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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Clay East, September 22, 1973. Interview E-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Learning the business of service stations and converting to socialism

East describes how he came into the service station business, his friendship with H.L. Mitchell, and his subsequent conversion to socialism over the course of the 1920s and early 1930s. By the late 1920s, East owned his own service station in Tyronza, Arkansas. Mitchell, who introduced East to socialism, had a dry cleaning business and shared a building with East. Later, the two friends would together found the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. His overview of these events are placed within the broader history and culture of Tyronza during that time.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Clay East, September 22, 1973. Interview E-0003. 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

SUE THRASHER:
Now, you were talking about the beginning of your going into the service station business.
CLAY EAST:
Well, this man, at the time I took over the management of this station, as I told you, he was a bridge contractor and he had a contract to build a bridge across Indian Creek in Savannah, Tennessee. They had pictures of that bridge, and all and I'm satisfied that it's probably still there. But, I went ahead and worked for him for three years and then little things came up, first one thing and another and I got out of there, well, I did make a trip to California and worked in a station there with a cousin of mine. I was going to buy in with him, but he told me I'd better work awhile, and I didn't like the people in particular out there…their method…so I went back home and that's when I went into the station up on the corner. And I guess I had been up there, possibly…well, it must have been around '27 or '28 and I stayed in there then until the guys started boycotting me and I sold out. I didn't have any trouble selling it. The boy that I sold to had worked under me in Vaughn's station…that's the one I managed down there.
SUE THRASHER:
Now, when did Mitch…when you moved into this station, was Mitch's dry cleaner next door to you?
CLAY EAST:
No.
SUE THRASHER:
When did Mitch first come?
CLAY EAST:
After that. His daddy had the barber shop and Mitch came in there…I couldn't say definitely, but I would think I would possibly have been in that station a couple of years when I first knew Mitch, when he first come in there and started that dry cleaning outfit.
SUE THRASHER:
Now, tellme about how you got to know Mitch.
CLAY EAST:
Well, he…traded with me and I looked after his cars and as I remember, I think I helped him by two cars. The last time I bought a car for him, was a Moon, I went to Memphis, I think I paid one hundred and twenty-five dollars for it and I've had some letters from him. Butler says he never did have much confidence in it, but he never did have any trouble with it and he told me it was one of the best cars he ever owned. And I know it was, he got good milage from it and he said he just often wondered just how many miles he drove that car.
SUE THRASHER:
What kind of car is a Moon?
CLAY EAST:
It's just a Moon, that's all I can tell you and it had a little new moon as the emblem on the radiator.
SUE THRASHER:
Was it made by one of the big companies?
CLAY EAST:
No, that's all they made, just the Moon. No, I'll take that back, they did make a Diana Straight Eight. You remember the Diana…well, I didn't think you would and the emblem on that was a pretty new gal up on the emblem all stretched out, see.
SUE THRASHER:
But you kind of got to know Mitch working with him on cars?
CLAY EAST:
Well, Mitch he didn't have much to do with other people. No one in town that I know of…possibly, I don't know… Roy Howell, who was operating the post office for his brother-in-law, his brother-in-law had nothing to do with it, Roy run that, and Roy always liked Mitch for some cause and Roy was a kind of an odd ball, but he always liked Mitch and he liked Mitch's mother. He had a lot of admiration for them, on account of after Mitch's Daddy pulled out and left the whole family and Mitch stayed with them and Roy knew what a tough time they was having. My mother also though a lot of Mitch on account of that…but as far as me talking to him about politics or anything, I never had any conversations with him at all until I got to talking to him, I got to setting around over there doing nothing and figured me out a system I thought we should be operating under and when I went over and talked to Mitchell, he said, "Why, you're a socialist." And of course, I was kind of smart-alecky and I told him, "Hell, My hair's not long enough." Of course, about the only thing I at that time knew about socialism was calling them Bolsheviks, some people said Bolshevikii and we'd see cartoons in the paper about Russians and my grandad always called them Roosians. But, that's about enough as I knew about them. That's when Mitch told me that he'd bring down a book for me to read. And I told him then that if it was about socialism, he needn't bring it down to me. So, Mitch said that "You don't have to be so damn narrow minded, you can read it and if it's no good, forget about it." So then, I guess maybe that day or the next day, he come by there andpitched me out a little paper book there, Letters to Jud by Upton Sinclair. Well, I never had heard of Upton Sinclair, I didn't know anything about him. And I started in reading that thing and the more I read, the more sense it made. After that, I knew there was something wrong and everyone else did.
SUE THRASHER:
What were the times like around there then?
CLAY EAST:
They were so bad that people over at one of those small towns over there stopped a bread truck…Stuttgart, that's over in the rice fields. They stopped the bread truck and took the bread off the damn thing…a bunch of these damn working people out there. Couldn't get nothing to eat. And, that happened over quite a bit of the country.