Listeners Share Memories Of The Great Depression There has been a lot of talk about the current economic crisis being "the country's worst since the Great Depression." Listeners who remember the Depression of the 1930s share memories of how their families pulled through hard times.
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Listeners Share Memories Of The Great Depression

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Listeners Share Memories Of The Great Depression

Listeners Share Memories Of The Great Depression

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ALISON STEWART, Host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington. Here are some of the headlines we're following today at NPR News. A federal judge in Washington has ordered the release of five Algerians held at the Guantanamo Bay for seven years. The judge says allegations that the men were plotting to attack Americans came from only one source, and the judge didn't find the information credible. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens says goodbye to his colleagues today. The longest-serving Republican in the senate was defeated by democrat Mark Begich in his bid for reelection. He's also appealing convictions last month on seven fraud charges. These stories and more coming up on All Things Considered from NPR news. Tomorrow it is Science Friday, and Ira Flatow will be here for a talk with Egyptologist and mummy expert Bob Brier. Plus, a look at the bacteria in your gut, and a farewell to the Mars Phoenix lander. That's all on Talk of the Nation Science Friday tomorrow.

Now, remember the good old days when we chewed over whether or not we were in a recession? Now that hard times are getting harder, it's the word depression that people are sort of bandying about. When we say depression, many of us think we know what it looks like. But there are plenty of people who actually remember and that's who want to hear from today? Do you have a memory of the Great Depression? What was it like and what did you learn?

Our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. In the studio today is independent producer Neenah Ellis. She's been collecting stories about the depression for a feature that will run on All Things Considered on Thanksgiving Day like the story from Les O'Rear. He worked in the stockyards on the south side of Chicago in the days when paid vacation didn't exist.

LES O: You had Thanksgiving off when the company was kind enough to give you the day off, but you didn't get any pay. You didn't get any vacation. You didn't get any benefits of that sort. It's hard now for anybody, I guess, to remember that that's the way the world worked in those days before unions. That is the difference, kiddos.

STEWART: OK, kiddos, Les O'Rear is only one of the stories Neenah Ellis collected. Thanks for coming by.

NEENAH ELLIS: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

STEWART: So who did you talk to, to get these stories?

ELLIS: I went all over the city. You know, Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. I happen to be born on the south side so a lot of the people that I met where from neighborhoods that I knew about. But I also tried to find people in neighborhoods I had never been to or would have not have naturally gone to as a young child. People experienced the depression in different parts of the city. But, the first person I want you to meet is a lady named Wanda Bridgeforth(ph). She's 87 years old. She's from a neighborhood on the south side known as Bronzeville. It was a very famous black neighborhood. Chicago was much more segregated then than it is now. And unemployment in the black neighborhood sometimes reached as high as 40 percent. Let's hear Wanda.

WANDA BRIDGEFORTH: To be without a job in the days when it took two incomes to make a family work, you had a sense of uselessness. Here was my father with a degree in Chemistry, and he could not get a job. When he did get a job, it was as stock man. The man who was the manager of the store had a high school education, and he would come to my father for my father to fill out the reports and to make the orders and to work up the payroll and that kind of thing.

ELLIS: Was that humiliating for your father?

BRIDGEFORTH: It definitely was. It definitely was, and it worked on him. Sometimes, I would see him just grit his teeth.

ELLIS: A lot of men were without jobs during the Depression. Unemployment was very high, and it was hard on families. Wanda was boarded out as a child. Her mother had to go to work full time and lived in as a domestic. So Wanda lived with other families, sometimes even with strangers, because her parents couldn't afford to keep her at home.

STEWART: I can imagine some of these stories must have been very emotional and difficult for people to speak.

ELLIS: Very emotional.

STEWART: Did you had a hard time, not a hard time but was it difficult for people to share?

ELLIS: Sometimes it was, I think. They're bad memories for people. A lot of us, I grew up hearing stories about the Depression that my parents made it sound like great fun. I remember the guy that used to bring the ice, and we used to play kickball in the alley. And I heard those kind of stories. But I didn't hear the really, you know, gritty, hard stories about poverty. I want to play for you a little tape from a fellow named Henry Martinez. He lived in South Chicago which is down near Lake Michigan where there were a lot of steel mills. His father was a Mexican immigrant, and there were 13 kids in his family. They had a very rough time...

STEWART: Can you imagine the panic of having 13 children?

ELLIS: Yup.

STEWART: After the stock market crashed...

ELLIS: Yes.

STEWART: In the Great Depression?

ELLIS: Yes, imagine it. So let's hear - let's hear Henry Martinez now.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRY MARTINEZ TAPE)

HENRY MARTINEZ: It was always a challenge to keep warm. We helped each other on the floor. We had low beds that opened and closed. When I think about it - it was horrible. It was horrible, and then the sanitation of the community...garbage was just put in the alley. And did that create a condition? Yes, it did - TB. I know my sister came down with TB. Sometimes I like to block that out, just, you know - thank God you're here.

ELLIS: Some of these people, you know, they don't tell their kids the really sad parts. You know? And that's - and that was what I found interesting, you know, if you sit with somebody long enough though and keep probing and probing as I tried to do, these things come out in the end. I want to play you a little more happy story.

STEWART: Sure.

ELLIS: And there were a lot of those because people have good memories, because they were working together, they were sharing. You hear story after story about how everybody was in the same boat, and they had to share - and as young children, they really didn't know that they were having hard times, because they knew nothing else. This is a wonderful lady named Giggy Corteze(ph). She lives in Bridgeport. The same neighborhood she grew up in. I met with her and a group of her friends. She had known them all since she was in elementary school and none of them had left the neighborhood and that happens a lot in Chicago. Giggy's parents were Croatian immigrants, and her father made wine in the basement and her mother did laundry and took in boarders to make ends meet. They also a lot of kids. Giggy and her friends told me though, a lot of stories about good times that they had and here's a little bit of Giggy Corteze.

GIGGY CORTEZE: And we had a man that lived upstairs. We called him John Vough(ph) and every Sunday he took us to the show. Do you know how I survived those days was going to the show every Sunday to see Shirley Temple.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLIS: Shirley Temple on "The Good Ship Lollipop."

STEWART: You know, it's...

ELLIS: A lot of people talked about Shirley Temple.

STEWART: It's very interesting when you described what people were doing to get by and listening to various reports on television of people saying, oh don't buy an extra toy for Christmas. People were taking boarders into their homes.

ELLIS: Boarders into their homes. Yes.

STEWART: I mean the kind of - were talking about just trying to struggle through this Christmas season, when you really think about what people had to do for years to survive and to make...

ELLIS: That's right.

STEWART: ...sure their families were safe.

ELLIS: People needed to go to - the Salvation Army played a big role, the Catholic Church played a big role. Lots of people told me stories about not having shoes to get through the winter, having to put cardboard on the inside of the soles of their shoes. And, one fellow told me a story and started crying telling the story about having to wear galoshes over his shoes, because he had so many holes in his shoes and the other kids making fun of him. Yeah, people - we think we sacrifice now, but it was a much more dire situation back then.

STEWART: Let's talk to some of our listeners. Ester(ph) is calling us from Chesterland, Ohio. Hi, Ester.

ESTER: Hi.

STEWART: How are you? You have a story about your brother?

ESTER: Yeah, uh huh. It's the last - the story of the lost quarter.

STEWART: Oh. I like to hear this.

ESTER: Well, with a quarter you could get a pound of hamburger and a loaf of bread and a pound of coffee. And that was to be our supper. And mother gave us a quarter, and we ran to the store and my brother had the quarter in his hand, and he was throwing it up in the air and catching it. And he missed.

STEWART: Oh no.

ESTER: It went down into the gutter through the grate, the sewer grate and we tried everything we could to get that quarter back. That was our supper. And we couldn't get it, and all winter long, all of the kids at the school, and we, would pass by that grate and try with sticks and nails on the ends of boards and everything trying to get that quarter - we never did get it.

STEWART: Well, I'm impressed that you didn't give up. Ester, thanks for sharing your memory with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ESTER: Thanks for listening. My grandchildren would say, she got it told.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEWART: Sounds like you have great grandchildren. Thanks, Ester.

ESTER: Bye-bye.

STEWART: Let's go to Roger in St. Louis. Hi, Roger.

ROGER: Yeah, hi.

STEWART: Hi. So what did your grandfather do?

ROGER: Well, my grandfather was a Pullman porter, which was a very special job for African-Americans during that time. And as you know, it was segregation and while he was on the train, the train stopped and he leaned out to look to see why they had stopped and a white man and his two small children approached the train, and my grandfather said what was unusual is the man said - called him, sir. And he said, sir, do you have any food? And Pullman porters would typically work a 20-hour day, and they might get one meal, and he shared his - he gave his meal to the man. And, that's the story that's been passed on in our family by my grandfather of the Depression.

STEWART: What a great story of kindness. Thanks for sharing it, Roger.

ROGER: Thank you.

STEWART: You touched on that a little bit, you know, how people did pull together and did try to help as much as they could.

ELLIS: And shared. You know, it's very commonly - I heard stories about a stranger would knock at the door, usually the back door and somebody would ask for food and nobody can remember ever turning anybody away. They would bring the person in, give him food. One lady - Wanda Bridgeforth - who we heard before said, her sister met somebody on the street and begged her mother to bring that person home and give him a bed, and they did - a stranger. So that kind of thing happened over - I heard stories about that over and over and over again.

STEWART: And we'd love to hear your stories, your memories of the Great Depression, what was it like, what did you learn, what do you think about then as compared to now? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org and this is an email from Renee from Mission, Kansas. She writes, my grandma grew up during the Depression in rural South Dakota. And one of the family heirlooms I received from her is a crocheted lace bedspread. When she gave it to me, she said, I started this bedspread when I was in high school. First, we had a Depression, and we couldn't afford the cotton. Then we had a war, and we couldn't get the cotton. Then I had babies, and I didn't have time to crochet. And I didn't get it finished until your dad and your brother were both in school.

What a great story. Renee, thank you so much for sharing that. Let's talk to John(ph) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hello, John.

JOHN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

STEWART: Sure.

JOHN: I just wanted to relay the story when I first learned about the Depression as a child. My great aunt had lived through it, and our family was at her house for a Labor Day picnic. When the picnic was done, she went through and rinsed off all the paper plates and put them in the cupboard, and I was curious about it. My parents explained that she grew up in the Depression, and she learned how to just get by with whatever she could.

STEWART: All right, John from Michigan. Thanks so much.

JOHN: Thanks.

STEWART: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're speaking with independent producer Neenah Ellis who is working on collecting stories about the Depression. This is going to air on All Things Considered?

ELLIS: On Thanksgiving Day.

STEWART: Oh, great.

ELLIS: Yes. You know we thought it must be a good time because families would be together. Presumably, there'd be an opportunity for the senior members of a family to tell their stories and I think maybe now people might be a little more interested in listening.

STEWART: Isn't it interesting that of the calls we've had - we've had two from younger generations, who the story has stuck with them about what their grandparent went through or great aunt in that case.

ELLIS: Yeah, yeah. It is a good thing.

STEWART: Let's talk to Doris in Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, Doris.

DORIS: Hi.

STEWART: Hi, Doris. Tell me a little bit about - do you mind if I tell people how old you are?

DORIS: Yeah, I'm 82.

STEWART: Oh, you did it for me. OK.

DORIS: Oh, yes. I'm 82, and I can remember well, because we had to keep - we were moving all the time to find a different job. And my dad was such a hard worker, and he tried so much. And this one time when we had to go back and stay with my grandparents for a couple of years while he found another job in Michigan. He was - he cried. My mom said I never saw him cry. But, he just - he was trying so hard. And then the thing they told me that I'd tell you about - well, we had very few clothing. I mean I had two dresses I can remember. And, when I was at school, some of the children teased me. There was one girl, Joyce - I still remember her name. She used to say, well, my father is a dentist and he makes $200 a month or something, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DORIS: My father made so little, and my dad would go out fishing and hunting and work on farms and do what he could. And then he did have a job and then that job closed, and he had to move again. So, that's how it was. But we had - we always had a good place to live. But when we left Michigan we hadn't paid the rent for several months - we couldn't do it. I mean with things like that. And then we came back into Ohio. We'd been up in Michigan, and we came back to Ohio. And then finally, when the war started, then we started to have - we had jobs.

STEWART: Doris, may I ask you a question?

DORIS: Pardon?

STEWART: May I ask you a question?

DORIS: Sure.

STEWART: As someone who lived through this and has very vivid memories, you know we're going through difficult economic times now. Do you see any similarities at all?

DORIS: Well, I hope not. Not yet. But there surely can be because well, we still - now, for my age, I have my social security and pension, and I don't have - so many people, I'm just hoping they can keep their jobs. I'm concerned so much about my grandchildren, because in so many jobs, you're going to be losing your job. And, that's going to be really, really difficult, because people are living so high, for one thing now. I mean you know, they've got - they expect to have two cars and house and all those things, and then it comes to a point where you don't have the money and that's going to be really terrible. We were used to - we had - I grew up sort of being used to not having it for a long time.

STEWART: Sure.

DORIS: So when we finally had it, I mean well, we appreciated it very much, and I'm the same way. I don't rinse off plates anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DORIS: But I don't like to waste. I don't like to waste.

STEWART: That's an excellent lesson. Thank you so much, Doris. Hi, Helen from Ohio.

HELEN: Yes. Hello.

STEWART: Hi. How are you?

HELEN: Who did you say?

STEWART: I want to hear about the story about losing your car, Helen.

HELEN: Oh, yeah. Helen.

STEWART: Yes. I want to hear your...

HELEN: You want to hear from Helen.

STEWART: Yeah, I want to hear your...

HELEN: Well, it was quite a blow to our pride, because we weren't getting to get enough money this job he worked - my father worked in had just about gone broke but hadn't, and he was the only person part of the time working in this factory at that time. And out of it, we tried to eat and live, and we didn't have enough money to pay the bills. Hello?

STEWART: Yup. Helen, we appreciate you taking time to tell us that story. I want to tell everybody Helen is 93 years old and shared her stories and had some clear memories of what happened. What do you think lessons people can learn - and we have about a minute left, Neenah, from listening to these stories of the Depression?

ELLIS: What stays with me is how people talk about how they shared with one another and took care of each other. Everybody emphasized that. And, a fellow that I interviewed also said, you know, when you have money, you're not always paying as close attention to other people. He said, back then, people took care of each other, and it's my best memory of the Depression.

STEWART: Independent producer Neenah Ellis. You can hear her series about life during the depression. It's going to be on All Things Considered on Thanksgiving Day. Thank you so much for coming and sharing your tape. Good luck putting everything together.

ELLIS: Thanks.

STEWART: I'm Alison Stewart. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Neal Conan will be back on Monday.

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