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Title: Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007): Electronic Edition.
Author: Baker, Ella, interviewee
Interview conducted by Thrasher, Sue
Funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this interview.
Text encoded by Jennifer Joyner
Sound recordings digitized by Aaron Smithers Southern Folklife Collection
First edition, 2007
Size of electronic edition: 228 Kb
Publisher: The University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
2007.
© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.
The electronic edition is a part of the UNC-Chapel Hill digital library, Documenting the American South.
Languages used in the text: English
Revision history:
2007-00-00, Celine Noel, Wanda Gunther, and Kristin Martin revised TEIHeader and created catalog record for the electronic edition.
2007-11-20, Jennifer Joyner finished TEI-conformant encoding and final proofing.
Source(s):
Title of recording: Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Title of series: Series G. Southern Women. Southern Oral History Program Collection (G-0008)
Author: Sue Thrasher
Title of transcript: Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Title of series: Series G. Southern Women. Southern Oral History Program Collection (G-0008)
Author: Ella Baker
Description: 347 Mb
Description: 71 p.
Note: Interview conducted on April 19, 1977, by Sue Thrasher; recorded in New York, New York.
Note: Transcribed by Jean Houston.
Note: Forms part of: Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007): Series G. Southern Women, Manuscripts Department, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Note: Original transcript on deposit at the Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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An audio file with the interview complements this electronic edition.
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The text has been encoded using the recommendations for Level 4 of the TEI in Libraries Guidelines.
Original grammar and spelling have been preserved.
All quotation marks, em dashes and ampersand have been transcribed as entity references.
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Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977.
Interview G-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Baker, Ella, interviewee


Interview Participants

    ELLA BAKER, interviewee
    SUE THRASHER, interviewer
    CASEY HAYDEN, interviewer

[TAPE 1, SIDE A]


Page 1
[START OF TAPE 1, SIDE A]
SUE THRASHER:
This is an interview with Ella Baker April 19, 1977, with Sue Thrasher and Casey Hayden. Was this thirteen-month-old baby picture taken in Norfolk?
ELLA BAKER:
Sure. I was in Norfolk till about seven or eight years old.
SUE THRASHER:
You were born in Norfolk.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. My parents were both from North Carolina, however, from Warren County, two different sections. And they met in school in an "academy" that had been established by a black New Englander who carried out the old New England tradition.
SUE THRASHER:
Was that academy a missionary or church school?
ELLA BAKER:
I think it was church-related in the sense that maybe the northern or New England Baptists may have set it up, or he may have come from that. I really don't know, but it was not church-related in the sense of some other schools that I know that were started in my day by local church groups, conventions and associations and the like.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you remember about what year it was that your mother and father met at that academy?
ELLA BAKER:
I can check it for you, but I don't know now. My mother died at the age of eighty-six, and my father was seventy-two. And I frankly am not too positive about the date of my mother's death. My father died, I think, in the year 1939. My mother lived longer.
SUE THRASHER:
What kind of family did your father come from? What did

Page 2
his parents do?
ELLA BAKER:
Both of his parents were ex-slaves, and both of my mother's parents were ex-slaves. However, his father must have had a great deal of Indian in him. I have no specific indications as to what blood line as far as Indian input came from. Both of his parents were light. At least his mother was very light. And his father I did not know; he died before I was knowledgeable. But I knew Grandma Margaret, his mother. And both of my mother's parents were born on the same plantation, part of which is still owned by part of our family. [unclear] after Emancipation, I suppose, my mother's father, who was a minister, seemingly arranged for or maneuvered to secure a great portion of that land. And it was broken up into plots of forty and fifty acres, and his relatives were settled on it. I suppose the first fifty dollars I made I sent back to help pay taxes on that land, because my mother was the only member of her family that sort of kept holding on to it. So that's where I spent my summers as a youngster. We were, as I said, born in Norfolk, and the family didn't move to North Carolina until I was about seven or eight.
SUE THRASHER:
What was your mother's family name?
ELLA BAKER:
Ross. Grandfather was Mitchell R. Ross; the "R" stands for what I don't know. He was a tall, lean, black man. He prided himself on his being black. My grandmother used to say she was named after two queens. They called her "Bet," but I guess her name must have been… I know Josephine was one of them, and I

Page 3
guess the other one was Elizabeth. I don't know, but it was "Bet" as far as our record shows. I don't know what was recorded, if anything, in Warren County, North Carolina.
SUE THRASHER:
And what about your father's family name?
ELLA BAKER:
That was Baker. His father was named Teema. Now how to spell it, don't ask me, because Grandfather Teema had passed when I came along. I think there are some records I can find. I have a cracked ankle. I had a sort of an eerie kind of an accident in 1974. I was going through Philadelphia to see a relative, a first cousin who was ill. And he had much more information about that side of our family than I did, because he was older. But I fell between two cars at the Pennsylvania Station, and so I didn't make the trip. And by the time I got through with the crutches, he had gone.
SUE THRASHER:
And how about your grandmother's name?
ELLA BAKER:
Margaret.
SUE THRASHER:
Did your mother and father both have a lot of brothers and sisters?
ELLA BAKER:
I think my mother's mother had twelve or thirteen children. I knew a number of them as my aunts and uncles. My father's family must have been at least eight, because by name I can count up to say six or seven. My father apparently was the firstborn boy. There was a daughter, Aunt Eliza, who was older than he, and who ended up by having eight sons and one daughter. Those I know. But his family didn't live as long as the….

Page 4
Numerically I didn't know as many of his sisters and brothers as I did of my mother's, I guess for two reasons: one, the usual pattern of women taking the children to their home. We went to the country for the summer, and so we went to Mama's family home. And I think also some of his sisters and brothers passed earlier.
SUE THRASHER:
When did they start leaving Warren County? Did most of them stay in that county for a while?
ELLA BAKER:
My mother's family and my father's family, all the older people died in the county. And my mother's father was a minister, and on part of what is now still "our land," he is buried, and my grandmother. Several of the departed sons and daughters, my mother and my father and my brother are all buried there. And that's where I became "a church member" at the age of nine in good old Baptist tradition.
In my father's family, I knew my Aunt Eliza and her nine children much more than I did some other members of the family. I think this is basically because Aunt Eliza had a big farm with plenty of grapes and apples and pears and things, and at the stage at which I came along she had grown sons who were living away from home. They were living in Philadelphia. My father's oldest brother settled in Philadelphia. And incidentally, Rosetta Gardner knew him because she grew up there. And he was very prominent in a given church there, and I think it's Cherry Street Baptist Church. I don't know. But the persons who lived in North Carolina from my father's side were the aunt who had the large family, Aunt Eliza, and Aunt Mary, who

Page 5
didn't live too long after I became of some size. And some of his other sisters. There was one other sister that I knew who lived in North Carolina.
SUE THRASHER:
Did they mostly stay on the land and farm, or did they have other kinds of jobs?
ELLA BAKER:
I guess up to a given point they were all on the land and farmed. And as the boys grew to manhood, which was the pattern which obtained even during the period that I became grown, the boys would stay as a rule until they were twenty-one without even questioning [Laughter] , almost. And then they would go out on their own.
My father and mother met in school, this little institute in Warrenton. And he went to Norfolk to make his "fortune," and my mother stayed in her home environs and taught school. And then they married.
SUE THRASHER:
What kind of school did she teach in?
ELLA BAKER:
It was, I guess, whatever there was of a combination of a public and a community school, because in all probability the parents, who were themselves recently out of slavery, were a party to the establishment of the school. My mother's father, being a minister, had several churches, and he gave the land for the school. And of course, the community, I'm sure, lent its labor to doing whatever was necessary to see that there was a schoolhouse.
SUE THRASHER:
Was your father the first one to leave home?
ELLA BAKER:
I doubt it. He probably may have been among the first.

Page 6
There was a brother older than he, as I recall.
SUE THRASHER:
And did he go to Norfolk because that was the closest big city?
ELLA BAKER:
[Laughter] How could you guess? [Laughter] The usual pattern.
SUE THRASHER:
I went to Nashville. [Laughter]
ELLA BAKER:
And the closest big city where you could find some kind of work.
It was about a hundred miles from home. And he went, and a sister came to live with my mother and father after they were married. And some of my mother's family had already gone. She had two brothers who were in Norfolk. One died long before I knew him, and the other had a dairy farm out in what was called Pampistella. Most people wouldn't know where that is at all, but it was the outskirts and Uncle Peter had this dairy farm when I was a child.
SUE THRASHER:
What kind of job did your father get when he went to Norfolk?
ELLA BAKER:
I don't know what he got first, but at the point at which I knew him he was a waiter running from Norfolk to Washington on a steamer. That was the mode of transportation between Norfolk and Washington even up until… I guess I'd finished college, almost, before they built the bridge so you could drive from… Norfolk is as nearly surrounded [by water] as New York. And the Chesapeake Bay, I think there are five waters that come together somewhere between Norfolk and Washington, because I would hear the stories. This was a passenger ship, you see, and this was the mode of transportation

Page 7
from Virginia—from that Cape Charles-Norfolk-Portsmouth area—to Washington, D.C. There was no way to drive; there was no railroad. During my day, however, a branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad ran into the Cape Charles area. But you still had to get on a boat to go from there to the mainland of Norfolk.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you have any idea how long your father had been there before your mother came up and joined him? Did he come back to Warrenton and they married there and then went back to Norfolk?
ELLA BAKER:
Actually, the gentleman comes to the lady's home. [Laughter] I really don't know what their ages were at the time of marriage, but he had gone to Norfolk and had "become settled and acclimated," and he came back to continue his wooing of her. And there's a very interesting part of the story, especially when you know my mother's temperament. It is said that he came to pay court and had ridden on horseback from the county seat, which was Warrenton, to this little section called Flums across the river. And it was the winter season, and when he arrived he had been frozen in the stirrups and had to knock his heels loose from the stirrups.
SUE THRASHER:
Was your mother impressed by that? [Laughter]
ELLA BAKER:
My mother was a very… To let her tell the story, she wasn't about to be wooed to the extent of swooning, by no means. [Laughter] But she came down the steps—they had a two-story house by that time—and saw him bleeding. They said that she fainted; I'm not sure. [Laughter]

Page 8
SUE THRASHER:
Do you remember about what year it was that they went to Norfolk?
ELLA BAKER:
No, I couldn't recall that, but I bet I can clarify later. But that doesn't come to my mind, because I don't think at any point that they talked too much about the exact year. But I have a lot of papers around, a lot of records here and at home.
SUE THRASHER:
Were you the firstborn child?
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, no. I understand my mother gave birth to eight children, but there were only four that lived to the point of my knowledge. Whether they were born and lived a while or whether they were stillborn or just how many were in that state, I don't know. But there were four of us that I know of. There were three of us that lived to maturity, and there was one between me and my baby sister who died in infancy, I recall. This was the first death I knew of in the family. I remembered it in particular because my father was the only one who went to wherever the interment was taking place. And it was a carriage, and I was very eager to be in the carriage, but they didn't permit me to go.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you know how old you were at the time?
ELLA BAKER:
I probably was about three.
SUE THRASHER:
Small.
ELLA BAKER:
I was small at six. [Laughter] I didn't grow very fast. Whatever height I have came a little late.
SUE THRASHER:
Was the oldest child a boy or a girl?
ELLA BAKER:
The oldest child that lived to maturity was a boy. My brother

Page 9
was two years older than I. He was born on the twenty-third of December, and I was born on the thirteenth of December two years later.
SUE THRASHER:
What was the year of your birth?
ELLA BAKER:
I was born in 1903. I'm seventy-three years old. And my brother was born December 23, 1901.
SUE THRASHER:
What's his name?
ELLA BAKER:
His name was B. Curtis Baker. He used a "B"; it was Blake Curtis. My father was named Blake Baker.
CASEY HAYDEN:
What was your mother's given name?
ELLA BAKER:
Georgiana Ross Baker. And if you would hear her say it… "My name is Georgiana Ross Baker." She was a very precise-spoken person.
SUE THRASHER:
Where did the Curtis…
ELLA BAKER:
Maybe the Curtis Publishing Company. I don't know. [Laughter] I have a hunch it had to do with the Curtis Publishing Company. I think they had the earlier magazine distributors. And of course my mother was a great reader, and also she may have been selling it. I don't know. But other than that, I don't know. I didn't bother to find out why he was named Curtis; that was his name. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
And the third child, then, is the one that died very young. The child after you, the little girl.
ELLA BAKER:
No, the girl after me lived to maturity. It was the boy after me; that was Prince. My mother's family had several Princes in

Page 10
the family, and she was naming her baby after one of her first cousins, her mother's sister's son who was older than my mother. And so that was perhaps the reason, and as far as I know he was just Prince. And he died. I don't know whether he was even sitting up then; I don't know how old he was when he died.
The next child was me, and after I came, if there were others I don't know of any. She may have had a miscarriage; I don't know. But the sister who survived and whom I know was about four years or more younger than I, and her name was Margaret, named after my father's mother. In fact, she was named Margaret, and then my brother thought she was so precious, he called her "Margaret Precious Odessa [unclear] ". Don't take all that, because if you do Maggie might decide to rise up from her tomb. [Laughter] We called her "Maggie."
SUE THRASHER:
What was your life like here in Norfolk? Were you sort of middle class? Did your father make a good salary?
ELLA BAKER:
Everything is relative, you know. At that stage, a black man who was a barber or a waiter in a given kind of setting was perhaps more middle class than anything else. That meant you had all the things that people bought. We got the old Singer sewing machine that was bought away back then. When I came along knowledgeably, we lived in a six-room, two-story house. And we had a dining room and dining room furniture and [unclear] silver and stuff like that. I got stuff like that.
SUE THRASHER:
Did your father own that house?
ELLA BAKER:
No, he was renting that house. And he had a couple of

Page 11
plots in the city for building, but he didn't own time we were living [unclear] . Now when they were first married, they probably lived in a smaller place. It was a different section of Norfolk. It must have been an older section around Chapel Street, because I think that's where I was born. And in talking last fall with the present minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church, Dr. Proctor, who is also teaching at a college in New Jersey, it so happened he and I were born on the same street. That was a section, as it is anywhere, and especially where the color line was effective. There would be neighborhoods, and the older section where blacks were living was down near what might now be called Queens Street. As the people moved out to the more affluent sections, then those who were poorer moved into the sections that they had vacated. So by the time they got to Norfolk, in all probability there had been some exodus from the downtown section. And that's where many blacks were, down on Queens Street, Chapel Street, and places like that. And then they moved out to Huntersville, I believe it was called. I lived then on what is now called Lexington Avenue. I lived on the corner of Lexington and O'Keefe Streets, and it is now Lee Street. I guess O'Keefe is still the same. That's in Huntersville. To a large extent, that particular section was black when I grew up, and the last time I was there it was still black. And most of the people owned their homes there. And perhaps one of the reasons we were in the purchasing business of a home at that point was because my mother didn't like Norfolk. In fact, she had lots of bronchial difficulties. Norfolk is equally, if not more so, surrounded by water than New York, and so the truth

Page 12
of it is, she wanted to go back to North Carolina. She said there was greater culture there. I asked some questions about it, having moved there at the age of about seven. At the point at which we moved, I think I was just coming out of a severe case of typhoid fever.
So when we got there, we lived in my aunt's house. Her husband, who had been in business in Lillington, North Carolina, had decided to move to Philadelphia. She followed him, and my parents owned. The house was too small for my mother. She would kind of fuss six-room house which carried with it the business of living room (they called them "front rooms" then), kitchen, dining room; bedrooms upstairs. That kind of arrangement.
SUE THRASHER:
Did your mother ever consider teaching after she got married?
ELLA BAKER:
No, she didn't consider teaching in Norfolk. I don't know whether the offspring may have begun to come, but, as I said, I heard her say there were eight children or eight births. And it could well be also that my father at that stage, in order to consider himself the keeper of the home, like many people who were in the [unclear] they were, didn't want their wives to work. You see, people take on the patterns of those whom they escape from, as you well know. And so this was no doubt part of that. She did not work at any point while we were in Norfolk in terms of working out. Because he was away from home a good bit and because she always had some relative who was around and needed somewhere to stay. And when some of the young men she had taught moved to Norfolk and got to

Page 13
get settled, they would come and room with us. And maybe that was a source of income.
SUE THRASHER:
Was she ever active in any clubs or anything?
ELLA BAKER:
What do you mean by clubs? [Laughter] In 1900?
SUE THRASHER:
Did she have any sort of independent social activity outside of…
ELLA BAKER:
In Norfolk? My mother was a very positive and sort of aggressive person. My father and mother met there in this little academy. She was a very good student, and he was a very good student, it seems. She was particularly articulate, to the point that even when I graduated from college and I was rehearsing what had to be said, one of the professors who historically, I suppose, is well known—Benjamin Frawley—said to me, "Don't ever let anyone teach you public speaking." And I asked why. He said, "They might spoil you." And all that I had learned, as far as articulation (it wasn't so much oratory, because I didn't go in for that, but I had won a couple of medals speaking in contests, things like that), my mother was the one who taught us. She taught us to read before we went to school.
SUE THRASHER:
Is there any particular story that you remember about living in Norfolk when you were small and growing up?
ELLA BAKER:
Sure, several of them. I was the talker. The doctor who became our family doctor, I must have run across him, swinging on the gate while he was passing by. I'd speak to people. And so when I had typhoid fever, he became the doctor. In fact, he became our family doctor to whom we went back after we left Norfolk if we

Page 14
felt in need of good medical attention. One of my pet stories had to do with a gentleman who was called the "Black Money King," who lived down the street from us. He was a very proud and very well groomed man, sharp features. I guess he struck me as a Zulu might, a strong, tall type. They had the pattern that at the evening or afternoon, they would take the clothes you'd been playing in, put on clean clothes, and you'd sit out on the porch. Some children would go play somewhere, but we couldn't get out of the yard by order of Queen Anne. [Laughter] So he passed by one day after my grandfather died. He very much had the image of my grandfather as I saw it. Of course he was tall, very black, and very precise. So I asked him if he would be my godfather. He answered and wanted to know why. I said, "Because you're so nice and black, like my grandfather." And he agreed, but of course it turned out that he was a Presbyterian. And my mother, who was a very positive lady, did not think that her father would rest well in his grave if his children or his grandchildren became anything else but Baptists. So that was that.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you remember going to your grandfather's church and hearing him preach?
ELLA BAKER:
I didn't go to hear him preach; I went to sit in a chair with him. He called me "Grand Lady."
SUE THRASHER:
Up front you got to sit with him.
ELLA BAKER:
I think he did it; I didn't. [Laughter] He called me "Grand Lady," largely because I was much more free to go with him than my brother. My brother would stay with Mama more. He was

Page 15
older than I. But Grandpa would hitch his horse to the buggy, and I'd go wherever he was going with him.
I don't know why he called me "Grand Lady," but that's what he called me. And we would just talk. But when he'd go to church—which irritated my mother; in retrospect I [unclear] of course—he would let me sit in… In the front of the churches, there is a large chair in the center, two small ones on the side. On the pulpit there are these three major chairs. And when he would get up to do whatever he was doing, I would still be sitting in the seat, and I was a very short little one. So [Laughter] it irritated my mother, primarily, I think, because in country churches, especially when young ministers are trying to get ahead, they tend to want to be on the pulpit. And she didn't see any reason why I should be occupying the chair [Laughter] while they were trying to find somewhere to sit on, a side chair somewhere else.
SUE THRASHER:
Were you your grandfather's favorite?
ELLA BAKER:
I don't know that, but I do know that the short span of our existence…. We'd come up for the summer. He had had other grand children, because my mother had an older brother with a lot of children, but his children were in Norfolk. But at home there was the aunt who had fourteen children—I have some of them up there now—but I happened to have been the kind who liked to talk. I was a talker. And he liked it, I suppose. So I wouldn't know that I was his favorite, but I would ride around with him a lot.
SUE THRASHER:
How old were you when he died?
ELLA BAKER:
About six.

Page 16
SUE THRASHER:
And this would be in the summers when you would come down from Norfolk.
ELLA BAKER:
My mother and the children would go from Norfolk to North Carolina say, in the beginning of June, because we weren't in school until later, and stay throughout the summer months, and come back maybe about September.
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A]

[TAPE 1, SIDE B]

[START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
SUE THRASHER:
How old were you then when you moved with your mother back to North Carolina?
ELLA BAKER:
About six. The first time I was in school was in Norfolk. My mother had a friend, a classmate or something like that, who was in Norfolk also in the same neighborhood and who had started something like a kind ergarten, a school for the smaller children of friends. And so my brother had started there. And because he seemingly was bright and people said he couldn't possibly be as good as he seemed to have been, and that he should be going to the little public school. Imagine that. So my father, who was not much to bother about that… He didn't insist on too many things, because after all he wasn't home except on every other day. Every night he was on the water, except the few days he'd take for a little holiday. So he apparently was impressed with this concern and sent him to public school. And I was not, I don't guess, eligible to go, but my brother was thin, tall, and not combative, whereas I was the opposite as far as being

Page 17
combative. And when they began to rough him up, they wouldn't do anything but roll him in the dirt, and he'd come home with his clothes soiled. So I was sent to school to take care of the situation. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
That was in Norfolk.
ELLA BAKER:
In Norfolk. I was then between six and seven, I suppose. But it didn't bother me. I reacted, you see. What size you were didn't interfere with my reacting if I thought you were imposing. And so it got to the point that we could come home in peace.
SUE THRASHER:
So there was a year there in Norfolk that you were in school before you went to North Carolina.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, I think it must have been that.
SUE THRASHER:
So then when you moved back to North Carolina, was that when you lived at your aunt's house?
ELLA BAKER:
You mean when they moved back
SUE THRASHER:
Yes. They moved to Philadelphia, and you moved to their place.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, that's correct.
SUE THRASHER:
And did you go then to a public school in North Carolina?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
SUE THRASHER:
I'm interested in the time between then and when you went to Shaw.
ELLA BAKER:
I went to the public school and the teacher across the street and Professor So-and-so. For all the time that I was in North Carolina, I went to a public school.
SUE THRASHER:
This was the town of Littleton?

Page 18
ELLA BAKER:
Littleton. The Norfolk Journal and Guide was started there. This is the claim to fame. And it was right across from where we were, they say. It had left when we got there, though. However, its name is very indicative of the size of the place.
SUE THRASHER:
It was really a very small place. Sort of a country settlement, or a little larger than that?
ELLA BAKER:
It was and still is a small town. You had blacks on East End. We were what are called East End Avenue; that just meant the eastern part of the town, the main road. And then you had a West End of blacks, and then on certain parts of it the white community. I don't guess the poorer whites lived right there in town, because it was dominated by a family, and they lived in the better part, and this was Littleton.
SUE THRASHER:
Was it built up around a farming community, or was there a mill there or anything?
ELLA BAKER:
It was largely farm. It was owned and controlled to a large extent by one family, and the basic name of that family were the Johnsons. And then the sisters, as they married, they were some of the dominant forces in the economy of that little town, which didn't really change very much in the sixty-odd years since we've been there. They just stayed right there and tried to control things; that's all. But it was basically a farm community. People would bring the cotton in to the gin or cotton in that had been ginned. They'd bring it to Littleton to be sold. Things like that. Buy whatever you bought. Those who lived around

Page 19
farm community.
SUE THRASHER:
Was your family unusual in that it owned land? Did a lot of people sharecrop or rent?
ELLA BAKER:
There were a number of people who sharecropped and rented, but there were also in certain pockets, like the little community Elums, where my mother grew up and where my grandfather, who had bargained or whatever else for a large tract of the old slave plantation which was broken up into plots of forty and fifty acres. And his relatives settled on it. This was to a large extent, by comparison, an independent community; they were independent farmers. But they also went in for the practice of cooperative… Helping each other. When I came along, for instance, I don't think there was but one threshing machine for threshing the wheat. And so today they might be on Grandpa's place, and all the people who had wheat who needed the thresher would be there, or at least some from those families. And then they would move around. There was a great deal of what might have been a cooperative type of relationship at that stage, which does not obtain now and did not last through my early adulthood. By the time I was in college, King Cotton reigned supreme, and you had black farmers who would raise fifty and sixty bales of cotton. And still they raised all of their meat. Some of them would have and kill, in addition to hogs (which was the common commodity), beef. And there was not too much refrigeration, so you killed it and ate it, or with the hogs there were certain parts which you'd cure like the hams and the lard and all of that.

Page 20
SUE THRASHER:
Did the Johnsons own most of the land around there?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, they did. They owned it and they controlled it. They owned most of it, especially in the town and out in the country. But that's a long while ago. It's been sixty or more years since we moved there.
But there was this section where we lived where the blacks, our neighbors, each had their own place. Next to us was the Reverend Mr. Hawkins, who, in addition to being a minister, was a bricklayer. And men were artisans like brick plastering and so forth. And somebody else was a carpenter. So you had at that time an intermixture. All of the heads of the families and their wives who lived in the section we called East End were at least literate. They had been to school somewhere, and many of them had been to what might have been considered college or an academy, because some of them had graduated from schools that are now like Shaw University. Shaw was one of the earlier schools in North Carolina established for blacks. So you had a high degree of literacy and effectiveness in terms of public relations: speechmaking, leadership qualities and the like.
SUE THRASHER:
How big was the public school that you went to in North Carolina?
ELLA BAKER:
We had two rooms. One was one big room. And I don't know how many classes were in there, because I'd listen to all of them.
SUE THRASHER:
One teacher?
ELLA BAKER:
We had three teachers. I think they had two for the lower classes, because I guess they required a greater degree of retention. And that had one room. The upper grades were in the

Page 21
principal's room. I wasn't ever in the lower grades there, because even when I went to public school in Norfolk I was always ready to read. My mother taught us.
SUE THRASHER:
When you went to public school there, were you still a talker and fighting back?
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes, I was a talker, and also I would rather play baseball than to eat. [Laughter] From there I went away to school, but while I was there we had a mixed team of boys and girls, some much bigger than I, and I played baseball at recess. I'd take my lunch with me and eat it on the way to school, rather than bother with having to eat during lunchtime. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
Were the teachers male or female?
ELLA BAKER:
Both. Usually the principal was male. At this particular school, at the point when I was there, they had a principal and two female teachers. And it seems to me maybe one of the females knew a little music; I'm not sure.
SUE THRASHER:
Was your father still in Norfolk and coming down?
ELLA BAKER:
He was in Norfolk. He would come home, especially at Christmastime, and spend a week or ten days. And sometimes he would come in for shorter periods during the year. My mother would go down and spend time in Norfolk. She would go down especially with myself and my sister; we'd go down with her and spend time in Norfolk. And then when my brother reached [unclear] spent some time there in school, went back and stayed with relatives or friends, I don't know which, because the schools were not quite what my mother

Page 22
considered good.
SUE THRASHER:
Your grandmother was still living at this time.
ELLA BAKER:
My grandmother lived till ninety-six. But she was my escape valve, because she was very gay. She identified with young people. She played catch ball with us. I'm sure she must have been in her seventies. And she was something of a raconteur, I suppose, recounting what took place during her period of slavery. And she was very healthy. We did some farming, and if Grandma was around she would have rest periods. If you were chopping cotton or whatever else….
She was seldom there, though, at the time of chopping cotton. My mother couldn't stand stripping the corn for fodder for the cattle. She had, I guess, hay fever and asthma, and so she would start sneezing. So Grandma, even after we got some size, would come over, and we would go and pull the fodder. In one instance, there was a man who raised lovely watermelons. Grandma would go buy a watermelon, and she knew where to put it in the woods in the shade to keep it cool. Before maybe lunch even, she'd let us stop and eat something.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you remember any of the stories that she would tell about slavery?
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes, I remember the stories that were told about slavery, one in particular about her birth. She was the offspring of the master, and her mother apparently was a very attractive young woman. And she was born on Christmas Day, the story goes, and the young mistress was jealous and sent some food to her mother, who had been given calomel. That's what they gave people when they got sick with colds or something. I ought to look it up and find out what its composition is. You couldn't eat sour things after you took this. And I think if you took it at night, then the next morning they'd give you some castor oil or something ugly like that. It was a

Page 23
medication. But whatever it was, the story goes she had been given this. Grandma was born on Christmas, supposedly. And of course the Christmas season was a big season for the business of eating fresh-killed hog and pickles and all kinds of things. And the story goes that her mother was sent this dinner by the young mistress, and she knew that she had [unclear] and had the medication. And she ate it and died. So Grandmother's [grand?] mother raised her.
SUE THRASHER:
And she passed on this story to your grandmother.
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes, and a lot of other stories. And Grandma passed them on to us, you see.
SUE THRASHER:
What had your grandmother done on the plantation?
ELLA BAKER:
They put her in the house; she was the house person. But at the point at which she was of marriageable age, whoever was the mistress wanted to have her married to a man whom we knew as Uncle Carter. He was also light. And she didn't like Carter. And so when she refused to concur with the wishes of the mistress, the mistress ordered her whipped, but the master, who was still her father, refused to have her whipped. He was no doubt old then. But he did put her out on the farm, and she even had to plow. She remembered plowing. You don't know anything about "low ground;" that means land that's near the water. The Roanoke River runs through there, and it's still part of it now. And so she would be plowing and had to warm her hands by the horse's belly, she said. They'd start to plow and breaking up the land in February; during my period, people would start doing that. I've heard her say that she would plow all day and dance all night. She was defiant, you know.

Page 24
SUE THRASHER:
Was this plantation that she was on in Warren County?
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes, that still hasn't left Warren County. It's still there. I've got to go pay the taxes on the part that we have charge of still. A little church which I joined and which was one of my grandfather's churches is still there, and that's adjacent to his land.
SUE THRASHER:
And you were nine years old when you joined the church?
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes. Nine years old. We hadn't quite planned it that particular year, my brother and I hadn't. Our church was over about ten miles from us, and we had to cross the river. In those days there was no bridge across the river. You crossed by flatboat or canoe. And we hadn't gone over to the revival, and we heard that Joseph and Bertha—I'll call them my two cousins—had confessed and were therefore going to be baptized in September. We had to do something about it. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
So you weren't swept away in the heat of the moment. This was all planned. [Laughter]
ELLA BAKER:
I guess we were about to be left out, so all of a sudden we went to church a couple of nights. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
And did you and your brother join the same night?
ELLA BAKER:
We went to church, and I don't know whether we both got "religion" the same night or not. We weren't very dramatic about it, but we were ready for baptism, and all four of us were baptized at the same time in the old mill pond. That's where you were baptized.
SUE THRASHER:
Not in the river?
ELLA BAKER:
No, thank goodness. That was big enough. [Laughter] We

Page 25
were baptized in the mill pond, which was nearer to the church than the river would have been.
SUE THRASHER:
As you were growing up, did you take religion seriously?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
SUE THRASHER:
Did you believe?
ELLA BAKER:
I took the position that you were supposed to change. And I think the manner in which I manifested was, I was to control my temper. I had a high temper; I was very quick-tempered. And I'd strike back very quickly. I didn't take teasing. I wasn't good at teasing, and I wouldn't take it but so long. I'd say, "Stop," and if it didn't stop I'd hit, and it didn't matter how large you were. And so this was my way of demonstrating my change, by trying to control my temper. So we didn't shout; we weren't a shouting family, for the most part. I've seen my aunts and my mother, who were very religious, sitting on the usual front seats, and the tears would roll down. But there was only one aunt who occasionally would do a shouting bit, but my grandfather didn't care too much for noise in church. Of course, he was dead by the time… But the story goes that if they began to do a lot of shouting and throwing their arms, he'd call them by name and tell them to sit down and keep quiet. And if they didn't, then he had his sons, who were big, tall men, or others who would go and take them up and sit them outside the church, let them cool off. Or if you started shouting too much when he was baptizing. In fact, as I understand it, the deacons had to accompany him, because he wasn't going to try to hold them. If they wanted to shout, he'd let them fall back in the water [Laughter] , I guess. I

Page 26
don't know whether he actually did, but he [Laughter] threatened to do that.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you think that that period of being religious was important in terms of the basis of social action later?
ELLA BAKER:
It was important for the sense of the value of the human being. I look upon it as having had a family who placed a very high value on people. We were the kind of family that was not just my mother and her brood, but if somebody came by who needed something, you got something; you got food. One of the things my grandfather had was a large production of food, and there was plenty of food. He had an orchard that was very superior to the kind that people have now. There were different kinds of fruits, and the rotation: you'd start off with the early peaches, and then you'd have peaches all through the summer up until the fall. He had enough cows to have, say, ten or twelve gallons of milk a day, so if you came there was plenty to eat. They raised their own wheat; they ground their own flour and their cornmeal; they had the hogs, and they had plenty of chickens and plenty of eggs. He believed in that kind of living, so going up there every summer, to me it was just like, how did I know he wasn't rich? As far as I was concerned, there was plenty to eat. In fact, there was no question; riches never entered into it. It was the business of good living. And nobody ever got turned away. As I understand it, he was certainly in terms of food. So this was the pattern, and if somebody called and needed help. On many a night after we moved from Norfolk, the three children and my

Page 27
mother, people would knock on the door in the middle of the night and say, "Mrs. Baker, So-and-so is sick." And my mother had one of those very positive voices. They'd knock, and she said, "Ye-e-es?" She would get up, and I always waked up early. (It sounds like I'm being very self-serving, but it happened to be true that I was quick when… I never slept much. They said even as a baby, if you walked across the floor too much I'd wake up. Maybe it's nervousness.) I would be the [unclear] , as it were, for the other two children, because we were home, just the three, my mother and the children, for a good deal until such time as from time to time if there were people who…. Like a mill had opened up near us, and young men came into town, she'd rent out one of the upstairs rooms and let them stay there. But she didn't do much about feeding them, because she wasn't too eager to cook anyway, I don't think.
SUE THRASHER:
All during this time you were much closer to your mother's family than your father's family?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
SUE THRASHER:
Did you see very much of your father's family at all?
ELLA BAKER:
We'd go up to Grandma's and see them. But I never saw Grandpa Teema, because that was about twenty-odd miles from us. But I saw Grandma Margaret a lot. We'd go up to visit. They were no longer living on a big farm. But the older daughter, Aunt Eliza—the one who had the eight sons and one daughter—had a big farm, and as we grew up of some size we'd go visit Aunt Eliza. So we visited all of them, but it was much easier to visit the place where we literally

Page 28
grew up in the summer.
SUE THRASHER:
Was the church a key institution in the community? It was social life and religion and everything?
ELLA BAKER:
I guess so, but it depends on what you call "social life."
SUE THRASHER:
How many times a week would you go to church?
ELLA BAKER:
Just once, thank goodness. [Laughter] The country churches at that stage, especially with poor, working people, they couldn't work all day and… However much inclined you are to serving the Lord, you certainly didn't feel like going out every night.
SUE THRASHER:
To a Wednesday night prayer meeting.
ELLA BAKER:
No. I don't know whether they did or not, because that wasn't one of the requirements in my household. One reason was my mother had lots of bronchial trouble, and if it was cold she would close up. So I guess that protected us against going to church at night. Otherwise, she certainly would have had us there. Of course, it was the only center. And as time moved on, different people moving into the immediate neighborhood, the public school was the only place you had if you were having anything non-churchwise. It would be the schoolhouse. And then individuals would have lawn parties and things like that. My mother didn't believe in dancing, and so things like that we didn't get to do. And I went to a church-related school which did not believe [in] or countenance dancing at the time I went.
In fact, I was in boarding school about nine years.
SUE THRASHER:
This was Shaw.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. And the reason for the nine years was that I was

Page 29
accepted in the first year of high school, but my mother, who did not have a very high opinion of some of the teachers, especially in terms of the use of language, under whom I had gone, opted to have me take a year at Monroe High School.
At that stage, Shaw had what was called the Sub-B Class. I think it had been preserved to provide practice teaching for the teachers, which, of course, was basically what they were turning out, especially the women. Those who went to school went to school so they could go back and make somebody else go to school. And so that's why the nine years: four years of high school, four years in college, and a year at [unclear] .
SUE THRASHER:
How old were you when you went away to Shaw?
ELLA BAKER:
I guess I was about fourteen. I was in my teens. And stayed there till I finished. Left there and came up this way.
SUE THRASHER:
Was almost the whole student body at that point boarding students?
ELLA BAKER:
The larger percentage were boarding students. There were students, though, from the city, because there was a black community there. But you had two colleges. You had the Baptist, which was the Shaw University, and then St. Augustine, which was Episcopalian. And they both are still there. Many of the city students divided according to their denominations.
SUE THRASHER:
What Baptist denomination was Shaw?
ELLA BAKER:
I guess it was Northern Baptist. It was founded by… Now you've got me a little bit.

Page 30
SUE THRASHER:
There's American Baptist, and there are various Baptist sects kind of….
ELLA BAKER:
No, the school no doubt was established by the Northern Baptist so-and-so.
SUE THRASHER:
Was the faculty all black at that point?
ELLA BAKER:
No. When I first went there, the faculty was mixed with the President being white and a number of the teachers white. When I left there, the President, who was different from the one whom I found there, was still white, was glad to get rid of me, I understand.
SUE THRASHER:
Why was that?
ELLA BAKER:
I didn't break rules, but I challenged rules. And I didn't have sense enough not to do the speaking, even to groups that were older than I.
SUE THRASHER:
The story of the silk stockings?
ELLA BAKER:
[Laughter] Where did you get that one from?
SUE THRASHER:
It's in Mindy's [unclear] .
ELLA BAKER:
It's strange about that. My cousin who lives over in New Jersey, she and her husband, just about four years ago, were down near Fort Bragg (I think he has family down that way) and ran across the wife of a doctor who is there who was in school there at the time. And she told her about this story. I didn't have any silk stockings, but I felt it was their right to wear their stockings if they wanted to. These women were not only my seniors in terms of physical maturity, I suppose, but they were about to finish college and the like. But they didn't dare do the talking. And they tell me the Dean fainted,

Page 31
but after she came to, then she sent for me and [unclear] . And she said something to the effect that if she didn't think I was ashamed, she would have dismissed me from school. I think she had a hard time during that.
SUE THRASHER:
Were there other incidents at the school where you sort of challenged the authority?
ELLA BAKER:
Little things. The President that I left there was the last of the whites, I believe. We raised questions about different kinds of things, and one thing in particular, I think, that irked him was that he would do the kind of thing that many students resented. When northern whites would come, they'd want you to sing spirituals. I had a strong voice. As far as music, I might slip and slide, but I had a strong voice, and I recall them asking me if I'd lead something. It couldn't have been "Go Down, Moses;" I don't know what it was. But I said, "No, Mr. President."
SUE THRASHER:
These were just visitors to the school?
ELLA BAKER:
Visited with him. We went to chapel every morning, every day. And then the girls went every night in the dormitory. So you can understand why we were good Christians. [Laughter] And why I don't go to church now. [Laughter] Or very little.
SUE THRASHER:
Was it set up by the white northern church to keep white schools from being integrated? It wasn't a missionary school.
ELLA BAKER:
No.
SUE THRASHER:
It was a black [unclear] school.
ELLA BAKER:
It was one of the oldest of schools for blacks. Those

Page 32
of the northerners who had fought in the Civil War and who came back and became a factor in establishing schools for blacks. So Shaw is one of the older of schools to be started. At one stage it had professional schools like medicine, which of course carried with it dentistry and pharmacy, and law. But by the time I got there, they no longer were able to carry those facilities. But they still were supported, I suppose, more or less, by the northern Baptists. And the top echelon were white. The President was white. The Dean of the College, however, was black. And then many of the teachers were what people would call old maid types, but to a large extent could thoroughly teach us.
The English teacher whom I had through college was Benjamin Frawley. He was the one who said to me not to let anyone teach me public speaking because it might spoil me.
SUE THRASHER:
Who was the sociology teacher that you had at Shaw that influenced you so. That wasn't Frawley, was it?
ELLA BAKER:
No, that was Dean Turner. I don't know his first name. He was kind of unusual in the sense that… Such things as hair. The question of "good hair" has been frequently brought up, not only by blacks but about blacks. Of course, now everybody that has the same kind of hair. They'll go pay for it, I guess. [Laughter] He was not very polished in manner in some ways. He said, "Good hair. [unclear] talk about good hair. Everybody's got good hair. All hair is good. It covers your head." [Laughter] When I first saw this pointedly was when I was with WPA. There was a young man who worked

Page 33
this education project who had all of his hair. His hair was just as clean [unclear] some scalp conditioner. And it demonstrates it; all hair was good. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
Let's talk some about the WPA. How did you come to go to work for them?
ELLA BAKER:
I didn't have anything else to do. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
Everybody else was working for the WPA. [Laughter]
ELLA BAKER:
I finished Shaw in '27. I planned to go to the University of Chicago. I didn't think very much of Columbia. Now why I had to make that decision, I don't know. But there was someone—and I can't recall the name of the sociology professor who was at Chicago University—whose name I had gotten, no doubt, from this same Dean who had also, no doubt, been to [unclear] . And so I got there just about a year before the Depression came. And there weren't too many jobs available even before that for blacks. There used to be a line of employment agencies on Sixth Avenue in that area where Radio City Music Hall is, and you'd go from place to place. I remember the first one I went to to apply for a job—at least, certainly the one that sticks out in my mind—it was merely to address envelopes or something like that. And each person had a card. You would write your name and address on it, which was to serve the purposes both for their file, if necessary, and to see how you wrote. And my name was the third to be called, but when I went up I was not the third to be taken. So that's the beginning of it, you see. And this was the Depression period. As the Depression deepened, one of the

Page 34
people I remember who was… She's long since dead; she died as a young woman. She put me straight. She had had more exposure to social thinking than I, because New York was the hotbed of social thinking. And in the Harlem area, you had a tremendous number of people from various parts of the West Indies and other parts of the world. We had a very unusual forum up here at the old YMCA, so your crosscurrents of thought were here. And that was before I started going to the forum. I guess I must have been bemoaning, or at least being concerned about…
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]

[TAPE 2, SIDE A]

[START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
SUE THRASHER:
So you didn't get this job addressing envelopes.
ELLA BAKER:
The two were quite a distance apart, but it was just a part of the period. And other things. I waited tables down at Judson House. That's part of NYU, across from the Washington Square Park. I was living then with my sister at 143rd Street. I'd take the el down, and I'd get there and do breakfast. And then maybe between breakfast and lunch I'd run up to the 42nd Street Library and then go back and do lunch. Maybe lunch was a very light thing down there, because I think [unclear] students. And then do dinner, and then come on home.
And then I discovered the Schaumberg Library, which is around the corner there. That's where I began to learn some things. And then there were street corner speakers, and all kinds of discussions were taking place. And so there was a rich cultural potential in

Page 35
terms of finding out things, if you didn't hesitate to go wherever there was something or to ask questions. My first discussion on communism was from a Russian Jew, I believe. I would go down in Washington Square Park. I liked to smell the fresh-turned earth, and they used to plow that up and plant new grass or flowers or something. And I was just standing there enjoying, I guess indulging my nostalgia for the land. And he began to talk, and I listened [unclear] We began to carry on a conversation, and he began to tell me about, I guess, the first lesson in communism. He wasn't too keen about the Soviets. He was basically approving the concept, but highly critical of the implementation of the concept as far as the Russian Revolution was concerned. So they were all over the city, and so I kept that up all along.
Then when the Depression really came hard and they started to have such as the WPA, I don't know what I had been doing in between, but by that time I knew a lot of people [unclear] . I think Lester Granger of the Urban League alerted me to the Workers' Education Project, and I went down and we signed up. That's where I met Floria Pinckney, a young woman. I really had met her or seen her before at the YWCA congress that was at the Commodore Hotel here. They had sent me as a delegate from Shaw.
SUE THRASHER:
So you'd been up here before.
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, I had been up here before. I had been to Indianapolis for something that they'd sent me to. People tend to want you to go if you can talk. At least they did then. Talking is a much more normal

Page 36
thing now than then, especially among women. Especially if it was having to do with argumentation or debate.
SUE THRASHER:
What exactly was the Workers' Education Project? What did you do?
ELLA BAKER:
By that time I had gone through another thing, the cooperative concept, and I had expertise [Laughter] in the field of cooperative or consumer problems and the like.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you remember the year?
ELLA BAKER:
No. That you can find. I'll look back and find some card. The woman who was the supervisor is living down in Florida; at least two years ago she was. She sent me a note. And I had thought I was going to do one more round, starting in Florida and working up, as I did with the NAACP, but I haven't gotten to it yet.
SUE THRASHER:
It was around that time that you set up your own housing scene, wasn't it? [unclear] you said you lived with your cousin, wasn't it, for some time.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
SUE THRASHER:
It was interesting to me, the idea of you as a single woman setting up to live in New York. Was that the first time you had gotten out on your own and set up your own living arrangement?
ELLA BAKER:
Certainly the first time to set up my own living arrangement. But I was always out for all those [unclear] .
SUE THRASHER:
You were never home much anyway. [Laughter] Was that unusual at the time, or were there a number of women doing it?
ELLA BAKER:
I think it was more unusual, let's say, for black women

Page 37
of nice homes. Nice, religious homes. [Laughter]
CASEY HAYDEN:
The independent state.
SUE THRASHER:
You were supposed to be teaching somewhere.
CASEY HAYDEN:
Boarding in and teaching were supposed to be good.
ELLA BAKER:
Sure. I had refused to teach all along. I had all the opportunities. And I'm not sure it was wise, but it's done, at any rate. I think I was [unknown] fact that it seemed that this was the inevitable; this was what you would have to do. And everybody thought it. And I think one of the reasons I developed an antipathy for teaching was that there were issues that would come up in a school community, and there were sides which would evidence positions. And I noticed that some of those who had taken what I would have called good, positive, or progressive positions prior to their going out to teach, came back and they were no longer that type of person. It didn't maybe necessarily follow that this would be inevitable for everyone, but I think there was a great deal of truth in that. Because the schools were being controlled to a large extent, public schools for blacks, especially. There was a great deal of transition taking place where they were breaking out of certain molds, and yet the school boards were controlled by the local white politicians or white businessman. And Aunt Sue's daughter would get appointed to the school, even though she perhaps may not be adequate for taking care of her doing the job. And anyone with spirit would be curbed. So I learned maybe what it was. When they'd come back and they didn't have spirit, this certainly turned me off as far as teaching. That was

Page 38
Number One. Number Two, there was something of ego involved. I wasn't too aware of it then, but the fact that I had to do what everybody else was doing. This was all you could do. I had good offers, what were considered good at the time, beyond what might averagely have been offered. Those who had these church-related schools, some of which became state schools afterward. In fact, maybe the first year I was out of school up here, I ran across the President of Bennett College at several of the meetings around. He wanted me to come and teach, but I was planning to go to the University of Chicago. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
What did your mother think about you coming to New York?
ELLA BAKER:
Let's don't go into that. She didn't mind the coming to New York, because she had raised my Cousin Martha, who was my mother's first cousin's daughter. Her mother knew she was going to die, and she asked my mother to take and raise the daughter, especially. The daughter was then about six, but her father didn't let her come to us until ten, and by that time I was born. And she always considered me her baby, which meant that even when I'd grown and we'd cross the street together, she would reach out and take my hand. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
So she didn't mind you living with Martha, but she wasn't especially happy about you [unclear] .
ELLA BAKER:
I'm sure she wasn't, but I didn't ask her.
SUE THRASHER:
And she didn't interfere.
ELLA BAKER:
She couldn't. She was in North Carolina. [Laughter] And interference was a matter of closeness. She may not have liked

Page 39
it; I didn't ask her. And I had by that time determined that this was what I could do.
So I got a little three-room place at 133rd and St. Nicholas Avenue. [unclear] right across from the park. The park then was the kind of place that people could sleep in at night. I never tried it, but… And it was well kept. And [unclear] it was close to the subway. I've always lived where transportation is. I moved there in '36. I didn't start working for the NAACP till '41.
SUE THRASHER:
In between that time you were working with the Cooperative League.
ELLA BAKER:
Some, yes.
SUE THRASHER:
Did you ever work fulltime with them?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, fulltime in a sense. George Schuyler, who used to write for the Pittsburgh Courier and is considered by many now as the reactionary, was one of the bright writers in black newspapers, as considered by young people especially. Because he would raise questions that weren't being raised. Also he was H. L. Mencken's black writer. He was basically an iconoclast, and that fitted in with Mencken, and perhaps he was in the American Mercury more than any other black. How did we meet? At this forum that used to meet at the YMCA, certainly every two weeks if not weekly. On a couple of occasions I had seen, and then later met, a person by the name of Mr. L. F. Coles, who was a newspaperman who worked with the Afro-American, in fact sort of freelancing around. He was an interesting and provocative type in terms of talking, and he wanted to introduce

Page 40
me to this [unclear] , and so I went up. George and Josephine—she was white, from Texas—hadn't been married too long, and the antipathy that black women had towards white women who married their black men was really at its peak then. And so she had not been "well received" by the wives of those who were George's compatriots. Because they'd had that magazine that A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen and so forth established; what was it called?
SUE THRASHER:
Not the one called The Messenger?
ELLA BAKER:
It could be. I don't know. I don't think it was. We'll correct it somewhere down the road. So he was writing in that, and Josephine was out on the West Coast as an artist. She was living with an artist. And she came here and she met him, and she decided to keep on meeting him, and they married [unclear] . And by the time I came along, she was here but she didn't have many friends among the black community, the black women. And so this chap carried me up there to meet them, and she and I became good friends. When the baby was born George was away, and I stayed with her until she was out of bed. She believed in staying in bed, the old-fashioned type of thing. And so we became more or less friends. And you picked up a lot of kinds of thinking that you hadn't had before, and insights. And a lot of people would come up there, those who wrote. Some people who were abroad. I was trying to think of a black guy whom many blacks would have known, who was in England at the time. You had access to people you wouldn't have been meeting, and that was always food for me. I didn't care so much about the socializing as the exchange of ideas, or at least being exposed to debate on the

Page 41
part of those who had concepts that were [unclear] , and they would strongly defend their position.
SUE THRASHER:
Was the Cooperative League a local organization?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. The Cooperative League of America had had some Eastern Cooperative League offices here. George, among the other things, had written about the virtue of blacks having cooperatives as over against competitive businesses. He had a couple of columns called something to the effect of "Negroes in the Barrel" or something like that. Out of it, we called for a meeting of young people for formation of the Young Negroes' Cooperative League. And so that was organized. The initial meeting was held in Washington, D.C., and then the next meeting was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And we had an office there on Seventh Avenue somewhere in the Thirties, I think about 38th Street and Seventh Avenue. And I was the "executive secretary" or whatever.
SUE THRASHER:
For how many years?
ELLA BAKER:
A couple of years. You know, nothing lasts for me. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
Was it through working with that that you began to meet people in the NAACP, or had you been going to NAACP meetings before?
ELLA BAKER:
No, I hadn't been going to NAACP meetings as such. In fact, you didn't have as active a branch in the Harlem area then as was later developed. But I had gone to a number of national conferences. I don't think I'd ever gone to a national conference of the NAACP prior to that time, but there were conferences, persons who were

Page 42
in the Negro Business League had organized certain gatherings. One was held in Durham; I don't even remember what year or what it was called. I went there and met people like some of the [unclear] I trust that's all. [Laughter] Then the Negro Business League developed a store here, trying to get into bigtime marketing, which didn't last, but with it was called the Harlem Housewives' [unclear] , or something like that. So I had worked with them, and by that time I was also involved in the consumer cooperative concept. And I lived with my sister—I call her my sister—then, the one at 150th Street across from the Dunbar Apartments. That was one of the early conglomerates of sorts in the upper part of Harlem, and the better Negroes were living there. And so we organized buying clubs or a milk delivery station there. And Bob Moses's family was living up at Harlem River Houses. He remembers milk being delivered to them. And it was a small thing, but this was just part of the drive. Then we had a couple of conferences, and out of it had come several businesses. In Philadelphia they had had a grocery store, and also down in Doylestown the same Philadelphia group had a little farm for a year. These were experiments. And in Columbia, South Carolina, there was something out somewhere else. I'll go over the cards someday and see. I still, no doubt, have the file of who was on file as members. And I had to send out the usual stuff that you send out, write our newsletter and send it out, and things like that.
SUE THRASHER:
And how did you get from there to working with the NAACP?

Page 43
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, out of necessity and the contact…
SUE THRASHER:
One paid and one didn't?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, well, what happened was, I didn't get to the NAACP till '42, I believe. And George Schuyler was helpful there. He had been helping out with the Crisis magazine, and he knew that they wanted somebody, supposedly for a youth person. I had some qualms about my being it, and anyhow I went down. You don't shortchange a friend, you know; if somebody makes an effort for you, you go down. So they were impressed enough to not want me for the youth. [Laughter] I think they were about to put on somebody to expand the branch department, or those who were in the field, so I became one of their assistant field secretaries. And I started working. I went to Washington, where a campaign was being conducted by the chief campaign conductor (who was then a Mrs. Daisy Lampton out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). And from there I went to Birmingham, Alabama, and that was my beginning with the southern lifestyle. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
This was 1946 or '42?
ELLA BAKER:
Somewhere in '42.
SUE THRASHER:
This was during the War.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, I think it was '42. Many of the branches in the South (we didn't have as many then as you have now, or as you had when I was there) were headed by professionals. In Birmingham at the time it was a doctor who headed the branch. They were good people; they weren't class people. And in Mobile it was a post office employee who literally, singlehandedly in many ways, combated the racial

Page 44
prejudices. I worked with him, after I joined the staff during the War, when the shipyards around there… The old pattern of not hiring blacks, and then if they ever hired any, when it was very, very hot they'd put them out wherever it was hottest. If it was in the hold, you'd keep them in the hold to work. And when it was cold, then you'd put them outside to work. And during that period from '42 till '46 when I left, you had gone through some things in connection with the expansion of the CIO, attempts to expand itself in places like Mobile. So that's the kind of thing that you get involved with.
SUE THRASHER:
Did the NAACP have very many women on the staff as travellers?
ELLA BAKER:
Not that kind of traveller. [Laughter] When I went there, Daisy Lampton had charge of campaigns. She taught you how to set up a campaign; you'd go out with her. And I don't think there was any other woman on the staff who went out to do campaigns. And there was a young man who was there. Dean Pickens had left—had been dropped, I suppose—as head of what was called the Branch Department. And so eventually, because of the fact that there was nobody, I became head of the Branch Department. In fact, I don't think it was the choice of the Executive Secretary, but it was the result of certain persons who were on the Board like Hubert Delaney (he was a judge at that time) and Bill Hasting. He had quite a record; he died playing golf the summer before last. But they were talking in terms of a need for expansion, developing the Branch Department into a more activist kind of a group where the branches would take positions

Page 45
and take the lead in doing certain things. One of the big drives, which was a normal sort of thing that would take place in an organization that depended upon mass support, would be interested in getting the largest number of people into the membership, because they didn't have subsidy. They've had some subsidy since then, a grant for special kinds of things. But then the NAACP didn't get any public money or any chance of getting any [unclear] . Because it had handled cases that were much too hot like the Grounds Grove and situation and things like that.
SUE THRASHER:
Did you have any difficulty in that job because you were a woman?
ELLA BAKER:
Like what?
SUE THRASHER:
When you would go into Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, to work with the local chapter.
ELLA BAKER:
Difficulty in terms of relating to them?
SUE THRASHER:
Were the men in the community the leaders, and would they accept you?
ELLA BAKER:
No, I didn't have any difficulty. I think maybe a couple of things were positive assets for me. One is, as I told you, I had grown up playing baseball, and my man-woman relationships were on the basis of just being a human being, not a sex object. As far as my sense of security, it had been established. And also, I guess, my ego; I had been able to compete on levels such as scholarship, without attempting to. And I could stand my own in debate. And things of that nature. I wasn't delicate, to put it [unclear] .

Page 46
And I was very much interested in people, which was an asset that could serve me well because it could also break through whatever class lines had been either established or that were tenously there, which frequently surfaced. There were certain people in the community that didn't think too much of certain other people. For instance, there were times when an incident like, I'll call it, the town drunk might be arrested and beaten up. Well, that didn't matter. But part of the message that we were carrying was that it did matter, because to the extent that he was demeaned, your rights were therefore decreased, or something to that effect. It was a period in which there was kind of a new surge of identity among some of the people who were not class people, but who recognized that there were inevitable links between those who had and those who had not, because any black could be subject to the same treatment.
SUE THRASHER:
Were the women ever jealous of you, in the sense of wanting to be as independent as you were?
ELLA BAKER:
I don't know. Maybe there might have been some, but since I wasn't competitive… I didn't gloat. I was just doing what came naturally, as far as I was concerned, and since I was the missionary type—I was on a crusade to save something [Laughter] —and since I wasn't the glamorous type in terms of being very much concerned about trying to win friends among the guys, I wasn't competitive. I guess if they were, it didn't surface too much.
SUE THRASHER:
When you were doing that job with NAA, were you meeting a lot of people who were in the CIO organizing drives then?

Page 47
ELLA BAKER:
In the South during that period, you'd run across them wherever they were attempting to… Not the top echelon, because they didn't send the top echelon down into the South or anywhere when it was at its lowest level. The top echelon comes after somebody goes and does the spade work and things get to a point where….
SUE THRASHER:
And by that time, everything really had turned toward the War effort, hadn't it?
ELLA BAKER:
I guess so.
SUE THRASHER:
That was the time when the CIO was beginning to become more involved with kicking out the Communists than organizing, in the forties.
ELLA BAKER:
In the forties? That was later in the forties, I think. It was there, but I think it became more pronounced in the latter part of the forties. But it was still breaking ice. I remember one particular day in Mobile. This tall, lanky white country fellow for whom getting to Mobile was like going abroad… But the question of blacks and whites being in the same union. And for him to get up in a group and say the kind of things that he did. He may have picked it up from some others, but the old business of "If I'm in the ditch and you're standing on the… We both of us are in the ditch," or something to that effect. And he wasn't a lettered person; he was just having a gut reaction, because they were having difficulty there getting the kind of consideration that was needed there in Mobile because this whole question of color was coming in.
The person that I really am sorry I missed… You see, I

Page 48
had planned to do once more around last year, and I didn't get to do it. But it wouldn't have helped too much, because John LeFlore had gone, in Mobile, Alabama. He was in the post office, and he fought like the devil. He had to fight to keep his job, because they were trying to knock him out by taking his work away. But he was a fighter. He had a good branch there in Mobile. And there were other people.
SUE THRASHER:
What year did you quit working for the NAA?
ELLA BAKER:
Forty-six. I only worked about four and a half years, '42 through '46. And at the point at which I quit, I was serving as Director of Branches. I quit to a large extent because… You see, I wasn't ever asked if I wanted to be Director of Branches. It just happened that the Executive Secretary himself was trying to cover every… There was no Branch Director. And I think certain members of the Board had gathered enough strength to bring it to pass. And he recognized this, and so he made a fast move and, I guess, appointed me Director of Branches, without even asking me. I was in Birmingham at the time. But then I came in and began to deal with such things as developing leadership training sessions or conferences and trying to deal with the whole matter of reducing the work of the NAACP to where the people who were supporting it could articulate it, too, and for dealing with some of the things that are right there in their own bailiwicks. Whereas, the first time I went up to Albany, New York, to do a campaign up there, among the things that surfaced was the fact that the blacks who graduated from high school were all in a C track or something like this. And the branch wasn't concerned

Page 49
about that, hadn't done anything at all about that. They were still hung up on the whole question of legal defense, like defending someone. In fact, they were always talking about the poor people down South. And so the question was, what do you do about the poor children right here? [Laughter] Things of that nature.
SUE THRASHER:
As director of the branches, you could work on that directly in your role, but how did you try to affect policy?
ELLA BAKER:
One of the first things was to… I talked about it, and we had a good Branch Committee at that stage, who understood and who also had been irritated by the lack of real organization. And so we called the Leadership Training Conference—at least, got permission; had to get permission. The first one was held in New York, and then you'd have them in different regions. And these were primarily concerned with helping people who were serving on branch committees to understand what they could do. So you say you have a branch committee on education; what does it mean? You say you have one that was dealing with jobs; what are the facts? So you had a series of leadership training conferences. They kept them up, I think, for a while after I left. You'd go, and what you'd do is set it up and the usual thing. It was broken down into regions, and you would go in for two or three days and rap. So most of the rapping [unclear] and the like, where you really let the people deal with some of the things. Because for a long time people looked upon the NAACP as the organization that would handle things, not the people handling them. I don't know how it stands now.
SUE THRASHER:
Did other staff people look upon it that way, in terms of

Page 50
the organization handling it rather than the people?
ELLA BAKER:
There were some, but as you increased the number of people who were a little younger… And not so many of the older people were even objecting to it, but they had their pattern, the pattern of going out and holding a mass meeting and then having twenty or thirty minutes with the Board of Directors of a local branch. How much can you get really done in terms of organization? But that had been the pattern. They'd have a mass meeting and try to get as many memberships as possible and then have a meeting with the executive committee or board of the branch after the meeting.
CASEY HAYDEN:
So this was sort of an innovation, the training program that you developed at that time.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, it was. Of course, I had to get permission for the first one. There was opposition to it, so it was held there in the… We were at 14th and Fifth Avenue, the house where Joanne Grant lives or used to live in. But it wasn't that kind of a house; it was a loft building then. And there was a big room where all of the secretaries, which was not to their conveniences; secretarial and mimeographing and all of that was done. So we cleared the space there after we got permission and held the meeting. We broke them down into regions like Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland New Jersey. And the place was packed. Then [unclear] impressive. People came; they wanted to. Had they not shown at that first meeting, that was it. [Laughter] But then we had them in Kansas City, Missouri, and somewhere in Texas and somewhere else. And I left there in '46 primarily because I knew that

Page 51
sooner or later Mr. White and I were going in.
SUE THRASHER:
He was the Director.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, he was the top man, Walter White. You see, I don't worship individuals. I like people, but there was nobody I felt that you had to pay obeisance to three times a day or at night.
[END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]

[TAPE 2, SIDE B]

[START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
CASEY HAYDEN:
Were there other people that you were involved with at that time who were consciously working in that direction to make those kinds of things happen, as opposed to the more leadership-oriented…
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, I'm sure. The whole business of the development of the left in New York. Although I was not inside, it was part of the dialogue and part of the debate. The CP and then the CP opposition. And the Communist Party opposition had a very good forum over here. The local Urban League used to be over here on 136th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue. That was a weekly forum that you'd have there. These things were coming to the fore. I wasn't the only person who could have been concerned about it, but I happened to have been the person down at the NAACP who maybe had been filled up with it. By that time I had also worked on the WPA Workers' Education Project, and there you had every splinter of the CP. And the CP was the most articulate group for social action and may not have been well organized all the time, but it was articulate. And with the young who came out

Page 52
of family backgrounds where some had become disillusioned with the bringing in of the socialist order through the CP, and yet who couldn't leave it, couldn't leave the idea. These were the things that were part of the Workers' Education Project, extra stimuli. And then since I went everywhere, wherever there was discussion, you pick up things.
CASEY HAYDEN:
What did the Workers' Education Project do? I don't understand what that was.
ELLA BAKER:
It provided jobs for people who were dealing with certain kinds of social issues. As over against some other kinds—I don't even remember the names of the different projects—this was to reach people who were in the working class, to a large extent, people who were organizers or people who were part and parcel of… Like some of the community groups they had at the Henry Street Settlement. We used to go all the way down there and have discussions on things. Up in the Bronx, you'd have…
CASEY HAYDEN:
Was it about community issues?
ELLA BAKER:
Whatever would surface.
CASEY HAYDEN:
Any kind of social issues, anything that was coming up. And it was mostly with working class people.
ELLA BAKER:
Working class people, because in the first place there were your people who were unemployed. There was a great deal of unemployment then. This was one of the…
CASEY HAYDEN:
So it was through settlement houses or any way you could reach them, really.
ELLA BAKER:
Anywhere you could reach them. A couple of places had a

Page 53
couple of union halls where they weren't fighting each other as to which was more left than the other. You could go over there.
CASEY HAYDEN:
And then the project itself hired staff people who would do this kind of…
ELLA BAKER:
It was just like you had a WPA, other kinds of…
CASEY HAYDEN:
Writers' Project is the only one I know about.
ELLA BAKER:
That was, incidentally, started right down on Seventh Avenue at what was the old Lafayette Theater, and Orson Welles was part of it. [Laughter]
CASEY HAYDEN:
Far out.
ELLA BAKER:
Real far out, yes. [Laughter]
CASEY HAYDEN:
That is strange.
ELLA BAKER:
This friend of mine in Philadelphia who was something of a writer, she was ladying to Orson Wells. Now, of course, I'm down there getting ready to do the pick and shovel deal. [Laughter] And the sons and daughters of those who were disillusioned socialists, or socialists who had tried.
SUE THRASHER:
Were in this, you mean, and involved themselves.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
CASEY HAYDEN:
About how many staff people were in the Workers' Education?
ELLA BAKER:
All of us were. But as far as actual administrative staff, what you had was the Director, and then of course she had to have some clerical help. But basically you had programmatic bases for the involvement of others. And to a large extent the people who were on the Project helped to devise the programs. The consumer thing, we used to send out consumer information and that kind of thing, although

Page 54
we did a whole lot of "scrapping," in the same manner that the various black factions or fractions of the left were scrapping.
CASEY HAYDEN:
Did you do the Cooperative League before?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
CASEY HAYDEN:
And then you went to the Workers' Education Project.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
CASEY HAYDEN:
And then you worked with the NAACP.
ELLA BAKER:
That's right.
CASEY HAYDEN:
So it was really a continuation of those kinds of ideas, you were trying to equate into practice.
ELLA BAKER:
And even before, I would help with forums at churches and things, because I think people grow from talking to each other.
SUE THRASHER:
What were your co-workers like in the Workers' Education Project?
ELLA BAKER:
Name it, and we'd have it. Men and women. We were basically young. Some were older than others. Its main basis for functioning was an outgrowth of the lack of jobs. And we'd go around to settlement houses and conduct classes. For instance, those who were very knowledgeable about the history of working class organizations all the way back to the guild. Or anywhere else you'd go. And you'd conduct classes or discussions in the settlement houses, or if there were any unions that were still intact and wanted to have discussions on given issues. And many of these young people had grown up with families who were part of the left. And the [unclear] of the old CP when it split into the multiple factions

Page 55
and fractions: the CP opposition, the CP so-and-so-and-so, and the Lovestoneites and whatever else. All of that was represented. But the good thing was that we could have dialogue. And basically (at least I found this fact, even though I made no claim to being knowledgeable) I think it was those who had the desire to search for knowledge, to search for at least some semblance of understanding, and were accepting. It was similar to the brigade that cleaned up the parks, but we were doing something else. I don't know what the scale… I've forgotten what the scale was. It may have been the highest pay I've ever gotten; I don't know. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
Did you socialize with the people a lot? I'm trying to figure out if it was a lot like SNCC maybe later, that you sort of lived and worked and did everything with these people.
ELLA BAKER:
Not to the same extent, because in the first place, the Project office first was down there on Broadway across from City Hall. And once it was on Fourteenth Street. So we did to some extent; people did. Which was the natural thing. With a person like me, most of my social life was issue-oriented anyway. [Laughter] But you did.
SUE THRASHER:
Were men and women paid the same for the same kind of work?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, I'm confident they were. I hope I'm right.
SUE THRASHER:
And how about in the NAA? Were you paid the same as men in that job?
ELLA BAKER:
Nobody got paid by any standards. You didn't have the standard until we began to fight for it, and I was gone before it materialized. But there, you see, you were hired by the Executive,

Page 56
which was Walter White. I started at $1,500 a year, and he raised it to $2,000. And [when] I didn't turn cartwheels, he sort of commented. [Laughter] I've forgotten exactly what he said. I was supposed to smile and be…
SUE THRASHER:
Hugging his neck.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. So what? I guess that's one of my weaknesses. I never could do very much by way of camouflaging and playing up to the egos of those whose views I didn't quite see eye to eye with; we'll put it that way.
SUE THRASHER:
So when you left the NAACP in '46, did you go directly to another job at that point?
ELLA BAKER:
No, I don't think I went directly. By that time, I was raising Jackie, my niece.
SUE THRASHER:
Was she your sister's daughter?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, she's my sister's daughter. My sister wasn't going to be very responsible anyway.
SUE THRASHER:
But your sister was still living.
ELLA BAKER:
She was still living then, but Jackie was at home. Papa and Mama took the baby. And when Papa died… Papa had wanted us to have it earlier, but the other "sister" (my cousin whom my mother raised, and with whom I stayed here) had passed. Martha would have been the ideal one in terms of the [unclear] and sewing sort of things for her. So she came to live with me. She didn't come in '46, though. She didn't come right away, I don't think.
SUE THRASHER:
How old was she when she came to live with you?

Page 57
ELLA BAKER:
Seven or eight.
SUE THRASHER:
So you had a small child from then on in.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. I had to stop at that point, because she started in school. I had her in a little private school up on Edgecombe and Convent Avenue. It was a little Lutheran school, because she wasn't prepared for this kind of mass that they had in these schools, the unruliness of it. She'd gone to school in a small town kind of school. The teachers lived with Mama, and all the teachers knew Mama [Laughter] and all of that kind of thing.
SUE THRASHER:
Did that change your lifestyle drastically then, to have an eight-year-old?
ELLA BAKER:
Not to the point of not having meetings. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
Aren't you glad. [Laughter]
ELLA BAKER:
It didn't change it that much. By that time I also had a domestic relationship, and so two things. And then next door was the woman who had paid me my first quarter for work. [Laughter] She was the sister of one of my uncle's wives. My mother's brother. The country pattern of some boy staying at home. Everybody leaves home, but some one will stay there to keep the farm and so forth going. And Uncle Luke was the one who stayed. He married and stayed with Grandma until he had a couple of children, and then he built his house across the road. So when Jackie came up to stay with me, I was working. I had the Cancer Committee I carried a couple of years, the Harlem branch of the New York City Cancer Committee. And something else; you know, you do whatever you do. But when Jackie went to the

Page 58
School on the Hill, the bus carried her and would bring her back. And we could depend on Miss Lena being there to look out the window at the right time, and then she'd go upstairs to her place and be fed. And when I'd come home, she was there. She had two years, I guess, in the junior high. We lived at 133rd and St. Nicholas, and she went to school up at the Harriet Beecher Stowe School there at 135th at St. Nicholas and Edgecombe Avenue. That was two blocks for her to walk home, and if I wasn't or Bob wasn't home, she would go to Miss Lena's. In fact, she went to Miss Lena's regularly, because I frequently had night meetings. But I usually came home and had dinner and things like that. Then she went to [unclear] High School.
SUE THRASHER:
You said you had a domestic relationship. Did you get married during that time?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, I got married.
SUE THRASHER:
What did your husband do?
ELLA BAKER:
At the point at which we married, he was still running on the road. He had been in school. And then he was in the refrigeration business.
SUE THRASHER:
Did that mean that you didn't have to work for that period of time when you were raising Jackie?
ELLA BAKER:
No. Don't ask too many personal questions now. [Laughter] That has nothing to do with my [unknown]. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
That has nothing to do with the issues. [Laughter]
ELLA BAKER:
No, it did not mean… One could have survived on it, but I had too many responsibilities. And I still was doing things at

Page 59
home. My mother was still living. And so we just carried on that way.
SUE THRASHER:
What was the organization that you worked for then around school integration? Did that start in the early fifties?
ELLA BAKER:
We created that. That started right after the Supreme Court decision, the Brown decision. And by that time I think I was President of the New York branch of the NAACP. When this developed, there was the need for something around for community action. And among other things we did was to have a meeting up at Hastings-on-Hudson. Kenneth Clarke and Hubert Delaney and others and others and others, and then out of it came a sort of a city-wide committee. There had been other similar types of meetings before over in Brooklyn. I don't know whether you ever heard the name of Annie Stein; that's where I first met her. She was working with the Rev. Milton Galamason. And Annie was living in Brooklyn. And then the larger committee was organized here in New York City, and it expanded into various kinds of activity. And at the point when I went South, they were able then to carry on a whole lot of things.
The summer of '57 I spent the… What we called Parents in Action. That was an effort to bring together the black and Puerto Rican parents. We started here in the Harlem community and had some meetings in… Of course, Brooklyn was under direction anyway, and then up in the Bronx, to bring them together to get them to understand what they were up against, how they could deal with it. Because at one point I've seen parents go into the school office, and

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the people would ignore them completely. Because you didn't have very many black teachers even in the school systems. And so that was part of… That whole summer of '57, that was being done. I wasn't getting anything for that. I guess that's when the mister was taking care of us. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
Was it through your activity in that group that you got drafted to go south?
ELLA BAKER:
I guess that could be a part of it, but I had been south before in '40 and '42. From '42 to '46, for the NAACP, I used to start in Florida and work all the way up. Once I started in February and got back to New York in June, the first time. They'll only come to somebody crazy, you know. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
You didn't know that it was going to get worse in the sixties. [Laughter]
ELLA BAKER:
Well, by that time I was addicted. [Laughter] Every year, an addict, you know. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
A civil junkie's right here. [Laughter]
ELLA BAKER:
You really don't even know. You think you're normal, and… [Laughter] Thank goodness the way the world goes.
SUE THRASHER:
I want to get you south. We're at '57, and you went south in '59?
ELLA BAKER:
Fifty-eight. After I'd done all the other things, I was functioning here in New York. And during the period when I was President of the New York branch of the NAACP and, I guess, even before that, there were certain interrelationships with groups like the

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American Jewish Congress local people on issues. I remember a meeting at which I was on the same platform with Mrs. Roosevelt on the McCarren-Walker Immigration Act. And it had been more or less pulled together by Stanley Levitt when he was Chairman of the Uptown AJC, I believe. And that's where he and I met. And then we began to have a great deal of interchange of talking. And I don't know how I got involved, but after the Montgomery bus boycott success it became very obvious that there was need to move. You had the big boycott and then nothing. And so I perhaps had had the greater experience in terms of the southern scene. The other two hadn't been involved. So we began to talk in terms of something creating in the South a force that had its leadership base in the top leadership base in the South. And that was why SCLC was pushed. The ministers, as you know, where nothing was happening after the boycott itself and after the successful court action that ended the boycott. Of course, Martin, people were flocking to… [interruption]
SUE THRASHER:
We were talking about the beginnings of SCLC and how there hadn't been activity in the South following the settlement of the case legally.
ELLA BAKER:
In fact, there had been none in Montgomery itself. And yet these ministers were there. And so out of whatever conversations, dialogues, and so forth that were taking place, the idea was projected that it would be good to have an organizational base in the South comparable, to some extent, to the NAACP. Because the NAACP was not activist in that direction. And these people who had come out of the bus boycott or its leadership ought to be involved in something worth

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more than just relying on the past. And so out of it, I think I might have projected the idea that it would be good to have this leadership base. There had been cooperative or interrelated action between the South. Martin was always on things like the 1957 prayer pilgrimage, which was initiated from up here. And whatever else, he was part of it. But you still didn't have a viable base for political social action in the South out of the black community.
SUE THRASHER:
So you, Rustin, and Levinson had all worked with King, then, in '57?
ELLA BAKER:
No, I had never worked with him. Levinson and I had formed a kind of relationship as a result of the McCarren-Walker Immigration Act. He was with the AJC over there on Broadway somewhere. I'm over here in the heart of Harlem. And out of that had come a certain amount of good relations. Of course, Bayard has the faculty of being in a number of places. And there had been the Prayer Pilgrimage of '57 in Washington and some other gatherings in which the NAACP, the ministers… Martin was involved as representative of, I suppose, the remnants of the Montgomery boycott. And others had met when you had the Prayer Pilgrimage in Washington in '57, I think. And there were other projections that were being made in terms of another big push, you know, the big pushes that they've had in Washington. And so it was suggested that really you ought to have something in the South, because that could mean a mass base. It could provide a mass base for action. Hopefully, you would expect it to; of course, you couldn't be sure. And the decision was to not have a membership, to avoid competition with the NAACP. And out of it came the SCLC. The

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ministers who had rallied around the bus boycott idea wanted something, but nothing was happening. And so they had a meeting in February or January of 1957, at which SCLC was "formally organized," which was simply a matter of saying that Martin was Chairman, and somebody else so-and-so.
SUE THRASHER:
Was that meeting in Ebeneezer?
ELLA BAKER:
That was in Atlanta; I guess it was Ebeneezer.
SUE THRASHER:
Were you at that meeting?
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes, I was there. Somehow that doesn't seem to be at a church, though. I guess it was at a church.
SUE THRASHER:
Were you the only woman at that meeting?
ELLA BAKER:
I don't know. I didn't look around to see. I wasn't even in it as such. Somebody's got to run the mimeographing machine. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
[unclear] it organized.
ELLA BAKER:
And to draft some of the stuff.
CASEY HAYDEN:
That was a South-wide meeting. So then the key ministers [unknown].
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
CASEY HAYDEN:
About how many people were there?
ELLA BAKER:
Fifty or sixty.
CASEY HAYDEN:
So it wasn't a mass meeting.
SUE THRASHER:
Organizational meeting.
CASEY HAYDEN:
Had a mailing gone out about it?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. Martin was the one to do the mailing. That's as much as you got. There were three non-ministers present, I think. One was

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Whitney Young, and the other was Dr. C. O. Simpkins of Shreveport, Louisiana. And Amsey Moore from Mississippi, as I remember. I had met Amsey in connection with… We had provided from up here certain things for meeting some of his crisis situations. Dr. Simpkins was a dentist who was heading up a local group. But then, you see, why '58? What happened was that Martin was the leader, and when nothing had taken place between the time they were officially organized, ministers were getting restless.
SUE THRASHER:
No newsletter, nothing.
ELLA BAKER:
No, of course no. What do you mean, newsletter? I don't guess there was anyhow. [Laughter] Nothing was happening. And so then the idea that somebody had to go down and set up an office. And they had gotten the idea they wanted Bayard. But I knew Bayard's lifestyle did not fit Atlanta at that stage, because there was nowhere that he could function in his manner without exposure. And Bayard isn't basically one to take on the nitty-gritty. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
The mimeograph machine.
ELLA BAKER:
Because he's always had copious help. "Copious" is hardly the word to use, but in help [unclear] . So this was the first time I was ever delegated, drafted without consultations. They used to meet Martin out at the airport and things like that. So come back and tell me that it had been decided that I would go down to set up the office of SCLC. So I was irritated at being the social architect or the what else would you be? That's the highest title I could give myself [unclear] .

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SUE THRASHER:
Or "junkie." [Laughter]
ELLA BAKER:
Or the junkie. Whichever one. [Laughter] I went with the idea of trying to set up an office. Nothing had been done. But through one of the professors at Morehouse, we found the office space and set up shop. And then began the whole process again of going through the mimeograph machine, writing the stuff, getting it out, calling people. And we had a couple of conferences. I've got the record here somewhere.
SUE THRASHER:
Didn't Gene talk with you a lot about the early years of SCLC?
ELLA BAKER:
I think he has most of that, yes.
SUE THRASHER:
One of the things Casey and I were talking about this afternoon that we were sort of interested in was the SNCC meeting in Raleigh and how that came about and how you… It must appear in one of these papers as Charlotte.
ELLA BAKER:
No. See, Charlotte was one of the first of the groups that… Charlie Jones was there.
SUE THRASHER:
At Charlotte.
ELLA BAKER:
Charlie Jones was a young minister, and he had big-time relationships there. And that was one of the places that had sat in. The meeting was called for the Faster holiday in '60. I had suggested it was very obvious that the manner in which these things were springing up… There was no real coordination or even exchange taking place between the groups that were springing up. It was to a large extent, I called you and said, "How come your school sat in?"

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or something. I got a grant of about $800 SCLC was willing to put up, and I got in touch with the leadership of these different groups and got to writing them. And I wanted to have the conference in Greensboro, preferably at A and T. I didn't expect A and T to accept it anyway. But it was the Easter holiday, and Bennett had historically had a religious convocation of some sort, but they couldn't accommodate us. And so I knew A and T wouldn't, but I think made the call. I may not have even called them. So then I searched around. I knew a young dean at Shaw and a young minister, and they began to work on it for me, and we went there and had the conference. And I was hoping for not more than, say, a hundred and some of the "leadership" of the sit-ins as as we had culled it from the newspapers and so forth. And so it ended up about three hundred or more people. I've got the list; I don't know from the North, and white schools we had.
CASEY HAYDEN:
Was it pretty much, in terms of the southern students, black students who were involved, pretty much names from the papers, and someone someone else knew and…
ELLA BAKER:
Sure.
CASEY HAYDEN:
What about the students in the Greensboro situation? What was their contact with the organizations? Had some of them had some CORE training?
ELLA BAKER:
No, the first students who sat in hadn't had so much CORE training as sort of indoctrination. The young pharmacist that they had been talking with, a local person, had had some knowledge about the CORE technique, and this was the basis.

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CASEY HAYDEN:
Were you involved at all with the formation of CORE?
ELLA BAKER:
No, I wasn't, but I knew CORE people. I never thought too much of my capacity for passive resistance.
CASEY HAYDEN:
That wasn't exactly your orientation.
ELLA BAKER:
No. They at least emphasized the need for sort of a passive resistance reaction, but it didn't always work out that way.
CASEY HAYDEN:
Then the next SNCC meeting was the Atlanta meeting.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, it was, but what we had to do… SNCC had not been formed. These were people who were called together in their leadership roles or whatever delegated roles they chose. And they came, and the only couple of things that I suggested be done were that the southern students have a chance to think through their own problems, and that the other people… The northern students were much more articulate and terribly sophisticated in phraseology if not ideology. But they were to avoid the business of saying you reject it. There was a small group of students and myself and the Rev. Jim Lawson. And it was in this kind of context and some of the northern students. And there was a schedule worked out in terms of when they would meet and when they wouldn't meet together.
And so the southern students began the process of beginning to know each other and to [unclear] organization. And if you read Jim Foreman's book where he points out that the hierarchy, the Reverend and the others were then eager to see to it that this became a part of SCLC. And I refused to be a party to it and said that the students had a right to make their decision as to what they wanted to be. When went down, they had decided that they would be a

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student—unaffiliated at that stage—group, and that they would move towards meeting… They elected representatives from each of the larger delegations to come to Atlanta once, I think, or at least a couple of months during the summer. They didn't object to coming together, but in the fall there was then by that time a desire for a conference. Jane Stemblidge, who was at the Union Theological Seminary, and I didn't even see her at the Raleigh meeting, Fred Shuttlesworth had run into her, and he told me about her. And I got in touch with her. He had told me that she said she would like to work…
[END OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]

[TAPE 2, SIDE B]

[START OF TAPE 3, SIDE A]
SUE THRASHER:
So you and Jane worked all Fourth of July weekend, preparing things for Bernard and Marion.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. There was a basic statement, similar to what organizations take to these conventions. And preparing them not only to give them a copy for themselves, but several copies (I don't know how many). And they went by coach train from Atlanta. I don't know how they ever got to California by train [Laughter] , but they worked that out anyhow. And they went to California, and I think the Democrats were in California, and the Republicans were in Chicago, I believe, that year. Or it may have been vice versa. But they covered both of them. One was shortly after the other. And then they came back. Jane Stemblidge was there, and so she stayed on to work towards an October meeting. And Jane knew how to work. And so

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the conference was called in October, and out of that came a furtherance of the concept of having representatives from these groups designated by the students. And out of that came eventually the setting up of an office in Atlanta.
SUE THRASHER:
Were you on the SCLC staff while this was all going on, while SNCC was being organized?
ELLA BAKER:
I was leaving in August. I was going to leave anyway, because I knew we couldn't stay there together. And Clyde Walker was coming in. It had been determined that he would come in, and that's why they were so solicitous about trying to capture the student group. So as far as payroll, I think I may have left it even before August, but certainly in August.
I had met Rosetta Gardner and some others, and she suggested the potential of this thing at the YWCA, which turned out to be a special project, which perhaps you [unclear] . Was it you?
CASEY HAYDEN:
Yes.
ELLA BAKER:
And who else?
CASEY HAYDEN:
Mary [unclear] and Bobby Yancey.
ELLA BAKER:
Was it Bobby Yancey and you?
CASEY HAYDEN:
I think it was just me, and then when Mary came on Bobby and Mary shared the job.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, that's right. And you were the first, by yourself. I didn't know you.
CASEY HAYDEN:
No, I don't think we had met then. I think we met, actually, at the Atlanta conference.
We need to go back to the Raleigh meeting. Was there anyone working with you on

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organizing that?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, I had a very good young lady as secretary. Fortunately, I was able to get good people who responded, who had enthusiasm, and who found they had a chance to learn something. There was a young woman that they didn't want to keep, I know, afterwards, but she knew how to produce and was willing. If you're working with people and you work with them as human beings, you don't have problems.
SUE THRASHER:
Was SCLC anxious to have that student meeting in Raleigh?
ELLA BAKER:
No, not especially, but they didn't evidence too much anxiety about having it. I'm sure they saw the potential, but they were perhaps assuming that it would be an automatic transfer from that meeting to this, to the SCLC. They had, in this little thing, said that so-and-so from Virginia, so-and-so from Alabama, so-and-so from Georgia… In other words, they assumed that these so-and-so's, young leaders, could, by making a pitch for becoming an arm of SCLC, that it would automatically happen, and it didn't. But they came to the meetings that were held that summer once a month, the representatives that had been elected by the different states or whatever groups came to Atlanta, and out of this dialogue and what-have-you, this led then to the calling of a fall conference. And out of the fall conference came the cementing of the idea of a SNCC, although we'd had the office of the all summer. The little place that Jim described.
CASEY HAYDEN:
[unclear] little skylight.
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes, it was like that, all right. We were only able to get it, though, because I think the same guy who got the office for me

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was willing to do that. And we paid Mr. Alexander whatever we paid him, forty dollars a month or twenty-five.
SUE THRASHER:
I think we should probably stop. Do you have anything else?
CASEY HAYDEN:
Not necessarily. It might be nice to talk again sometime, just because I'd like it. [Laughter]
END OF INTERVIEW