Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Paul Green, May 30, 1975. Interview B-0005-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The power of fear to stunt social progress

Green describes the way fear stunts social change. He remembers tobacco workers fearful to demand better wages, janitors afraid to ask for raises, and college professors without the courage to follow through on their convictions. He laments the failures of collective action, and takes a moment to reflect on the expense of segregation.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Paul Green, May 30, 1975. Interview B-0005-3. 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

JACQUELYN HALL:
You don't have any characters in your plays, or none occur to me, that might be derived from someone like Don West or Fred Beal, local union organizers and people tried to take matters in their own hands in that kind of collective way as opposed to individuals trying to better their lot. Or do you?
PAUL GREEN:
No. I've got a lot of unfinished things. We'll get to Fred Beal in a minute, but I remember going over to Durham once years and years ago and went to a house for some reason and there was an old woman in there stringing tobacco sacks and the young woman, the daughter or whatever it was, said, "Ma makes twenty-five cents a thousand," or something like that, "stringing these sacks." In those days, they would have tobacco in sacks and you would roll your own or fill your pipe. Well, they had a home industry in Durham with this. I got so exercised about that, that the American Tobacco Company people in Durham were oppressing all these poor people. So, I talked to this woman and talked to some other people and about this terrible poverty, it was a starvation wage that they were paying these people. So, I went around among them and tried to preach, "Let's get together and do something about it." I ran into, "Oh, no. The first thing that you know, we'll lose this job and we won't even have that." So, I came home and wrote a play, or tried to, about a young man, I made it different kinds of workers. They had a meeting and wound up with rioting and shooting and so on. It's in there somewhere in manuscript, but it wouldn't come out. I remember when Frank Graham was president here, I got exercised about the people that worked for the University, the janitors and all. I went around and got some figures and one man, I remember that he had ten children, I think it was, and was sweeping. I went around with a notebook and tried to get to them, most of them were a little afraid to talk, but this fellow talked. He said, "It's a shame. You know how much I make a week?" I said, "I don't know, I think that it's less than fifteen dollars." He said, "I get fourteen dollars a week and I can't quit. I've got a garden and I'm trying to make a little something, but Mr. Green, something ought to be done." So, I went to see Frank Graham and said, "Frank, it is just a shame what the University is paying these people." Well Frank, you know, was a pro-labor man, but nothing happened. I went to the bank with this fellow and said, "Listen, why don't we just all get together and I can get a lot of professors on your side and we will just do something about this." He said, "I know Mr. John Bennett and the first thing that I will know is that I'm fired. I won't have no job." I said, "Well, they can't fire you if you get enough of them." Well, this sort of faded out. Then, during the Depression, Frank being such a good fellow, he had a meeting and he called on all the professors to cut their salaries. I said, "What about the men in Raleigh, the governor and the workers and so on? Are they cutting their salaries?" He said, "No, they are not, but we can set them an example here." So, I called a meeting and had a lot of the renegade professors and all and I said, "We won't take it, we just won't accept a cut." You know, they went out one by one and faded away. I don't remember what happened, I think that the cut went into effect. But you know what you were up against, the people were afraid and then I didn't follow through. There was always an urge to do something for the people that worked with their hands. I remember 'way back in 1926 that I put out a book of Negro plays and I wrote an introduction to it about the Negro being at the bottom and so on. It has been so true. This freedom … I did all that I could in my small way when they decided that they would have to do something to get the Negroes the chance to study law. So, they had Bob House, Fred McCall a good friend of mine, and a lot of people testifying and I testified and I pleaded, "You can't afford to build a new law school in Durham at that college there and set up teachers when we have plenty of room here and we've got the faculty and the books. Why not let them in, for God's sake? The fellows are going to be lawyers." They killed it and they went ahead and they built the law school over there in Durham, got a pitiful faculty and some trustees went over there to have a look around and I knew the president and they asked him, "How is the law school doing?" He said, "Well, it's getting started." "How many professors have you got?" "We have three professors full time." "How many students have you, doctor?" "We've got three students." Then he said something that I will never forget. He said, "Gentlemen, this prejudice comes high." Our chancellor here fought against them, so all along, it has been the same story. We've had three hundred years of Negro talent, great voices, possible mighty singers, mighty poets, doctors, all gone to oblivion. I don't suppose that half a dozen out of the 14 million that have lived and died in North Carolina, just to give an illustration, hardly half a dozen reached their full maturity and power. Only a few, and they could have. I guess that there is nothing as sinful as a man, is there, as a human being. The greatest sin, I guess, is to cause another person to miss his life, because he has missed all. And we have caused so many people to miss their lives. There are 56,000 over there in Vietnam. You know, we ought to have a universal ululation you know that word ….a lament ….
JACQUELYN HALL:
Yes, lamentation. It seems to me that you have been frustrated in your attempts to bring, to deal with the evil that you have perceived in a collective way, to try to organize people in their own behalf and also that you haven't been able to really portray that kind of human endeavor in your work.
PAUL GREEN:
That's right, as I was saying, I've got four or five frustrated efforts out there (in the file,) and I got so exercised about the political setup once that I decided that I would do something new. So, I created a woman, a little woman philosopher and she decides to run for office, she just gets so fed up with it all. Her son was killed in a war and so she just wows them. She's just marvelous. I have her making speeches and she is a female Will Rogers or even more so and by gosh, she gets elected to Congress. Then I take her to Congress and then I got mired down, I couldn't finish it. So, it is out there now. I loved that little woman, she was so healthy. Then, I still have regrets. Maybe it is lack of will power or something, but it is a mysterious business, how you think and something doesn't work out. You stick in there and it doesn't come out. Gosh, I've sat up for many a night, all night long until sunrise, struggling with a scene that wouldn't come right. Well, you know.