:24:35
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Duration: 0:24:35
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Identifier: 482-8-1 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
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Duration: 00:24:35
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Citations
Chicago: “The Great Depression; Interview with James Byrd. Part 1,” 1992-12-20, Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 31, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-2f7jq0t53m.
MLA: “The Great Depression; Interview with James Byrd. Part 1.” 1992-12-20. Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 31, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-2f7jq0t53m>.
APA: The Great Depression; Interview with James Byrd. Part 1. Boston, MA: Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-2f7jq0t53m