Nanny Leah Washburn and D.W. Brooks Interviews

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
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0:00

´╗┐GEORGE STONEY: Okay, you could keep on now, please.

NANNY LEAH WASHBURN: Well, the two lawyers, as I said, was Afro-Americans. Fine-looking men. Mr. Davis was as fine-looking a man as there are in this country. And Mr. John [Gere?], they was both wonderful. And they, they -- what they did, they let me do the talking. And my sister, she didn't do much of the talking. But I held the -- held the stand for about two or three hours explaining, you know, the situation here in America, and how the people, 1:00Afro-Americans, Jewish people and all nationalities, were treated. But they didn't like it at the courthouse, for two black, black uh, people to come in there and defend, defend two white women. So we got out on bond, and ever since then, the -- the judge here in Atlanta would not make my children's daddy support them because he went and [pimped?] and his brother, concerning, concerning, you know, me being a CP --

STONEY: Okay, cut.

WASHBURN: -- believer.

STONEY: Okay, now -- (break in audio)

CREW: Okay. Rolling. Uh, and -- hold it.

WASHBURN: You have to speak a little louder to me.

2:00

CLARA SMITH: Okay. Okay.

CREW: Okay. Okay?

SMITH: Nanny. Nanny. Explain to us about the conditions in the plant when you was a little girl, when you first went to work in the mills.

WASHBURN: Well, the spinning and spooling winders and twisters, and drawing was a -- it was a hard job. And of course you was in a lot of danger, you know what I mean. The lint and all, but not like a weave shop. That's the worst part of a cotton mill, is --

SMITH: The weave?

WASHBURN: -- is the weaving, is what I --

SMITH: It still is today.

WASHBURN: -- heard, and [estimate?]. And I learned a lot about different machines to operate, you know. Twisters and spinning, spooling, winders, quillers. But I never worked in the weave shop. But I got the -- we made the, 3:00made the big beam, a beam, you know what a beam is?

SMITH: Yes, it's a --

WASHBURN: Big round, big round thread, long as this table. That's what they put on every weave.

(break in audio)

WASHBURN: It's true. Cotton mill people was trashy, they called trash. You know, they had no -- they didn't care nothing about them. And the middle class people, and the -- you know, people with good educations, they didn't pay us no attention.

SMITH: So you were looked down upon?

WASHBURN: Yeah, we was looked down upon, just a bunch of old -- trash. That's the way it was -- awful. But I didn't tell you enough ab-- going back, 4:00concerning the noise in the cotton mill. You know that --

SMITH: Okay. The conditions again, okay.

WASHBURN: That condition is the cause of -- people having such a bad hearing, and also in the weave shop it's, the lint in it is -- my brother lost his life, you know, from weaving. Had emphysema. And that's the way it is, there ain't much, no part of a cotton mill's too healthy. You know that, don't you.

SMITH: So there was no safety precautions in the plant at all?

WASHBURN: No, not whatsoever. It's no safety for nobody.

SMITH: Have you ever seen anyone or, while you was working in the mill did you ever witness a death? Did you ever see anyone get killed?

5:00

WASHBURN: Well, out at the -- you ever heard, since you've been in Atlanta, the Whitaker Mill? Chattahoochee?

SMITH: Yes, I have.

WASHBURN: Well, they took them out on stretchers there when my daddy and brothers and sisters worked in the cotton mill. They took them out on stretchers that they couldn't take it, you know it was so hot, down on the river where it really is hot. And they kept the temperature so high. And cotton mills that used to make that blue denim for overalls, for men? Well they made the -- had the dye, you know, and all that old odor of the dye, we would have to breathe it. And it was very unhealthy.

SMITH: Now when you went to work, and I would presume you had eight hour days in the mills, or was it longer than eight?

WASHBURN: Twelve.

SMITH: Twelve hours. Did you ever get breaks, or, did you have time to eat?

WASHBURN: Uh uh. No breaks. Never no breaks.

6:00

SMITH: And you said it was real hot, was there any windows that you could get air?

WASHBURN: Most of the -- most of the mills that I worked in, never opened the windows. They had to force them. My daddy and my brothers forced them out at Whitaker Mill, out at Chattahoochee River. They had to force the windows open there. I didn't work in the Chattahoochee but a short time. But they ain't none of the cotton mills what they're cracked up to be. They might have changed a little, but it's awful hard work and unhealthy.

STONEY: Okay. Good.

(End of interview)

(Shots of corner store, mill exterior, houses, and background noise, 00:06:45 through 00:10:07)

7:00

[Silence]

8:00

[Silence]

9:00

[Silence]

(Begin D.W. Brooks interview, 00:10:11)

10:00

STONEY: Tell me when you're rolling.

CREW: We're rolling.

STONEY: Okay, Mr. Brooks, could you tell us that story about President Kennedy?

D.W. BROOKS: Well, ah, we had a problem, of course, in the South. I'd really rather start back and tell you something about the history of the South. See, before the War Between the States -- we don't call it a civil war down here, we call it the War Between the States -- we had sixty percent of the wealth of this nation. And after the war was over, we had nothing. We had no Marshall Plan to help us. In fact all the economics that developed was to make -- really to impoverish the South, because, for example, in the case of freight rate, it took 11:00twice as much to ship manufactured product from the South to the North as it did to ship it from the North to the South, which meant they were going to keep the South as just a producer of raw materials and -- and low income. Well, finally, we began to get some textiles moving down from the Northeast and from Massachusetts, for example. And of course there was lots of discussion about what --

(Brief break in audio)

BROOKS: -- bad for Massachusetts. And (inaudible) worked with a number of the Presidents and so I was talking with President Kennedy one day. And he said to me that he was not mad about it, in fact he said, "I was upset when they started moving the factories from Massachusetts to Georgia," but actually what happened was that other industries moved into Massachusetts which were higher-paying 12:00industries, and than were -- than the textile industry. So he felt like they were winning, instead of losing. So he said he wanted me to know he had no real ill feeling towards the South.

STONEY: Good.

CREW: George. Could you hold just a minute. There's something funny about --

(Break in audio)

STONEY: -- do that again?

CREW: (inaudible)

STONEY: If you wouldn't mind telling us that story again.

BROOKS: Okay. Well, you lead it -- you want me to start or you want to lead it off or what?

STONEY: Ah, when we're ready (inaudible). Okay, you just talk, start about the South before the Civil War.

BROOKS: Okay. Well, we, ah -- as you know, we do not call the war a civil war in the South; we call it a War Between the States. Now prior to the War Between the States, the South was the wealthy part of this nation. We had sixty percent 13:00of all the wealth of this nation, but after the war we had nothing. (laughs) We were completely destroyed and, in addition to that, we were subject to lots of laws that were worked out which were very bad for the South. For example, in the case -- in order to be certain that we did not industrialize, they had a law where we -- it cost twice as much to ship a manufactured product from the South to the North as it did from the North to the South. So the whole idea was to make the South just a producer of raw materials, that we could not process these raw materials into the finished product and get much higher prices. So consequently, we went through a long period. We didn't have any Marshall Plan 14:00and the Gone With the Wind story told at least part of our problems that we had in the South at that time. But at the same time we eventually began to industrialize and we moved some textile mills from the North, the Northeast particularly, to the South. Now we moved them, some from Massachusetts. And I was advisor to a number of the Presidents in economics, and so I was talking with President Kennedy one day (laughs) and he said he wanted to assure me he had no animosity towards the South because we were moving his textile mills out of Massachusetts to the South. He said that actually it worked out pretty good, that they had changed these industries in Massachusetts to where they had better industries with higher-paying jobs, and so they gained although they were upset when it happened -- that they actually gained economically. And for that reason, 15:00he wanted me to understand that he had no feeling of animosity towards the South. So I think that was good, because we all won in a way because we desperately needed all the industry we could get in the South at that time. Our income was real low, wages were real low, and so, consequently, it was good for the South, but it worked out to where it was all right for the Northeast.

STONEY: Could you talk about the role of textiles before the Depression in the South and what was happening to the South's economy before 1929?

BROOKS: Well, we were having -- beginning to have a weak economic situation in the South, really beginning in about '25 we began to go downhill. And we were already moving down by the time we had the Depression in 1929. Now, of course, 16:00'29 finished off everybody. And actually we became the economic problem number one of the nation. And when Roosevelt went in as President, we, of course, were in a poverty area. The per capita -- for example, the per capita income of farmers in the state of Georgia went down to seventy-two dollars for a year's work and we had as much poverty as you have in Asia or Africa today. So consequently we had lots of serious troubles. As I've told you before, I was professor of agricultural economics at the university and I decided to leave the university with the hopes that I could change, or help change, this situation. Now I didn't get much encouragement. Everybody thought my economic ideas were wrong, but, anyway, they worked. And after I resigned from the university, the 17:00president, in order to entice me back, offered to jump me over people who'd been there a long time and double my salary, and everything else, but the worst trouble I had was with my father -- I'm sure I had, fortunately, cut off a year in grammar school and a year in high school and a year in college, and I started teaching in the university when I was nineteen. And I'm sure he'd been all over town bragging about having a son who was a professor at the university nineteen years old. And when I told him I was leaving the university, he became very much upset, got me in a room and sat me down and began to lecture me, saying that I was making the worst mistake I ever made in my life, that -- that I thought, because of my training in agricultural science and economics, that I 18:00could change these farmers because they were starving to death. But what I did not understand they'd a whole lot rather starve than change! (laughs) And he said, "You can't change them." I said, "Well, I think I can." And he said, "Well, we're in disagreement on that." And I finally said to him I did not want a family row, that I felt like that I had to do this regardless. And so as bad as that was, I think it encouraged me to work harder, and I worked about eighteen hours a day to be certain that I didn't go broke and that I did improve the income of farmers, that I maybe doubled it and maybe quadrupled it, because they were doing many things that were wrong. Now -- but we needed desperately at that time all the industry we could get in the South, and textiles was the simplest industry that you could get. As you know, it's a lot simpler than any 19:00-- than many of the complex industries that have come south in recent years. But in those days the textile industry seemed to be the -- the desirable industry because it was not too complex. So anyway, the South gradually turned from extreme poverty that we developed after the War Between the States, and with no help, as I say. We didn't have any Marshall Plan and so things were very difficult for us. But we've gradually, of course, brought the South up now to where the South is equal to about any part of -- of this country and pretty well all over the world. I mean, we're good.

STONEY: Now you didn't explain to us what you did for the farmers.

BROOKS: Well, what we did -- let me explain to you, for example, it seemed to me about everything he was doing was wrong, as an agricultural scientist and 20:00economist. For example, the kind of fertilizer he was using, it took twelve to fourteen hundred pounds of sand to make it that sorry. You couldn't get it that poor unless you put that much sand in it. And yet he did not realize that he was buying sand, but that's what he was doing. He was not getting plant food that he thought he was getting, and he did not know that, but he was buying it because it was the cheapest. Sand was a whole lot cheaper than fertilizer. So what was happening, the fertilizer industry was really taking advantage of the farmer in that they were selling them this low quality product that was terrible. And so what I -- one of the first things I did, we've got to buy fertilizer plants, which we could buy cheap because they were broke, too. They broke the farmer and the farmer broke them. It was one of these economic 21:00circles going around and around and everybody was broke, and so I could buy fertilizer plants very cheap. And then I said, "We're going to take all the sand out of the fertilizer. We're going to make it high analysis and then we want you to use twice as much as you've been using, and that's four times as much plant food, and we can double your yield." And so that's one of the programs we started. Another program, for example, was in the case of corn. Corn was the largest row crop in the state of Georgia, more than five million acres, and yet the average yield of corn was ten and a half bushels per acre. It had been there for fifty years, had not moved. And I decided that if we're going to stop poverty and hunger, we had to change that. So we put in a program working with the colleges of agriculture and the -- and the experiment stations and the county agents and the vocational teachers and we offered prizes in every county, where a farmer, [for his boy?] or a grown farmer, would produce 100 22:00bushels of corn we'd give him a prize. And so we put in this program and we gradually brought the yield of corn from ten and a half bushels up as high as eighty-six bushels per acre. So we attacked poverty from many angles.

STONEY: Well, one of the things that I'm curious about is that was at a time when so many of the -- the people were leaving the farms, desperate to come into the mills.

BROOKS: Everywhere they could get a job in a mill, it was so much more income than it was on the farm, that everybody that could get off of the farm was getting off and he was going into industry. And, as you know, of course, we had quite a bit of our black population that went north. I mean they went to Detroit and -- and many other areas in order to get employment and at much higher wages. But, ah, anyway, wherever we had the industry, people would leave 23:00the farm in order to get a job. Well, actually it was a supplemental income because they was lots of people who were farming living on the farm and part of the family was living -- working in town, maybe in the textile mill. So it worked out quite good economically.

STONEY: Well, were the New Deal farm policies forcing these tenants off the land?

BROOKS: Well, there was a good deal of discussion of that, but actually I don't think that's -- that's correct. I think Roosevelt was anxious to get the income up. You see, he was coming down to the little White House and he had first-hand knowledge. All he had to do was get out and ride, which he did, and he'd see lots of the poverty. And so he had an intense interest, I think, in raising the income of farmers and -- and -- and did. Now, for example, I was at the White House when he decided to devalue the dollar, ready to change the gold content of 24:00the dollar. But, of course, the dollar is a commodity just like and cotton and wheat or anything else, and if you're going to do that, lower its value forty percent, it meant the commodity would immediately move up forty percent. And, ah, so, consequently he did a number of things that raised the income of farmers. And that was one of the most dramatic things and, of course, when I was over at the White House and learned that he was going to do that, it was a shock to me. I guess it was a temptation, too, in a way because, as an economist, I knew the price of commodities was going up and all I had to do was walk out of the White House and get on the board and I could be rich. But I never did that. I've worked with a large number of Presidents, as I've told 25:00you, and I never violated my confidence at the White House.

STONEY: Could you talk about Roosevelt and the textile manufacturers? I know he -- he knew a lot of them at Warm Springs.

BROOKS: Yes, he knew lots of the textile people --

STONEY: No, could you start and say "Roosevelt knew"?

BROOKS: Roosevelt knew a great many of them. The Calloway Mills, for example, were a big group there and he -- he knew the Calloways well. And so he ah, he had, I think, an interest in doing what he could to be helpful to the South. I -- I always felt like he was doing all he knew how to do to be helpful. So he was intensely interested naturally in industry coming to the South and, I think, made a real effort to -- to be helpful.

26:00

STONEY: Now there was a big strike in 1934 and there was an effort to get Roosevelt to intervene. Could you remember that strike?

BROOKS: I -- I remember it casually, but I -- I'm not really that familiar with it. I remember it was quite bitter in a way and I think it probably had to do with unionization. There were no unions hardly in the South and probably the unions were trying to get into the South. Now later on in life I was involved. I was on the War Mobilization Board with President Truman, [secretary?] during the Korean War. And we had the problem that they started a strike then, and I was the only one on the War Mobilization Board that was from the South at that time. And so they asked me really to handle that situation, which I worked with the union people and told them we could not permit that, that we just couldn't stand it in a war period. And so I met with the union people and explained the 27:00economics to them, the problem we had that we needed these textiles during the war period and regardless of all the complaints they had, that the first thing we had to do was go back to work and then we could work out some of the problems. So I, in effect, insisted that they be back on the job on Monday morning, which they finally agreed to do. And, ah, so we settled that one without any real terrible situation. I understood, but, as I say, I was not too familiar with it -- I understood in the -- back in '34 that the situation was quite bad, it was not nearly that good. But we settled it in '51 or '2 in the Korean War. We settled it without any real troubles. I -- I met with the union 28:00people and -- and we worked out an agreement they'd go back to work and I said, "Then we'll talk about what your problems are, but we can't talk about them when you're on strike."

STONEY: Could you talk about co-ops? You said co-ops were something fairly new here and you mentioned that you got -- that the blacks started the co-ops and then they started voting. Could you talk about that?

BROOKS: Well, see, the co-op had never been successful in the South and there'd been a number of efforts, but they all had failed. And so consequently, when I decided that we could make a co-op succeed and -- and help bring lots of income to farmers and do lots of things that you couldn't do without a co-op, ah, nobody seemed to agree with me. But I had spent considerable time really, as an economist -- I had gone to the West Coast and worked with the Sunkist and I'd 29:00gone all the way into Canada. I'd gone to Denmark and Sweden and spent a summer with the co-ops there. And so I was convinced if you ran a co-op right, it could help raise the income level. Now -- so, consequently, that was one of the things I did when I left the university. I started the co-op in '33 and in order to bring, greatly increase the income of farmers. Now in doing that, I tried to make it into a very democratic institution in that ever member would have a vote, regardless of the size of farmer he might be. And that was unusual (laughs) in the industrial world.