Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with William S. Steffens, April 23, 1984

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:01 - First recollections of life down South

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Partial Transcript: He wouldn't say when. Just like that.

Segment Synopsis: Steffens recalls memories from his youth living in Jacksonville, Florida. Among other things, he recounts his instincts and actions toward regarding White men who considered him "uppity." He expresses that he had to move north or he would have killed or have been killed in the South. He also recounts the Ku Klux Klan burning an African American man at the state fair when he was five years old.

Keywords: "Negro"; Biblical scripture; Domestic workers; First World War; God; Lynching; Lynching souvenirs; State fairs; Uppity; World War I

Subjects: African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Childhood; Ku Klux Klan (1915- ); Race discrimination.; Racism; United States--Race relations.; World War, 1914-1918

00:05:34 - Recollections of parents

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Partial Transcript: Well, you know, my father--you see, let me tell you something.

Segment Synopsis: Steffens discusses his admiration for his mother and father. He addresses how hard his father worked to provide for his family. He goes into detail on the carpentry work his father did in Key West. He contrasts his father's role of providing and working with his mother's role of teaching him the lessons of life.

Keywords: Carpenters; Flagless system; Florida Riviera; Growing up; Hotels; Jacksonville, Florida; Key West, Florida; Life lessons; Miami, Florida; Railroads; The Florida East Coast

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Employment.; Childhood

GPS: Jacksonville, Florida
Map Coordinates: 30.332428, -81.656165
00:10:58 - Education in Jacksonville

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Partial Transcript: Yes, from kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade, all our teachers were white in Jacksonville.

Segment Synopsis: Steffens recalls his education at the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida. He remembers his first principal, as well as his "race hating" replacement upon the principal's retirement. He also remembers one teacher who saved him from the ire of this principal.

Keywords: Bible lessons; Biblical scripture; Cookman Institute; Devotionals; Methodist Church North; Schools; Teachers

Subjects: African Americans--Education.; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Segregation in education.

00:18:40 - Financial limitations of father's carpentry work

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Partial Transcript: But you know, Daddy was, see, I thought about it later on, kind of turned me off against him, because he never gave us any money.

Segment Synopsis: Steffens remembers going to ice cream parlors in the South with friends, but also the financial difficulties his family had. He describes how carpentry work became more difficult for his father as he aged.

Keywords: Carpentry; Finances; Ice cream; Key West, Florida; Social life

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Recreation; African Americans--Social life and customs.; Wages.

GPS: Key West, Florida
Map Coordinates: 24.5592, -81.7840
00:20:32 - Mother as caregiver

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Partial Transcript: Sometimes, when he'd load that scaffold, with a lot of lumber, shingles, whatever he was using, it would break, he would fall.

Segment Synopsis: Steffens remembers how quickly his mother bandaged up his father, sister, and brother on different occasions. He describes how she bound up broken arms with ease after his siblings or father would get hurt.

Keywords: Broken bones; Brothers; Fathers; Jacksonville, Florida; Medical; Mothers; Sisters

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Health and hygiene.

GPS: Jacksonville, Florida
Map Coordinates: 30.3369, -81.6614
00:22:50 - Father's life in Reconstruction Era South

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Partial Transcript: Now, I’m going to get to another instance that I know about.

Segment Synopsis: Steffens talks about his father's life in the Reconstruction Era South, including when his father and his family first heard about emancipation. His father's parents sent him and his siblings to several different houses for safety once they learned they were free. The family eventually made its way to Savannah, Georgia. Steffens explains how this story affected his own life and work ethic when he first got to Philadelphia.

Keywords: Abraham Lincoln; Drummers; Emancipation Proclamation; Pennsylvania Railroad; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Railroad Parcel Post; Reconstruction Era; Savannah, Georgia

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Slavery--United States.

GPS: Savannah, Georgia
Map Coordinates: 32.0167, -81.1167
00:30:06 - Leaving school early and escaping from Jacksonville to New York

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Partial Transcript: And I didn’t know that I was ever going to have a chance to get away from the South...

Segment Synopsis: Steffens recalls how Whites in the South looked at his behavior cautiously, and how that motivated him to go North. He explains how he dodged around ticket takers at the docks in order to board a ship, even lying about having a sick mother in the North instead of admitting that he was in search of work for better wages.

Keywords: Boat travel; Jacksonville, Florida; Migration from the South; Motivations to move North; New York City, New York

Subjects: African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; United States--Race relations.

GPS: Merchant Miner Dock, Jacksonville, Florida
Map Coordinates: 30.325619, -81.651037
00:33:18 - How his father made it North

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Partial Transcript: Now, I’m going to tell you how my father had to get away.

Segment Synopsis: Steffens discusses a labor recruiter at his family's church who told his father he would take him and other workers (plumbers, painters, etc.) North in the dead of night. He explains how the recruiter smuggled his father and other men North to New York City in a train car. He also explains how White people would occupy people of color trying to escape North so their transportation would leave without them.

Keywords: Broadway Limited; Father; Labor recruitment; Migration; New York City, New York; Railroads; Smuggled North

Subjects: African American churches; African American families; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Social conditions.; United States--Race relations.

GPS: New York City, New York
Map Coordinates: 40.7127, -74.0059
00:37:29 - Automobiles in the South

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Partial Transcript: How did you feel about leaving?

Segment Synopsis: Steffens describes the automobiles he saw at home in Jacksonville before he left. He goes on to say how he wanted to graduate high school and earn money to buy a car to go North, but fled North sooner when he realized he could leave before then.

Keywords: Cadillacs; Hupmobiles; Jacksonville, Florida

Subjects: African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Economic conditions.

GPS: (Possible Location) Meadows Street, Callahan, Jacksonville, FL
Map Coordinates: 30.473716, -81.875429
00:40:27 - Expectations of the North / arrival in New York City

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Partial Transcript: Had anyone told you rumors about the North before you, before you left?

Segment Synopsis: Steffens recalls rumors he heard about life in the North prior to moving, including promises of wealth, which he ultimately did not realize. He goes on to talk about the history of the family he stayed with when he arrived in New York. He recalls stories about his time in New York City with that family until his future brother-in-law invited him to come live and work in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Keywords: Harlem, New York City, New York; Jacksonville, Florida; New York City, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Subway

Subjects: African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Wages.

GPS: Seventh Avenue, New York City, New York.
Map Coordinates: 40.751903, -73.990201
00:56:15 - Initial work in Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: Well, when you came to Philadelphia, what kind of work did you do when you first got here?

Segment Synopsis: Steffens describes his first job in Port Richmond in Philadelphia doing carpentry work on tramp ships, which transported grain from elevators to Europe. He recalls the intricate details of his work on these ships.

Keywords: First World War; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Port Richmond, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Tramp ships; World War I

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

GPS: Port Richmond, Philadelphia, PA
Map Coordinates: 39.985546, -75.103716
00:58:40 - Tensions between migrant and established African Americans

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Partial Transcript: Well, um, tell me something.

Segment Synopsis: Steffens recalls rumors that African Americans already established in Philadelphia considered themselves superior to the migrants from the South. He describes how the Northern African Americans considered Southern African Americans "shiftless."

Keywords: Impressions of migrants; Intra-race relations; Old Philadelphians (O.P.s); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Segregated work; Stock market; Tramp ships

Subjects: African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Segregation.; United States--Race relations.

GPS: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Map Coordinates: 39.9500, -75.1667