Picturing the Invisible III/III
4/4/14 - 6/14/14
Milton Rogovin—Social Optometry
Desire has no history—at least, it is experienced in each instance as all foreground, immediacy. It is aroused by archetypes and is, in that sense, abstract. But moral feelings are embedded in history, whose personae are concrete, whose situations are always specific. Thus, almost opposite rules hold true for the use of the photograph to awaken desire and to awaken conscience. The images that mobilize conscience are always linked to a given historical situation.1
Susan Sontag, 1973
Rogovin invariably saw his picture-making through the filter of political action, social justice, and an abiding sympathy for the dignity of his fellow human beings.2
Douglas R. Nickel, 2006
As I see it now, my whole attitude toward African Americans and other ethnic groups was shaped by the socialist teachings that I absorbed… I realized that there were no “special” people. We were all made of the same “cloth” and everyone should be treated as brothers and sisters. The radical movement shaped me into a new person, concerned about others. We fought for health insurance for all, for social security and old-age pensions. We fought for unions and jobs for everyone. And we not only fought for “Bread” but also for “Roses.” Everyone should be entitled to an education and everyone should have access to the arts, the “Roses” that help to create a truly human being.3
Milton Rogovin, c. 1990s
Milton Rogovin—Social Optometry is the final exhibition in the Picturing the Invisible series, which turns its attention from the scientific and personal points of view of the first two exhibitions toward one of social visualization, dissent and activism. As Tony Loreti beautifully illuminates in his essay for the exhibition, Milton Rogovin used photography as a vehicle to bring “the forgotten ones4” to light, picturing who he believed to be culturally invisible. Rogovin worked for five decades, using his camera to advocate for the rights of working class people everywhere he traveled. Social Optometry examines a carefully selected overview of Rogovin’s photography, which presents its viewers with powerfully candid images of ordinary people in their homes, workplaces and community settings. Also on view, and essentially providing a verbal soundtrack for the exhibition, is Michael Frisch’s film Portraits in Steel—An Audial-Photographic Documentary, which showcases Rogovin’s Working People photographs as it documents the fall of Buffalo NY’s steel mill industry through recorded interviews.
Two important factors influenced the remarkable jump Rogovin made from being an optometrist, helping single individuals see better, to becoming a photographer and showing society at large how and what to see. The first factor, as Melanie Anne Herzog points out, was Rogovin’s background:
Born in 1909 in New York to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, Rogovin was radicalized by the widespread deprivations he witnessed and experienced during the Depression and dedicated himself to working for social and economic justice. He began practice as an optometrist in Buffalo, serving union members and other workers.5
Milton and his wife Anne were politically active in Buffalo, NY, after World War II, engaging in union organizing and voter registration in Buffalo’s African-American community.6 This work led directly to the second factor precipitating Rogovin’s career shift: how the government received his reformist activism. Rogovin was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) during their 1957 hearings.7 He refused to answer most of the questions asked and was quickly dubbed “Buffalo’s No.1 Communist,”8 losing most of his optometry clientele as a result of the publicity. Feeling “silenced”9 in his activism, he was catalyzed into photography as a way of continuing to speak out regarding the injustices he was witnessing. Milton Rogovin produced approximately thirty thousand photographs in his five-decade career as a photographer (The Library of Congress holds 29,700 black-and-white negatives, 2,500 contact sheets, and 1,130 signed prints).10 In 2011, Rogovin died at the age of 101, actively advocating for issues of social justice until the end of his life.
When considering Rogovin’s photographs, it is important to keep in mind the artist’s collaborative methods as a documentarian. One key example of Rogovin’s collaborative spirit was the Portraits in Steel project, which ultimately became not only a long-term documentation project but also a book and a film by Michael Frisch. Initially, Rogovin had worked with steel mill workers to take portraits in their workplace and homes during the 1970s. A decade later, Rogovin and Frisch worked together to document the fall of the steel mill industry in Buffalo in the late 1980s, capturing new portrait photos along with verbal testimonials. While only a couple of the 1970s Portraits in Steel photographs are in Social Optometry, Frisch’s film includes four full sets of these photographs, spanning the 1970s & 1980s. Comprising of photographs by Rogovin and edited audio excerpts from interview recordings—the source material for edited oral history transcriptions for the 1993 Cornell University Press publication—the film and book juxtapose photographs taken from Rogovin’s Working People series with portraits of the jobless workers in their homes a decade after the 1970s portraits. Hearing the stories of the former steel workers, as well as reading their testimonials at the end of this catalog, provides powerful examples of the dialogue that prompted Rogovin to know his subjects and continue his work to fight for the common man. As Herzog posits, the central question to ask regarding his photography/collaboration/documentation is “in what ways do these photographs and the verbal testimonies tell the stories of his subjects’ lives?”11 Social Optometry asks its viewers: how can we look again more clearly, and in effect re spect the dignity of our fellow human beings?
The Thompson Gallery would like to thank Mark Rogovin for his invaluable assistance and infectious enthusiasm, and for providing all of the information and digital images needed for this publication—including Milton Rogovin’s poetry—as well as all his help in bringing this exhibition to CSW. The Gallery is most grateful to Michael Frisch and his assistant Melanie Morse for revising his film Portraits in Steel—An Audial-Photographic Documentary—which was exhibited for the first time in its revised version—as well as the corresponding transcripts from Rogovin’s and Frisch’s book collaboration, which are reprinted at the end of this catalog and also at the end of Tony Loreti's below essay. The gallery is also thankful for the Syracuse Cultural Workers’ loan of the works on display and would like to acknowledge Christopher Stewart for coordinating with our gallery.
I am particularly thankful for the contributions of Tony Loreti and Anne Rearick, who helped me conceive and plan the Picturing the Invisible series, and for Tony’s wonderful suggestion to bring the photography of Milton Rogovin to our campus. And I am deeply appreciative of his thoughtful and informative essay on Milton Rogovin’s photography, outlining the work on display and the factors that inspired Rogovin to pursue his extraordinary career as an artist.
Todd Bartel, Curator
1. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Dell, New York, NY, p. 17
2. Melanie Anne Herzog, Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer, Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, Tucson, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2006, Forward by Douglas R. Nickel, p. 7.
3. Herzog; Introduction, quoting Milton Rogovin from “autobiographical writings, interviews and other sources,” p. 12.
4. Melanie Anne Herzog, Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer, (from the artist’s photo series title “The Lower West Side: The Forgotten Ones”), Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, Tucson, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2006, Forward by Douglas R. Nickel, p. 83.
5. Herzog, p. 12.
10. Library of Congress website, http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/238_rogo.html, 3/20/14
— • —
Milton Rogovin: A Voice for "the Forgotten Ones"
In 1957 Milton Rogovin, a Buffalo optometrist and political activist, was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He, like other activists of the time (Pete Seeger among them), felt the investigations were shameful and refused to answer most of the questions put to him. The following day headlines in the local press declared Rogovin the “Top Red in Buffalo.” Soon he was abandoned by old friends and by many customers of his optometry practice.
Rogovin had been transformed into a committed leftist by the suffering he had seen as a young man on the streets of New York City during the Depression. Since then he had been working for political change, active in union organizing, voter registration in under-represented communities, and political discussion groups. FBI surveillance of his activities had begun by the early 1940s. Now with a family to provide for, he felt that he had little choice but to silence his political voice. However, Rogovin found it impossible to simply ignore his deeply held feelings about social justice.
Milton Rogovin was in his late forties when he reached this difficult crossroads in his life. He had owned a camera since 1942 and knew basic film development and printing, but his involvement with photography was relatively casual. His connection to the medium had begun to deepen, however, on a few trips he took to Mexico with his wife Anne in the early 1950s. They met members of the Taller de Grafica Popular (People’s Graphic Arts Workshop) in Mexico City and were moved by their commitment to the making of socially conscious art that celebrated workers’ rights, literacy, and the history of the Mexican people. In traveling about Mexico in the company of TGP members, Rogovin made some of his first strongly personal photographs: beautiful, sensitive portraits of rural Mexicans, pictured in their everyday environments. He later dismissed much of what he shot in Mexico, but the images he created there clearly anticipate the serious photographic work he would begin in the late 1950s.
In 1957 William Tallmadge, a professor of music and a friend of Rogovin’s, asked him to collaborate on a project. Tallmadge was making sound recordings of the services of the Holiness Church, a predominantly African American congregation in Buffalo, and Rogovin agreed to make accompanying photographs. This work led Rogovin to the realization that in photography he could find an alternative way to voice his social concerns. The collaboration with Tallmadge lasted three months, but Rogovin continued the project for three more years, photographing in a number of churches. This experience had a profound effect on him as a photographer. He came to know his camera as never before, learning new ways to expressively portray his subjects, and he delved much more deeply into darkroom technique, becoming an excellent printer. Hungry for informed, honest criticism of his work, Rogovin initiated a relationship with the influential, spiritually oriented art photographer Minor White. This connection opened him to understanding the deeper potential of his work. Most importantly, perhaps, the Storefront Churches series provided Rogovin with the experience of making meaningful connections with his subjects, building trust between himself and people he cared about but hadn’t known.
As important as the Storefront Churches series was to Rogovin’s growth as a social documentary photographer, he had not yet developed what would become his signature visual style. Many of the Storefront images, with their powerful energy and dynamic framing, capture the physical motion and the emotional intensity of the religious services. In following years Rogovin would make less active images that spoke through the quiet expressiveness of his subjects’ faces.
Beginning in the summer of 1962, Rogovin began taking yearly trips with his wife, Anne, a special-education teacher, to photograph in Appalachian mining towns. Through union contacts they found accommodations and met members of the local communities. Sharing her husband’s deep social concerns, Anne would play a significant role in Rogovin’s work throughout his career. A warm, sociable person, she did much to ease the suspicions of people facing a stranger with a camera. This summer work in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky continued until 1971. Years later, after Rogovin’s retirement from his optometry practice, the photographing of miners would grow into a decade-long project.
In the course of his career Rogovin made pictures all over the world, particularly in his series on miners, but in many ways he was a quintessentially local photographer. He knew that the people whose stories he wanted to tell were right in his midst, in his own Buffalo community. And it was with his series on Buffalo’s Lower West Side, begun in the late 1960s, that his voice as a photographer became fully realized. By the time Rogovin began documenting the historically Italian Lower West Side it had become a more diverse neighborhood of Puerto Rican, African American, and Native American families – many living in deep poverty. In walking the streets of this neighborhood, close to where he lived, Rogovin became a familiar figure. Connections grew and relationships formed over time. As was his practice, he always returned with prints for his subjects, undoubtedly leading to more picture opportunities. Photographing on sidewalks, stoops and porches, and inside homes, Rogovin often found himself chronicling family milestones and holiday events.
From this point on in his career, the majority of Rogovin’s images were posed portraits, the subjects facing the camera directly and viewed straight on, or from slightly below. This vantage point accorded those he photographed the respect he felt they were due.
In the late 1970s Rogovin began making pictures of people who worked in heavy industry in the Buffalo area. He photographed in steel mills, auto plants, and foundries. He asked those he photographed in these jobs if he could also make portraits of them in their homes. He wanted to capture the fullness of their lives, and the resulting work-home image pairs that he created, unprecedented in the history of photography, reward and challenge the assumptions of the viewer. As it happened, with this series Rogovin was chronicling the end of an era in his declining northeastern city. Within a matter of years, many of these companies would shut down, victims of a radically changing economic landscape.
With Anne at his side, Rogovin worked on his extensive Family of Miners series throughout the 1980s. He also continued to make pictures of the people of the Lower West Side. Re-photographing many of his earlier subjects, these pictures became a record of individuals and families as they moved through life. In his final years as an active photographer, now in his nineties, Rogovin made pictures of some of these subjects for the fourth time. He titled the combined, decades-long series the Lower West Side Quartets.
There is always a question of the relationship between aesthetics and content in documentary photography. Is beauty a necessary ingredient in communicating about the world’s realities, or is it a distraction? A poorly seen image would not capture the attention or imagination of viewers, but too great an emphasis on visual style might draw focus away from the subject and place it on the creator of the images. Rogovin chose to work in a simple and direct pictorial style. He knew what mattered. Yet there were visual characteristics of the medium that were quite important to him. He worked with a medium format camera because it allowed him to make finely detailed representations of his subjects. And he printed his pictures with great care. He knew that a beautifully printed image would attract the eye, and would, through its rich silver tonalities, represent his subjects in the way they deserved.
Documentary photography is a controversial sphere. Many question the photographer’s perspective and inherent power in shaping the images of his or her subjects. Rogovin was aware of these concerns from the beginning, but they never caused him to doubt his work. He was clear about his motivation and his intentions. He wanted us to see those who were seldom seen, and to celebrate them. He stated, “The rich have their own photographers. I photograph the forgotten ones.” Milton Rogovin had one voice silenced because of the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, but in response he created, over the course of his long life, an even more powerful voice through his work with the camera.
Chair, Art Department
— • —
Joe – Joe Kemp
You were the one who cleared the channels
so the molten metal could flow
like a river of gold
Joe – Joe Kemp
You were the one who breathed the poisonous fumes
which rose from the river of gold
When you died, Joe
the “picture man” wanted to honor and remember you
The “famous” photograph appeared in the
column announcing your death
and your image graced the
covers of books and magazines
Who can imagine
that a man, a working man, a Black man
who, in his lifetime, attracted no attention
is gazed upon through the decades
by the grace of a “picture man”
whose camera has given our Joe –
our Joe Kemp – new life
Corresponds to checklist number: 31. Working People, 1978
[Joe Kemp, Steel Worker with Shovel, Hanna Furnace, Buffalo, NY, 1978]
There he was – sitting in a casting
No – not goofing off – just resting
A nice guy, beard and all – waiting to have his picture taken
“Welcome to our home!”
He takes the black rabbit from the cage.
There he stands next to his pregnant wife
They’re ready for the picture –
I needn’t tell them how to stand.
Seven years have passed
They welcome us once again
Then he and his pregnant wife plus their seven year old son
stand ready for the picture
When we are leaving, the smiling wife whispers to me
“Picture man, every time you come, I’m pregnant.
Do me a favor – PLEASE DON’T COME AGAIN!”
Corresponds to checklist number: Working People, 1976 – 1987
[Steel Worker Resting on Mold, Shenango Steel, Buffalo, 1976-1977]
We waited a long time
He’s come at last
Our little Joey, Joey, our little Joey
Years and years have come and gone
And has taken its toll on some of us
Now I look up at my Joey –
No longer my little Joey.
Corresponds to checklist numbers: 36. Lower West Side Quartets, 1974 - 1985
[Grandparents with Grandson, Buffalo, NY, 1974]
[Joey At Eleven with His Grandmother, Buffalo, NY, revisited 1985]
37. Lower West Side Quartets, 1992 - 2001
[Joey Towers Over Grandmother, Buffalo, NY, 1992]
[Joey at Thirty-Three, Buffalo, NY, revisited 2001]
My Theme Boy
His land is dying
You can see it
in his eyes
The mines are closing
This too is in his eyes
Look into his eyes
They will tell you lots – lots more
Of mountain tops- stripped and gouged
Of streams polluted
Of fish destroyed
This should be
This must be
The land of opportunity and equality
Including this little boy.
Corresponds to checklist number: 22. Appalachia, 1962-1971
[Miner’s Son, Appalachia]
The Miner and Her Poodle
Picture Man, please take
this picture with my poodle.
How can I refuse?
There she stands
blonde hair with black base
eye make-up and lots, lots more.
and, nestling in her arms is
is her snow-white poodle.
Here, in the mine – she poses
her face blackened with coal dust
her blonde hair covered with a hard hat
with eye make-up
and lots, lots more.
Corresponds to checklist number: 26. Family of Miners, 1981
[Woman Miner at Mine Entrance, Appalachia, 1981]
[Miner at Home with Her Poodle, Appalachia, 1981]
How can I thank you,
For your patience
Toward me, a stranger
Who came into your little church
with camera and flash.
There you sat
Bible in hand
Waiting, waiting, waiting so
For the stranger to take his
pictures and leave.
I have a present for you,
A picture, which hopefully
Will live on
Long after you and I are gone.
Corresponds to checklist number: 5. Storefront Churches, 1957-1961
[Mother Green, Buffalo, NY]
— • —
Portraits in Steel
Milton Rogovin Photographs
Michael Frisch Oral History Excerpts
My job at Shenango, I was a chipper. They made these ingot molds and they don’t come too perfect. The chipper tries to make them perfect by cutting the bumps off of them with a air hammer and a chisel. I liked the fact that I could chip a piece of iron and make it smooth, you know.
Anybody can cut a piece of iron, take a chisel and cut a groove in it. But when you cut several grooves in to take a bump out of it, then you’ve got to flatten all them grooves out so there ain’t no bump there no more, and no holes either! So, that’s something to do. That’s the reason I enjoyed it. I was one of the good chippers. A good chipper knows more about what should be done than the boss, as far as that goes. The boss got to make sure that he does it, that’s all. If he does it right, he don’t need no boss.
I’m from Pennsylvania originally. Near Butler. And I grew up there, and then I became a coal miner there. This was when coal mining was done more or less by hand. The old fashioned way. I learned from my dad--my father was a miner all his life.
Well, when the strip mines started coming out, I didn’t want to work in the strip mines because it was all machi-nery. One day I wakened up and I think, “Well, this ain’t gonna work, these mines are going to finish out and I ain’t going to have no-thing to re-tire on.” Because they didn’t have no retirement plan. They come in non-union, some of them, most of them still’s non-union. Ain’t going to be noth-ing! So I said, I have to hunt another job. I had a brother-in-law that was working in Shenango. So I just went up to She-nango, [laughs] and went in and they gave me a job that day. This was in ‘56.
When I was becoming a chipper, it used to be big guys done that chipping. I was little. 5’5”. At that time I weighed a hundred and thirty five, that’s what I weigh now. They put that job up for bid and all the guys said, “Oh, you’ll never make a chipper.” They didn’t real-ize that I was a coal miner be-fore [laughs], I said, “I’m going to give it a try.”
The guy who teached me to chip, he told me, he said, “You can do this chip in two ways,” he says. “You can just push and push hard like all these guys here do, or you can sharp the chisels right!” He said, “You know how to sharp your chisels, you don’t have to push that hard.” And he was right.
When they first closed down I was only 58 years old, 59, somewhere around there. So I couldn’t get no Social Security, I had three years till that. It was pretty hard going. At my age it was hard to find a job, so I started cutting firewood down in PA, I hauled it up here and sold it, then I went back down.
See, I’m a good bit older than like most of these guys down here. I’ll be on Social Secu-rity a long time before they get that far. But they did have a little bit better break than me in one way, because people would hire them. I tried, with the government agencies, and I said, “Well, I ain’t getting no-where.” They sent other guys out younger than me, of course, they have a right to, you know, I said, “I’m going to have to get away from them and go on my own somewhere.”
So, I went out into the cannery, they can green beans, right near here, and the beans are grown here. That’s seasonal work, but that’s enough for me. I stay right around the farm now, except for when I’m up here to work at the cannery. I’m back where I intended to go anyhow when I re-tired, back to P.A. That was our plan, that’s the reason I never sold my lit-tle old beat up farm.
I think we import too much. I don’t begrudge them people a job, do you under-stand me? Them people there, they’re worse off than I am, basical-ly, and the stuff we buy makes them a job. But I’m just talking about us Ame-ricans now. If we had less import we’d have more work for our people. Sure, if I was a company and I could be buying stuff and selling it, why wouldn’t I buy it someplace where somebody is going to work for half of what the people here work for? It makes sense for the company-- but it doesn’t make sense for the American. Pay those people more for the stuff that they ship in, then maybe it will work out better and we will start making some of our own.
I’m sure glad I raised my children when I raised them instead of having to raise them today. It seems to me like it’s harder. I guess there’s good op-portunity if you can get a good education. But it looks a little bit to me that every-body is going to have to be smart and then the ones that get it are going to be lucky. But most of them--they ain’t going to get the money we used to get. There’s lots of work, you know, but who can live on $5.00 an hour? You can’t pay your rent.
But the younger people, it seems to me like some of them think the world owes them a living. I shouldn’t say that maybe, but that’s the way I feel. The world don’t owe us a living. A world should put a place there for us to make a living and we should go out and get it. I think that’s important, that you got to go out there and do your share if you want a livin-g. That’s what I believe on.
What Shenango consisted of, we were making ingot molds for the steel mills. Because when the blast furnace was going, you have to have someplace to put the steel, so that’s what the purpose of the ingot mold was. So what they would do is pour the ingot mold, wait for it to cool a little bit, then bump it out and then that block of steel would just sit in the yard. Then they would bring it into the rol-ling mills, they would get the blast heat and get it real soft, and that piece would just keep rolling down to the size they’d want, tubing or sheet metal, whatever they wanted.
When Elvis died, yeah, it hurt. It hurt more to find out that he was on drugs, and he wasted himself. At first when he died, you know, they tried to keep it hush-hush, and I says, it’s a waste that he killed himself, he’s so rich and he made his life so miserable, by being so protective of himself, instead of going out in pub-lic and associating, he just grew too big.
His music was from the heart, the soul. Soul music, the blues mix. Yeah, he wasn’t like a white man singing colored music. He just . . . he was a country boy, he wanted things to happen, he was young, and he loved his mother and father. He didn’t want to go out where the big wheels were, he didn’t want to go to Hollywood--but he wanted the money and everything, he knew he was going that way. He come in with the sideburns, changed things around. I think it was a good thing to call him, you know, the king of rock ‘n roll, because he did break it wide open for everybody.
I enjoyed the company and the work. You feel a part of the company, you know. You feel it’s a part of your life, it’s a part of your body, you’re dedicated to the plant. You couldn’t go in there all the time happy, because you’re work-ing in the steel mill foundry and it’s dirty and filthy and hot and freezing during the winter. But I went there every day for eighteen years, except for the six days I missed. Eighteen years, and I didn’t get nothing.
August of ‘82, they definitely closed the plant. I had eighteen years, so I didn’t catch the pension; twenty and you get the pension. I was shut down, I didn’t draw nothing. Nothing for nothing. Just got unemployment until that ran out, no food stamps, no gas assistance, no nothing.
Since being out at Shenango, the most I made was about $4,000 a year, just working minimum wage jobs, worked at the race-track, being a guard, nobody wants you, you know, just can’t find a job. Other jobs would pop up, they just want to pay you minimum wage, work you six days a week and ten hours a day, and pay you forty hours no matter what you did. And knowing that you’re hurting, and that they can take advantage of this, you don’t have no choice, you just have to either work they way they want you to, or take a walk.
The union was strong--it was too strong, yeah, that’s what put us out of busi-ness. They didn’t want to bend, they didn’t want to give up nothing, they didn’t believe in no changes. It was a case of playing it the rough guy, you know-- your father did it, he had to buckle down in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and he went through the hard times, and they made the unions, and you know, we don’t want to hear no sad stories from the company, why give up what your father struggled for.
They’d remember how, when they’d started the unions, they’d get beat up by the cops. You worked down there, there was no union, and you walked out the door sick, and that was your job, too, they had fifteen guys waiting. So the un-ion was the right thing, it was the right thing. The union would protect you and keep your seniority, other-wise the plant wouldn’t have to pay you no bene-fits, no re-tirement, you know, kick you around.
I mean, I’m still a union man. I think union is right in a lot of points. You know, you have cer-tain protec-tion plans, through the union--that’s where the union should draw their line, not try to operate the company. I mean, if the company says, you want to take a cut in pay, then come up front and say, give us good caus-e, show us your books, show us something. But the union didn’t do that--the union just showed strength all the way to the end, and they just died with it.
Well, I was bad, oh, I was bad. I think if I didn’t have accepted the Lord and everything, and being laid off one year, or hearing the news that Shenango was going to close, I probably would have robbed someone, just kept robbing off the rich-- you know, being mad because they’re the ones that have control of it. Oh, it made a big difference. Kept me out of jail! [laughs] Now I don’t think about stealing. We got Bible study, and we help an alcoholic, he lived here. You got to struggle through hard times, and helping somebody out, you got him on his feet, going in the right direc-tion. Just help somebody else and take some of the pressure away.
Well, I’m just hoping that they don’t destroy all our steel mills, in case we really need them. Because you’re dependent on foreign oil, and they’re going to lock themselves into dependent on foreign steel, and then you’re getting into a crisis.
It seems like they want to take every dollar they could take from you, instead of saying OK, we’re all Americans, let’s show that we can all pitch in and help each other, rich businessman can hand out a little bit where it ain’t going to hurt him and use it as a tax write-off, and everybody can help each other and we could all get back on our feet. Because if people don’t have money to spend, the economy’s only going to get worse.
Most of my friends that saw this pic-ture, they’d say I look like I was from outer space. But at the time, I was working at Republic Steel and I was a burner, so this is my burning out-fit, because you have to have long sleeves, because the sparks are fly-ing, shields on the shoes, you know. And there’s the burn-ing goggles, and the reason the hat’s sit-ting so high is I guess be-cause I had my hair rolled up. [Laughs.]
Be-cause you know, when you get off from work, you always still try to be a lady, even though you’re working in a man’s job, doing a man’s job, when you take off all of this here, you still want to be a woman.
It’s a lot of resentment, that the women were tak-ing away the jobs from the men. So I just told them, I says, “You know, I have two chi-ldren and when your kids go to the football games, mine’d like to go to them too, and mine like those sneakers same just like yours, I want to give them the same thing that you’re giving yours.” And from then on I never had any more problem out of them.
You know, some people do come with various atti-tudes. [laughs]. They know nothing about you, no-thing whatsoever, it’s just some-thing that they’ve formed. And being that you were a woman in this situa-tion, you know, men would try you, and if you carry yourself in a lady-like manner, they re-spect you, they do. If you wanted to be one of the boys, they would tend to treat you like one of the boys. I didn’t want to be one of the boys. I wanted to be one of the girls. [Laughs.]
And this is a burning torch, and what it is, is these are pieces of steel that haven’t met up to the speci-fications, they’re quite long, so they burn them in sections so that the crane can pick them up, and they’d be placed in boxcars and ship-ped out. I think they melt them back down.
I used to burn with a bigger torch, too, it would sit right on the steel, on big steel blocks. The order is for a specific size, and it is measured by the fore-man and drawn on, and the burners--which is myself--we cut it off. So it has to be a smooth cut, there can’t be any gashes in it. So this is time consuming, it’s hot, it’s back-breaking, and the only thing you can think about is, making the perfect cut.
The story of my getting started there was that I was on welfare, and they had the WIN program, and they sent me to Republic, and I filled out the applica-tion, and a week or two later, they called me. That was the time, in ‘77, was the big push to hire women.
On welfare, it just felt like you know, you always have higher hopes for the future, and when you’re reverting backwards, then you feel like you’ve got on the rock bottom, so it was a very depressing time. So I had made up my mind that I was going to go back to school, for occupational therapist’s assistant. And that’s what I did. And this steel thing came up. [Laughs] I graduated in May and I started working at the Republic steel plant May 31, 1977.
It was a step forward because it was a good, high-paying job; it was a step backwards because it was not the kind of job I wanted to do. So it was very depressing for me. And then to have to keep the job--it was by no means help-ing a patient recover from a stroke, or a mental patient do some-thing with their leisure times.
So, once I took the job at Republic, you know your whole mentality has to change in order to keep a job, you can’t continue to see yourself doing some-thing else. So then you finally make up in your mind, you say, “Well, as long as I’m going to be at the job I’m going to do my damnedest to keep it, and get some of the things I want.”
With us at Republic, people would work maybe two or three months, and then get laid off again, come back maybe work a week, and get laid off again. But no one really thought that it’s a possibility that the plant might not even open back up.
I’ve had it both ways. I’ve had it handed to me where you’re just terminated, just like that. That’s a terrible feeling, but maybe that’s better than this thing we had at Republic, chipping away at you, and you’re given a little bit of hope, that you’ll still have a job, that you might be called back, so you haven’t lost all sense of ground and security. It was a slow nose dive, see, that just chipped away at your savings, your life . . . Well, I guess no way is a good way to lose your job.
Well, with Republic I think they felt like the company did make a good effort to modernize, because I remember, they put in I don’t know how many thousands of dollars for this new blast furnace, they’ve got a lot of new equipment in there that I don’t even think has been used. So that they had been pouring the money into it. I don’t think the people are angry with the company. I don’t think they had an answer, really--it was just the economy dropped.
And just as it happened, when I got laid off, then I said, “Well, maybe it’s time to see if I can get a job in my profession.” I can’t say that it was rougher, because [laughs] it wasn’t. I was finish-ing drawing my unemployment, but this job came before that ended, at the State Hospital. I work with geri-atric patients. And I do various crafts and arts with the clients. Oh I love it, I love it. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be doing it. I feel like I’ve come full circle, now. It took a lot of detouring, and stuff, but I feel that this is what I would want to do for the rest of my life.
My job at the Hanna Furnace Corporation was cinder snapper. That’s running the slag off the iron, before they tap the hole. I’m on number four furnace and I’m getting ready to sweep the slag out of the runners. They call it the mon-key, when I flush it I’m running the slag off, That’s what they called flush the monkey, you understand, that was my job. When he took that pic-ture, we just got finished casting. You see the goggles and the skull cap, but I come out of all those heavy clothes because it was summertime and it was too hot there to work in them. As far as I saw it, it was a very good place to work. I put my best effort into my work. If there’s something that’s got to be done, I do that first and get it out of the way, and then I blaze on through. The guys, they just look around in my spot, my area, “Well, I know who’s working today, Joe Kemp,” because I always kept that area washed down, because I feel that if you had to run, have a nice, clean, spot to run.
Well, Hanna Furnace, you could see something happening. They had three fur-naces in operation when I started there, eight years before, then they broke it down to two, so then they were just running but one. I guess it was easier to ship pig iron than to make it. That’s big business, big business, you know how big business goes, so boom! For my eight years I worked there, when I started the union was pretty good, but then everything started being broke down. Like, you know, they had first privilege, the place is going to close and everybody wanted to hang on to their job as best as possible. So like, that will weaken you. See, they usually had rumors around that the plant was going to close, and eventually they was going to lay off and this and that. They was laying off back and forth up right up until the time.
I’m from Georgia. Macon, Georgia. Ninety-seven miles from At-lanta. My people still there in Macon. I came here July the 3rd of 1959. I was working making furniture, so we come to Lockport. near here. I was eighteen, nine-teen, somewhere along there. Well, I was get-ting ready to go back home, so it was the third, I said, “I’m going to go over to Buffalo and visit my cousin for the fourth and then I’m going back.” So then my cousin said, “Well, stay un-til I finish school, I’m going to graduate in two weeks.” So I stayed. They say, “Well stay, I’m going to get married.” [Laughs.] That’s how I ended up in Buffalo.
I always wished this, I wish somebody would have kept a farm down south and every year you would take these kids down there and see how those people used to grow their own food, chickens, hogs, milk the cow, and things like that. Go to the well, draw a bucket of water, rake the tadpoles and the little frogs off the water, go get water for wash, water for bathing, water for drinking. I was talking to some guys and I said, “Well, listen,” I said, “all these dry beans is green before they put them in the bag,” I said. “What you talking about?” Oh yeah, we had a big little argu-ment about that. I said, “Man, it’s no use talking to you,” I say, “Black-eyed peas, I said, “Don’t you know black-eyed peas come out of shells? “ I say, “Aw, come on, really.” Because like, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, sugar cane, lima beans, all that stuff they used to grow. I imagine today all the kids know about is grape jelly, strawberry jelly, watermelon rind preserves, you know. But figs, plums, blackberries, raspberries, all that stuff grows wild, it grows wild. I think things happened too fast for people to really evaluate. Truly, too many people lost too much at one time, see. They needed all the plants to be in circulation in order for one to work. Donner Hanna Coke made the coke, we made pig iron, Shenango makes the molds, Republic makes the steel. See, you needed all this to make the cake [laughs], that’s it. If one went, then that would mean like one or two, down to where we had to lay off and lay off and lay off. And this place, I’ve seen it go. Straight cross the mouth, like that, straight cross the mouth. You look from 1960 to 1980, you figure, some of it’s going to phase out. But here’s the thing about it: they didn’t stop making a loaf of bread at a dol-lar and six when all the jobs left, they still kept it at the same. Nothing changed but the job situation, see. And that left a lot of people hanging. I figure with the amount of people that was out of jobs in Buffalo, that’s the one individual, so I didn’t count their families. Because the hand that feed them, if he got four under him and he’s the one that got laid of, so that’s five. So that was really the breakdown on it.
I run into a lot of guys now that say, “Ah, man I miss Hanna Furnace.” I know you miss Hanna Furnace, you had a decent pay check coming every Thursday, you have to miss that, you know. A lot of them, I think they feel guilty. They feel guilty, “Well, I couldn’t get my kid this.” And then it’s “I guess I’ll go buy it because my kid be mad because I couldn’t...” What the hell! If you can’t do this, get something else, explain it to your kid. You got to ex-plain, you know! If someone sees you trying, someone going to give you a help-ing hand, anyway. They see you trying. Bottom line of it, you know. So the best thing I can do is tell the people, “Listen, show your people, explain,” you know. Hey-- this is a new day. And this way we’re going to have to adjust, adjust to it.
I never would have thought that I would have lost a leg. It was bothering me for a period of time then, but like, you know, say from ‘80 to ‘82, boom: I had a clottage taken out of my right leg, I said, “Well, what is it?” “Harde-n-ing of the arte-ries.” So, from that time up un-til I lost it, I had six-teen opera-tions on my leg. And so they got all the way down to the foot and they couldn’t figure out a way how to do nothing else, so they said, “Well, we got to take it off.” This was in June of ‘82. That was it. I wasn’t able to go back to work, and then the plant closed in January of ‘83. So like, you know, there wasn’t much I could still do but I could still click me a dollar. Because like if somebody wanted a room painted, they say, well, Joe, you can’t do it, you only got one leg. But see, I had an arrangement for that, I had my screwrollers that I stick in my roller, and I could still climb up on a stepladder and just catch the corner on there. I did two toning and things like that. But it got to be a strain on me, really, and like, boom--I said, “Well, I got to make do with what I get.”
Well, the only thing I can tell the kids, the best they can do: get you some education, try to learn you a skill, because you will never see this indus-trial movement no more. I think the plants here is finished. Finished in Buffalo. You’ll see hospitals, or computers, or nursing, restaurants, or office jobs, like that, but you have to have a skill to get them. Go for a skill that will be needed, don’t go for one that’s out of date and they got enough people already in this category to last for fifteen or twenty years. This is it: the new generation is going to be the one that will keep Buffalo going if they become skilled-wise.
And all the people that had those jobs in the plants--really, if they wasn’t old enough to come out and retire, they should work on them training programs, just whatever you can cram into your brain. You might have to relo-cate but sometimes it be worth it too, you know. Got to keep a family toge-ther. Keep a dude and his wife together and slowing down a lot of the heartaches, you know. The only thing I can tell you to do now is try to do the best you can. That’s the bottom line. You wake up you’re crying in the morning, you go to bed cry-ing too, but just do the best you can, and say, that’s it. Do the best you can! When you know that you done did the best, you going to lay on down and go to sleep then. That’s it. But I can tell them don’t anybody give up. You can’t give up. You can’t give up. You know. You can’t give up.
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