California State University, Long Beach
 

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dc.contributor.author Tillmon, Johnnie (b. 4/10/1926 - d. 11/22/1995)
dc.contributor.author Berger Gluck, Sherna, interviewer
dc.date.accessioned 2022-09-30T22:50:24Z
dc.date.available 2022-09-30T22:50:24Z
dc.date.issued 2022-09-30
dc.identifier.uri http://hdl.handle.net/10211.3/224243
dc.description SUBJECT BIO - Johnnie Tillmon began her work as a leading activist for poor women in 1963, when she helped to found ANC Mothers Anonymous of Watts, the first grass roots welfare mothers organization in the country. She played key roles in the later formation of both the California Welfare Rights Organization (CRWO) and the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), and eventually became executive director of NWRO. The eldest of three children, Tillmon was born in Scott, Arkansas. Her family were sharecroppers and she recalls picking cotton when she was only seven years old. She moved in with her aunt in Little Rock in order to attend high school, and during the war worked the night shift in a local munitions factory and attended school by day. At war's end, she quit high school and went to work in a laundry, where she engaged in her first organizing experience. Tillmon continued to work in that non-segregated laundry for fifteen years until moving to California, by which time she was the single parent of six children. Trying to deal with her daughter's truancy, she decided to remain at home to supervise her children and applied for public assistance. She mobilized other women in the Nickerson Gardens Housing Project and after an initial meeting, they organized the ANC Mothers Anonymous of Watts. Several years later, she was elected to the newly formed LA County Welfare Rights Organization and then to the presidency of the CWRO. In 1967, she was elected to the NWRO. In 1971, Tillmon moved to Washington, DC to become Associate Director of NWRO and following George Wiley's resignation in 1972 , she became Executive Director. This is also the year that she published her now famous article in Ms, "Welfare is a Woman's Issue." When NWRO closed its doors in 1974, Tillmon returned to Los Angeles, were she resumed her local community organizing. She remained active in the Watts community and continued to respond to phone queries from welfare recipients until 1991, when diabetes caused her health to fail. Although we had every intention of completing her oral history after the interviewer's return from Palestine in the summer of 1991, Tillmon's health problem resulted in continued postponements. Ultimately, it became clear that we would not be able to complete the oral history. As a result, the coverage of Tillmon's post-1972 life and activities is barely covered. [Note: the Tillmon entry in the Notable American Women v.5 includes a bibliography related to Tillmon and NWRO.] TOPICS - family background; childhood; career aspirations; household chores; family history; rural living; and schooling; [Note: the audio quality of this interview is poor due to static and feedback in the recording; There are short periods when static cuts out the audio;]family history; family background; schooling; rural living; family life; quilting bees; community and neighborhoods; household chores; segregation; racism; and childhood; [Note: the audio quality of this interview is poor due to static and feedback in the recording; There are also short intervals during which static make the audio inaudible;]menstruation; schooling; family history; domestic service work; defense work; earnings; career aspirations; laundry work; working conditions; husband; and children; [Note: although the audio quality is better on this side of the tape, there are feedback problems in the later interview segments;]economic status; living conditions; children; household responsibilities and household management; social activities; family life; laundry work; earnings; family history; segregation and racism in Little Rock, Arkansas; school desegregation; race relations; union activities; working conditions; and workplace organizing efforts; en_US
dc.description.abstract INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - This is the second of five interviews with Johnnie Tillmon, conducted some seven years after the first, and is the first in her full oral history. Like the subsequent interviews in this 1991 oral history, the interview was conducted in her home in the Watts/Willowbrook neighborhood of south Los Angeles. Tillmon was warm and friendly and rapport was easily established with her. Aware of her historical importance, she viewed the oral history recordings as something might help her write her own book. Electrical interference in the house created problems in the audio quality of the interview, resulting in feedback and background static particularly in the first two tapes sides. Periodically, the static cuts off the audio for short intervals of time. The audio quality improves during the third tape and there are very few problems with the fourth tape. n.d. en_US
dc.description.tableofcontents *** File: wmjtillmon5.mp3 Audio Segments and Topics: (0:00-3:17)... Brief introduction. During her first marriage, Tillmon's mother gave birth to a daughter and two sons. When she later married Tillmon's father, she gave birth to Tillmon, two sons, and a daughter who died when she was seven months old. Tillmon was born and raised in Scott, Arkansas. She was five years old when her mother died in the birth of the last child. Her father, who worked as a sharecropper on different plantations, remarried after her other died. (3:17-9:16)... Note: there is a lot of static heard in the background during this segment. Tillmon describes herself as a very mischievous and "mean" child. In order to keep her out of trouble, her father took her to work with him in the cotton fields when she was seven years old. She learned how to crop and pick cotton. Her stepmother also taught her how to cook, sew, and clean house. Tillmon knew at a very early age that she did not want to be a homemaker. Instead, she aspired to be a blues singer. Her parents did not approve of her career choice. Her stepmother was a religious woman and Tillmon was expected to attend church on Sundays. Tillmon had an inferiority complex when she was a young girl and also did not like the idea of sharing her father with her stepmother. (9:16-14:26)... Note: the sound quality in this segment is poor, with several interruptions in the tape preceded by background static. The audio cuts out intermittently, the longest period from 13:50 to 14:10. Tillmon grew up in the country. Her family raised farm animals and tended a vegetable garden, which provided them with the food they needed to survive. One of her chores was churning milk for the family. Her family also shared milk with residents in the community who could not afford milk or with people who were unable to get milk from their cows. Her family moved around a lot because of her father was sharecropping at different fields. She visited Arkansas in 1984 and went to many of the places where she lived, as well as the churches she attended. She describes some of the towns she frequented as a child, but this conversation is cut off by background static. (14:26-15:50)... Note: the audio quality in this segment is poor, with background static intermittently cutting off the audio for short periods, the longest from 15:28 to 15:50. Tillmon occasionally played with the White children who lived on the plantations her father worked. The schools were segregated. (15:50-27:53)... Note: the audio quality in this segment is poor. Background static makes it difficult to understand Tillmon and periodically cuts out the audio. The longest period of silence is 23:47 to 24:28, during which Tillmon can be heard very faintly in the background. After Tillmon's mother died in October 1931, the family moved to different cities in Arkansas. In 1942, she moved closer to Little Rock, Arkansas when her father stopped sharecropping. Tillmon attended school nine months out of the year, two months during the summer and seven months during the fall and the winter. When she was still in school, she continued both to work in the cotton fields and complete household chores. From preschool to the eighth grade, she was in a two-room schoolhouse; and in junior high school, high school students were also attending the same school. Tillmon enjoyed school and was an "A" student in everything but algebra. However, she did not enjoy English or history, commenting that she did not see a purpose in learning about White people. The only Black history she learned came from her father who often told her about her Black heritage and family history. Tillmon notes that she was not a very patriotic student and did not learn the Pledge of Allegiance until her son started school. She talks about her attitude towards this pledge; however, most of her conversation is inaudible because of background noise. End of tape. *** File: wmjtillmon6.mp3 (0:00-1:32)... Note: the audio quality in this segment is poor. Background static makes it difficult to understand Tillmon. Tillmon continues her discussion regarding her experiences in school. She taught her brothers things she learned in school when they were small. (1:32-3:21)... Tillmon's parents were both born in Arkansas. Her father was seventeen years older than her mother and was forty-seven when Tillmon was born. He was an educated man and attended country schools. He received a scholarship to A&M College in Arkansas, but decided not to go to college because he thought he was pretty and God's gift to women. (3:21-4:34)... Tillmon's grandparents died before she was born. Her father told her that her paternal grandmother married her grandfather when she was thirteen years old and he was seventeen. She had two children by the time she was seventeen. Her father's brother did not have any children. There were other family members in the area where they lived, but her family did not socialize with them. Her father died in 1960 at the age of eighty-one. (4:34-11:40)... Note: the audio quality in this segment is poor and it is difficult to understand Tillmon because of static and feedback in her voice. Tillmon's father owned a wagon and a car. They lived in a four-room home but did not have indoor plumbing. The land on which they lived included a barn, a hen house, and a smoke house where her father dried and smoked the stock he killed. Except for flour and salt, all of their food needs were raised or grown on the farm, although they occasionally purchased lard when her father had not slaughtered their hogs. The women in the community helped each other canning fruits and vegetables, using these opportunities to socialize and talk about their lives. The women also participated in quilting bees. Everyone in the community attended the same church. When she was a small child, her father held parties at their home. The musicians at the parties peaked her interest and she started thinking about becoming a blues singer when she was about five years old. (11:40-13:42)... Note: the audio quality in this segment is poor, making it difficult to understand Tillmon because of static and feedback in her voice. Although Tillmon enjoyed school, she did not think about going to college, but began attending night school after her children were born. Later, she took some courses at USC and attended MIT for a year, where she studied suburban and urban development under Mel King. (13:42-15:24)... Tillmon spent her spare time reading. One of her favorite magazines was Hit Parade . She did not learn how to play games when she was young, but did play house with her girl friends. She always got a White doll at Christmas time; there were no Black dolls at that time. (15:24-17:35)... Tillmon did not experience any racial problems between the Black and White residents in her community. The churches and schools were segregated and certain establishments in the town also were segregated. She comments that segregation did not bother her when she was young and responds that she does not believe that the interaction between Black and White children changed once they reached puberty. (17:35-21:27)... Tillmon was not aware of politics when she was young. She remembers that Blacks had to pay a poll tax in order to vote and that people visited her parents during election time to talk about political candidates. Her parents did not talk about racial tensions and violence in front of her and if they did, she did not take very much interest in these issues. She remembers hearing a story about a Black man who was dragged down the street and burned to death for speaking to a White woman. As she grew older, she began to notice racism; however, she was never called a "nigger" while living in Arkansas. It was not until she went to Washington, DC in 1973 that someone directly referred to her by that word. (21:27-26:48)... Tillmon remembers her childhood fondly. She is glad that she learned how to chop and pick cotton because she viewed it as a skill that could benefit her in the future. Her father was a good man and provided for his family. She was very close to him and felt comfortable talking to him about anything. Her father spoiled her because she was his only daughter. Her stepmother was a good woman and prepared Tillmon for menstruation, among other things. However, Tillmon was "mean" to her stepmother and often did things to sabotage her standing with her father. Their relationship was shaky until Tillmon reached her teens. End of tape. *** File: wmjtillmon7.mp3 (0:00-1:14)... Tillmon started menstruating when she was thirteen years old. Her stepmother prepared her for menstruation. She made pads out of rags that they washed and used for the next menstrual cycle. Her stepmother was an excellent seamstress and taught Tillmon how to sew. (1:14-9:02)... There was no high school in the country where Tillmon lived, so when she finished the eighth grade, she went to live with her aunt in the city. Her aunt worked as a domestic servant for White families and took Tillmon to work with her and taught her domestic work. Tillmon worked as a domestic until she enrolled in high school. She quickly decided it was not the work for her and she did not return to this work until 1965 when she was hired to assist a new mother in Hollywood. (9:02-12:02)... When she quit domestic work, Tillmon enrolled in high school at the age of eighteen. She got a job at a war plant in Jacksonville earning $42/week, attending high school during the day and worked the swing shift at night. The plant was not segregated. In 1946, both her job at the war plant and her school education ended. She explains that high school was equivalent to a college education. (12:02-17:02)... Note: the audio quality in this segment is fair although there is occasionally difficult to understand Tillmon because of feedback. Tillmon continued to enjoy listening to music and singing the blues while she was in high school and working for a defense plant during WWII. She frequented a club for youths under the age of twenty-one which was equipped with a jukebox. However, her dream to become a blues singer slowly faded particularly after she married James Tillmon in 1946 and started having children. She was not involved in any school activities or events in high school because of her work schedule. In any event, she was more interested in spending her spare time at the club than attending school events. Most of the kids she went to school with were employed in after-school jobs in various occupations. During the summers, they earned money by picking cotton in the fields. (17:02-21:01)... Note: the audio quality in this segment is fair and it is occasionally difficult to understand Tillmon because of feedback. After she left the defense plant in 1945, Tillmon went to work in a laundry doing piecework. Her wages decreased from $42/week to $15/week. She worked in laundries for twenty-three years, fifteen of these for the same employer. Most of the jobs available for Black women in Arkansas after the war were domestic work and hotel work. These types of jobs did not appeal to Tillmon. She liked working in laundry because she knew what her tasks would be on a daily basis. (21:01-23:38)... Note: the audio quality in this segment is fair and it is occasionally difficult to understand Tillmon because of feedback. Tillmon met her husband when she was a child living in the countryside. When she moved to the city, he followed and they married in 1946. She gave birth to one child during their marriage and was pregnant with her second child when they divorced after about three years of marriage. Tillmon notes that she left her husband because "it was time for me to move on." She did not get along with her husband very well and they did not share similar interests and goals. She continued to work after she married her husband. She returned to work when her first child was six months old. (23:38-24:47)... Tillmon went to California in 1927 and lived with her half-sister. She returned to Arkansas a few months later and did not return to California until 1960 when her brothers moved to Los Angeles. She and her father were the only two members of her family left in Arkansas at that time, and when he died, she felt it was a good time for her to join her family in California. (24:47-28:56)... Tillmon left her husband in 1948. She did not remarry but continued to have children while living in Arkansas. She did not stop working and a cousin who lived with her cared for her children while she was at work. She continued to work when she moved to California, even when her children were small. She has a strong work ethic stating, "I have always worked from the day I was seven years old." She was proud of that fact that she could support her family on her own. She budgeted her money well and made sure that her rent was always paid. People occasionally helped her by providing food and clothing; however, she never relied on others to help pay the rent. End of tape. *** File: wmjtillmon8.mp3 (0:00-2:55)... When she was living in Arkansas, Tillmon received $16/month from the Welfare Department. Her family was on a food schedule and ate certain foods each day. When she went shopping, she only shopped for groceries to prepare those specific items. Describing her daily routine, Tillmon notes that she cooked dinner when she arrived home from work at about 5:00 p.m.; she washed her children's clothing in the sink each day and hung it out to dry so that they could wear it the next day. She took care of her household responsibilities before she went to bed each night. Whenever her cousin was unavailable to care for her children, Tillmon paid a woman in the neighborhood to baby sit her children. (2:55-5:26)... Most of Tillmon's friends were employed mothers like her, and their lives revolved around their children and work. Tillmon was proud of the lives and careers of her children. She occasionally went out dancing and spent time with friends in her spare time. She needed an outlet to express her frustration. She believes that her outlet in California ultimately became her involvement in helping welfare mothers. (5:26-6:47)... Her children's father was not very involved in their lives and Tillmon did not push their father to visit them. She remembers when her eldest daughter remarked, "daddies were not important anyway." Tillmon was the both the mother and father to her children. Her children were very close and supported each other. (6:47-8:30)... When Tillmon started working in the laundry, she earned $15/week, with .15 deducted from her check for social security. By the time she left her first employer, she was earning about $50/month. Tillmon talks about her standard of living and the types of groceries she purchased for her family. She does not believe that it was difficult to live because the cost of living was low. She had enough money to pay her rent and utilities. (8:30-9:16)... Tillmon's father moved in with Tillmon in Little Rock in 1950. He did not contribute to the family income in a substantial way but gave Tillmon money to buy certain items, such as whiskey. When he died, she moved to California to be close to her brothers. (9:16-10:27)... Note: there are interruptions in this segment as Tillmon speaks to other family members in the house. It is also difficult to hear Tillmon because of feedback in the audio. When Tillmon started having children, she abandoned her interest in singing. She occasionally played the blues and jazz records she kept in her home. (10:27-18:26)... One of Tillmon's children was in elementary school at the time the schools were desegregated in Little Rock, Arkansas. She does not remember very many details about the events at Central High School, but notes that someone had to "break the ice" sooner or later. She discusses race relations and segregation in Little Rock, commenting that racism and segregation was simply accepted by most Blacks who were more concerned about surviving. She does not recall ever giving her seat up to a White person on public transportation. If the seats in the back of the bus were taken, Blacks sat in vacant seats at the front of the bus. (18:26-20:45)... Many Whites living in Little Rock were in the same economic boat as Blacks. Tillmon talks about visiting poor white women in the Appalachians who urged Tillmon not to leave them out of the welfare rights organizations. Tillmon's focus was on class issues rather than race issues while working for welfare rights. She worked side-by-side with Whites in the cotton fields and in the laundry industry and they were not treated any better than she was. It is a misconception that Whites live an easy life. (20:45-22:36)... When Tillmon moved to Los Angeles in 1960 with five children and a baby on the way, she moved in with her brother until she could afford a place on her own. Within a week of her arrival, she was working in a laundry with her sister-in-law [Editor's note: although she refers to her as her half-sister in this segment, in tape 3b it becomes clear that it was her sister-in-law]. A short time later, Tillmon went into labor and was out of work for four weeks after her baby was born. She moved out of her brother's home into a house on Main Street. A neighbor baby sat Tillmon's children when she was at work. When her brother moved away from Los Angeles, he took Tillmon's six-month-old baby with him and kept her until she was two years old. (22:36-27:38)... Tillmon joined Local 52 when she started working at a laundry facility in Los Angeles and eventually became the shop steward. Even though this was the first time she formally was involved in union activities, it was not the first time she organized on behalf of workers' rights. She describes her efforts to organize the workers at a laundry facility in Little Rock, Arkansas for better wages. End of tape. en_US
dc.language.iso en_US en_US
dc.title Tillmon, Johnnie (audio interview #2 of 5) en_US
dc.type Recording, oral en_US


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