1932 was arguably the worst year the United Stated endured in the Twentieth Century. I have been reading William Manchester’s book “The Glory and the Dream” which is a narrative of American history from 1932 to 1972. I have spent a good deal of time on American history, but somehow I sort of skipped the depression. I knew it was bad so why not jump from 1929 to Pearl Harbor and the War from which America emerged as the most powerful country in the world. I never realized just how bad the depression was.
In 1932 there were no safety nets for American citizens. President Hoover believed that welfare and the Dole would destroy American business and that private institutions should take care of the unfortunate poor. There was a shame attached to being poor and people went to great lengths to hide the fact. There was no social security, no subsidized housing, and no food stamps. It was very possible to starve in a country with more natural resources than any in the world. A great majority of people had no money to buy anything, even food, that people so take for granted today. Quoting from Mr. Manchester’s book, “Millions stayed alive by living like animals. In the Pennsylvania country-side they were eating wild roots and dandelions; in Kentucky they chewed violet tops, wild onions, forget-me-nots, and weeds which had heretofore been left to grazing cattle.”
According to Mr. Manchester, teachers bore witness to the worst, for the most heart-breaking martyrs were in the classrooms. In October, of the terrible year of 1932, in New York City over 20 percent of children suffered from malnutrition. In mining counties in Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia etc. the figure was 90 percent, with children suffering from “drowsiness, lethargy, sleepiness and mental retardation”. One teacher suggested to a little girl that perhaps she should go home and eat something. “I can’t”, she replied, “This is my sister’s day to eat”.
The stories of destitution of millions of Americans go on and on. Many people, including President Roosevelt, when he came into office in 1933, thought there was a distinct possibility that the United States’ experiment with democracy would end, and a totalitarian form of government would be required to save the country. To learn more about the personal tragedies endured by millions of Americans during this time I would suggest one read at least the first couple of chapters of William Manchester’s book.
The story from this time period that struck me as most poignant concerned the “riding of the rails”. When 25,000 out-of-work, destitute, World War One veterans camped in Washington for several months in the summer of 1932, President Hoover and his then Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur became irritated so to speak. The “vagabonds” were a nuisance and needed to be dealt with and General MacArthur was just the man to do so. He turned loose Army troops on the veterans and ran them out of town, not without bloodshed. And here is the part that is so poignant. The veterans (and their families) had nowhere to go and no way to get there, so they continued to be kicked out of every town they went to under the auspices of vagrancy laws. From town to town they went with no place to rest. The only alternative for them and millions of other homeless Americans was to continually travel from place to place by the only means available, railroad boxcars. Thus was created the nomadic tribe of “Hoboes” who rode the rails in the United States of the 1930’s.
Today from time to time I hear “just get rid of all the bums in New York. Kick “em out (not referring to New York politicians, but homeless people); or “why can’t we simply kick the trouble makers and ne’er-do-wells out of the schools so the kids who want to be there can learn in a more peaceful learning environment”. My response is that we need to remember history, not only remember it but learn from it. Millions of “Hoboes” cannot exist in this country for very long before the country as we know it no longer exists. President Roosevelt referred to the “Forgotten Man”. In politics today we are hearing a lot about the “Common Man”. Could this be the same person Roosevelt was talking about?
Educators realize that the success of the mission we are engaged in, to teach every child so they can reach their maximum potential, will determine the very existence of our democracy. We cannot shirk our responsibility as a nation. As various politicians set off on the campaign trail, they should keep in mind that the country cannot have a traveling hoard of “Hoboes” again.
Dr. Carolyn Koos