Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with William Fields, November 11, 1984

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:00 - On William Fields' arrival in Philadelphia in August 1917

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Partial Transcript: --came up, you said that you arrived, uh, in one of the railroad camps.

Segment Synopsis: Fields came up to Philadelphia on the railroad. He was supposed to come and work on the railroad but never signed any sort of agreement so he left once he got to Philadelphia. He chose the city because he liked the name. When he arrived he found many people ready to point him in the right direction for help.

Keywords: Arch Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Carney's Point, New Jersey; Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church; Christian Street YMCA; Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church; Pennsylvania Railroad; Railroad camps; Strawbridge and Clothier; Texas

Subjects: African American churches; African Americans--Employment.; Migration, Internal.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

GPS: YMCA on Christian Street
Map Coordinates: 39.940486, -75.172095
00:07:34 - Fields’ recollections of R.J. Williams, and his decision to come north

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Partial Transcript: Do you remember R.J. Williams?

Segment Synopsis: Fields says that he heard Mother Bethel pastor R.J. Williams preach on many occasions and enjoyed his sermons. Williams was known for an open letter that he wrote calling for men and women in the South to come north to Philadelphia where there would be better conditions. He recalls that many of the jobs he worked when he first came to Philadelphia paid less than his job in Texas.

Keywords: 20th and Fitzwater Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Baldwin Locomotive Works, Eddystone plant (Philadelphia, Pa.); Metropolitan AME Church; Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church; R.J. Williams; Strawbridge and Clothier; Western Electric Company (Texas)

Subjects: African American churches; African American clergy.; African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Southern States.; Migration, Internal.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Wages.

00:10:35 - Working during the winter of 1917-1918

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Partial Transcript: You went out to Baldwin?

Segment Synopsis: Fields worked at Baldwin Locomotive Works during one of Philadelphia’s historically snowiest winters. He wasn't prepared for the extreme northern weather but he did not suffer as badly as some people up from the South did.

Keywords: Baldwin Locomotive Works, Eddystone plant (Philadelphia, Pa.)

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

GPS: Former location of Baldwin Locomotive Works
Map Coordinates: 39.853890, -75.337907
00:15:33 - Work during World War I

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Partial Transcript: Well, what did you think of, of Philadelphia or the North, you know, when you were greeted with this sort of weather?

Segment Synopsis: Fields didn't let the weather get the best of him, he just kept moving from job to job, finding work anywhere he could. He spent some time working in Carney's Point, New Jersey before coming back to Philadelphia and working at the Hog Island Shipyard in a mixed-race work gang. He says that he never experienced racial segregation there even though many thought it was a problem. He was working as a cook in a women's hospital in Philadelphia when World War I ended.

Keywords: Baldwin Locomotive Works, Eddystone plant (Philadelphia, Pa.); Carney's Point, New Jersey; Cooks; Hog Island Shipyard; Mrs. Riddick's Employment Office on 15th Street; Segregation in Philadelphia; Strawbridge and Clothier; World War I

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; Integration; World War, 1914-1918

GPS: Carney's Point, NJ where Fields worked for a time.
Map Coordinates: 39.711172, -75.470552
00:19:48 - Working on Hog Island--Working with other men from the South

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Partial Transcript: Let me ask you one more question about, um, about Hog Island. Now, you know, working on those teams, did you and other men from different parts of the South ever talk about back home?

Segment Synopsis: While employed at Hog Island, Fields worked with a number of other men up from the South. He says that he did not spend much time engaging in conversations with the other Southerners about life back home. He recalls one illiterate coworker who supervisors called a “slacker” and was soon sent to fight in the war in France.

Keywords: Boarding houses; Draft cards; Georgia; Hog Island Shipyard; Military service; South Carolina; Southerners; Texas; World War I; Yocum Street (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Southern States.; World War, 1914-1918

00:23:19 - Working on Hog Island--Segregation at Hog Island

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Partial Transcript: I talked to, um, a fellow whose father had been in the NAACP in Philadelphia during the First World War, and they apparently, uh, brought suit against Hog Island--

Segment Synopsis: During World War I, the NAACP brought a lawsuit against the Hog Island Shipyard for segregation but Fields never experienced anything of that kind. He was always too busy working, especially during the winter of 1917-1918. He notes that he and the men who he boarded with in the Elmwood neighborhood were barely getting by, “just scratching to live.”

Keywords: Elmwood (Philadelphia neighborhood); Hog Island Shipyard; NAACP Philadelphia Branch; Segregation in Philadelphia; World War I

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Integration; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; World War, 1914-1918

00:26:13 - On why he left Texas

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Partial Transcript: Now, when you were in Texas, before you came up to Philadelphia, did you have--you know, you must've thought about the future, what you would do once you, once you went north or went to Philadelphia.

Segment Synopsis: Fields left a wife and daughter in Texas when he came up to Philadelphia to make a better living. He sent money back home, but eventually his wife divorced him. He brought his daughter north in 1932 when he was working in New Jersey. He shares that his wife remarried and had another daughter who lived in California.

Keywords: California; New Jersey; Texas

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Marriage.; African Americans--Southern States.; Migration, Internal.

00:29:57 - On his second marriage and its aftermath

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Partial Transcript: You ever g--ever remarry up here? Get close to remarrying?

Segment Synopsis: Fields remarried some years later but the marriage ended in divorce only six years later. He never remarried after that but kept in contact with good, churchgoing people.

Keywords: Church; Divorce

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Marriage.

00:31:34 - On going to church and the role of the church in the lives of newcomers

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Partial Transcript: So there's a whole group from your church, then that--

Segment Synopsis: Fields never stopped going to church, whether he went to an AME church or a CME church. The pastors at the churches often offered some guidance to new arrivals but Fields was always very temperate and never needed much help. In retrospect, Fields wishes he had consulted his pastor in Texas before leaving for the North in an effort to get advice.

Keywords: American Methodist Episcopal Church; Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church; Mount Olive AME Church

Subjects: African American churches; African American clergy.; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.

00:37:33 - On membership in the Odd Fellows, Freemasons, and Elks

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Partial Transcript: What or, what organizations did you join then when--tho, those early years?

Segment Synopsis: Fields was a member of the American Woodmen and Odd Fellows when he arrived in Philadelphia and later joined the Freemasons. Fields joined the Elks in Quaker City in the 1920s. When he joined, the lodge was at 16th and Kater but it later moved to Christian Street.

Keywords: 16th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); American Woodmen; Elks Lodge; Federal Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Kater Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Masonic Order--Philadelphia; Odd Fellows; Quaker City; Texas

Subjects: African Americans--Social life and customs.; African Americans--Societies, etc.; Freemasonry.

GPS: Former location of the Elks Lodge.
Map Coordinates: 39.943608, -75.168865
00:43:17 - On telling people back in the South about life in the North

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Partial Transcript: I got a question for you. Now, when you were--first couple years w--you were in the city, you must've written home to your wife--

Segment Synopsis: Fields wrote letters home telling them how Philadelphia was not what he expected, that “money did not grow on trees.” Hardy notes that he has heard of southern migrants telling relatives back home that they were more successful than in reality.

Keywords: Expectations before moving north; Impressions of Philadelphia; North Carolina; South Carolina; Southerners

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:45:52 - On his decision to stay in Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: Did you e--did you want to go back home during those early years?

Segment Synopsis: Despite being disappointed in some aspects of Philadelphia, Fields made himself quite comfortable in his new city. While he was also happy in Texas, he never wanted to return there. He observes that life in the South is much better than it was, because the restrictions of segregation loosened. He visited Dallas in 1968, and the area had changed significantly since the time he lived there.

Keywords: 34th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 34th and Powelton Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Cooks; Dallas, Texas; Drexel University; Texas

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Integration; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

GPS: A house near Drexel University where Fields worked as a cook.
Map Coordinates: 39.960169, -75.190874
00:49:30 - On voting in Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: Did you vote when you came to Philadelphia?

Segment Synopsis: Fields voted wherever he lived. He reports that he was able to vote in Texas before his move north and was never hassled and never had to pay a poll tax. Though he did switch from Republican to Democrat, he was careful to be true to himself and not to let anyone, such as his committee man, sway his opinions.

Keywords: Corruption; Dallas, Texas; Democratic Party; Fairview Sanatorium; New Jersey; Politics; Republican Party; Voting; Warren G. Harding

Subjects: African Americans--Politics and government.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Politics and government.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:53:00 - On trying to write a book about his life

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Partial Transcript: Okay, let me see, uh. Do you have any photographs of yourself from the early days?

Segment Synopsis: Fields didn't have many photographs from his youth but the memories he had of 96 years of life prompted him to try to write a book. He had a draft written but he lent it to a man who never returned it.

Keywords: Memoirs; Memory; Photographs; Texas

Subjects: African American authors.; Autobiographies.

00:56:15 - Reflections on the changes that he has seen

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Partial Transcript: So, what, what then, are the greatest changes that you've seen, you know, over, over your 96 years?

Segment Synopsis: Fields notes that he has witnessed changes to politics, nature of people, and fashion. He also observes that child-rearing has changed and that children do not have the same respect for their elders that they used to. People have grown soft and aren't used to the hardship that he grew up with. He also bemoans developments such as gangs and other challenges young people face.

Keywords: Childrearing; Children; Family; Politics; Respect for elders

Subjects: African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Social life and customs.; Clothing and dress.; Fashion.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social life and customs.

01:01:25 - On growing up in Texas

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Partial Transcript: When you grew up, were your grandparents around?

Segment Synopsis: Fields recalls his childhood living on a farm in Texas, where he worked with his father harvesting sugarcane and grinding it to make molasses. He recalls hating grinding cane, as it was very hard work. He learned right and wrong from his parents, but does not recall any other specific advice. He never knew any of his grandparents.

Keywords: Denton County, Texas; Family; Farming; Parental advice; Sugarcane; Texas

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Southern States.; Childhood

GPS: Denton County, Texas, William Fields' birthplace.
Map Coordinates: 33.200006, -97.120267