Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Crosby Brittenum, March 20, 1984

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:14 - Coming up from Arkansas

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Partial Transcript: Okay, so, Mr. Brittenum, you came up in 1920.

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum discusses his journey from his home state of Arkansas to Memphis, Tennessee, where he began working in hotels. From there he traveled to Saint Louis, Missouri on his way to Chicago but instead went to Philadelphia to read for his illiterate step uncle.

Keywords: 1910s; 1920s; Chicago, Illinois; Hotel work; Life in the South; Motivations to move North; Saint Louis, Missouri

Subjects: African Americans--Southern States.; Arkansas; Migration, Internal.

00:02:19 - Early education

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Partial Transcript: Had you--your education then was good enough that you pretty--you could read and white--write fairly well?

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum shares how his education, only 2 or 3 months a year, ended after seventh grade.

Keywords: 1910s; Motivations to move North

Subjects: African Americans--Education.

00:03:27 - Hotel work as a young man

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Partial Transcript: Now when you, you--how old were you when you started hotel work then?

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum briefly summarizes his introduction to hotel work in Memphis, Tennessee, where he moved from the stockroom to employment as a waiter.

Keywords: Hotel work; Memphis, Tennessee; Migration from the South; Motivations to move North; Saint Louis, Missouri

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.

GPS: Memphis, Tennessee
Map Coordinates: 35.147025, -89.990747
00:05:27 - On missing military service in World War I

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Partial Transcript: How'd you get out of the first World War? Weren't--you would have been of age to--

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum talks about returning to Arkansas for induction into the military and how the armistice was signed before he and his brother were called up. He had planned on making money by loaning it before being deployed and was unaware of the racial tensions within the military.

Keywords: Arkansas; Armistice--World War I; Camp Logan Riot of 1917 (Houston, Texas); Loan-sharking; Memphis, Tennessee; Racial resentment; World War I

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions.; United States--Race relations.; World War, 1914-1918

00:07:30 - Newspapers and family literacy

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Partial Transcript: Now I guess back during, during the war years there were some--when Black men were entering the army there were some real problems.

Segment Synopsis: When asked about a revolt by Black soldiers against white soldiers in Texas, Brittenum discusses his lack of access or motivation to access the news and then discusses the limited availability of Black newspapers.

Keywords: "Arkansas Gazette"; "Chicago Defender"; 1910s; Chicago, Illinois; Life in the South; Motivations to move North

Subjects: African American newspapers.; African Americans--Education.; African Americans--Social conditions.

00:10:14 - Race relations in the southern states and Arkansas at the beginning of the Great Migration

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Partial Transcript: Again, you know, one of the, the things I'm interested in, maybe you can help me with this, is finding out what people had heard...

Segment Synopsis: Asked about white attempts to prevent Blacks from migrating north, Brittenum discusses what was taking place in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and in his home state of Arkansas where the town patriarch would not allow violence against Black residents.

Keywords: Alabama; Arkansas; Georgia; Life in the South; Lynching; Mississippi; North Carolina; South Carolina

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; United States--Race relations.

00:13:01 - Expectations versus reality of life in the North

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Partial Transcript: What sort of expectations did you have of going to Philadelphia?

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum talks of his desire to get a job and says that the step-uncle who brought him to Philadelphia left after his house was vandalized and robbed. Brittenum "ducked" them in order to stay in the city.

Keywords: 16th and Wharton Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 1920s; 34th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); City life; Expectations before moving North; Greys Ferry (also known as Irish Town or Ramcat, site of 1918 riots); Motivations to move North; Pullman porter

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; Migration, Internal.

00:15:03 - Work experiences in Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: So tell me how you got your first job in, in Philadelphia.

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum describes his work history in Philadelphia as a dishwasher, hotel waiter, banquet manager at a YMCA, and his career as a barber from which he retired in 1980.

Keywords: Barbers; City life; Hotel work; Segregation in Philadelphia; Social life; Wages; YMCA

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.

00:17:17 - Working at Green’s Hotel

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Partial Transcript: Did you, ev, ever have any affiliation, or ever a member of the Hotel Brotherhood?

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum says that he left the hotel business before Black workers were driven out of it by white immigrants (Italians, Portuguese). He shares that he worked at Green's Hotel where the Black employees performed mostly service jobs (waiter, busboy, maid).

Keywords: 8th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Chestnut Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); City life; Green's Hotel; Hotel Brotherhood; Hotel work; Italian Americans--Philadelphia; Segregation in Philadelphia; Segregation: Employment

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; United States--Race relations.

GPS: Former Site of Green's Hotel
Map Coordinates: 39.949, -75.153
00:20:17 - Economic hardship among African Americans

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Partial Transcript: What was the pay like?

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum relates the difficulty young Black men and women had meeting rent and other expenses with their meager wages. He states that waiters may have been able to support a family but busboys could not. He then tells how he learned from his father how to cut hair and how this served him well in Philadelphia.

Keywords: Barber; City life; Hotel work; Social life; Wages; YMCA

Subjects: African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:24:12 - Navigating racial divisions among Philadelphia's neighborhoods

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Partial Transcript: Can you tell me, uh, what was Philadelphia like in the 1920s?

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum explains the unspoken rule at the time that whites did not enter Black neighborhoods and vice versa for fear of violent reprisal. He then relates some experiences he had walking through the white section of Grey's Ferry unmolested and the awed and cautious reaction to this by one of his friends.

Keywords: 1920s; Broad Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Broad and South (Philadelphia, Pa.); City life; Craps (game); Gambling; Greys Ferry (Philadelphia neighborhood also known as Irish Town or Ramcat, site of 1918 riots); Irish; Irish Americans--Philadelphia; Italian Americans--Philadelphia; Polish Americans--Philadelphia; South Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Warnings about life in Philadelphia, Pa.

Subjects: African American neighborhoods; African Americans--Housing.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; United States--Race relations.

00:27:15 - Observing tensions between Irish and Black communities

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Partial Transcript: When, uh--one of the things--I gue--I've, you know, talked to a number of men who talked--some who grew up in the city and some who came in...

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum discusses the tension between the Irish and Blacks in the Grey's Ferry area. He describes Black men’s belief that a white man could not fight a Black man barehanded and that the fights between Black men and Irish men were based in this fighting spirit and pride.

Keywords: 1920s; City life; Greys Ferry (Philadelphia neighborhood also known as Irish Town or Ramcat, site of 1918 riots); Irish; Irish Americans--Philadelphia; Lynching; Warnings about life in Philadelphia, Pa.

Subjects: African American neighborhoods; African Americans--Relations with Irish Americans.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; United States--Race relations.

00:28:57 - Divisions between Philadelphia's neighborhoods

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Partial Transcript: Now when you, uh, came to the city then, where did you, where did you first live when you arrived?

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum discusses how he moved from Wharton Street in the Grey's Ferry neighborhood to Catharine Street. He then elaborates on the characteristics of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods: that West Philly was the "nice neighborhood," North Philadelphia was considered the roughest part of town, and South Philadelphia was something of a mix.

Keywords: 16th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 16th and Wharton Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 34th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 5th Street (Philadelphia, Pa); Carpenter Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Catharine Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Christian Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); City life; Germantown (Philadelphia neighborhood); Greys Ferry (Philadelphia neighborhood also known as Irish Town or Ramcat, site of 1918 riots); North Philadelphia; Pine Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); South Philadelphia; Spruce Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Washington Avenue (Philadelphia, Pa.); West Philadelphia

Subjects: African American neighborhoods; African Americans--Housing.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; United States--Race relations.

GPS: 16th and Catharine Streets, Philadelphia, PA
Map Coordinates: 39.941191, -75.169393
00:32:52 - On single African Americans renting rooms in Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: Now did most men like yourself from, from up in the South rent rooms? Or what sort of living arrangements--

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum says most young Black men and women either rented an apartment or a room in a private home. He shares the surprise he felt when he learned that women would rent rooms as well as men. He also reveals that these individuals lived very independent lives compared to what they had in the South.

Keywords: City life; Housework; Housing discrimination; Segregation in Philadelphia; Segregation: Housing; Social life; South Philadelphia; Wages

Subjects: African American neighborhoods; African Americans--Housing.; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Social life and customs.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:35:04 - Southern and northern attitudes toward racial classifications

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Partial Transcript: Now when you were up in--first came to the city, there were a lot of people still coming in from the South.

Segment Synopsis: While describing the droves of southern Blacks coming north by train, Brittenum shares that when he arrived he thought that dark skinned whites (Italians, Portuguese, Jews) were light skinned Blacks. He then describes the differences in complexion between these "dagos" and the paler, southern white "crackers" he was used to seeing. He also relates an instance from Little Rock, in which whites beat a "dago," apparently because he did not have a southern accent and was clearly not local.

Keywords: Broad Street Station (Philadelphia, Pa.); Ethnic slurs; Little Rock, Arkansas; Racial resentment; Racial slurs

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Race discrimination.; Racism; United States--Race relations.

GPS: Broad Street Station (Former Site)
Map Coordinates: 39.953, 75.169
00:40:53 - Watching southerners arrive at Broad Street Station

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Partial Transcript: Can you just--you know, I was really interested when you said that you could remember going to Broad Street Station and seeing the people pouring in.

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum describes going to watch the trains bringing southern migrants into Philadelphia year round, many of whom had nothing but a small bundle of clothes and food; the sheer number of migrants made it impossible to tell who had a job or home and who did not.

Keywords: 16th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 1920s; Broad Street Station (Philadelphia, Pa.); Catharine Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Impressions of migrants; Southerners

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Migration, Internal.

GPS: Broad Street Station (former site)
Map Coordinates: 39.953, 75.169; 39.941, -75.169
00:43:10 - Learning city life

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Partial Transcript: Now once they moved into the community, you know, started spreading out in the city, um--

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum describes the difficulties southern migrants experienced adapting from the rural South to the urban North; he specifically notes the care and upkeep of houses in a neighborhood, wearing proper clothes on Sunday even outside of church, and his own experience of going out and buying pajamas after he learned that it was improper to wear underwear to bed.

Keywords: City life; Dungarees; Impressions of migrants; Overalls

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Clothing and dress.; Fashion.; Migration, Internal.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social life and customs.

00:48:31 - Reflecting on racial resentment

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Partial Transcript: A lot of, a lot of colored people, I don't know why, resent, resent, res--seem to resent his color. And why I don't know.

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum talks about the feelings of Blacks, then and now, who resent being their race or being labeled "Black." He then shares his surprise and appreciation for the history and accomplishments of African Americans about which he has read.

Keywords: Chicago, Illinois; City life; George Washington Carver; Lynn, Massachusetts; Racial resentment; Slavery; Social life

Subjects: African Americans--Race identity.; African Americans--Social conditions.; United States--Race relations.

00:53:46 - Aftermath of The Great Migration and the development of the Black community in Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: You know, can you make any generalization about whether they became feistier or, you know, kept in to themselves when they got up here?

Segment Synopsis: Brittenum says that eventually many southern Blacks adapted to life in Philadelphia but that instead of mixing with other communities and races they mostly kept to themselves and the Black community.

Keywords: 1920s; City life; Segregation in Philadelphia; Social life

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Social life and customs.; Migration, Internal.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social life and customs.; United States--Race relations.