I was a Depression Era kid. The Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash in October 1929, held this country in its icy grip for about a decade, until war clouds began to appear in Europe in the late thirties. The threat of war in Europe stimulated war preparations in this country and the defense industry began to waken from its long slumber, making thousands of jobs available, bringing to an end the long period of depression.
But in the bleak period between 1930 and 1939, conditions for millions of Americans were almost unbelievably grim. There were no jobs to be had. Thousands of Americans tramped the streets and highways of the nation looking for work, any kind of work. The few fortunate people who had jobs, hung on, accepting drastic pay cuts, lengthened working hours, and working conditions that would be unthinkable in today's work world.
By 1932 more than 5000 American banks failed taking with them the savings of thousands of Americans. One could go to bed one night feeling himself in comfortable circumstances because he had substantial savings in his bank and could awaken the next morning to find that his bank had failed and his comfortable savings account had vanished and he was now a pauper. Thousands of Americans lost their homes through foreclosure. In fact, one third of the state of Mississippi was foreclosed when mortgage payments could not be met.
I knew about the Depression from what I could piece together of my parents' conversations. And I remember frequently hearing at church that some member had lost his home through foreclosure. And I remember seeing families dispossessed, all their belongings put on the street because they had defaulted on their mortgages.
I remember going with my father to deliver groceries to members of the church who were in trouble. And I remember the soup kitchen on the corner of my block. These kitchens would serve a bowl of soup and a sandwich at no cost to anyone in need. Needless to say, the kitchens were busy places. Many Americans were sustained by such charity.
My father, may it be said to his everlasting credit, voluntarily reduced his salary twice, during those desperate times, and attempted to reduce it a third time but was restrained by the church officials who argued that he would not be able to maintain his family if the proposed pay cut were approved. Need I say that W. H. R. Powell was an extraordinary man?
While reducing his salary, our father managed to keep a roof over our heads, and I do not recall that I ever went hungry. But there were few frills; just the bare necessities and not too many of those, were the order of the day in my home. I remember almost daily someone would come to my house begging for a handout. I believe that not one was turned away empty-handed. My father would make a small donation, a quarter or some other small gift. He couldn't afford to give more, for we were poor too. Sometimes, he would invite them to share dinner with us. I always felt sorry for those who did, not merely because they were reduced to begging, but because they had to eat my mother's cooking.
But how did this depressed economy, the despair, the joblessness, the hopelessness of that time impact on me, a child of those desperate years? Well, not as badly as one might think for there were wonderful distractions available to me in my own neighborhood. In retrospect, I realize how poor we were. But so was everybody else. Our condition was not appreciably different from most of the people I knew. We just accepted our poverty -- there was little else we could do.
We children got along well considering the situation with my father gone a lot of the time. I did have some fist fights with my brother over nothing-at-all. Now I am extremely fond of my brother and am amazed at how well he has handled his life's misfortunes.
When I was a kid living in South Philly on Christian Street, my block housed an interesting mix of people, some of whom were relatively affluent professional people, who lived in well-appointed homes, but the majority of my neighbors were ordinary working people who lived in row houses. There were a few apartment buildings on my block at that time, along with one or two rooming houses.
I attended E. M. Stanton (Secretary of War under Abraham Lincoln) Elementary School. From there I went to Barrett Junior High School on Wharton Street. And for high school we went to Benjamin Franklin. We often would walk the eighteen blocks to school. The walk was a breeze because we would walk together with our friends, especially Bobby Webb and Arthur Scott.
The school raised a collection every day from those children who had a few pennies to give. I had a few pennies, but they never got anything out of me, because a store on the corner sold Kosher dill pickles from a large barrel. For $0.03 cents you could buy an enormous pickle. So, in class, the air around me always reeked of dill pickles and I never had anything to put in the collection plate.
Down the street in the next block, was the Y.M.C.A., which was a gathering place for the neighborhood youngsters, (those who could afford to join), since it had a swimming pool and a gym (where I watched Joe Louis give an exhibition once), as well as game room and a library. The upper floors contained rooms that could be rented by the day, week, or month by members, or people passing through the city who wanted cheap lodging.
Around the corner was the Y.W.C.A. where skating parties were held every week. On the corner next to my house was a drug store, where I worked as a porter, and just across the street was a chain grocery store, where I used to bag groceries and carry grocery orders to the homes of the patrons.
Ours was a good block. Most of the homes were well kept, the streets were usually quiet, and crime and violence were rare.
There were some interesting characters who lived in the neighborhood. One of these was a Mr. Bythewood. He had the habit of approaching people on the street and greeting them with "Absolutely!" The person so addressed was expected to respond with "Positively!" to which Mr. B. would answer, "Damn Right!!" and move down the street.
There was in the apartment house above the drug store on the corner a lady whom we called Mrs. "La" Jones. We called her "La" because she used to sprinkle "La's" in her conversation liberally. Maybe she was trying to impress us with her knowledge of French. I did not know it then, but now that I have had some mild exposure to French, I realize that she used "La" incorrectly most of the time. For example, she might say, "I want you to go to the La store and get me a loaf of the La bread."
She had other affectations also. For example, they say that when her husband would beat her, she would yell from the window, "Murdure!! Murdure!! This blankity-blank is killing me"
Then there was the "Barefoot Prophet." I don't know much about him. All I can remember is that he never wore shoes. And I remember seeing him plowing through the snow in bitterly cold weather wearing no shoes or other protection on his feet.
The "Y" was a favorite hang-out for many of the youngsters in the neighborhood because it had a swimming pool, a gym, game rooms, and many other attractions. I was a frequent visitor at the Y because of its proximity and also because most of my friends could usually be found there enjoying the facility.
There was a man who lived at the Y which had two floors of dormitory-like residential quarters. This particular man was considered a harmless eccentric because of his bizarre behavior and his peculiar habit of wearing hats whose brims had all been painted white. This man would stand for hours behind the vestibule doors near the entrance. He wouldn't bother anyone, he just stood there facing the street wearing one of his painted hats.
After we became accustomed to his habits, no one ever paid any attention to him; he was, we thought, just a harmless "kook." My sister was employed at the Y as one of two secretary typists. At one time, the other secretary typist took several days off to get married and to take a honeymoon trip. On the first day of her return to the job, she and my sister were in the office typing when they heard loud voices coming from the dormitory area upstairs, followed by what sounded like a gun shot. Unthinking, the two secretaries left the office and ran up the steps to investigate. There they found the body of one of the maids and standing down the hall was this "harmless" eccentric waving a gun. He shot and killed the girl who was with my sister, and my sister turned and fled back downstairs, locked herself in the office, and called the police.
When the police arrived and as they mounted the stairs to arrest the eccentric, they heard a single shot. Upon investigation, they found that the gunman had turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. We learned later that this "harmless" eccentric had killed two other men that morning in an office where he had once worked.
My sister survived this harrowing experience only because of where her desk was located in the office. If her desk had been closer to the door, she would have been the first one out of the door and up the stairs, and she, not the other girl, would have been another victim of this madman's killing spree.
From this experience I learned to regard any and all eccentrics as potentially dangerous. I learned to treat them with caution and circumspection and to avoid them when possible. This caution may have stood me in good stead. I remember once, when in a bull session with several other guys, one of them made a statement that I thought was outrageously exaggerated. I started to challenge him, but some inner voice said to me, "Leave this guy alone, don't challenge him."
It pays to listen to that inner voice. Several months later this fellow, who appeared perfectly normal, was convicted of a particularly brutal murder, an inexplicable murder of a person entirely unknown to the killer, an innocent passer-by. We cannot know what it is that may trigger a violent response in people who seem to be somewhat unbalanced, and because we can't know, it is better to use great circumspection and caution in our dealings with them.
During the Depression there was not much joy. Gloom and pessimism and long faces seemed to be universally prevalent in that dark time. Still, the joie de vivre of youth, the youthful propensity to have fun, to laugh and play, the irrepressible, buoyant spirits of the youngsters could not be denied by the gravity of the financial conditions of the time. We still laughed, played, joked and kidded around, the Depression being the farthest thing from our minds.
We had lots of fun with the guys in the neighborhood. They had such names as Duty, Emmy, Snooty, Jabbo, and Preston. We used to break eggs over the head of Jackie Scott. He would run home and grab his b.b. gun and then march up and down in front of our house just waiting for us to come out.
We played stick ball around the corner on Webster Street, and sometimes in the schoolyard just across the street from my house. Stick ball was a sort of poor man's baseball. The bat was a broomstick and the ball when we had a whole one, was made of rubber. Sometimes when we didn't have a whole ball, we used a half ball. It took a good bit of skill to hit the half ball any distance. When we played on Webster Street, first base was a tree, second base a manhole cover, and third base a door. But we couldn't have had much more fun if we had been playing with real equipment on a real field.
We roller-skated on the side walks and later, when we became more proficient and experienced, in the streets. One of the test of one's prowess on skates was to jump the trolley tracks on the corner. One of the guys would stand on the corner watching for traffic, and when it was clear, gave the signal, and down the street the others would skate, building up speed until, at the last moment, we would jump and, if lucky, clear both tracks. If not so lucky, or if a skate struck the track, then lumps, bumps, and contusions were the reward. We also made skatemobiles, a home made scooter-like contraption that used a length of two by four to which skate wheels were attached.
As we grew older, some of the fortunate ones in my gang got bicycles. They had to share their bikes with those of us who were not fortunate enough to own one. I never could get my folks to buy a bike for me, so I worked and bought my own, a poor worn-out relic of a bicycle for which I paid the princely sum of $3 dollars. And it was almost worth what I paid for it. Now, I could join the others on their excursions around the city (that is, when my bike was in operable condition, which was rare).
A friend would go with me to church. These church days could be interminably long. There was a communion service held at 3 p.m., supper, and an evening service. To pass the time we would play little pranks. We would sit up in the balcony and shoot paper clips at the organ pipes, that would give off a resounding "ping." As usual, I was not caught.
I wanted to go to St. Simons church down in south Philly. I wanted to go down in the worst way especially when they told me about the hide-and-seek routine. Bobby and Curly were altar boys. But they sure did not act like altar boys. They would engage in a con game with Mr. O'Farrell. A couple of boys would ring his bell and explain that they were playing hide-and-seek. They would ask Mr. O'Farrell if they could hide in his closet. He would usually permit them to do so. In about five minutes or so, two other boys would ring the bell and ask Mr. O'Farrell if they could look for the boys in his house. Mr. O'Farrell would grant them permission and they feigned searching for the boys in hiding. They always found them and the game came to an end. They would thank Mr. O'Farrell and be on their way (along with any monies or other goodies they found in Mr. O'Farrell's closet).
Music is a powerful force in black neighborhoods. It was a powerful force in my own household. My parents tried to force piano lessons on me, and I resisted of course. I must have been really young when I learned, because I don't ever remember not being able to play the piano.
There was lots of music in my neighborhood. Music literally filled the atmosphere. Right around the corner lived the Coopers, Joe, Jiggs, and John. All three were accomplished pianists, but Jiggs was the best of the three. He sometimes performed as a concert pianist, and on one occasion gave a series of concerts in England. The Coopers would always take time to explain or to demonstrate some technique to anyone who would ask.
In my early days there were many street vendors. They carried their wares in horse-drawn wagons or in push carts. One of these vendors was a trumpet playing ice-man. Most people in those days had ice boxes. Our ice-man would announce his availability by blowing a trumpet. He must have known only that one phrase that he used to play, because I never heard any variation of that single phrase as long as he served our neighborhood.
In the neighborhood there were two blind men who used to play guitars. They would walk slowly, one slightly behind the other, and play melodies on their instruments. They played well and I used to follow them to hear the wonderful music they produced. I still remember especially well one song that they frequently played, although I never knew its name. Residents and passers-bys would drop coins into the cups which there wore pinned to their coats.
About three or four blocks from my house was the House of Prayer. This was the church home of Bishop "Daddy" Grace who had a swinging gospel band. Many of the musicians in his band were more than passingly familiar with jazz, and it showed in everything they played. They really rocked that place. The band featured a trumpet player, Joyful John, who was really spectacular. He could have played in the best of dance bands. He could take any old hymn and turn it into something completely different. Drums and tambourines, accentuated by hand clapping and foot patting, provided driving, irresistible rhythms on which the music was built.
A group of us neighborhood boys used to go to the House of Prayer just to watch the proceedings, and, of course, to listen to that great band. One of the interesting side-lights that I observed at that church was when "Daddy" Grace was present at collection time. Each side of the audience would rise and march to the front of the building where two large wash tubs were placed. As they passed the tubs, the marchers dropped their contributions into the tubs. Those contributions were always, as far as I could tell, in dollar bills. There didn't seem to be any provision to collect change. I can't imagine how much money was collected at those times, but I can tell you that two large wash tubs filled to overflowing made a most impressive sight.
Directly across from the House of Prayer was the Elks' Lodge. On Friday and Saturday nights, and sometimes on Sunday, they held dances there. There were some great dance bands that played at the Elks and sometimes we would stand outside listening. Sometimes on one side of the street "Daddy" Grace's band would be swinging, while just across the street at the Elks, some great dance band would be swaying, almost as if they were in competition with each other.
On Broad Street there was Teddy Burke's music store. It was a practice at that store to invite visiting musicians in for a jam session when they were passing through the city. I heard some great jazz music at those sessions which I attended whenever I could. I first heard Dizzy Gillespie at Burke's. At that time, he was an up and coming musician, not yet as famous as he would later become. I listened to him and many of the best known musicians of that era at Burke's.
One night I had what was a thrilling experience. I was walking on Broad Street, when a large passenger bus pulled over to the curb just beside me. A fellow got off the bus and asked me where Dupree's Dance Hall was. I got on the bus and directed them the couple of blocks to their destination. The bus was the Mercer Ellington (Duke Ellington's son) band bus. I was on cloud nine after that experience. Just think! I had ridden a couple of blocks with the son of a famous musician!
I used to follow the drum and bugle corps whenever they would parade through the neighborhood. And I would go up the street to listen to a band that used to practice at the Y on Sundays. I would sit on the grate in front of the window of the room where they practiced, and watch and listen. If they had known of my interest, they might have allowed me to come inside, but somehow it never occurred to me to ask.
And then there were the theaters that featured the nation's top bands. Usually the program would include, in addition to the band, a movie, a cartoon, and a newsreel. After the films, the theater would darken and a spotlight would play on the closed curtain on the stage. The band would swing into its theme as the curtain slowly opened, a rapturous, magical moment for me.
I can remember seeing the Benny Goodman band. (In fact, I played hookey from school and sat through two entire shows to see this band twice.) I saw the Duke Ellington band, the Gene Krupa band, Louis Armstrong and his band, Lionel Hampton and his orchestra, as well as Cab Calloway, and most of the best-known bands of that era. Oh, there was music in the air in my neighborhood, and I was an avid, eager student of it all, looking, listening, and absorbing.
The Powell home was filled with music. There were two pianos, one each for mother and father. All of the children were encouraged to play piano or some other musical instrument. My father especially wanted his children to learn to play the piano. He loved music and played the piano fairly well himself and he wanted his children to become proficient in music. So he hired a young lady who played extremely well to give lessons en masse to his children.
Well, the lady came to give her first lesson and she passed to each of us a notebook in which we were expected to write information as she dictated it to us. Well, I was in the third grade at the time, and I had a sister a couple of years younger. The teacher was compelled to make some concessions for my sister, but she expected me to keep up with the assignments. To tell the truth, I was not very interested in the piano at the time and I drew pictures in my book instead of trying to write as the teacher expected. At the end of the session she collected the notebooks to check our work, and when she saw what I had done, she was livid. She told my father and he warmed my seat. That experience turned me against music, at least temporarily.
My neighborhood offered many opportunities for mischief-making and sometimes I think that I found and exploited each and every one of those opportunities. My mother had a real problem controlling my brother and me. My mother was a homemaker and kept a clean house. (Unfortunately for us, she was one of the worlds' worst cooks.)
Mother was a good person. My sister Oscelletta Powell McCreary said "She was our main source of entertainment. She read to us a good deal and that's how we developed our love of reading. She had a love for people. During the Depression in our house we kept sandwiches and so forth for those who were begging."
While she may have been a decent person, personality-wise, she was very passive. All her life she would call her husband "Mr. Powell." She certainly would never stand up to father. She let her husband become an absentee father. For instance, she should have never let father take the part-time job at Virginia Seminary. In fact, she was so overly-respectful of father and his concerns that it prompted some of those who knew her to caution that she should make sure it was God she was worshipping and not her husband.
Father almost never disciplined us, except perhaps once a year, which was much less frequently then we deserved. Mother's passivity and her agreeing to take care of virtually all familial concerns allowed father to live in his own world, a world much more idealistic than the real world. Father had never was exposed to life so he never really experienced life. He was always sheltered from it -- so much in fact that he was rather naive. He never was quite able to bring himself to believe that money was not necessarily an evil thing. He was very quiet and stayed much to himself at home. His moods were often quite unpredictable so we never knew exactly how to approach him. While appearing to us kids as somewhat of a superman, he was somewhat of an emotional weakling inside. For instance, he suffered from many unfounded, irrational fears.
Mother's passivity, combined with the long absences of father, made it difficult for her to assert her authority over my brother and me when we started getting into a little mischief. What types of mischief? Well, take the matter of transportation. When we had needed to go a long distance from our neighborhood, we rode the street car. Not on the inside with the paying customers, but by hanging on the outside. When the car would stop at the corner to discharge or to take on passengers, we would go to the back of the car, reach up and grab hold of the heavy wire screening that covered the windows, and by putting our feet on the journal boxes (where the axle was), we would ride through the streets as far as we needed to go. We often did this not because we needed to go anywhere, but just for the sport of it. We had no particular destination in mind. We just wanted to go somewhere, anywhere that was away from where we were.
I shudder now to think of the danger. Sometimes, when cars were parked too far out into the street, we were faced with the need to jump off a trolley car traveling at a good speed or risk being crushed between the trolley and the car.
The subways provided other opportunities. Broad and South Street station was our favorite location for this sport. A couple of us would stand on one of the bars in the exit turnstile, and by jumping up and down, we could spread the bars of the turnstile enough so that we could wiggle through. Once through, we would dash downstairs and board a train and ride just as long as we felt like it.
This activity ended for me and my buddy Ellis one morning as we ran down the stairs on our way to school. Two subway employees were waiting of us and grabbed us. I wriggled free from the man who held me and made good my escape, but Ellis had to go to juvenile court.
The group of kids that I hung out with must have considered ourselves a sort of vigilante group, because we dedicated ourselves to ridding our neighborhood of drunks. When we spotted a man who was drunk enough to be incapable of defending himself, he was our meat. We'd beat the tar out of him with ladies' stockings into which we had placed large potatoes. These "weapons" when swung around the head and carefully brought down on the head of the drunk would produce a good knock without causing any bruising or breaking of the skin.
Sometime, if the drunk was still ambulatory, staggering and lurching down the street, we would follow him a couple of blocks showering him with our water pistols. But, if he had passed out on the street, as they sometimes did, he would be as wet as if he had fallen into the river when he woke up. We would have done a job on him with our water pistols and he would be thoroughly soaked. I'm sure that the police were puzzled when they arrived to take the drunk to the station house. Why were the drunks arrested in my neighborhood always soaking wet?
Baldy and I used to roam the streets at night. Of course, my mother would have had a fit if she found out that I was out of the house. So, I developed several strategies to make my escape. One of the most commonly used methods was when Baldy had been over for a visit, I would accompany him to the front door when he left, and I would say, loudly enough to be overhead, "Well, man, I'll see you tomorrow," and I would walk out of house with him, closing the door behind me.
My mother could not believe anything bad about anyone. For instance, she felt that Hitler must have had a very unhappy childhood to have turned out so badly as he did. Moreover, she was very good-humored. I can remember when I would tell her a story or two how the tears would roll down her cheeks. She was a good mother and even-handed with all her children. If there was to be a complaint about her it would be that she let her husband be away from home too much, leaving her to care for six children. We needed more firmness -- especially so in my case. It was so easy to hoodwink her. In fact, it was a little too easy.
Alternative methods were employed when Momma caught on to my charade. There was "the down in the cellar and out the window" method and "the out in the back yard and over the fence" method. We did not stay out late, but the hours we spent roaming about the streets were adventure-filled. Like the time we were walking through Monroe Street and as we passed one residence, the man of the house was putting the ashes from his furnace out of the cellar window. Just as he lifted that heavy tub of ashes to the sill of the window, we pushed it back inside so that it turned over on the man knocking him to the floor and covering him with ashes. I believe that man said some unkind things about us. We didn't tarry to find out.
One day, my friend Bobby sneaked his father's pistol out of the house and he, Baldy, and I met in my back yard to examine it. The gun was a relic of World War I, a Colt .45 automatic. None of us knew anything about guns, and while Bobby was handling it, it went off with a loud bang. Fortunately, the gun was aimed away from us and the bullet went into the ground. The experience scared the daylights out of us. I believe that each realized how fortunate we were that the gun happened to be pointed away from us. It could so easily have been aimed at one of us with disastrous consequences. A much chastened Bobby hurriedly left to take the gun back home, and Baldy and I were glad to see him go.
In the Depression I learned that a very little bit of money would go a long, long way. And in order to get that bit of money, I worked. I carried packages, shined shoes, carried newspaper, and sold rags, bottles, and old newspapers at the junk shop around the corner.
I was also an assistant door-to-door bug killer salesman. I was the assistant to my friend Curly who attempted to sell insecticide door-to-door. I carried the case which contained the bottles of bug killer. Usually at the end of one of our selling excursions, the case was just as heavy as it was when we started because Curly had the worst sales technique I ever saw. His method was to ring the bell, and when the occupant opened the door, ask, "Lady, do you want to buy some bug stuff?" The answer was nearly always a quick "NO!" and we would go to the next house with the same technique and meet with the same rejection.
Curly had another job. Several afternoons a week after school he worked in a flower shop making deliveries, cleaning up, and performing other small tasks. Sometimes the boss wouldn't pay Curly. Whenever that happened, Curly, Baldy and I would go to the florist's shop at night, and opening the tiny vent just above the display window, we would pour bags of garbage and trash into the floral display. What a mess would greet the eyes of the owner the next morning! Somehow, the florist never made the connection; whenever Curly didn't get paid, the flower shop window would be trashed the next morning.
I worked in the grocery store on the corner of my block. I put canned groceries on the shelves and I made deliveries, swept up and did whatever else the job required. I can still remember some of the prices of that time: three pounds of lard for $0.19 cents; a can of ASCO company beans, a loaf of unsliced bead, and a bottle of Pepsi-Cola cost just $0.5 cents. I remember the beans and the loaf of unsliced bead especially well because a man used to come into the store every day and buy these two items. I also remember well the Pepsi-Cola jingle: "Pepsi Cola hits the spot; 12 full ounces, that's a lot; twice as much for a nickel too; Pepsi Cola is the drink for you."
Each summer my church had a Daily Vacation Bible School. Maybe the intent of such a Bible school was laudatory, even praiseworthy. I hated it. I hated having to go when I could have used the time to greater advantage, playing with my friends whose parents did not impose such torture on their offspring.
My parents would not relax their demand that I go every day. Naturally, my rebellious spirit caused me to find ways out of attendance. I managed to sneak out several times until I was caught red handed by my teacher, a Mrs. Thomas, a stern, no-nonsense, strict lady.
My escape route was to ask to be excused and once I was in the rest room to sneak out of the window. Well, the last time I tried that, just as I had gotten safely outside, Mrs. Thomas snuck up and grabbed me and hauled me back to class by my ear. From then on, whenever I asked to be excused, Mrs. Thomas would accompany me into the rest room and stand by while I took care of whatever business I had in there.
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