Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Idelle Truitt Elsey, June 29, 1984

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
Toggle Index/Transcript View Switch.
Search this Index
00:00:00 - Interview introduction

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Okay, that should do it. I'll just keep an eye here, on this. A little bit farther from me.

Segment Synopsis: Interviewer Charles Hardy and narrator Idelle Truitt Elsey discuss the context of this interview as a supplement to a publication and radio segment for the Goin' North Project.

00:01:45 - Family background

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Well, um, my, um--I was born in, as I said, 1892, wasn't it? Yes, at 636 Pine Street. Now that, of course, is gone--is, is, uh, an apartment building.

Segment Synopsis: Elsey gives some information about her birth place in Philadelphia, her father's historic role as one of the first African American policeman in Philadelphia, and being the youngest child of thirteen. She recalls her father's challenges as a Black officer, particularly in the Grays Ferry neighborhood, which she calls "a tight place for Negroes."

Keywords: Grays Ferry (Philadelphia neighborhood also known as Irish Town or Ramcat, site of 1918 riots); Grays Ferry Avenue; Pine Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Police; Samuel G. King; Voting

Subjects: African American families; African American police.; African Americans--Genealogy.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; United States--Race relations.

GPS: 636 Pine Street (Philadelphia, Pa.), Elsey's birthplace
Map Coordinates: 39.944, -75.153
00:03:31 - Brother, Berton C. Truitt, a city doctor for the poor

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Then my brother Bert, one of the surviving, uh, uh, males of the family, he was very smart. And he went to, uh, Northeast High--that's 8th and Lehigh.

Segment Synopsis: Elsey recalls her brother Berton Truitt (Bert)'s education and career as a physician employed by the city to treat the poor. She recounts a night when Bert discovered a visitor had contracted smallpox and sent him home where the neighborhood block was quarantined.

Keywords: "City doctor"; 8th and Lehigh (Philadelphia, Pa.); Lombard Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Northeast High School (Philadelphia, Pa.); Quarantines; Smallpox; University of Pennsylvania Medical School

Subjects: African American physicians; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Health and hygiene.

00:07:32 - Father's migration to Philadelphia from Eastern Shore, Maryland

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Did he ever talk to you or did you ever overhear him talking about his days as a policeman?

Segment Synopsis: Elsey remembers her father's story of migrating to Philadelphia from Eastern Shore, Maryland in the middle of the night. She also speaks of his struggle as a product of a Black slave mother and a white father, which affected his relationships with members of both races. Elsey's father's mother escaped from slavery on the Underground Railroad.

Keywords: "Mulatto"; Biracial; Eastern Shore, Maryland; Hack drivers; Philadelphia (Pa.); Racial resentment; Underground Railroad

Subjects: African Americans--Genealogy.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Migration, Internal.; Race discrimination.; Racism; Slavery--United States.; United States--Race relations.

00:11:33 - Father's work with politician Charles Hall

Play segment

Partial Transcript: But he was highly respected. And as I said, he was a good politician. We lived in the 7th Ward. We first--I was born in the 5th Ward, but we lived in the 7th Ward.

Segment Synopsis: Elsey recounts her father's involvement with politics and working under Charles Hall in Philadelphia's 7th Ward. Elsey's first recollection of politics was of her father and his colleagues buying votes for fifty cents. As a result, her mother chose not to vote, viewing politics as too corrupt.

Keywords: 10th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 5th Ward (Philadelphia, Pa.); 7th Ward (Philadelphia, Pa.); Bromley Wharton; Charles Hall (7th Ward leader, 1920s); Democratic Party; Lombard Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Octavius V. Catto; Philadelphia ward politics; Republican Party (Philadelphia); Voting

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

00:20:34 - Amos Scott and his daughter Clara Freeman Scott

Play segment

Partial Transcript: What can you tell me about Amos Scott?

Segment Synopsis: Elsey recalls more about Clara Scott Freeman than her father, Amos Scott, Philadelphia's first African American magistrate, part of the William Vare political machine. She remembers Scott as a saloon keeper and that because of this, his daughter was worried she would not be accepted in church. Elsey recalls her perception of Scott as a "sport" or "go-getter".

Keywords: 1319 N. 57th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 9th and Lombard Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Amos Scott (first black magistrate in Philadelphia, elected in 1921); Clara Freeman Scott; Douglass Hospital; Hotel Brotherhood; Lombard Central Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, Pa.); Saloons; Vare Machine

Subjects: African American judges; African American leadership; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Politics and government.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:25:41 - Educational background

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Okay then--now you, um, you grew up then on Lombard Street.

Segment Synopsis: Elsey explains her educational journey leading up to her time at the John Wanamaker Commercial Institute, where she trained as a secretary. Originally reluctant to continue her studies, she took up stenography per her mother's orders. Recalling only one other African American female classmate, Elsey remembers those who supported her in her final years of education before the Wanamaker Institute stopped accepting African Americans.

Keywords: 23rd and Walnut Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 6th and Spruce Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Berean School; Dr. Nathan F. Mossell; Horace Binney School; John Wanamaker Commercial Institute; Matthew Anderson; O.V. Catto School (Philadelphia, Pa.) (all-black school); Segregation: Schools; Stenography

Subjects: African Americans--Education.; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Discrimination in education.; Race discrimination.

00:31:37 - Bell Telephone hires "light-skinned" African Americans

Play segment

Partial Transcript: --examples of, of how things were tight.

Segment Synopsis: Elsey recalls during her time at the Armstrong Association when the Bell Telephone Company began hiring African Americans but they only wanted "light-skinned" women. Elsey was confused when she obliged their request, but Bell's employee said the woman looked "too white," suggesting she was too close to "passing" for white to be hired. She also recounts that after she graduated from the Wanamaker Institute she worked for the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital.

Keywords: "Passing" for white; 6th and Walnut (Philadelphia, Pa.); Armstrong Association (Philadelphia affiliate of the National Urban League); Bell Telephone Company; Biracial; Colorism; Douglass Hospital; Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Discrimination in employment.; Race discrimination.; Racism

00:35:35 - Working for the Armstrong Association

Play segment

Partial Transcript: And then I went to the, uh, I went to this, uh, this--the last job--this, what am I trying to think of?

Segment Synopsis: Elsey remembers the crowds of African American migrants from the South seeking job placement through the Armstrong Association. She describes her impressions of the migrants and explains that she most typically placed them in the shipyards or in homes as domestic workers.

Keywords: 15th and Lombard Streets (Philadelphia, Pa.); Armstrong Association (Philadelphia affiliate of the National Urban League); Broad and Lombard (Philadelphia, Pa.); Cramps Shipyard; Domestic work; Employment of African Americans; Hog Island Shipyard; Impressions of migrants; League Island (Philadelphia, Pa.); Migration from the South; New York Shipbuilding Corporation; Old Philadelphians (O.P.s); Segregation: Theaters; Southerners

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

00:42:57 - Never having the feeling of being a slave

Play segment

Partial Transcript: I've seen a long way, son. A long way.--(both laugh)--I've come a long way. But never did I have the slave feeling--the atmosphere of once being a slave, because I wasn't.

Segment Synopsis: After reflecting on her impressions of the southern migrants, Elsey takes a moment to explain that she does not carry attitudes or behaviors associated with being a slave or seeing it firsthand. She observes that some southerners were meek, while others were angry due to the resentment between whites and Blacks, and between southerners and Old Philadelphians.

Keywords: Armstrong Association (Philadelphia affiliate of the National Urban League); Emancipation Proclamation; Germantown (Philadelphia neighborhood); John T. Emlen; Miscegenation; Old Philadelphians (O.P.s); Quakers (Society of Friends); Racial resentment; Slavery; Social services; Southerners; Strawbridge and Clothier; United Way; West Philadelphia; William Cadbury

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

00:46:43 - W.E.B. Du Bois, Black protest, and prejudice in Philadelphia

Play segment

Partial Transcript: And Philadelphia, though, the--you know, they do say--do--you can put that off the record too, that--when I--you was coming up, it was the most prejudiced Northern city in the United States.

Segment Synopsis: Elsey speaks on her opinions of prejudice in Philadelphia, which Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois believed to be the most prejudiced northern city. She recalls the opening of the film "Birth of a Nation," racial tensions illustrated by violence, and the segregation of movie theaters.

Keywords: "Birth of a Nation"; "Passing" for white; 16th and Market (Philadelphia, Pa.); 9th and Walnut Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Dr. Nathan F. Mossell; Mastbaum Theater; Prejudice; Race Riots--Philadelphia; Racial resentment; Segregation: Theaters; W. E. B. Du Bois; Walnut Street Theatre

Subjects: African American leadership; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Race discrimination.; United States--Race relations.

00:52:01 - Armstrong Association--Foundations

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Now during, uh--so we were talking about the, uh, the Quaker, the Quakers who, uh, were I guess the, the founders or the co-founders of the Armstrong Association.

Segment Synopsis: In addition to the Quaker founders of the Armstrong Association, Elsey speaks about the prominent African American men and women who contributed to its success. Elsey also shares that the major priority of the organization was to find jobs for the southern migrants.

Keywords: Cheyney University (formerly Cheyney College and Cheyney Training School for Teachers); Domestic work; Employing African Americans; Leslie Pinkney Hill (principal of Cheyney Training School for Teachers, 1913-1951); Migration from the South; National Urban League (Philadelphia, Pa.); Porters; Rev. Thomas W. S. Logan; Shipyards; Snellenberg

Subjects: African American leadership; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Societies, etc.

00:54:32 - Armstrong Association--The employment of African Americans

Play segment

Partial Transcript: I had a friend in there that was, uh, in there, and had been working in there three or four years as a white girl when they opened the, uh, the doors for Negroes to come in--(laughs)--and they found out that she was colored, you know?

Segment Synopsis: Elsey recalls a humorous memory of a friend who after four years revealed to her employers that she was not white after they mistakenly declared they would begin employing African Americans. Elsey also recounts organizations the Armstrong Association worked with, including the YWCA, to achieve their goal of employing southern migrants.

Keywords: "Passing" for white; Delaware Housing Association; Domestic work; Employment of African Americans; N. Snellenburg and Company; NAACP Philadelphia Branch; Philadelphia Association for the Protection of Colored Women; Snellenberg; Travelers Aid Society of Philadelphia; W. E. B. Du Bois; World War I; YWCA

Subjects: African American leadership; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Societies, etc.; Integration

00:57:30 - Armstrong Association--Domestic service work and other employment agencies

Play segment

Partial Transcript: How did, how did, um, people back then feel about housework? About doing housework?

Segment Synopsis: Elsey explains the differences in the perception of domestic service across social class and migrant status within the Black community. Elsey also recalls the perception of the Armstrong Association by other employment agencies who were working for a profit, rather than as a social service.

Keywords: Armstrong Association (Philadelphia affiliate of the National Urban League); Domestic work; Douglass Hospital; Employment of African Americans; Employment office--Philadelphia; Housing discrimination; Housing for African Americans; Impressions of migrants; Migration from the South

Subjects: African American leadership; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Societies, etc.

01:01:22 - The pride and privilege of being an Old Philadelphian

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Did you have an awareness then as a, as a young married woman of, of the tremendous influx of people from the South?

Segment Synopsis: Elsey recalls being shielded from certain issues given her status as an Old Philadelphian (O.P.). She also remembers feelings of resentment within the O.P. community toward the southern migrants who were looking for jobs and homes; to many O.P.s, the influx of southern migrants directly contributed to an increase in prejudice against African Americans among the white population. Lighter skinned African Americans had a much easier time getting jobs and socializing in mixed public spaces, like theaters.

Keywords: "The Messenger"; A. Philip Randolph; Broad Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Brown and Stevens Bank (-1925); Churches--Philadelphia; Impressions of migrants; Ku Klux Klan; Migration from the South; Miscegenation; Old Philadelphians (O.P.s); Prejudice; Racial pride; Racial resentment; Ralph Jones (newspaperman); Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley; Segregation: Restaurants; Segregation: Theaters; Southerners

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

01:05:47 - First job at the Brown and Stevens Bank

Play segment

Partial Transcript: And I worked at the, uh, Brown and Stevens before I went to the Armstrong. That was my very first job.

Segment Synopsis: Elsey recalls her time working at the Brown and Stevens Bank. She speaks of the clientele of the bank and the personalities and business styles of Mr. Stevens, a native Philadelphian, and Mr. Brown of Virginia. Elsey also speculates about why the bank may have closed, and mentions Brown and Stevens' other business ventures.

Keywords: 41st Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); African American banks; Andrew F. Stevens, Jr. (elected to Pennsylvania State Senate, 1920); Banks closing; Black Star Line; Broad Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Brown and Stevens Bank (-1925); Dunbar Theater (opened December 29, 1919, purchased by John Gibson in 1922); E. C. Brown; George White; Great Depression; Impressions of migrants; Italian Americans--Philadelphia; Jews--Philadelphia; John T. Emlen; John T. Gibson (Standard Theater, Gibson Theater); Marcus Garvey; Newport News, Virginia; Old Philadelphians (O.P.s); People's Savings Bank; Quakers (Society of Friends); Social class; South Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Standard Theater (1124-28 South Street); Walnut Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); William Cadbury

Subjects: African American banks.; African American business enterprises; African Americans--Employment.

01:17:45 - Feelings on women's suffrage and politics

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Let me ask you one or two more questions while I'm here.

Segment Synopsis: Elsey shares her opinions on the Women's Suffrage Movement and her political leanings, citing Eleanor Roosevelt as an influence.

Keywords: Calvin Coolidge; Democratic Party; Eleanor Roosevelt; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Herbert Hoover; Republican Party (Philadelphia); Women's suffrage

Subjects: African Americans--Politics and government.; Voting; Women--Suffrage

01:19:58 - The inventions of the radio and television

Play segment

Partial Transcript: One other question. You, um, you grew up before the age of radio.

Segment Synopsis: Elsey remembers not particularly being impressed with the invention of the radio, but wondering how it was possible. She was more interested when the television emerged as a new technology. Elsey also reminisces about listening to records on her family's Victrola.

Keywords: Bessie Smith; Ethel Waters; Invention of radio; Invention of television; Records; Victrola

Subjects: Radio; Technological innovations; Television