AJ Whittenberg Interview

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JUDITH HELFAND: You, last time we spoke, you said that you felt as if the president of the United States was looking out for the Negro, but that the mill executives thought that the NRA was sort of meddling in their business.

AJ WHITTENBERG: Yeah.

HELFAND: And that they weren’t going to allow that to happen.

WHITTENBERG: That’s right.

HELFAND: Um, could you -- could you say that again and go a little further with that?

WHITTENBERG: Yes, at that time mill executives said that, uh, the president gone a little too far and the rules of the employees of the mill, but nevertheless, 1:00mill executives at that time thought they was at the top ladder -- top of the ladder, and they thought that anything they said would even go by what the president would say. So what gave us more encouragement than anything else, one day the president was coming through Greenville. Most people were viewing were Negroes. He was on the back platform. I think the train stopped for about five or ten minutes. He made a speech. At the later part of his speech -- I never 2:00shall forget it -- he said, “Any man is worth more than 50 cents a day.” What he was talking about then -- NRA at that time, I mean, the mills at that time were hiring Negroes but they were hiring them at the low part of the jobs and were not giving them too much. Some of them were making four and five dollars a week and when the president made this statement, you should see the Negroes applaud.

HELFAND: But then the NRA is about to come in, right?

3:00

WHITTENBERG: Yeah, they decided later on they would come in. I think they decided later on.

HELFAND: Well, I’ll tell you, you know, the other thing -- the other thing that you said, you said that when the NRA came in and the -- that the executives felt like on some level that the government was meddling with their business and that all the executives here in Greenville depended on the mills so that they could, you know, make their million dollars. Then you told me about something that your father had told you about -- your father had said that there was two things that a black man shouldn’t mess with a white man.

WHITTENBERG: Oh, yeah.

HELFAND: OK.

4:00

WHITTENBERG: They say if you want to get the attention of a white man, there’s two things a Negro would do -- could do. First thing, mess with his women. Second, mess with his daughter and you’ll get the full attention. So we were taught that. And so I think a number because at that time they could accuse a Negro -- all they had to do was accuse a Negro of whistling or winking his eye at a white woman, he would be persecuted and I know what happened. Emmitt Till 5:00was drowned in the Mississippi River. What was it concerning?

HELFAND: I’m going to ask you this question and then we’ll let this car go, OK?

WHITTENBERG: Oh, yeah.

HELFAND: All right.

WHITTENBERG: If you -- they were really upset because at that time the NRA was somewhat meddling with their dollars. They wanted to spend it the way they wanted to spend it, not the right way. At that time, there was some Negroes doing more work and getting less on the hour. But they -- they went along with 6:00it. Some didn’t like it. None of them didn’t like it because -- but they was afraid to say anything about it because they only livelihood was that one job. And the thing about that was why Negroes could not speak out in that day -- did not speak out -- it was because if he would fire you on that job, you go an apply for another job, usually they would know why you were fired. And so if 7:00the Negro at the time thought if you could get the NRA to do the work then he could sit back and be a little bit more satisfied with it.

HELFAND: So, would you say that the NRA opened up an opportunity -- was it -- did the NRA open up an opportunity for black textile workers that they had never seen --

WHITTENBERG: Yes, ma’am, yes, ma’am.

HELFAND: Could you say that and go a little further with it?

WHITTENBERG: Yeah, well, after our NRA had come forward in these things, then the 8:00mill began to hire Negroes more so.

HELFAND: All right. That’s not what I mean. So, I’ll explain OK. The possibility of the NRA, of the textile code, that’s what Mr. -- in fact, why don’t we have you read Mr. Nealey’s letter, if that’s OK because then you -- So, could you -- could you introduce this letter by just telling me -- you know, could you say this is a letter that Mr. Nealey wrote and, you know, Mr. Nealey didn’t have to worry about getting fired or something to that extent, and then could you read the beginning of the letter because it really sets things up.

9:00

WHITTENBERG: Well, Mr. Nealey

M1: Sorry guys.

HELFAND: One second, one second

WHITTENBERG: Okay.

M1: Hold on, hold on…

HELFAND: Okay

WHITTENBERG: -- he was self-employed.

HELFAND: Could you say, Mr. Nealey?

WHITTENBERG: Mr. Nealey was self-employed, that’s number one. Number two, Mr. Nealey wasn’t afraid. He considered right is right. He put forth every effort, I won’t say effort, but efforts to bring things forth, but people -- there were people in the background that applaud him silently. Silently! Wouldn’t come out, but they liked what he was doing and they began to -- to 10:00cooperate with him any way if it wouldn’t be perfectly known. He -- but he was one that would stand out. Sometime he was by himself almost. And some of -- some people they’d -- they applauded him for doing this. They always look around to see who -- see who looking at them. And they were very careful by not applauding this thing publicly.

11:00

HELFAND: So Mr. Nealey came out and wrote this?

WHITTENBERG: Yes, ma’am.

HELFAND: Could you say that and then --

WHITTENBERG: Well, I could say there were other people that helped him do the right. There were other people that helped Mr. Nealey. Don’t think Mr. Nealey did this alone. He had a -- had a number with him, but they wouldn’t stand out and he was the one to place his [signature?], brave, being brave, and 12:00so I know that from my self-experience whenever you come out for the right in terriorties some people say I’m behind you. How far are they behind you? I imagine in this day they told Mr. Nealey, none of them said they were behind him, but how far were they behind him?

HELFAND: Could you read his letter to us?

WHITTENBERG: Hey boys!

HELFAND: Okay, one second

M1: Okay

13:00

WHITTENBERG: Yeah. [Gen.?] Hubert H. Johnson, Administration of Public Works Program, Washington DC. This is a letter from Mr. Nealey. He signs it. “A voice from the colored people in South Carolina. Please see that something is done to help him. My dear Johnson -- HELFAND: You know what? I’m sorry. Let’s start -- I want you start with July 12,1933. General Hugh H. Johnson.

WHITTENBERG: Oh, yeah. “July 12,19 and 33, General Hugh H. Johnson, Administrator of Public Works Program, Washington DC. A voice from colored people in South Carolina. Please see that something is done to help him. My 14:00dear sir General Johnson, will there be any work for colored people in South Carolina in the South under the new wage scale? In the South I noticed that the [newspaper?] that cleaners and outside help is not considered the code of the mill. General Johnson, you know in the South, especially in South Carolina, 95 percent of the cotton mill laborers is white. You see why they put in a code cleaning and outside help. They would apply to colored labor. So I hope that you will not accept of the code until some revision is made to raise the colored 15:00people’s wages in South -- in South, which is will never be unless you take it in hand. You know in South Carolina a colored man got no job if the white man want it. General Johnson, in Greenville, South Carolina, city, county wages is paid to colored people. RFC labor 75 -- 50 to 75 cents a day. Domestic help, porters and janitors, five dollars and six dollars a week. Cooks and chauffeurs and maid women a dollar and a half to two dollars a week. Hotels, some of the 16:00bell workers for what they hustle for. Farm help, 40 to 50 cents per day. Wholesale [houses?], truck drivers six and seven dollars a week. Common labor ten cents per hour.”

HELFAND: There’s just a couple more paragraphs.

WHITTENBERG: Oh, yeah.

HELFAND: Um, maybe you could say, um, General Johnson, please look out for the colored people as a whole.

WHITTENBERG: Yeah. “ If the NRA would look out for the Negroes as a whole, the colored people, it would be better because the colored man has to pay the same 17:00for living (inaudible) as mill employees and every other man it cost his as much to live as anybody in the mill, but Negro cannot work in the mill. The colored people, some of them, is trying to buy homes as a wage -- at that wage of their home being taken away from them and he cannot keep up his payments that wages being paid. The colored man rent is high. Rent is one dollar per room, too high for what he is making. General Johnson, please look out for the colored people as a whole in South Carolina. See that colored be benefitted by a raise in wages under the new plan. Such a man as [many presidents?] get two and three 18:00dollars per week. All other workers done for ten cents per hour. Hoping that you will draw up a code for domestic workers and I ask the one thing that is drawn up -- the code that they are going to about colored labor. Hoping you give this letter consideration. I’ll be glad to give you more data on the considera-- condition if you will like to have it. Our president said he’s going to do something about the forgotten man and that is the Negro in the south.” That same thing come maybe the same day when we saw President Roosevelt. He spoke up [himself?] as he was going through saying man is worth 19:00more than 50 cents a day. I heard that.

HELFAND: Now, Mr. Nealey was trying to get this in before this code went into effect. He was trying to get Washington to listen because he knew -- he understood what the management was trying to do.

WHITTENBERG: That’s right. So, you know, just as been stated before that some people in the educational field was with him because his education was very, very low. But one thing he had -- he had guts.

HELFAND: Could you, Could you tell me that without the car going by?

20:00

WHITTENBERG: Oh, yeah.

HELFAND: Could you repeat that for me?

WHITTENBERG: I said, in that letter you know an uneducated man do not know hardly -- do not know hardly his name is written on that wall, wouldn’t known that. You know he had the cooperation at that time to dictate this letter -- had the help of some of the educated people, but they did this in the background. But Mr. Nealey was -- had the backbone to bring it to the front.

HELFAND: You said he had guts.

21:00

WHITTENBERG: Sho’ -- had [myself?]. And the reason why some of these things wasn’t -- see younger people would have come out. Some of them would have said something but they didn’t want the younger people in it at that time. They wanted to keep it quiet by hiding their doors.

HELFAND: You are doing so wonderfully. I have one more question and then we’ll be done. Thank you so -- you are -- you’re so incredible to talk to.

WHITTENBERG: Well, I’m incredible because God blessed us. God --

HELFAND: You said it. God is with you and God is with us, too.

WHITTENBERG: With everybody.

22:00

HELFAND: Did you feel like the presence of -- I guess -- so could you explain to us that Mr. -- you understand that Mr. Nealey was trying -- he was trying to say this before these codes really went into effect. I mean, he knew that these codes -- that this new textile code, there was little margin of time before it was going to be passed and he understood that the language that they had used to describe the outside and the colored -- that black people --

WHITTENBERG: That’s right.

HELFAND: Um, do you want to elaborate that -- on that at all?

23:00

WHITTENBERG: Yes. Well, in those days -- may I say this? The president of the United Sta-- or the candidate that was running for the governor of South Carolina.

HELFAND: At that time?

WHITTENBERG: Yeah. Around that -- a little before that. He made these statements. He was up there talking about the stabilization of the price on cotton because in that day the price of cotton in the spring when they selling fertilizer was high. But in the fall in October and November the prices of cotton was low. He was making a speech and my father and some others were there. That was the days when Negroes couldn’t vote for president of the United States; could not vote for state offices. He said this. He was there 24:00talking and so he finally -- people was just talking among themselves. You know how he got their attention? How they got the people’s attention? He said, “If a nigger says something to white woman, lynch him.” Oh, they got quiet then, everybody. Had a white audience, you know, mostly. They got down to the last. He said, “If a Negro -- if a nigger were to touch a white woman, come 25:00and get me. I’ll help you lynch him.” This was the -- this was the minds of the -- I won’t say all white, but the number of white in that day. And so this was a touchy thing when you go talk about a Negro being treated as a human. They didn’t believe in that. I’d say a majority of them didn’t believe in that. And so, therefore, Negro had to get up and talk for themselves. To make themselves -- in other words, to make themselves important. To be somebody 26:00they had to get up and do it themselves.

HELFAND: Now --

WHITTENBERG: That’s the reason why in this same thing that Mr. Nealey was writing -- Negroes get up and be somebody. Be a human being.

HELFAND: And so, this period of time in 1933, you know, this is when people started to organize these unions, this is when all of a sudden it looked like regular working people could have more power than --

WHITTENBERG: They do now.

HELFAND: Than -- no, than they did when it was just, you know, the mill executives. All of a sudden it looked like Washington was saying, you have an opportunity here. Right? This is going to cover all working people.

WHITTENBERG: Yeah, sure.

27:00

HELFAND: And that’s why this was such an interesting letter for us because even though the black workers made up a small part of this population of -- the black workers made a small population of the textile workers, this opportunity with the textile code represented their opportunity economically.

WHITTENBERG: Oh, yeah. This only --

HELFAND: Let’s just let this car go by.

WHITTENBERG: This letter only --

HELFAND: Wait one sec, I’m sorry. OK.

WHITTENBERG: This only did not --

HELFAND: You mean this letter?

WHITTENBERG: -- bring the Negro out. Yes.

HELFAND: Can you say that --

WHITTENBERG: But it was to bring his labor. See, what -- two things he’s trying to do. Trying to equalize if one person would do a job at one price, 28:00another person do that same job it wouldn’t be as much, but it’s the same thing. And also, he wanted the Negro to educate himself in doing work instead of working with machinery. Also, I’ll tell you what this brought.

HELFAND: What -- what are you speaking about? This, what do you mean? The NRA or the NIR -- what do you mean by this?

WHITTENBERG: In this, uh -- in this, uh, daily education law. They wanted him to educate himself too to do the job. If he get it he wanted to do it. He 29:00didn’t want no quotas. He didn’t ask for a quota, but he asked for if anyone able to do it, let him do it. Don’t class him as a color of his skin. Well, this had gone on so far with people now. It’s not as bad today as it was in the yester years. But today we still have that kind of animosity. One 30:00day he and myself were sitting together in a church. He believed in education, too.

HELFAND: Let me as you a question. Talking about church in a way, what kind of music comes to your mind when you, um, think of this period of time? This period of time when Mr. Nealey would write a letter to the president’s administration.

WHITTENBERG: I don’t get you?

HELFAND: I won’t ask that question. I’m going to just ask you to answer one other question one more time because you said it so well the first time that we spoke. You just -- you made the connection between the National Recovery Act and that lesson that your father had told you about those two things not to do 31:00with a Southern white man.

WHITTENBERG: Oh, yeah.

HELFAND: And you said, that’s what the NRA was representing or that’s what Mr. Nealey was trying to do.

WHITTENBERG: Yeah.

HELFAND: You were saying -- you know, you talked about the power of the mill industry here.

WHITTENBERG: They had power then. Years ago the mill -- the mill companies had power because I’d say 85 to 90 percent of the people that worked at the mill. Who was the boss? The executives. So the mill had their power even in elections. Ever what the mill said about a candidate, that was it. But --

32:00

HELFAND: Talking about the power and I’m wondering how that affected you because you weren’t a mill worker, but you lived here in Greenville.

WHITTENBERG: But, yeah -- I wasn’t no mill worker, but I was, uh, I was living, but the job I had was working at a service station, tire company, and at that time you sure -- the mills had power. The customers -- most of the customers -- were mill workers. Executives would come there and get tires. Mill workers 33:00would come. They could go out and tell the mill workers to come in and take tires. Buy tires from us. So the mills at that time had much power. The mill was so great until they even built churches. Yes, ma’am. They had so much power until they pretty well controlled the schools in their areas. So what I love was trying to get some of the power. (laughs) So they didn’t like it. 34:00So what happened? They tried to get [Shillingham?], get him out of the way.

HELFAND: And do you know if the NRA ever really -- OK. Anyway, we were just talking about -- we were just finishing up and talking about power. And so the NRA was taking their power, too.

WHITTENBERG: That’s right.

HELFAND: (inaudible) OK, could you say that?

WHITTENBERG: The NRA, that’s why the executives of the mills didn’t like it 35:00because the NRA was taking their power. So, they figured in these things -- the textile figured they’re bigger than the government. So what happened later on? They kept on trying to get more and more power. Mills at that time were controlling towns, cities, this one expressly because this city was surrounded by mills. How powerful was they? Mills would come in and buy property and 36:00build mill houses. What happens?

HELFAND: Wait until that car comes. Are we here? OK.

WHITTENBERG: They would buy property --

HELFAND: Uh, start with the mill was so powerful.

WHITTENBERG: They buy property --

HELFAND: Could you just say, “The mill was so powerful,” because we cut you off.

WHITTENBERG: Oh, yeah. The mill was so powerful until that they bought a track of land and build mill houses and build a mill on it. They would not allow the city to bring it in the city limits. Back some years ago the city of Greenville was engulfed in mills. They couldn’t expand. Why? Because they were so 37:00powerful until they would not allow the city of Greenville to bring it in in city limit. They were so powerful until they would not pay for the same amount of tax. Ten years free tax. That’s how powerful the mill was. NRA -- NRA began to take some rights power from them. (laughs) They were so powerful they 38:00could hire who they want to hire. That’s how powerful they were.

HELFAND: And -- and as someone -- could you just tell me about your relationship to the mill village and to the mill communities because I know you didn’t live in one.

WHITTENBERG: No, well --

HELFAND: And you can make it short. I mean, I didn’t work in a mill, but if I lived in Greenville they were part of me or something like that.

WHITTENBERG: Well, nevertheless, that even at that they made us give respect to the mills. Why? If I would go through a mill village and they would do something to me, if I would call the sheriff, they wouldn’t do anything about 39:00it. I was in the wrong place. That’s how much power they had. They had so much power until officers respected them. They had so much power until they wouldn’t let unions come in.

HELFAND: Now what happened when all that power was challenged when all the textile workers started to organize unions after the NRA with section 7A and they started organizing all those unions? Do you remember what happened?

WHITTENBERG: Yes, ma’am.

HELFAND: Could you tell me that?

WHITTENBERG: Yes, ma’am. When they start the organizing they wanted to know 40:00when they hire a worker are you -- are you -- will you become a member of the union? That was one of the things they would ask right in the beginning. And soon as the mills -- this mill -- this particular mill would cooperate to have a union it would -- they would go to the executives and tell the executives you have to pay us more per hour. And then what happened, another mill began to make the same thing another group of people.

HELFAND: Now, I have a question. Do you remember when they started organizing unions, that first big swell in 1933 and ’34?

41:00

WHITTENBERG: Yes, ma’am. But it didn’t come to the South right then.

HELFAND: Oh, no, it did, it did! There’s a whole --

WHITTENBERG: But it wasn’t as powerful.

HELFAND: OK, OK. But do you remember when they started organizing here?

WHITTENBERG: Yes, ma’am.

HELFAND: Could you just tell me a little bit about that and maybe that strike? Do you remember any of that?

WHITTENBERG: Yeah, the only union that I remember personal was one that in a certain mill. What happened? Something. It was -- it wasn’t in the mill, but we -- [Clausen?] Bakery. I remember that one. Twenty-six voted we would have it and 24 voted we wouldn’t have it. And they organized. You know what 42:00happened? They were so powerful -- the executives so powerful until they stopped baking bread and went to breaking bread in the [custard?].

HELFAND: But do you remem-- while at the same time Mr. Nealey wrote this letter, he wrote this letter at the same time a lot of the white cotton mill workers started to organize unions. They were happening simultaneously. This textile code was coming in at the same time as the right to organize.

WHITTENBERG: Oh, yeah.

HELFAND: Do you remember when they started having -- they started to organize unions around here? I mean, that was the biggest -- you know, that general textile strike. That was about power, too.

WHITTENBERG: That’s right. Well, I can remember the strike. I don’t remember the organization because I was kept far from it because of the color of 43:00my skin. But I do know when this bread strike came and near every mill when the strike came, what happened? The mill workers themselves were going out and picking blackberries and plums and everything. There wasn’t anything close around whatsoever. If you had a corn patch a [okra?], a big garden, it may be stripped because what happened at that time, they wasn’t paying the strikers much and they paying only a short time and when these things happen they 44:00wouldn’t not go back to work very soon and in this time when this, what we called the aid, would be cut off. Then they -- the mill workers began to suffer. And so what really happened is that this economy -- the workers look at the NRA a little harder because I really don’t know what happened to them, but they went out right in Greenville. You would see people night and day just 45:00walking, doing this and that and the other.

HELFAND: So you remember seeing these people on picket lines or do you remember reading that in the newspaper?

WHITTENBERG: Yeah, they would not let people see some of the workers didn’t belong to the union. (inaudible) [full?] union in that company and they would picket around the place to keep from them going in back to work. They called that (inaudible) if you crossed the picket line.

M1: I need to change batteries (inaudible).

(Break in audio)

46:00

HELFAND: -- for the mills anyway. Could you explain that to me?

WHITTENBERG: Yes, ma’am. Yeah, well, as we stated before, the city of Greenville was surrounded by mills, and so -- if you didn’t work in the mill there were a lot of people you knew that worked in the mill. In other words, mostly everybody in Greenville was associated with mill workers because there were more of them than anyone else. So, we had to -- by the city being engulfed with mills, all of us had to be involved. In World War II it was [so great?] 47:00here until -- if you were -- the only way that you could get a job at that time was in some of these mills making goods for the Army because I worked -- I worked about a year. Know what my job was? Had a cart going around picking up scraps in the mill, but I had a brother who was in the -- way in and all like 48:00that, but we had come that far and that’s in ten years.

HELFAND: And was Mr. Nealey somewhat -- how was your relationship to him?

WHITTENBERG: Pardon me?

HELFAND: Your relationship to Mr. Nealey?

WHITTENBERG: Was only from the -- when I first came in with him is in -- through the NAACP.

HELFAND: OK, so did you know Mr. Nealey in 1933 or --

WHITTENBERG: I heard of him.

HELFAND: OK, could you say that, that I’d heard of Mr. Nealey in 19 -- in 1933 I’d heard of Mr. Nealey just so we know your relationship to him.

WHITTENBERG: Yeah, in 1933 I heard of him quite much but being full acquainted with him I was not in 1933.

49:00

HELFAND: Could you say in 19-- how about this and this is it. Could you say, in 1933 I was -- and tell me how old you were and what you were doing and maybe I’d heard about Mr. Nealey or but let you know. Could you say Mr. Nealey so we know --

WHITTENBERG: Mr. Nealey, I lived -- I lived within two blocks of him and so at that time was so acquainted with him and knew him is because I lived far from him. We lived in the same community. I lived on Calhoun Street and he lived on [Stelar?] Street.

HELFAND: OK, could you say --

WHITTENBERG: Dunbar Street rather.

HELFAND: Could you say -- just very briefly and use Mr. Nealey’s name so I know -- you said him and we don’t know who he is.

50:00

WHITTENBERG: Mr. Nealey -- Mr. Nealey lived -- I was acquainted with Mr. Nealey because we didn’t live too far from him and he lived on Stelar Street and I lived on Dunbar Street. They’re very close together and for -- because he’s so spoken out until a number of people knew him -- knew him from hims-- for his standing in the community.

HELFAND: And in 1933 when the NRA came in and -- just what -- where were you and what were you doing? Could you just tell me that? In 1933 I was --

51:00

WHITTENBERG: Oh, yeah. In 1933 I worked with the [C.O. Allen?] company. They distributed and sells Goodyear tires.

HELFAND: And how old were you?

WHITTENBERG: I’m 81.

HELFAND: And how old -- OK. So, back in 1933 you (inaudible).

WHITTENBERG: You figure it out.

HELFAND: I’ll figure it out. OK. All right. Well, listen. I want to thank you for a very, very, wonderful --

M1: Loud sound!