thumbnail of The Great Depression; Interview with James Downey. Part 2
Transcript
Hide -
JAMES DOWNEY:
I know, in the early days, before there was a union in J and L, the workers, they had no rights, you know. Only rights they had were God-given rights, you know, and these, the bosses and things, they didn't respect your rights and whatnot. But I know, my father, he got in with the organizers of the union. I recall, mens would come to our house at night to sign up for the union. They came at nights because they didn't want some of the stool-pigeons in our areas to see them coming to the house. Now, everybody coming to the house didn't come there to sign the union, but they, the thing was, this here is, these stool-pigeons, they put the, in other words, the house was on the spot, in a way. So a lot of people, they wouldn't even come, you know, because they didn't want to be branded you know, that they were goin' after joining the union, see, in some cases they were. But the thing is this, but my father, he was, he was all for, sometime, sometime I think to myself even to this day, that he had to be nuts. Because, things was really really tough. I mean, I mean, you had no rights. The cops, the cops could come to your house, and say, \"OK, you're under arrest,\" and you was under arrest. And then, if you resist them, you had them billy-clubs, they'd beat you down, and throw you in jail. You had no recourse, you understand: the county, the judges, they all, they all was in one big family, you understand. So therefore, you had no rights, you know. So anyway, so my father, I don't know, I really don't understand, to this day, why he went on take this big step, because many peoples had said that his son would never get a job in the mill. I was told that by other folks, but no. A lot of peoples were leery of me with their kids, they didn't want their kids to have no part of me, because they figured, by associating with me, that the company would probably take it on them, you understand, their parents. OK. Yes.
INTERVIEWER:
So now, how was it that it was your father that ended up becoming an organizer, right, out of all the people in the mill, why was it that it was Mr. Downey, Sr.?
JAMES DOWNEY:
I can't tell you that, I couldn't tell you, honest. You know, I can't understand that, no, it's just, it's just like, I don't think I'm saying, I mean, the guy had to be crazy, you know. You had to be crazy, because all the odds was against you, you know. But then, now why, I just want to, I can't understand, I never could understand that. No.
INTERVIEWER:
Do you ever remember him being afraid, or having you—?
JAMES DOWNEY:
No. No, no. Not afraid, no.
INTERVIEWER:
You have to tell me that.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK. OK, I'm ready when you ready.
INTERVIEWER:
Go ahead, tell me.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK. Yes, I said, as I was saying, that I couldn't understand how my father would go into this, when he know that there was no out, he had no out. The way in—I recall, I recall that he was locked up, him and Mr. Dempsey were locked up because, on a libel theme, wherein, they had taken a family from Aliquippa here, blacks, to West Virginia Line, and put them out there, and told them, \"Don't you come back to Aliquippa.\" They was, they were locked up on those charges, OK. My wife's father went there bond and got them out of jail. Judge, I mean, Attorney Brown, from Pittsburgh, a black lawyer, took the case. I don't know whatever happened, but my father, I don't know how they settled the case or whatever, but I'm saying, in other words, it was resolved, you know. But the thing I'm saying is he had to go to Pittsburgh, they had to go to Pittsburgh to get a lawyer, you understand?
INTERVIEWER:
Now, you got to look at me.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK.
INTERVIEWER:
Tell me a little bit more about the company's attitude towards union organizers, and people that were joining the union, I mean, what would they do to discourage the organizing of peoples and joining? What did they do?
JAMES DOWNEY:
Well, well, the thing is, see, here is, that black peoples was the last one to get onboard, if you understand what I'm saying. They was the last to join up the union. The Italians, the Polacks, the Russians, the Serbians, they was afraid, a lot of them, but they was more aggressive than the blacks. My father, he stood out there just like a sore thumb, you know. Wherein, he had no recourse, you understand, but the thing is here, with these other mens, like, that, these other white mens, and some Anglo-Saxon, they were part of it, the Italians, and whatever, they was a part of it, and I think he got his strength from those mens, although he was black, understand. Now, those black -- those white men, they could have left Aliquippa, and gone down the road there to another plant, you understand? But, you see, they would also, if they knew that you were leaving, if you get fired here, and you went, maybe, down to the next little town, and they found you working down there, they will get in contact, and have them to fire you, 'cause you're a troublemaker, understand. You see? So, this, these are all threats that they use to turn people away from the union, see.
INTERVIEWER:
Let me ask you, now, I had a gentleman tell me, that it was the strategy of the union to organize the white workers first, and then to organize the blacks, because if the organizers tried to organize them together, then some of the white workers would be resistant to that. Which, do you have any knowledge of that?
JAMES DOWNEY:
No, no. Only thing I can tell you, I know the whites, well, if it don't be for the whites, if they had to wait on the blacks, there wouldn't be be no union, no, there wouldn't be be no union. Because, my father, just like you heard Mr. Byrd say today, he'd beg a guy to join the union, you understand what I'm talking about? You see, and therefore, is, I know, the peoples, the black peoples, they was afraid to be seen with him. He could be talking about the weather, or he could be talking about the ballgame, you understand? But the thing is here, this guy is a union organizer, so therefore, you know, don't be seen with this guy. So...
INTERVIEWER:
Let's just stop.
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:
OK.
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:
Take seven is up.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, what I want you to tell me about when we begin is—
JAMES DOWNEY:
-Mr. Byrd.
INTERVIEWER:
I want you to tell me about the 1937 strike.
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:
And roll seven.
JAMES DOWNEY:
Well, they had quite a few strikes, I can't get the dates on me of what year or whatnot. But I know, is that, one strike, the first strike I witnessed, I went down there, downtown by the mill, down there, and the governor, the governor, he sent in state troopers on horses—
INTERVIEWER:
Wait a minute, I need for you to say that again, because we got the motorcycle- OK, go ahead. We won't stop, we'll just keep on rolling, just start all over again.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK, OK. I recall, I think, I 'call the first strike I witnessed, I guess it must have been in '37 somewhere along there, OK. The men were down there down on by Franklin Ave., down there by the entrance of the tunnel. The governor, he sent in state troopers on horses, and they had these long sticks, looked like little mini baseball bats. They come in on horses, and they was hitting, hitting anything that was standing down there, amongst, picketing right there. I seen that out my own eyes, see, OK. And, but you see, those things dis-encouraged a lot of mens, because they was afraid, see, yeah. And therefore, in other words, to me, like Mr. Byrd was saying this morning, about—
INTERVIEWER:
We've got to stop, because of the airplane.
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:
JAMES DOWNEY:
I recall, one day, my father was telling me, he said, \"Buddy,\" he said, \"they are supposed to pick me up, some fellows supposed to pick me up, and take me out and beat me.\" I said, \"Beat you, Dad?\" He said, \"Yeah, they're supposed to beat me, take me out and beat me.\" I said, \"Yeah?\" And, but that didn't dis-encourage him, but it never materialized. But I do know this, there were two mens, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Finch, two mens, they took those men up on Griffin Heights, up there on Griffin Heights, and beat those mens up. Yes sir, I know that for a fact, understand? But, but the thing is here, it didn't stop the peoples from joining the union, see, the union began to pick up more steam, you know, and blacks—
JAMES DOWNEY:
—began to see that the union was their, one of their best securities.
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:
Ran out of film.
INTERVIEWER:
Now we've got to change the film.
JAMES DOWNEY:
Well, hey, hey.
INTERVIEWER:
OK. Robert, would you—?
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:
INTERVIEWER:
We're all set.
JAMES DOWNEY:
I recall that they beat, they took Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Finch up on Griffin Heights up there, way, way—I used to play ball up there—and they, they beat these two mens because they'd joined the union. Now, undoubted, it must have been someone that the union, I mean, the company had hired to do this, and as I stated earlier, my father was, told me that some mens were supposed to pick him up and beat him, but it never materialized. But I also recall too, my father he told me sometime later that, the company had offered him a boss job, foreman job, see, in order to, you know, you take this job, you know, that take you out of the union, you understand, you know? But you see, my father, he knew that being a boss back in the '30s, like I'm trying to fly without wings, you know, so therefore, he didn't fall for that bait, you understand? And like I'm saying, this is why I'm so proud of him in so many ways, you know, because the opportunity was there for him, in a lot of ways, to give up this fight. Which, he'd rather fight than run, you understand? And I see a lot of that in myself, you understand, you know. So, I'm really proud that some of the things that he had did for the community, you know?
INTERVIEWER:
Now, can you tell me what Roosevelt meant to working people, and to steel workers in particular?
JAMES DOWNEY:
Well, only thing I know, I can see this, I don't know about in the steel-workers, but I know, I'll go ahead and tell you what I know as a child. Ready?
INTERVIEWER:
Yes.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK.
INTERVIEWER:
Look at me.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK, I'm looking at you, so, I recall, back in the twenty, I think, '28, somewhere along there, when Hoover and Al Smith was running for President. I was only about eight or nine years old, so the people was saying that, if you get Al Smith, he gonna bring back liquor, you know, \"wet,\" we called it \"wet,\" [unintelligible], see. So the people said, \"We don't want Al Smith,\" so they got, so they voted for Hoover. So, then came the Depression. The next time the election came, I think, I don't know, was it, this guy from Kansas, Sunflower State or whatever. President Roosevelt ran, and he won, he won. Things begin to change. People saw hope, that in this man's speech on the radios at the time, because when he spoke over the radio, it was like a, like it would be a holiday, because everybody- well, there wasn't all that many radios, number one, and those people that had radios, you would have, you had a lot of company there, you know, you had a lot of company in the house because everybody wanted to hear what President Roosevelt had to say, this is how much they really liked the man, and believed in the man. So, he started, he started, he formed a—
INTERVIEWER:
Let me stop you for a second, because, this is important, but it's in another, it's in another show, OK, as a matter of fact it's in my other show.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK.
INTERVIEWER:
So, [laughs] but, let me change the subject, just sort of redirect it, OK?
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK, all right, OK.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, after the Union won—
JAMES DOWNEY:
Yeah.
INTERVIEWER:
OK, and they got, they then sort of redirected their actions, their direction, and got involved in electoral politics, sort of sponsoring candidates and running candidates and whatnot.
JAMES DOWNEY:
Right, right.
INTERVIEWER:
Why? Why did they feel that that was a push?
JAMES DOWNEY:
Well, you see, back in the '20s, '30s, here, when election time would come, the company would have, these white mens were candidates. They would come up here on plan eleven, and -- plan eleven extension, where these black churches were, they would come there and tell the peoples to vote for this candidate, or that candidate, you see? And therefore, the peoples, that's who they would vote for, you see? They would give the preachers, I guess, five or ten dollars, whatever it may be, see. They knew that the blacks had faith in their ministers, so this, they figure, you got him, and he'll lead the flocks.
INTERVIEWER:
Stop, let's stop, that's not where we want to go.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK.
JAMES DOWNEY:
I recall the first time my father, well, the first time he ran for public election, was, he ran for the inspector, the poll inspector. What that person does, they watch and see that no tampering with the ballot, understand? OK. He kept order at the poll. Well, hey, that was a big,that was a big thing, you understand? Because all before, it was all white. Well, in this day and time, you know, it's a small thing, it's a small thing, you understand, but he ran and won that. From there, then he went on and won out in the union, as vice-president. The point, what I'm getting at here is that, elections, political elections, is what govern the country, it govern everybody lives, politics. I don't care what field you're in or whatever, it's politics, and that's what governs you. In my lifetime, I ran for city council here, it was a borough at the time. I won the first time, first black ever ran, ever won for council here in Aliquippa. I won it. OK. I, I, before I even ran—
INTERVIEWER:
Mr. Downey, I have to stop you here, I have to stop you, because you're getting me out of the '30s.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK.
INTERVIEWER:
Cause that's out of time.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK.
INTERVIEWER:
We just want to talk about elections in general.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK.
INTERVIEWER:
Ready?
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:
Ready.
JAMES DOWNEY:
It was very important that people register and vote, in order to elect officials that will give you, give you justice. When I say, I mean, justice, this means, this comes from the city officials, county officials, and the state officials, and the United States officials. In the local, in your local community, you elect councilmen, and therefore, they are your governing body. You put them in when you vote for them, they serve you, and therefore, in other words, they set the rules that you will live by in that community, you know. Therefore, it's important that you register and vote, because that's the only way that you're gonna get justice, is by voting. Voting people in, and voting people out. It goes all the way to the courthouse, to judges, are put in by you. Sometimes or other they may not do as you see fit, but they put in, but they are in control. And—
INTERVIEWER:
This is good, but I still need for you to tell me that the union realized, and the people in the Union realized, that they couldn't really change their lives until they fought, not only in the plant, but in the community.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK, OK, that's good. OK.
INTERVIEWER:
Give me one moment, the sun is coming back, it's coming back, and...go ahead.
JAMES DOWNEY:
You know, the Union, they, they learned that you have to get involved in politics, in order to get a lot of laws passed, the elected officials that'll give you laws that will protect the union, and protect you. This is why the union got involved in politics, because it elects governors, it elects presidents, it elects judges, so therefore when the cases comes up, in other words, I elected you, in other words, I want a fair, fair trial, because I supported, elected you. If you don't get involved in politics, then you don't have no support when you go before the judges, and what have you. Because it operates, these lawyers, these corporations, they've got lawyers, they've got judges, because they done paid them off, but by you having your input as an elected, as a politician, they will listen to you, and this is the strength. I know the union have put in many, many presidents, put in many, many judges, the union have put in—
JAMES DOWNEY:
—many sherriffs in these communities, you understand. In some towns they have put in—
INTERVIEWER:
We just ran out of film.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK.
INTERVIEWER:
But I'll take you back.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK. OK.
Series
The Great Depression
Raw Footage
Interview with James Downey. Part 2
Producing Organization
Blackside, Inc.
Contributing Organization
Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, Missouri)
AAPB ID
cpb-aacip/151-8911n7z397
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/151-8911n7z397).
Description
Episode Description
Interview with James Downey 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).
Media type
Moving Image
Duration
00:25:02
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Credits
Interviewee: Downey, James
Interviewer: James, Dante J.
Producing Organization: Blackside, Inc.
Writer: Malkames, Rick
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-1-1 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-1-2 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-1 (MAVIS Component Number)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-2-1 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-2-2 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-2-3 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-2 (MAVIS Component Number)
Format: Audio cassette
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-3-1 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-3-2 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-3-3 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-3 (MAVIS Component Number)
Format: U-matic
Color: Color
Duration: 0:4:55
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-5-1 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Color: Color
Duration: 00:45:53
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-5 (MAVIS Component Number)
Format: Video/mpeg
Generation: Copy: Access
Duration: Video: 0:45:53:00
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-6-1 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Duration: 0:22:30
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-6 (MAVIS Component Number)
Format: 16mm film
Generation: Original
Color: Color
Duration: 0:22:30
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-7-1 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Duration: 0:25:37
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-7 (MAVIS Component Number)
Format: Betacam: SP
Generation: Master
Color: Color
Duration: 0:25:37
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-8-1 (MAVIS Carrier Number)
Color: Color
Duration: 00:25:02
Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: 484-8 (MAVIS Component Number)
Format: Video/quicktime
Generation: Copy
Duration: Video: 0:25:02:00
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Citations
Chicago: “The Great Depression; Interview with James Downey. Part 2,” 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-151-8911n7z397.
MLA: “The Great Depression; Interview with James Downey. Part 2.” 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-151-8911n7z397>.
APA: The Great Depression; Interview with James Downey. Part 2. 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-151-8911n7z397