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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Working for the WPA's Workers' Education Project

After graduating from Shaw, Baker moved to New York City to find work. She quickly discovered that racism existed in the North also, and it made it hard for her to find work. She began working with the Workers' Education Project after being approached by some acquaintances of hers. New York was also the first place where she befriended Communists. A few minutes later after describing her time with the Cooperative League and the NAACP, she returns to this topic to explain what the Workers' Education Project did.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SUE THRASHER:
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 . 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 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 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 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 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 . 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 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.