Hard Times Remembered


… I’ll never forget one of the first families I visited. The father was a railroad man who had lost his job. I was told by my supervisor that I really had to see the poverty. If the family needed clothing, I was to investigate how much clothing they had at hand. So I looked into this man’s closet ( pauses, it becomes difficult )—he was a tall, gray-haired man, though not terribly old. He let me look in the closet—he was so insulted ( she weeps angrily ). He said, “Why are you doing this?” I remember his feeling of humiliation … this terrible humiliation. ( She can’t continue. After a pause, she resumes. ) He said, “I really haven’t anything to hide, but if you really must look into it…” I could see he was very proud. He was so deeply humiliated. And I was, too….

Diana Morgan was the daughter of a socially prominent businessman in a small North Carolina town.

The banks failed about the time I was getting ready to go to college. My family thought of my going to Wellesley, Vassar, Smith … but we had so little money, we thought of a school in North Carolina. It wasn’t so expensive.

It was in my junior year and I came home for Christmas … I found the telephone disconnected. And this was when I realized that the world was falling apart. Imagine us without a telephone! When I finished school, I couldn’t avoid facing the fact that we didn’t have a cook any more, we didn’t have a cleaning woman any more. I’d see dust under the beds, which is something I’d never seen before. I knew the curtains weren’t as clean as they used to be. Things were beginning to look a little shabby. …

Louis Banks , a Negro, is now in a veterans’ hospital.

Were there black and white hoboes together?

Yes, it didn’t make any difference who you were, ‘cause everybody was poor. All friendly, sleep in a jungle. We used to take a big pot and cook food—cabbage, meat, and beans all together. We all set together, we made a tent. Twenty-five or thirty would be out on the side of the rail, white and colored. They didn’t have no mothers or sisters, they didn’t have no home, they were dirty, they had overalls on, they didn’t have no food, they didn’t have anything….

Sometimes we sent one hobo to walk, to see if there were any jobs open. He’d come back and say: Detroit, no jobs. He’d say: they’re hirin’ in New York City. So we went to New York City. Sometimes ten or fifteen of us would be on the train….

Tom Yoder is a recent Notre Dame graduate, whose mother lives in a middle-class house in Evanston, Illinois.

How did you come to your knowledge of the Depression?

( Smiles slightly, indicating his mother ) I suppose I learned most of it from my parents. My mother has a fantastic story, in my opinion. It seems just absolutely—it’s almost in a black-humorous sense—funny to me. To realize that a hundred miles from Chicago, about forty years ago, my mother’s brothers, whom I know well now, were out with little rifles, hunting for food to live on. And if they didn’t find it, there were truly some empty stomachs. I mean, this is just too much. I don’t think my generation can really comprehend what all this means. I’ve never gone to bed hungry—I wish I had. I haven’t and I probably never will.

Whenever I’ve griped about my home life, Mother’s always said, “I hope you always have it so good.”

Mary Owsley set out with her husband for Oklahoma in 1929 after he lost his job as a dynamite man in a Kentucky mine.

We lived in a company house. We had to buy every bucket of water we used, ‘cause the company undermined things so bad, they ruined all the water wells. I bought my food from the company store, and we bought our furniture from the company store, and we paid three prices on it. I’ve seen my husband have to borry from his next paycheck what they call scrip, to buy just medicine and things like that. And we didn’t live extravagant either. We paid over two-hundred-and-sixty-someodd dollars for furniture from the coal company. We paid it all back but twenty dollars. And when he went and got another job, he brought a truck down there for the furniture. And they took the whole thing away from us. They wouldn’t let us pay the twenty dollars….

Peggy Terry , again, recalls her childhood.

… And when my father finally got his bonus, he bought a second-hand car for us to come back to Kentucky in. My dad said to us kids: “All of you get in the car. I want to take you and show you something.” On the way over there, he’d talk about how life had been tough for us, and he said: “If you think it’s been rough for us, I want you to see people that really had to rough.” This was in Oklahoma City, and he took us to one of the Hoovervilles, and that was the most incredible thing.

Here were all these people living in old, rusted-out car bodies. I mean that was their home. There were people living in shacks made of orange crates. One family with a whole lot of kids were living in a piano box. This wasn’t just a little section; this was maybe ten miles wide and ten miles long. People living in whatever they could junk together….