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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William and Josephine Clement, June 19, 1986. Interview C-0031. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Impact of racism on radical politics

Josephine Clement speaks at greater length about race relations while she was growing up and their impact on her father's politics and her own politics, later on. She offers two anecdotes, one about a white man harassing her aunt and another about her experiences as a student at Columbia, and argues that it was in large part because of racism that radical politics, including Communism, had such success with African Americans during the 1920s and 1930s.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William and Josephine Clement, June 19, 1986. Interview C-0031. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WALTER WEARE:
But what I was trying to capture was that radical time in Atlanta in the 1930s, and how your father viewed that.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
Right. I don't have any memories of Angelo Herndon and my father; I do know the name, and who he was. You would have to really go back and know how it was with black people. I have read someplace - I don't know where I read it - that the nadir for black people in America was 1915. Now if this be true - because here I was born three years after this, my parents lived through it and all - in the '20s and the '30s, you were not very far away. Race riots that they had - I remember my father, being a railway postal clerk, had a gun as part of his standard equipment. I really don't know what they did in the race riots, but he did something in it; I was too young, I suppose, to remember anything about that, I really don't know when they took place, but I heard him talk about it. One day my mother had a younger sister who was visiting or staying with them, and a white man followed her down the street in his horse and buggy. He had, I guess, harassed her all the way in. By this time, she was weeping, coming down the street, and she ran up the steps, and he stopped - he had a horse and buggy - and ran up the steps after her. And my father came out, and that's the time he had his gun, and he told him if he didn't get off his front porch, he was going to blast his head off.
WILLIAM CLEMENT:
Do you remember that?
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
No, I don't remember that.
WALTER WEARE:
Well, he had probably lived through the Atlanta riots. He was in Atlanta in 1906, wasn't he? 1906 was the year of the terrible race riot in Atlanta, and I think it was not too long after that that DuBois decided there was no way that he could be just a scholar, because he had witnessed the horror of this race riot.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
Well, that's what I was about to say when you were talking about the radicalism. It was enough to drive people to the extremes like that, I suppose, although back in that time, they were not as radical. I remember when I went to Columbia University, that was my first experience in integrated education. We had white teachers at Spelman, had them in high school and college, but they were women who had come down from New England or those places, really, like missionaries. They had given up their lives, they didn't have any friends in the cities, they were people who were ostracized, they were quite pariahs. But this was my first experience with going to school with white people. As I look back on it now - it was so different from Atlanta, such a step forward - but there was a great deal of hidden, of veiled, racism. For instance: my sister Millie and I went together. We couldn't stay on campus. We lived at the YWCA, in Harlem, on 137th Street, in the Emma Ransome house, they called it, went back and forth. But the people who were friendly to us, who extended a hand of friendship, were the Jewish people, and many of them were Communists. Maybe I should say they were the Communist people; the Communists really came after young black students from the South, because you were just ripe for this sort of thing. And many of them were Jewish people. Many of them were first, second-generation immigrants. There was no feeling of ostracism or anything like that; the YCL, the Young Communist League, used to parade openly; they were one of the campus groups. This was after World War II, when we began to get this feeling about the Communists.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you think that, in the '30s, ironically, perhaps, that there wasn't quite the same stigma against the Left that there was after World War II, in the '50s and '60s, with McCarthyism? Because if you think about what I call the old black Left, whether you're talking about DuBois or even E. Franklin Frazier or Abram Harris or Ira Reid, names that scholars you're familiar with - St. Clair Drake - they were all - Richard Wright - were either in the Party or flirting with it in the '30s.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
Absolutely, yes.
WALTER WEARE:
So there was something going on there, and I was wondering if it was in Atlanta.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
Well, it was because of the outreach, I think. Because they were friendly to you - it was as simple as that.