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Collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1940

Hard Times in the City

The Federal Writers' Project of the 1930s recorded more than 10,000 life stories of men and women from a variety of occupations and ethnic groups. The following is a sampling of these interviews, which include audio excerpts read by modern actors.

Man at Eddie's Bar

Pullman Porter at Union Station in Chicago
Surrogate image: Pullman Porter at Union Station in Chicago, 1943. Jack Delano. Photograph, 1943.

Name: Not given

Location: Eddie's Bar, St. Nicholas Avenue near 147th Street, New York City

Date: April 30, 1939, 8:00 PM

Interviewer: Ralph Ellison

Interview Excerpt: "Do you like living in New York City?"

Listen to the man's response

"Ahm in New York, but New York ain't in me. You understand? Ahm in New York, but New York ain't in me. What do I mean? Listen. I'm from Jacksonville Florida. Been in New York twenty-five years. I'm a New Yorker! Yuh understand? Naw, naw, yuh don't get me. What do they do; take Lenox Avenue. Take Seventh Avenue; take Sugar Hill! Pimps. Numbers. Cheating those poor people out a whut they got. Shooting, cutting, backbiting, all them things. Yuh see? Yuh see what Ah mean? I'm in New York, but New York ain't in me!"

Transcript #21020403

Man at Colonial Park

Bum who claimed to be a Scotch comedian
Surrogate image: New York, New York. September 1942. Bum who claimed to be a Scotch comedian, at Third Avenue and 14 Street. Marjory Collins. Photograph, 1942. (LC-USW3-7826-E).

Name: Not given

Location: Colonial Park near 150th Street, New York City

Date: June 6, 1939

Interviewer: Ralph Ellison

Interview Excerpt: "Do rich people and poor people have anything in common?"

Listen to the man's response

"God made all this, and he made it for everybody. And he made it equal. This breeze and these green leaves out here is for everybody. The same sun's shining down on everybody. This breeze comes from God and man cain't do nothing about it. I breath the same air old man Ford an old man Rockerfeller breath. They got all the money an I ain't got nothing, but they got to breath the same air I do."

Transcript #21020306

Bernice, Rent Party Hostess

61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues
Surrogate image: New York, New York. Summer 1938. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. A sign offering apartments for rent. Walker Evans. Photograph, 1938. (LC-USF33-6718-M3).

Name: Bernice

Ethnicity: West Indian

Address: Informant gave the interview on condition that her present address and last name be omitted from story

Occupation: Rent Party Hostess

Location: 141 Street, near Lenox Avenue, New York City

Date: October 2, 1938

Interviewer: Frank Byrd

Interview Excerpt: "Why did you start giving rent-parties?"

Listen to Bernice's response

"When I first came to New York from Bermuda I thought rent-parties were disgraceful. I couldn't understand how any self-respecting person could bear them, but when my husband, who was a pullman porter, ran off and left me with a sixty-dollar-a-month apartment on my hands and no job, I soon learned, like everyone else, to rent my rooms out an' throw these Saturday get togethers.

"I had two roomers, a colored boy and white girl name Leroy and Hazel, who first gave me the idea. They offered to run the parties for me if we'd split fifty-fifty. I had nothing to lose, so that's how we started."

Transcript #21011104

Clyde "Kingfish" Smith, Street Vendor

Street vendor
Surrogate image: Street vendor, Harlem, New York City, 1943. Gordon Parks. Photograph, 1943.

Name: Clyde "Kingfish" Smith

Ethnicity: African-American

Occupation: Street Vendor

Location: Basement of B. Shapiro, 300 E. 101 Street, New York City

Date: November 29, 1939

Interviewer: Marion Charles Hatch

Interview Excerpt: "Why did you start singing while you work?"

Listen to Clyde's response

"When I started peddling that was in 1932, that's when I started singing...'Heighho, fish man, bring down you dishpan,' that's what started it. 'Fish ain't but five cent a pound....' It was hard times then, the Depression, and people can hardly believe fish is five cents a pound, so they started buying. There was quite a few peddlers and somebody had to have something extra to attract the attention. So when I came around, I started making a rhyme, it was a hit right away.

"...On the street whatever comes to mind I say it, if I think it will be good. The main idea is when I got something I want to put over I just find something to rhyme with it. And the main requirement for that is mood. You gotta be in the mood. You got to put yourself in it. You've got to feel it. It's got to be more or less an expression, than a routine. Of course, sometimes a drink of King Kong liquor helps."

Transcript #21051622