The Negro Transient
Herbert C. JenkinsPublishing Information
THE Federal Emergency Relief Administration stands out among the numerous organizations sponsored by the present Administration as a dispenser of relief to the destitute. In the last generation organized social work has in various ways, chiefly through private agencies, assumed responsibility for providing care for families who were without visible means of support, but it has been only recently that widespread efforts have been made to care for needy single men and women. This of course became necessary because of the many who were thrown out of work during the present economic crisis.
As those interested in social welfare viewed the situation, certain groups stood out as demanding special attention because of the complexity or peculiarity of their problems. Among them was that rather restless, shifting section of the population known as the transients composed of both sexes and including young people in early adolescence as well as grown ups who had reached a mature old age.
With no available statistics there was no definite way to determine, with any degree of accuracy, just how many citizens there were moving about from one section of the country to the other, many looking for work, others dissatisfied and restless over inability to adjust themselves to changed economic and social conditions and still others caught by this surging tide borne on its bosom they knew not where.
At the time that Mr. Hopkins and others became actively interested in working out a program of adequate care for these individuals, various estimates were made as to the probable number of transients in the country and figures were submitted, some of which were well over half a million, but when steps were taken to give definite care to these needy citizens it was discovered that there were not as many as there seemed to be at first. The November issue of the Transient, a bi-monthly publication issued by the National Association for Travelers Aid and Transient Service, states that there were 249,975 individuals under care in Federal Transient Bureaus October 15, 1934. There were of course some people who could be classed as transients on the road or not under care at these bureaus but it is doubtful if their number would swell the above total to any great extent.
Most states of the Union have at least one Transient Bureau which has as its object the giving of emergency care to non-resident individuals, but in some bureaus the local homeless, i. e., unemployed single residents of the community, are given assistance. In some instances the bureaus are supported wholly by Federal funds but in the majority of cases they are operated by a combination of Federal and State funds.
An effort is made to treat each individual on a case work basis, that is to say, each applicant is regarded as having problems peculiarly his own and requiring individual treatment. It is true that many cases fall in the same class, for instance, numbers of transients are employed and looking for work and this is the sole reason for their being away from their home but this is determined by personal interview and all are not lumped together simply because they are on the road. Often "group case work" is used in meeting the needs of men asking for relief when a considerable percentage of them have very similar problems.
Furthermore an effort is made to adjust each person to some particular locality and persuade as many as possible to refrain from aimlessly wandering about the country. Consultation with the individual and correspondence with legal residence may reveal the fact that the transient might be better off at his home and if he can be made to accept this viewpoint he is returned. If, however, there is no particular reason for sending him elsewhere he is given to understand that he will be made welcome at the transient bureau until he finds work or can reach some other satisfactory adjustment.
As in every movement of nation-wide scope Negroes contribute their quota to this transient army. There are no available figures at hand to show the percentage of the number under care in various bureaus, but because of the traditional "last to be hired and first to be fired" policy which exists in industry they doubtless constitute a substantial number of these wanderers.
As far as the officials in Washington are concerned efforts have been made to dispense relief to all needy citizens regardless of creed or color. As one prominent newspaper in St. Louis recently stated, Mr. Hopkins has taken the attitude that a Negro can get as hungry as a white man. Without a doubt the administration of relief in some transient bureaus has been controlled by the color of the applicant, but such policies give evidence of local not national tendencies.
In an effort to present a view which might give some idea of a cross section of Negro transients the writer will offer some figures and impressions taken from interviews held with 1,000 homeless citizens who have received service at the Federal Transient Bureau in East St. Louis, Illinois.
This city is about midway between the northern, southern, eastern and western boundaries of the country. It is served by 24 railroads including 21 trunk and 3 belt lines and can easily be reached by a number of good roads. In prosperous days the manufacturing and industrial plants furnished employment for thousands of men and many still think of it as a place where some work can be secured. The city therefore becomes a stopping place for men travelling from one section of the country to the other.
The white and colored transients are housed in separate buildings but every effort is made to see that Negroes obtain the same service as whites. Each applicant for assistance is interviewed for identifying information and is further consulted for a more detailed explanation of his problems by a trained and experienced Negro case worker, provided he stays long enough for this service.
The same menus for meals are used in both "shelters" and the food is prepared by experienced cooks. A colored man who desires to return to his home or wishes to obtain any other service is given the same consideration as a white man. Due to local feeling regarding the maintenance of any transient bureau in the city it has been difficult to obtain a satisfactory dwelling place for Negro men and the location of the present shelter leaves much to be desired, but the building is in fairly good state of repair and serves as a temporary solution of a perplexing problem.
During the summer months soft ball and volley ball teams were organized and the men played with teams from the white shelter and other places in the city. The white shelter won the "transient world series" soft ball contest four games to two. A limited number of swimming suits were furnished and groups of men were carried in the shelter truck to a nearby lake to enjoy a plunge during the hot summer days. "Movies" are generally shown one night a week and quite often different speakers address the group.
Classes where instruction is given in reading, writing and elementary arithmetic are held at the shelter and all who lack the fundamentals of education are urged to attend. Night school classes which offer grammar and high school courses are conducted at the local high school and are open to all who wish to apply.
There are no figures to indicate how many different men received service at the bureau since the beginning of January, but statistics compiled for the months of March to September inclusive indicate that 7,357 colored transients as over against 24,896 white transients were given assistance in the two shelters. This means that some of these men received service continuously during these months, others stayed for two months or more, while still others only stayed for a day. It may be safe to say that from four to five thousand different colored men received some care during this period.
In considering the birthplace of the 1,000 cases which were chosen for this brief study it was discovered that 809 gave some one of the southern or near southern states as the place where they were born. The largest number, 138, were born in Arkansas; Mississippi followed with 131; Tennessee was third with 125; ninety-eight were born in Louisiana and other southern states were represented by numbers below sixty. None claimed such states as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, North or South Dakota, or Wyoming as their native state.
Taking the figures as set forth below as a basis for a statement it seems apparent that transient problems are chiefly those of youth and men approaching middle age, as 800 of the 1,000 were thirty-seven years-of age and under while only 17 were over sixty-two.
Efforts were made to get at the facts as set forth by each individual interviewed, but in some instances there could be no absolute standard by which all information given was judged. This could not be better illustrated than by the statement of education received. Some of the applicants who registered from the rural districts of Mississippi and stated that they went to the sixth grade could hardly write their names and admitted that they could read very little. Even those who had gone to the eighth grade in some sections of the south stated that their school terms were from three to six months in length. Some stated that they had gone as far as the first or second grade but for practical purposes they were considered as having had no education. Educational attainment is illustrated by the following table:
Seven hundred ten of the 1,000 had gone no further than the seventh grade and none of the four who claimed that they had been to college had finished their education.
In obtaining information regarding marital status the interviewers were on more firm ground in so far as getting factual material was concerned, although some of those interviewed understood the word single to mean the present marital condition regardless of whether or not they had ever been married. Lack of home ties was doubtless a contributing factor to the restlessness of many of these men on the road and the fact that most of them claimed to be single or for some reason separated from former wives as shown in the following table is not without significance:
Eight hundred sixty-two of the applicants had never learned a trade. Forty-seven were cooks, eleven were moulders, nine were mechanics and there were a smaller number of electricians' printers, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, and boiler makers. Some men had engaged in occupations which could hardly be called trades but might be classed as semi-skilled work such as concrete finishers ( ten ), chauffeurs ( sixteen ), and stationary fireman ( three ) .
Illinois leads the states having the largest numbers of applicants who claimed it as their last residence. One hundred forty-two of the 1,000 transients came from this state. This was largely true because of the fact that the bureau cared for ninety-eight local homeless (i. e., unemployed residents of East St. Louis) as transients. Only forty-one of these men claimed Illinois as their birthplace. Of the remaining number 674 migrated from the South or near southern states. None of the transients claimed Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Oregon, Utah, Nevada. North or South Dakota as their residence at the time they started their wanderings.
Most of the applicants for assistance, 955, claimed to be looking for work, twenty (mostly under the age of twenty-two ) were frankly traveling just to see the country. Thirteen were in poor health and hoped to find a more desirable location, five claimed inadequate relief at their legal residence, three were traveling to get away from discordant home conditions, two were seasonal laborers and two more had been released from penal institutions. Some of these men gave more than one reason for being away from home.
All but three of those applying for assistance were men. One of the women had a small son and had been deserted by her husband. She applied for and obtained transportation to her home in the South. During the months from March to September twenty-two colored as over against 401 white families applied for assistance. At the present time (December 11, 1934 there are fifty-seven white families under care and one colored family. One of the noticeable features of the transient problem has been the small number of colored families applying for relief. There can be no assertion that Negro families are receiving adequate care in those sections where they are found in large numbers, as transients who come from these localities tell of colored citizens in many places being denied a chance to get either work or relief. An article in the December Crisis entitled "The Maid-Well Garment Case," depicting conditions in Forrest City, Arkansas, bears out the charges that these conditions are deplorable. However there is some evidence that Negro families are moving into East St. Louis, staying with relatives and obtaining relief from the local family relief agency.
Figures compiled to indicate the length of stay show that there was, on the whole, a greater turnover among the single white transients than among single Negroes, that is to say Negroes registering for relief stayed longer than whites. The opposite of this was true in regard to Negro and white families.
The narratives of experiences given by some of the clients who applied for assistance were filled with interesting accounts of dramatic incidents which would afford material for the novels of a Charles Dickens or a Joseph Conrad.
There is the life history of the native Indian from Peru who, because of his dark skin, was assigned to the colored shelter. At an early age he went to France to study medicine but was called home to take part in one of the numerous wars staged by the Latin American countries. He and his father served on one of the Peruvian gunboats where, in one of the engagements, his father was killed, falling dead in his son's arms.
After peace was declared the young man went to the Canal Zone and stayed for ten months during the period when French engineers made abortive attempts to connect the two oceans. He later traveled to San Francisco, became a naturalized citizen and shipped on the battleship Oregon when she made her famous trip around the Horn during the Spanish American War and was present at the destruction of the Spanish fleet at Santiago.
Then he enlisted in the army and served in the Philippines and after his discharge lived a number of years on the Pacific coast. A few years ago he started traveling across the continent making feathered novelties and selling them. He eventually went South, then turned northwest and arrived in East St. Louis. However, most of the case records were recitals of the rather colorless life histories of the underprivileged members of a minority group.
Summarizing the statistics presented above it is apparent that most of the Negro transients were born south of the Mason-Dixon Line and were comparatively young people. They had obtained a meager education, and were usually single or separated from mates for some reason or other. The majority had never learned a trade and had left southern states seeking work.
The whole program of caring for transients has been opposed and severely criticized, many people claiming that these bureaus are aggravating rather than eliminating this troublesome problem. It is doubtless true that chronic tramps and ne'er-do-wells seize this opportunity to serve their own ends, but it seems much better for city authorities to be able to direct homeless men to bureaus of this type knowing that they will there receive adequate care than to have these men complain that the regular agencies refuse to serve them. It certainly is not far fetched to say that in the absence of these bureaus the peace of many a community would be threatened by battalions of men made desperate through hunger and want.