Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Marie Mathis, June 4, 1984

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - Introduction to interview

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Partial Transcript: My name is Harriet Garrett. Today is June 4th, 1984.

Segment Synopsis: The interviewer, Harriet Garrett, introduces Mathis and gives Ms. Mathis's age and address.

Keywords: Crittenden Street (Philadelphia, Pa.)

00:00:34 - General experiences from first moving north

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Partial Transcript: Well, when we come from Greenwood, South Carolina, we went to Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

Segment Synopsis: Mathis recalls the living conditions when she and her family first arrived in the North. Her family first moved to Lebanon, Pennsylvania where they attended school for a little while. They next moved to Philadelphia where Mathis attended school until she got her first job in a tobacco factory.

Keywords: Greenwood, South Carolina; Lebanon, Pennsylvania; Tobacco factory

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

00:01:27 - Mathis discusses her various jobs in clothing factories

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Partial Transcript: I went to factory working, and clothes and stuff like that.

Segment Synopsis: Mathis worked at clothing factories from the age of twenty-five until her retirement. She held various positions at Laura's Dresses and Morgan and Bass Blouse Company in Philadelphia. She does not remember how many jobs she has had because she often quit or was laid off due to workloads and working conditions.

Keywords: Clothing factory; Factory work; Laura's Dresses; Morgan and Bass Blouse Company; Unemployment

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; Clothing factories.; Work environment.

00:02:58 - Treatment in the clothing factories--Part I

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Partial Transcript: Well, how did the employer treat you?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis recounts the environment at the clothing factories. While most girls occasionally had "run-ins" with each other, Mathis mostly kept to herself and avoided such confrontations. Laura's Dresses, where Mathis worked as a trimmer, employed mostly white women who worked on sewing machines, whereas the Black women did more menial work.

Keywords: Clothing factory; Factory work; Laura's Dresses

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Clothing factories.; Discrimination in employment.; Race discrimination.; Racism in the workplace; Work environment.

00:04:16 - Conditions and unequal treatment in the tobacco factories

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Partial Transcript: They was--they, uh, they treated me nice and all.

Segment Synopsis: Mathis recalls the tobacco factories at which she worked, namely Bayuk and Consolidated Cigar Corporation. In the factories, facilities for Black workers were dirty, and the workers cleaned them, whereas the facilities for white workers were always "clean as a whistle." The factories mostly employed Black people. Mathis stripped tobacco in her time as an employee.

Keywords: 6th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 6th and Jefferson (Philadelphia, Pa.); 9th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 9th and Columbia (Philadelphia, Pa.); Bayuk Cigar Company; Cigar factory; Columbia Avenue (Philadelphia, Pa.); Consolidated Cigar Corporation; Employment discrimination; Factory work; Tobacco factory

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

00:05:57 - Workloads in the tobacco factories: Stripping tobacco and piecework-pay

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Partial Transcript: Well, how, how did you feel about working there? I mean, did you feel you were treated fairly or you thought you were treated unfairly?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis recalls that tobacco factories primarily hired females and that they did not pay well for the girls' hard work. The employer required girls to strip the center stem of tobacco leaves and to accumulate "seven or eight punches a day" on their punch cards. Each punch was worth twenty-five cents, and if a girl did not meet the minimum number of punches, the tobacco factory fired her. Mathis eventually quit working at the tobacco factories because working with tobacco "broke [her] face out so bad."

Keywords: Bayuk Cigar Company; Cigar factory; Consolidated Cigar Corporation; Employment discrimination; Factory work; Tobacco factory; Unemployment

Subjects: African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Discrimination in employment.; Race discrimination.; Racism in the workplace; Wages.; Work environment.

00:08:38 - Living in Greenwood, South Carolina--Discrimination

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Partial Transcript: Well, when we was, uh, in Greenwood, South Carolina, well, we was living out, way out in the country from--you know, and houses wasn't joined.

Segment Synopsis: Mathis remembers her grandmother's statements about discrimination in the South. Though Mathis cannot remember such events, her grandmother recalled white men shooting to death Black men accused of raping a white woman. Despite never witnessing one of these lynchings, Mathis believes what her grandmother said because "[she] wouldn't lie about it."

Keywords: Accusations of rape; Greenwood, South Carolina; Lynching; Racial resentment

Subjects: African Americans--Crimes against.; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Greenwood (S.C.); Race discrimination.; Racism

00:10:01 - Living in Greenwood, South Carolina--Sharecropping

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Partial Transcript: Well, what was your father's name?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis tells her father's name, William Mathis, and talks about his job as a sharecropper. The white landowners sold the cotton, but did not give the Black sharecroppers an equal share of the profits. Mathis remembers how the well-dressed white landowners rode through the field while her family worked in the mud and the heat. Mathis recalls telling her mother that she will never let them "ride all over [her] like this" when she got older.

Keywords: Cotton; Farming; Greenwood, South Carolina; Life in the South

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Greenwood (S.C.); Race discrimination.; Racism; Sharecroppers; Sharecropping

00:12:41 - William Mathis's reasons for leaving South Carolina and moving to Lebanon, Pennsylvania

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Partial Transcript: Well, what made him decide to leave?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis recounts that her father, William Mathis, migrated north because "it wouldn't be no worse than [South Carolina]." He traveled to Lebanon because he knew friends who worked at a steel mill and later sent for his family, starting with Marie Mathis's oldest brother.

Keywords: Greenwood, South Carolina; Lebanon, Pennsylvania; Life in the South; Motivations to move North; South Carolina; Steel mills

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Employment.; Lebanon (Pa.); Migration, Internal.

00:14:21 - Life in South Carolina without Mathis's father

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Partial Transcript: So what were you doing when he--him and, uh, your brother were there working?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis discusses what she, her mother, and her siblings did while her father and oldest brother worked in Lebanon. Rather than living on the farm where her father had worked as a sharecropper, her family moved in with one of her mother's nieces. The niece allowed the family to live in a small house down the road until William Mathis sent for the whole family.

Keywords: Buck Leather, South Carolina; Cokesbury, South Carolina; Lebanon, Pennsylvania; Sharecropping

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Southern States.; Greenwood (S.C.)

00:15:23 - Mathis and her family join her father in Lebanon, Pennsylvania

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Partial Transcript: So when he sent for you, how did you go--how did you get to, uh, Lebanon?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis recalls the family's trip to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and how they traveled in the Black coaches at the tail end of the train and could not mingle with the white passengers in the front coaches. The family shipped their furniture to Lebanon.

Keywords: Lebanon, Pennsylvania; Segregation: Transportation

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Segregation; Lebanon (Pa.); Migration, Internal.; Race discrimination.

00:16:14 - Segregated parks in Pennsylvania: Woodside and Willow Grove

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Partial Transcript: You couldn't have nothing--where they was parks and things.

Segment Synopsis: When the family arrived in Pennsylvania, Mathis discovered that amusement parks were segregated. In Woodside Park, Black visitors could ride the rides but could not use the swimming pool or the dance hall. In Willow Grove Park, Black visitors could not ride any rides at all. She then notes that the parks shut down after Black people gained use of all park facilities.

Keywords: Fairmount Park; Segregation; Willow Grove Park (Amusement park, Willow Grove, Pa.); Willow Grove, Pennsylvania; Woodside Park (Philadelphia, Pa.)

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

00:17:59 - Living in the steel mill yard in Lebanon, Pennsylvania

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Partial Transcript: They had some old houses within the mill yard.

Segment Synopsis: Mathis remembers living in the mill yard in a two-story house. Her family lived on one floor and a relative's family lived on the other. Her father and brother worked at the steel mill and sometimes the air was so smoky that the family had trouble breathing. Both Black and white men worked at the mill; Mathis recounts that Polish immigrants who were new to the country acted hateful towards their Black colleagues.

Keywords: Employment discrimination; Lebanon, Pennsylvania; Polish-Americans; Racial resentment; Steel mills; Unemployment

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Housing.; African Americans--Relations with Polish Americans; African Americans--Social conditions.; Integration; Lebanon (Pa.); United States--Race relations.

00:20:42 - Marie Mathis's education and why she dropped out of school

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Partial Transcript: Where were you going to school at?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis recounts her experiences going to school in Philadelphia. She attended the General John F. Reynolds School up until seventh grade when she dropped out to help support her family. Mathis was sixteen years old when she stopped going to school.

Keywords: 22nd Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 22nd and Berks (Philadelphia, Pa.); Berks Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); General John F. Reynolds School (Philadelphia, Pa.); Unemployment

Subjects: African Americans--Education.; African Americans--Employment.

00:21:53 - Poor housing conditions in Philadelphia and the Mathis family's various moves

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Partial Transcript: The houses we lived in, honestly, it wasn't, wasn't even fit for a dog to live in.

Segment Synopsis: Mathis discusses the houses her family lived in and the high price of rent. The Mathis family moved five separate times within Philadelphia until they finally purchased a house. None of the rented houses were suitable for living, but the family stayed at 1600 Randolph Street for about 15 years, before moving to 21st Street for three years, eventually settling on Woodstock Street.

Keywords: 21st Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 22nd Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Bolton Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Edgley Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Home ownership--Philadelphia; Housing discrimination; Randolph Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Woodstock Street (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Subjects: African American families; African American neighborhoods; African Americans--Housing.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:25:37 - Domestic work and tobacco factory work

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Partial Transcript: Okay. Tell me tha--a little bit about Philadelphia, like before, um, 1930, because that's where--when I had heard that Philadelphia was going through a great change, a great migration...

Segment Synopsis: Mathis shares her opinion on domestic work and how she began working at tobacco factories. Many people in Philadelphia did housework and sometimes both husbands and wives worked as domestic servants together because few jobs were available. Mathis did not do domestic work herself because she did not like it. Instead she worked at a tobacco factory because they hired teenagers. She believed that clothing factories did not accept Black workers at the time.

Keywords: Cigar factory; Domestic workers; Education; Employment discrimination; Impressions of Philadelphia; Tobacco factory; Unemployment

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; Housekeepers; Housekeeping.; Work environment.

00:27:21 - Treatment in the clothing factories--Part II

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Partial Transcript: Well how did they start letting people in? Or how did they keep you out?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis recalls why clothing factories started hiring Black workers. As white women began to hold more prestigious jobs, such as salespeople, they left the factories. This shortage of labor allowed Black workers like Marie Mathis to move into more favorable jobs, such as work in clothing factories rather than tobacco factories. Still, very few workers at the clothing factories were Black, and they were not "paid by the union" like their white counterparts. The white workers acted cordially to the Black workers, but did not often hold long conversations with them.

Keywords: Clothing factory; Employment discrimination; Factory work; Unions

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Clothing factories.; Discrimination in employment.; Labor unions.; Race discrimination.; Racism in the workplace; United States--Race relations.; Wages.; Work environment.

00:29:56 - Dealings with the union and why Marie Mathis quit her job

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Partial Transcript: Did you ever say anything to the union man about like--I mean, they would not, you know, take your gr, grievances into consideration? Or--?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis recounts her experiences with the unions in the clothing factory. While she worked for the factory, she did not talk to the union man even though he met with the white workers in the factory. Mathis never made a fuss about not being paid the same as her white counterparts, but the "grievance lady in the union" called her and asked her to quit rather than chance her making an issue over the pay and treatment difference of African American employees. When her employer called to see if she would return to work, Mathis told them "no" and found another job.

Keywords: Clothing factory; Discrimination; Employment discrimination; Factory work; Unemployment; Unions

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Clothing factories.; Discrimination in employment.; Labor unions.; Race discrimination.; Racism in the workplace; United States--Race relations.; Wages.; Work environment.

00:32:28 - Voting in the North and the difference between Republicans and Democrats

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Partial Transcript: Um, tell me a little bit about voting. Di, did you vote?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis recalls that her family never voted Republican, even though a Republican man came around to the neighborhoods and paid people a dollar to vote. During one election, her father took the man's money but voted Democratic anyway; she remembers her father voting twice during one election. According to Mathis, Republicans "close everything down" whereas Democrats "open things up" so people can get work. In Mathis's view, a Republican would give people beans to eat, but a Democrat would give people money to buy the kind of foods they need.

Keywords: Democratic Party; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; New Deal; Political impact of the Great Depression; Republican Party; Republican Party (Philadelphia); Social Security; Voting

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

00:36:09 - Final thoughts about her family's move up North

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Partial Transcript: Um, how do you feel about having made the move from Greenwood, South Carolina, and then to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and finally to Philadelphia?

Segment Synopsis: Mathis relays that she does not regret moving north with her family because they had much better educational opportunities in Philadelphia than in the South. In South Carolina, the Black school was only open for two months of the year. In regards to race relations, she says that "Lord put this big world here . . . for all of us," yet "[Whites] lived off the sweat of our brow" because "the wrong crowd got here first."

Keywords: Greenwood, South Carolina; Lebanon, Pennsylvania; Migration from the South

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Education.; Greenwood (S.C.); Lebanon (Pa.); Migration, Internal.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Race discrimination.; United States--Race relations.