Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with John Flynn (Pseudonym), June 4, 1982

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:01 - Early life in South Philadelphia, and an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan in Doylestown

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Partial Transcript: Alright, can we start--

Segment Synopsis: Flynn discusses how he grew up in the same home he, his father, and grandmother were all born, near Federal Street in South Philadelphia. He states that after his father married, they moved to a house near 28th and Reed Street where Flynn attended school at Saint Gabriel's. Soon after, his father found himself out of work, so they moved to a farm in Newtown, Pennsylvania where they lived for a year until his father found a job as a bridge painter in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Flynn recounts how his father only worked this job for two weeks until he was fired for asking if there was a Catholic church in the area. Flynn then describes how that same Friday night, members of the Ku Klux Klan lit a cross on fire in the field near their home, and threatened to beat or kill his father. Flynn states that the only reason his father survived the ordeal was because their landlady threatened to kill the first Klansman she saw move. The following day, Flynn's family left Doylestown to live back in South Philadelphia.

Keywords: 2027 Federal Street (Philadelphia, Pa); 28th and Reed Street (Philadelphia, Pa); Bridge painters; Doylestown (Pa.); Doylestown, Pennsylvania; Grays Ferry (Philadelphia Neighborhood); Kensington (Philadelphia Neighborhood); Newtown (Pa.); Newtown, Pennsylvania; Saint Gabriel School; South Philadelphia; St. Gabriel School

Subjects: Childhood; Discrimination.; Families.; Ku Klux Klan (1915- )

00:04:34 - Work within a trucking company and skipping school

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Partial Transcript: You keep moving--why'd you keep moving?

Segment Synopsis: Flynn recounts how he began to work at the age of thirteen when his father found him a job as a truck driver's assistant in the Union Transfer. He describes how he would get paid forty dollars for a month's work, and how this first taste of money led to his dislike of school. Flynn discusses how he skipped school by tricking his principal into thinking he was his own father, but that he was eventually caught and forced to go to school. Flynn then discusses how the National Recovery Administration (NRA) improved his wages and working conditions at the Union Transfer.

Keywords: Careers; Jobs; National Recovery Administration (NRA); Truancy; Truck Driver's Assistant--Union Transfer; Union Transfer Baggage Express; Union Transfer--Philadelphia; Work

Subjects: Childhood; Employment; Families.

00:07:51 - Becoming a labor union organizer at the age of sixteen

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Partial Transcript: My father by this time was a superintendent at the union transfer at night time.

Segment Synopsis: Flynn discusses the difficult decision he made at age sixteen to join a truckers' labor union as a union organizer. He describes how the job of a union organizer in the past was much different than it is today, stating that he would beat up on people, burn trucks, and slash tires to protect workers from company abuse. He also discusses how employers often treated employees like indentured slaves, threatening to fire them over minor reasons.

Keywords: Careers; Jobs; Superintendent--Union Transfer; Truckers' Labor Union--Teamsters Local 107; Union Transfer--Philadelphia; Unionism; Violence--Union Organizing; Work

Subjects: Employment; Labor disputes; Labor movement; Labor unions

00:09:52 - Resistance against and fear of unionism

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Partial Transcript: Was there a lot of, um, resistance amongst people like yourselves, the, the workers, to join the union though?

Segment Synopsis: Flynn discusses the resistance many workers demonstrated against unionism out of fear of being fired by the companies they worked for. He also describes the danger associated with his role as an organizer because many workers carried guns and other weapons to ward off organizers like Flynn from speaking to them about unionism. This did not prevent organizers from completing their job; instead they either disarmed workers or stopped them when they were weaponless to convince them to unionize, through force and violence if needed.

Keywords: Anti-unionism; Careers; Jobs; Organized crime; Work

Subjects: Employment; Labor disputes; Labor movement; Labor unions

00:10:53 - A violent encounter with a superintendent / A search for employment

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Partial Transcript: And then when I was eighteen, I got married.

Segment Synopsis: Flynn discusses how shortly after he got married, he put a superintendent into the hospital for two weeks and the Teamsters fired him from his job as an organizer. He describes the jobs he subsequently took on including longshoreman, distributing circulars, shoveling coal, and washing dishes for Whitman's Candy Company on 1600 Chestnut Street. He describes how he washed dishes six days a week for twelve dollars and earned another 2 dollars washing dishes on Sunday at another restaurant on Old York Road. He states that the restaurants he worked for took money out of all the employees' pay for broken dishes. When the Social Security Act took effect in 1937, he had approximately six cents less in his take-home pay. Flynn also discusses how the good old days were not as good as most people state; it was good because one could sleep in a hallway without being robbed, but not good economically.

Keywords: 1600 Chestnut Street (Philadelphia, Pa); Careers; Dishwashers; Jobs; Social Security Act; Superintendent--Trucking Company; Whitman's Candy Company; Work

Subjects: Employment; Labor disputes; Labor movement; Labor unions; Violence

00:14:35 - Working in circular advertisement distribution, and organizing a circular union

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Partial Transcript: And that was it, I had it. And I said, "To hell with it, we're going back to Philadelphia."

Segment Synopsis: Flynn recounts his experiences working for two dollars a day as a circular distributor for department stores. He describes that he often waited from 5:00 am to 8:00 am to get hired. Once hired, he and the other men went via horse and wagon to the Public Ledger Building where they loaded a wagon with circulars for distributing. Flynn describes then taking this wagon up to Manayunk and Mount Airy, where he and five others distributed 2,500 circulars each while company spies watched to make sure no one was dumping the circulars in the sewer. He then talks about how he helped organize a circulars union which helped raise the workers' pay to $2.50 a day and helped reduce the workers' waiting time.

Keywords: Careers; Circulars--Distribution; Company spies; Jobs; Manayunk (Philadelphia neighborhood); Mount Airy (Philadelphia neighborhood); Public Ledger Building--Philadelphia; Work

Subjects: Employment; Labor disputes; Labor movement; Labor unions

00:17:25 - Work on the dock as a longshoreman

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Partial Transcript: Then I used to carry bananas.

Segment Synopsis: Flynn discusses his experiences working as a longshoreman on the docks of Philadelphia. He explains how he worked two days a week, usually Tuesday and Thursday, getting paid 40 cents an hour unloading bananas from ships. He describes how longshoremen had to pay a gang boss in order to get their "Brass Check" in order to get paid for work. Flynn recalls the heavy lifting he endured, often having to carry 80-130 pound stalks of bananas to a horse and wagon on Delaware Avenue, with no lunch break. He also explains how the concessionaire was the place longshoremen went to get their lunch and pay, and if you were still able to work after carrying bananas you could earn 60 cents an hour carrying coffee bags. Flynn recounts how he bought his wife five tootsie rolls every day after work. He states that in the past he was 25 pounds heavier and earned money by lifting 500 pound objects; he also carried 200 pound kegs of copper nails during World War II and 300 pound bags of sugar for the Whitman's Candy Restaurant.

Keywords: Bananas; Brass checks; Careers; Delaware Avenue (Philadelphia, Pa.); Gang bosses; International Longshoremen's Association; Jobs; Longshoreman; Whitman's Candy Restaurant; Work

Subjects: Employment

00:22:54 - Trucking industry's opposition to unionism / Violent tactics used in organizing

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Partial Transcript: Let me ask another question then, before we get ahead on, um--you said you were instrumental, or you were an organizer with 107.

Segment Synopsis: Flynn discusses the tactics trucking companies would use to prevent his organizing. He recounts how his father hired J.J Murphy from Baltimore, the Sweeney brothers Jimmy and Eddie who were Murphy's helpers, and a mechanic for the Union Transfer who were all fired for becoming active with the union. He states that after the union was recognized, they all got their jobs back except for J.J Murphy who became a business agent for the union. Flynn also describes how in organizing he would beat guys up, set trucks and companies on fire, and slash tires. He explains that he will not name any names because he does not want his great-grandchildren to know what he did.

Keywords: Careers; Eddie Sweeney--Union Transfer; J.J Murphy--Teamster 107 Business Agent; Jimmy Sweeney--Union Transfer; Jobs; Organized violence--Unionism; Teamsters Local 107; Work

Subjects: Employment; Labor disputes; Labor movement; Labor unions; Violence

00:25:34 - Bootleg alcohol and jail time

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Partial Transcript: Were you ever afraid?

Segment Synopsis: Flynn explains how at age 16-17 he was able to organize without fear because he was always "half juiced," having started drinking at 13. Since the day of the interview he has been sober four years. He recalls that because his parents let him keep his money, he often drank excessively on the weekends, ending up in the jailhouse every Sunday morning. He explains how he was never afraid of "getting pinched" and ending up in jail because his committeeman always got him out every Sunday morning. He didn't have to even clean his cell, so it was like having a free place to sleep. Flynn also explains how he associated with a gang near 6th and Spring Garden, part of the Vice District, and went to bootleggers during Prohibition. On Vine Street, the line was sometimes two to three blocks long, at what he called "1-2-3 houses," with people waiting to purchase a bottle of white whiskey for a quarter, no matter their age. He also describes the feud his gang had with a Cuban gang for trying to steal their girls, but that they left after his gang destroyed their hangout spot. Flynn then explains how his gang spent time drinking and "raising hell" in the towers of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, but were chased down to under the bridge.

Keywords: Alcoholics Anonymous; Alcoholism; Benjamin Franklin Bridge (Philadelphia, Pa.); Bootleggers; Committeeman (Philadelphia); Gangs; Juvenile delinquency; Magistrates; Moonshine; Philadelphia--Vice District; Sixth Street and Spring Garden Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Sobriety; Tenderloin District (Philadelphia, Pa.); Underage drinking; Vine Street and 9th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Subjects: Alcoholic beverage law violations; Crime.; Distillation; Distilling, illicit; Police.; Prohibition; Violence

00:31:00 - Gang fights, the murder of three black men, and fights between Pollock Town and Greys Ferry

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Partial Transcript: In this particular Saturday night--well, they used to--at that time, there was a lot of--there still is I guess today, a lot hatreds between black and whites.

Segment Synopsis: Flynn recounts the racial animosity between blacks and whites, recalling how his gang often pounced from under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to attack African Americans. One Saturday when Flynn stayed home, his gang killed three African Americans during a gang fight, which lead to a major investigation in which three or four of his associates were imprisoned. This ultimately took the fire out of his gang. Flynn also discusses how gangs of the past did not use guns or knives, but used fists or brass knuckles or else they would be considered cowards. He tells a story of how he and his schoolmate, Michael, participated in gang fights every weekend. Michael ran for Pollock Town, a neighborhood of mostly Polish-Americans with a church at 28th and Snyder. He recalls how hundreds of boys met at a vacant lot in Grays Ferry, a predominantly Irish neighborhood, to have stone fights, with the occasional truce to attack police cars. Flynn explains how the murder of a kid by an ice pick caused the fights to stop.

Keywords: Assumption of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church; Benjamin Franklin Bridge (Philadelphia, Pa.); Brass knuckles; Gang violence; Gangs; Grays Ferry (Philadelphia neighborhood); Irish Americans--Philadelphia; Polish Americans--Philadelphia; Pollock Town (Philadelphia neighborhood); Saint Gabriel's Catholic School; Sixth Street and Spring Garden Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Youth violence

Subjects: African Americans--Philadelphia; Crime.; Race relations; Violence

00:36:55 - Stealing horses and a car

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Partial Transcript: There was a--believe it or not, there was a guy down there, they considered him Polish, but his name was Mulligan.

Segment Synopsis: Flynn recounts how he and his childhood friends stole and rode the horses of a man named Mulligan, but that they returned them every time. He also discusses his worst experience growing up, when he and his friend Herbert got into a car which Herbert's brother Leopold had stolen. In order to escape the police, Flynn had to jump out of the moving car which the police were shooting at, but Leopold was caught and arrested.

Keywords: Car theft; Horse theft; Juvenile delinquency

Subjects: Childhood; Crime.

00:38:46 - The Tenderloin, or vice district, of Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: Um, your--(coughs)--your gang centered around 6th and Spring Garden, right?

Segment Synopsis: Flynn discusses how he and his gang frequently spent time near Sixth and Spring Garden, which was a part of the Tenderloin or Vice District of Philadelphia. He explains how they spent time in the tap-rooms, which did not care about the age of their customers. He describes the many activities which took place in the Tenderloin such as bootlegging, tattooing, and prostitution. Flynn also discusses homosexuality in the Tenderloin.

Keywords: 806 Vine Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 8th Street and Vine Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Bootlegging; Brothels; Homosexuality; Prostitution; Red Garter (Philadelphia, Pa.); Robbery; Sixth Street and Spring Garden- (Philadelphia, Pa.); Tenderloin District (Philadelphia, Pa.); Underage drinking; Violence against homosexuals

Subjects: Crime.; Violence

00:43:25 - Homosexuality, homophobia, and the brothels of past Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: Was there a lot--you know, I always think of, uh, homosexuality and homosexuals as being a, you know, a more recent thing.

Segment Synopsis: Flynn discusses how, although he never hated homosexuals like other members of his gang did, he still did not want to be associated with them. He explains how one could easily pick out homosexuals in certain parts of the Tenderloin by the way they would hold hands. Flynn explains how there were many brothels in the Tenderloin District with prostitutes in the windows with their bodies exposed. He explains that many brothels and taprooms were protected by the police and politicians under the guise that keeping them all in one section was better. In actuality, the police were being paid off. He also describes the "Shorties" located on Darien Street, which were well known places to get "screwed" or "boozed."

Keywords: Brothels; Calowhill Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Darien Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Homosexuality; Police corruption; Prostitution; Shorties--Tenderloin; Tenderloin District (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Subjects: Crime.

00:46:30 - On drug usage and prostitution

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Partial Transcript: Just marijuana or something like that once in a while. I think I told you that one time when I was drunk, a guy gave me some marijuana cigarettes.

Segment Synopsis: Flynn tells a story of when he purchased marijuana cigarettes from a stranger while drunk, then was subsequently beaten by his father for smoking marijuana. He explains how all drugs, including marijuana but excluding alcohol, were considered dangerous in the past. He also discusses how although prostitutes often used cocaine, young attendants of the Tenderloin like himself did not have access to such drugs.

Keywords: Alcoholism; Cocaine; Drug use; Marijuana; Prostitution

Subjects: Crime.; Drug abuse