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Interview with: Arenia Edwards
Interviewed by: Unknown Interviewer
Date: Unknown Date
Archive Number: OH 047
I: Would you start for just a minute by talking about your own background, like, how long you’ve been in Houston?
AE: I am Arenia Edwards, and I’ve lived in Houston since 1941. I used to have a place of business. I worked in a café, and I would get off very early, and I would go to the VA Hospital and volunteer there because they needed volunteers desperately. Which at that time— (overlapping)
I: (overlapping) When would that have been?
AE: That would have been 1952 and before that you couldn’t even volunteer because you were black.
I: They didn’t want any black volunteers?
AE: No, but then when we broke the barrier down I would volunteer as much as 100 hours, because I didn’t have anything else to do, so I would go and volunteer because it was so desperately needed. The VA Hospital couldn’t run without the volunteers they had because people would get lost and never get to the doctor or to the office they were supposed to go to. Then after my husband died 12 years ago I had to give up the café because my son—I only had the 1 son, and he had been working in the café ever since he was 4—he said, “You could retire with a good pension if you had been working for somebody else.” (both laughing) I had to be on disability after 2 years. I worked at the Spring Branch Library until I had to give that up, because I couldn’t drive because of the pills I take for emphysema and heart condition. I just always did volunteer. When I was in Louisiana I took nursing training from 2 doctors. It was mostly to deliver babies out in the country because—(overlapping)
I: Like a midwife?
AE: Yes. They couldn’t go to the hospital, not even if they needed a Cesarean. You had to cut them. The most important one that I always got a kick out of telling was that I always thought that men never would pass out, and then here come this white man, and his wife was having a hard time having a baby. She should have a Cesarean, but then when I asked him, “Would you give me the scalpel, and be sure you hold her legs because when I cut it’s going to hurt awfully bad,” and he handed me the thing, but when I looked around he was going down on the floor. He had fainted! When the doctor finally got there the baby had done already been born. He said, “Where’s the husband? How come he couldn’t help you?” I said, “Well, he’s back there behind the bed.” (both laughing) He said, “You mean to tell me that the man is back there? He could have smothered.” I said, “But you don’t think I could pick up—I was all of 120 pounds—a 200 pound man and pack him onto the porch all by myself do you? Furthermore, his wife was in pain, the baby was coming, and I couldn’t do everything.” He said, “You know I gave you $300 training for nothing.” I said, “Look, don’t come in here with that mess. I do all the dirty work and y’all get the money, because these poor people don’t have a hundred dollars to give.” I never got anything. I just did it. I always did volunteer work. That’s why I got the medal from the bishop. For 20 years straight I volunteered every day, and I got an award from Rome and a statue of the Pope, and then I got the medal from the bishop over here for 20 years of volunteer work. When I meet sometimes with a social worker I say, “You ain’t got much of a heart to see these children in poverty. Couldn’t you all just bend the rules a little bit?” I’ve seen so many rules bent. I love to bend rules—(both laughing)
I: Love to bend those rules. (both laughing)
AE: But they say, “What you can do we can’t do because we are getting paid.” I said, “Well thank you very much for letting me do the dirty work for you, because we are going to bend these rules.”
I: You always get stuck doing everyone’s dirty work.
AE: Volunteering is very satisfying for a human being that loves like me. I love everybody. May I say that when you love a whole lot—like you never think of a person being drunk when they fall down. At the workshop on Saturday there was a man coming down the street, and all of a sudden he went down, but I didn’t see him. Another girl saw him and said, “Oh!” I said, “What are you screaming for?” She said, “A man fell down.” They were all standing around, and here I am forgetting that I shouldn’t run, and I start running and I kept hollering, “Don’t try to get up,” because he would have fallen again. When I got to him the man already had a broken arm, and you could see how he had slid down on the sidewalk because it was muddy. Then I told those people, “I bet you all thought he was drunk. The man has a nervous condition which causes him to walk faster than he can control his body.” So that’s what he was having, and then when he got up he started shaking, and he run into the tree. So then this minister was standing there and he said, “Ms Edwards, I think I would love to bring you to my church.” I said, “Yeah, because me and church have plenty in common.” You’ve got your church inside of you, but I love to go to the building where it’s quiet and peaceful. That’s why the folks are always trying to go. It’s the little things that always count. To help people and the satisfaction it has given me to have helped those people. I lay down at night and even if I have pain so that I can’t hardly sleep—God always left me those—I guess he thinks I deserve a little rest because I work so hard for others. It always gave me a great satisfaction that I was able to help somebody that needed help. I never believed in giving anybody anything they didn’t need. You don’t need to be a big shot. I told them, “I was once rich, and then I got poor because my husband gambled everything, and we went broke. I was more glad than when we had the money because of the simple reason I never had to worry about the bank account, whether it was none or some.” If you work hard and do it for the satisfaction of your soul, If you can live within yourself that’s the biggest thing. Everything else big or little is always very little compared to—I always say God mastered everything for me. I may be an instrument that can go and face anybody, whether it’s the president or anybody else, and I can ask for help.
I will never forget my mother sent me to borrow something, and I sat in the cotton row and didn’t go borrow it. My daddy was the guy that goes to get the mail for everybody, and that evening that same woman visited my mother, and I got a whipping because I told my mother the lady was out of rice. I said, “Oh, why did she have to come here today, God!” Momma hadn’t forgotten that she had asked for the rice, because we fed the dog the same thing we ate. The dog had cooked meat and rice and everything else we would eat—I was stuck with seven dogs, and I had to feed them every day. It wasn’t feeding them that was bad, it was me cooking it. Mother said, “You are going to have to make some porridge for all your dogs.” I thought, “Oh no! I should have went and asked the lady for the rice,” but then the lady came, and I told my mother I had lied and got a whipping, because she came and said, “You know I’ve got quite a bit of rice, but when your husband gets ready to go to the mail I was going to send a sack to get it cleaned.” “Oh lord,” I said to myself. I ran—we had a large plantation house that my grandmother had passed on to my mother because she took care of her, because my mother was a nurse. She was gifted with that—actually she was better qualified than any RN they got now. I can say that because I seen my mother pronounce that a girl was dying, and the RN was saying she wasn’t, and when she found out I was so sorry for her. Then my mother called the doctor some bad words because he didn’t know what he was doing. Sometimes professional people got a way of not taking a personal approach, and they are sad when they do. Then a nonprofessional somebody say, “Call her husband because she is dying,” and it’s quite embarrassing to the professional people.
I: Let me ask you about some of your very first experiences with the welfare department. Do you remember some of your very first experiences?
AE: Yes! Some of the first things I experienced with the welfare department—I had a family that stayed in public housing. She had a boy that was 13 years old that wore big man clothes, and he was going to school. The social worker would go and look in the closet, and when they seen the clothes they said they were men’s clothes. And she said, “Yeah, but he’s as big as any man. I’ve been having to pay more than a nickel for him to ride the bus.” That was a time when I could ride the bus for a nickel. She said, “Well that’s a man’s clothes. By the time I come back next week I don’t want to see them clothes in here.” Then she called me and asked me what she was going to do with her son’s clothes. I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Those social workers said they were men’s clothes, and I have to get them out of here.” I really didn’t know what to do because what do you do with your own child? I said, “Did she raise the mattress and look under the mattress?” So, she pulled all her son’s clothes and put it under the mattress.
I: That was in the days when the welfare department would look in your closets and under your beds.
AE: (12:14) Yes, and everywhere in the closets, and anytime day or night they were free to walk in. I was so glad that Mr. Scotter, myself, and a few others from the Welfare Rights Organization was able to put in that none of these social workers could come—(audio stops)
I: (audio continues) We were talking about your relationships with the state welfare department. What about some of your very first relationships that were personal? Did you ever have any problems?
AE: No, because I never was on welfare, and I swore never to be on welfare. Actually the only problem was when you put in for your disability social security you automatically used to have—well, they would send a welfare social worker. So, they sent the lady to my house. I told her to have a seat. She said, “Thank you. Oh, you have French provincial furniture.” I said, “I’ve had it since I was first married, and that’s been 34 years ago.” So, she said, “Honey, when you are putting it up for sale let me know.” (laughing) I said, “I’m not selling my furniture. My furniture has been paid 30 years ago with cash.”
I: This was the welfare lady?
AE: Yes. For me to get on welfare I had to sell my furniture. She said, “Is that table maple?” I said, “Yes, and it has a leaf inside it that folds out so I can serve 12 people, but if I fold it in it fits right there and just makes a nice table.” She said, “I would like to have that too.” I said, “But I’m not selling my furniture.” She said, “Well, for you to get help you have to get rid of all your furniture.” I said, “No.” She said, “Can I look in the rest of your house?” I said, “No, I don’t want welfare. When I went for my disability social security I went for the social security that I put in there. I paid for that.” I said, “Miss I don’t want welfare. I only wanted the social security I put in. My husband left me enough money to meet what I need until I get my social security, and I don’t want your help, because I am not selling my furniture.” Because I said, “These things are things that matter, and I intend to keep whatever I have that my husband and I accumulated, including the house, until I die.”
I: But she was saying that if you wanted to have welfare you would have sold all that?
AE: I had to get rid of my car and my furniture and live on what they paid me, and then when that run out I could get welfare. The next thing that I really come in contact with was when these people would go and search these people’s closets. That really hurt me, because so many people had big kids, which the boy I was telling you about did have a heart condition. He had grown too fast and he had a large heart. He dropped dead.
I: That’s the boy whose mother had to hide his clothes?
AE: Yes, but they didn’t go to the trouble to find out why the child was so big for his age or anything—no counselor, doctor, or anything like that— it was just a matter that if you wanted to receive that $86 a month you had to get rid of the child’s clothes.
I: You heard a lot of people were having that same problem?
AE: That same problem, and that same complaint. That’s why we worked so desperately hard to change the criteria. You know in California a mother with 4 kids or 5 kids—because I’ve got a cousin that’s on welfare and she gets $600 a month for welfare. I think that is just ridiculous—(overlapping)
I: (overlapping) That same person here would get what?
AE: Would get a maximum—if you have 15 children it’s $300 and you don’t get no more, because I know one that had 18.
I: She got $300?
I: Were you able to start to change some things before you got the Welfare Rights group together, or did that happen at about the same time?
AE: That was about at the same time because that’s when they gave us the lawyer.
I: Tell me a little bit about the very first days of the organization.
AE: Well, the Welfare Rights Organization was formed when 50,000 people walked to Washington, DC, with Martin Luther King.
I: The poor people.
AE: The Poor People’s March. The President said he couldn’t deal with that many people, but if we wanted to come back as a few people and give the organization a name—some kind of name—he could support it.
I: President Johnson?
AE: Yes, by giving them some kind of support at the state level, and then maybe it could come to our local level. Which he did, because when he gave us the lawyers to work with it changes a whole lot of things because the lawyer was able to go there with us, the Welfare Rights Organization, and we was able to read them—we had enough statistics that we could go and demand for them to show us the different benefits that these people were suppose to have. It came as a wildcard because by the time we got back that’s when we went to fighting for the free clothing. Warrington Delaware—which Title I paid our way to all the different places—from knowing about Title I in order that we could get Title I, so that the AFDC mothers could get clothes for their kids, which they were using it for education. We were given a whole $5 million, and Title I has kind of tricky criteria because it says you cannot put anything down that you cannot move. It’s not a thing that you put that Title I buys—and they buy the best equipment—but they don’t put anything down that they cannot move, and our board made the mistake of pouring concrete.
I: Our school board?
AE: Right. When I found out I said, “I’m not going to hurt you, but from now on don’t— I became a VIPS so I could work in the schoolhouse.
I: A volunteer in public schools.
AE: Right. So I went to the orientation, and I took the training—all the training they wanted to give me—and I was glad to take it, and I would go to any school, and I had my button with me so when I walk in they know I’m a VIPS—(overlapping)
I: That gave you access to the schools, right?
AE: (20:29) And when I went in there they couldn’t say I was out of place or what I’m doing here. They had to accept me because I had volunteered. I would go and I had a small camera and a tape recorder, and I would ask the cook what they had fed the kids that day, whether money would come for the hot lunch, which it came from the hot lunch program that we were using from the Title I money. And everything Title I gives you has a mark on it that no one can rub off, not even a desk or ice box or anything—they can move it. So, when I sign off on any kind of things that they can eat—all I did was face the man by himself—(overlapping)
I: Who was the man?
AE: The man was Mr Garber (inaudible due to overlapping) He said that was done before his time. I didn’t know I could prove it, but I said, “I’m finding out in your time. Now, I think it’s time for you to be lenient enough to let this money be used.” And out of 20 years of no open school board meetings, we finally got an open school board meeting. And I was dying to tell him, “How would you feel that you get $100,000 to $200,000 for the kids in the school, and you can’t buy clothes for the child that has no clothes to take part in these plays that they put on?” I said, “How would you like to hold your pants with one hand and hold a book with the other?” That was the greatest moment of my life, because that was the moment I never forgot because he couldn’t answer. You see, they had to sit there and listen and couldn’t answer. So everybody said, “Edwards, everywhere I see you you’ve got your mouth open,” and I said, “Nobody ever accomplished anything with it closed.”
I: That was at the school board meeting that you said that, right?
AE: An open school board meeting that they had—(inaudible due to overlapping) They heard the public. It was a public hearing, yes. That was the first one that they had in 20 years. Everything was what they said and that’s what goes. And, really, when they say politicians is not in the schoolhouse, well, I’m sorry to say, that all of my findings is everything is politician all the way.
I: All the schools are political.
AE: And it’s sad to say you’re going to teach the child on a political thing. My son told me one day, “Mother, you know I’m your only son, and you’re the only mother I got,” he said, “You know one day you are going to get the house bombed or you’re going to get killed.” I said, “What better way to go? If it was to give some of them kids going to school or riding on the highway that can’t get to U of H or Rice University,” I said, “I don’t go there, but I know that’s where they are going. I pick them up.” I say, “If they would kill me and take the car it wouldn’t hurt me any, because all I want to do is die trying to help somebody else get to what they need to. Get a better way to live.”
I: Tell me a little bit more about the school clothing thing, like, did you feel—tell me about Mr Garber and the school board members. Were they ever really supportive of what you wanted to do?
AE: No, they was not supportive. The only one was Reverend Everidge, he was all for it, because he feeds like 50 kids every day.
I: At his church?
AE: Yes, and this white lady—I’ve never saw a woman—I’m black, and I don’t ever feel like colors have anything to do—but for a woman to leave Pasadena every day to come cook a meal for kids to eat and get nothing for it—Lord, if ever there was an award that I would ever get—which I got an award from Austin, but I don’t figure that this award I got—well, it wouldn’t be anything that I could give her. I had met with this Rabbi Chattel, that reviews books, for a luncheon for input for the poor, and he said, “If ever I have a day to give for ‘a queen for a day’ I would give it to you.” I said, “There’s somebody else I have in mind, sir,” because I sure wish I could find something that somebody could recognize her with, because I never seen such a dedicated human being. (overlapping) Dr Burnett went along with the program, and before the meeting that night I stopped him and said, “I want to talk to you, because I want to know what is your intentions, because I don’t want you to make it mandatory that these people take used clothes.” I said, “Do you know we’ve got children that has never had a new piece of clothing?” He said, “Well, my kids wear used clothes. They wear secondhand clothes.” I said, “Dr Burnett, 1000 people in Houston don’t know how rich you are, but I do.” I said, “You’re the top surgeon in Houston, but nobody makes it known because you are black.” I said, “I know the hell you had to go through to go to school, because I read some of your background, and going to school you had to fight every day to get there.” I said, “But you know the struggle of poverty of the minority.” I said, “I don’t hold out for the things Mrs Cameron is trying to do by saying it’s going to be mandatory to give these clothes for the kids, used clothes. When the government is giving us $355,000, and they are getting $260,000 to administer the clothes—to get paid to administer the clothes—and out of $355,000 they are going to give all them new clothes,” I said, “Don’t do that to me.” I said, “Dr Burnett, I never hated no one, and I would hate to start now.” Because I would think it would be right to make it mandatory, so that’s one thing when—I forget his name—but a Spanish lawyer—
AE: (27:52) Lopez, he was strictly for it too, because he had quite a few meetings with us. Him and Reverend Everidge and a bunch of us Welfare Rights mothers, because I was a mother they had given me the job—I have already said I was an alcoholic—and never drank in my life— so I could get people to join the Alcoholics Anonymous, so I could say I was a welfare recipient. As long as I could get the job done, and they had give me the job of speaking for them.
I: The Welfare Rights Organization?
AE: Yes. So we was going to this one place—and it was really the hassle of getting mothers to come out, because you don’t know how scary it is to come out and say anything against welfare. They’re afraid they’re going to cut their check, because this is what they are made to believe that if they protest anything they will not have a check next month.
I: They really believed that?
AE: They really do.
I: Do you know of any cases where that really happened?
AE: No, I don’t, but you see when your social worker tells you that, well, you’re not going to take my word for that. You’re going to say, “Well, I’m not going to take the chance that I’m not going to have—(overlapping)
I: It probably doesn’t happen, but people are told that it would.
AE: Yes, and they are afraid to take part in these things. Which I did get them to go to the school board—to the Title I—and demonstrate for the clothes, but they received us with open arms. They had little comment tapes and all kinds of other equipment to hear both sides. They said that these clothes was going to handicap some children because some of them couldn’t get it. I know it does, but if you have 5 children and 3 of these kids qualify for the clothes and 2 don’t, well, at least you’ve got a chance because you can dress 2 kids better than you can dress 5.
I: So, the reason they kind of turned around was because you had some kind of inside— (overlapping)
AE: Yes, and then the next 2 or 3 months, that’s when the federal came out and put the statistic in the paper of how much money Houston was paying back of the fraud money, and now right here for that benefit—because that was poured concrete when it should have been a house they can move, because when the Kennedy school lost Title I—I substitute for the nurse some days, and I happened to be there when they came that day, and they said, “You know that you all lost Title I, and do you know we have to take,” and he peeked over and said, “We’ll have to take the desk, the chair, the refrigerator, and everything.” So, it made a hardship because we had to get together and raise money—
I: To re-buy those things.
AE: (31:57) Yes, but it did give the Welfare Rights Organization the feeling that they could do something. (inaudible due to overlapping) A man from welfare took time to sit with us and told us what we was eligible to do, and I say we got good communication. I have proof that he sends me—Mr Ferguson is the new man now—and he sends me all the information for the food stamp certification and welfare rights. We can have hearings for people who think they’ve got a raw deal. I work as an ally to the lawyers, and if they can’t go they ask me to go.
I: This is all with the Welfare Rights Organization, right?
AE: Yes, that was something that we accomplished with the help of the governor and with the lawyers, because they bailed us out.
I: It’s the lawyers who could help you with the facts.
AE: Yes, they can, and I also work with the Metropolitan Administer, which I asked for the workers to come back, and they granted me that, and when they granted me that—well, I went for the highest stake. I asked for the lawyer to help us, which he raised a wonderful statistic on the—(overlapping)
I: So, you now have a lawyer working on welfare rights?
AE: Yes, and also have a lawyer that is paid as a lawyer for the poor, legal aid. We have been getting a wonderful result out of that, because it really is a satisfaction to know that when you are trapped you can turn to somebody that knows legal problems and can help you.
I: (inaudible due to overlapping)
AE: And can see and have the statistic to know that that can be changed, because—may I say I have a lady right now that hadn’t gotten her food stamp card, Ms Anderson. Last July her mother died with cancer, and in June her daddy died. In August she got scared because she had a growth. She went in to the hospital, and do you know those social workers she had—I call him “Afro” because he got a great big old afro, and he thinks he’s cute, and I get awfully angry with him, but I don’t know his name—but do you know, according to the lawyer, the statistics in the manual say you cannot receive a card locally for 3 months. She has been receiving it for 5 months; it’s going to be 6 months this month. I’m in there with her and he told me, “Have a seat.” Because I work in county jail on Thursday, and this happened to be on a Thursday, I said, “I can’t sit here until 1 o’clock. I’m going to the county jail, and I said, “And I have to take this lady back home.” And he said, “Well, that’s your problem.” I said, “Thank you very much I will solve my problem too, because I’m going to see the big boss.” He didn’t know I knew the big boss. So, I walked in there, and I told Mr Ferguson what happened and he—I always want to apologize to him if I pronounce his name wrong—he said, “What’s wrong, Ms Edwards?” I said, “Well, you’ve got one of your workers here, and I’m not particularly fond of his ways because he got this same lady who didn’t get food stamps for her children, and I had to feed them in August just because she was sick. He wouldn’t give her the card so she could get food stamps. She got a daughter that is 16 years old, and he could have supplied her food, but he chose not to.” I said, “Now he got me running way up here, and then he told me to just have a seat until 1 o’clock because he’s with the clients he had. He was not going to wait on me until 1 o’clock.” He said, “I guarantee you will be out of here in 15 minutes.” And I was. And I am very grateful to the man, because I never find a man—nowadays everything is that ‘you are superior to me’, and ‘you don’t speak’—but for a man that’s better understanding of the poor people—I don’t think there ever was a man on the AFDC that was more understanding, and we went there as a whole. We went there, and that man sat there and gave us as long as we wanted.
I: This was Mr Ferguson?
AE: Yes, he gave all his time, and all the time we needed he gave to us. And he was very understanding to say that anywhere you see a family of two people receiving AFDC and a one non-PA, well, they could stay in the same house because of the house shortage. And some of the social workers do not want to give a non-PA person that live with a PA person a card, and he said, “Anytime that happens let me know.” If they don’t know that the statistic and the things that change (inaudible due to phone ringing).
I: The problem is you keep—I think what you are saying is that people get a bad deal, but they don’t know the rules, and they can’t change until someone like yourself, who understands what the rule is, can go in. The problem is that not all the social workers know what the rules are.
AE: Right. And this is one thing that I am really hung up on. They had a deal before Christmas that if a child would get a physical examination they would give $2 to these kids. Now, $2 don’t seem much to a person that has money, but for a mother that gets $117 a month for 7 children from the AFDC and had a no-good daddy that was supposed to pay $25 a week that don’t pay—she doesn’t have the $30 dollars to file against her husband—so, this means a whole lot to them, because that was like their Christmas present. And then Monday I volunteered for food stamp. I walk in there, and Marjorie, the one at the reception desk, said, “Miss Edwards you got one of them social workers that want to see you.” I said, “Well why?” She said, “She didn’t seem to be too pleased about something you told one of the AFDC mothers.” I said, “Well, whatever I told her, honey, it was right, so tell her to come meet me.” So, I was sitting out there, and she came and said, “Are you Miss Edwards?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Well look, don’t go around here publicizing about this $2, because this is not to be publicized because it ain’t got much money.” I said, “Honey, the deadline for that is on the 19th,” and I said, “Everybody that can make it there and get the $2—when it runs out it’s just going to run out, honey, because don’t tell me about AFDC not having the money. They got $6 million in Austin that is reserved for it. I lobbied there first, and then I come down to this level because we’ve got to have it to run to Washington, DC. I did that too,” but I said, “They told me to go back to my state.” And I said, “Barbara Jordan wrote me, ‘you move a mountain and a little rock will be on level ground, and we’ll move the rest up here, but we can’t move down there unless you move down here.’” I said, “So don’t tell me what I’m supposed to say, honey.” She said, “But I sure thank you. It was nice meeting you.” And she ran away from me, and she say, “I guess you’re right when it runs out it just runs out.” I said, “That’s right. Don’t tell me what I’m not supposed to say.” And, really, it’s the things that they could help people with that they don’t. That’s one thing I find is that when you finish school for social work I think they should give—like I told that policeman—send them to school to have faith, if they’ve got such a school as that, because to work with the people in the world—and some people has been jilted so badly, and I’ve worked with them too—they ought to have somebody that got enough faith and love to make these people understand what’s right and what’s wrong. I don’t believe in fraud. I tell them if you are working then tell the welfare that you work. Let them cut you if you can make more than they give you. When you get off you get it back. I went to and asked to speak to the Senator, and I said, “I went a year and a half to college, and it’s been so long ago that I done forgot what they taught me there because the books was different.” I said, “Why not find out what you can do for the poor before you go out there and tell them that you can’t do it for them?” Like some of them don’t know which way to turn when their husband comes there and beats them and don’t want to give them their money. They could tell them people to go on and file against him and say you want your welfare check to be combined, and let them find the money, I said, because they’ve got paid stuff for that. They can get the money out of that man.
I: Social workers don’t tell people that.
AE: No, they don’t. I told them. I went up there, and I asked Senator Gamich. He was very attentive and gave me the time that I needed to explain why the person who was on welfare stayed on welfare or had to go back on welfare. I said, “Because in the first place when they get a job and leave off AFDC they have to go back—if they go to work you take that privilege of sending their child to daycare center.
I: So they lose that.
AE: (43:03) They lose that, and they have to pay somebody $20 a week to take care of their children. Second, you take the privilege of having Medicaid, and that’s where if they go to a doctor they got to pay. And I’ve seen it happen just recently with a lady that’s got 4 kids. She got off of welfare, and she was making $250 a month, which that was a big salary for her because she had never made that much or got that much in her life. All her children took with the flu, and they are laying in the hospital, but this hospital told her she had to come up with so much money before the children was admitted if she had no insurance or Medicaid. So, you know what the lady had to let them do? She had to lose her job because she had to take her children home and stay with them because she couldn’t admit them to the hospital. She had to get a private doctor, which she couldn’t afford, but he was understanding enough to give the children what they needed until they got better. Then she went right back on the AFDC again.
I: So, when a woman tried to get off it and go to work, she lost so many—(overlapping)
AE: (overlapping) She lost so many things like daycare, food stamps, Medicaid, and that is the most expensive things.
I: So those things are more important than the check almost.
AE: Yes, it is, because do you know since I asked the people—and I done forgot the statistic of how many drop off of welfare in a 2 year period, and that was in the last part of 1973—and I asked them if they would make it possible that if a person was on welfare they could keep their Medicaid card for at least 3 months. They granted them 4 months, which is fantastic to me.
I: After you got off welfare you could keep using it for 4 months?
AE: You could keep your card, and you can keep your children in daycare. And then you can get on your feet.
I: But that’s something that didn’t happen until you lobbied for that?
AE: Right, because some didn’t know that happened. They don’t know that—they didn’t even know that beans cost 98 cents a pound.
I: Tell me which Senators and which Representatives of ours had been the most helpful to you?
AE: (45:53) Senator Gamich has been an angel. I told him I wouldn’t give him wings because he would fly away. Senator Schwartz has been the one that really is questioning. Senator Wallace is very attentive to the problem, and he’s not easy to find, but when I do find him he’s very attentive to our problem. May I say, when they found out how much beans was they couldn’t believe it. They thought these mothers was too lazy to boil beans, and I said, “Have you ever tried to buy beans lately or has your wife told you how much beans was?” I say, “You know those people get food stamps, but do you know if you buy a pound of beans today at the grocery store they are (audio stops) for great northern beans. She said, “98 cents a pound.” But you see if you go to those big stores you can buy them for 89 cents a pound, but how many mothers on welfare are in all them low-income projects and have to deal with their local grocery? You see, nobody takes nobody nowhere for nothing, and if they do they ask them people for $10 of their food stamps.
I: If they give them a ride?
AE: If they take them to the store. You see, I think it’s horrible, but then again, those people have got to live, so any way they can scheme.
I: But still, it makes it hard that there is not any good transportation for them.
AE: Right, no transportation.
I: To stores or—(overlapping)
AE: (overlapping) I have a problem with that every day.
I: Some people say that that’s probably one of the biggest problems that poor people face in Houston is the transportation.
AE: Right, it is. The poor people have the biggest problem getting to stores, getting to the doctor, and getting to the hospital. I had a lady and she had cancer. She went for food stamps. She is 61 years old, but if she didn’t have the medical paper to show them then she had to sign a work form. Well, the daughter-in-law didn’t know that the work form team couldn’t care less who did the job, I guess, because they got so many of them. You know they can’t get a job for everybody. So, I tell them that. When she called me she said, “Miss Edwards, they didn’t give me any food stamps.” She said, “I have to fill out the form to go to work,” and she said, “My mother-in-law can’t work.” I said, “Oh, they did?” I said, “Well, I’m going to take her back there again.” So I did, and I went to talk to—(overlapping)
I: She had filled the form out anyway, right?
AE: Oh, yes. How did she know they weren’t going to find you a job? (both laughing) She had to find some kind of criteria to get a job. So, they gave her $46 in food stamps, which is fantastic. It’s a big help for poor people. I brought her here to Harris County Welfare, and I talked to Mr Brighton and to Miss McAvoy, and I explained to them that she didn’t have that medical form and don’t ask me for it, because them doctors had been taught not to fill out any forms.
I: Well, they are very busy and I’m sure that’s a big problem for them.
AE: You know what they don’t have to do, honey?
AE: If they could scratch their name on there—but you don’t know how to read it and nobody else can read it —it would be fine. I told them so. On that form they ask you to print it or type it, but that takes too long. So that’s why they tell you they can’t do it. They ain’t got time to do it, and they can’t take time. So here you are in the world, faced with filling out the medical form, and you’re faced with the welfare and food stamps, but you can’t get food stamps unless you got the medical form. They say, “But Miss Edwards, we don’t like for too many people to fill out these forms.” I say, “Would you tell me one other way we can go around it, because I would be glad too.” I say, “But the doctor don’t want to give them the form, and they don’t have the money to go to no private doctor.” They haven’t got any money to buy food, so you know they can’t go to a private doctor. At the doctor the first visit is $25 or $20. When you go to a comp doctor they tell you they ain’t got time. I say, “What do you want me to do with them. I can’t feed them, so I come here and have them fill out the form. Now, if you can find a better way out let me know, and I will be glad to follow suit.” Sowhen this lady got the food stamps I was glad for her that she got her welfare. She had enough pension to get $126 a month, but see, to get your social security it takes at least 3 months. Now, what do you do in the meantime? Where do you go? How do you pay rent when you’ve done lost your job? When you’ve come back from the hospital after you stayed at least 10 weeks thinking every day is the last. When you come back ain’t anybody going to keep a babysitting job, because they’ve got to find somebody else—that’s what she was doing was babysitting—but quite naturally they have to find somebody else that’s more dependable.
I: What about Harris County? What about the commissioners themselves?
AE: (52:12) In the last year I had a very good fortune with Harris County. We wrote a proposal asking Harris County to put new sites in, because Elder Street is out of the way—(overlapping)
I: Elder Street is the main Harris County Office—(overlapping)
AE: (overlapping) and the only one. The only one that had a part-time worker was Casa Dominica, the rest of them had nothing but Elder Street. Everybody had to come to Elder Street.
I: Regardless of where they lived?
AE: Regardless of where you live in Harris County you had to come here. So, I told them the hardship it was. Now there is Mr Levy, which is the administrator, and Mr Brighton and Miss McAvoy they were well understanding of the problem of transportation, so they said if we’d come up with a good idea then Mr Levy would present our proposal at the commissioner’s Court. Mr Contino is the new commissioner, which he is quite a fighter, and I appreciate that because I like people that don’t do something they don’t understand. He was the one that questioned the most.
I: Mr Contino?
AE: Yes, because he said, “I’m new at this, and I want to know what it’s all about.” And I wrote a letter. I was going to ask him to talk to me to make sure that it passed, but may I say, before the day come around that I could meet with him they had already passed it. The Harris County one for our area reached all the way to Acres Home, and all the way almost to (overlapping). I say, “Well, I had to find these locations, and they had to be free of charge. The person, if they qualified, got a little buggy to Harris County that brings you your check. That would be better than you having to go to Harris County Welfare. I had talked to Father Hendricks, which was the public aid, and then I talked to Harris County Community Action and asked if they could help. They said yes, but that I had to try to get Father Crowley back. I couldn’t get a hold of him—which is that same Monica which is in the Deacon’s home and thinks the sun rises and shines on Father Crowley—but they just give me this thing about, “Well, you’re going to have to try Father Crowley first.” I said, “Well, you’re going to have to give me a chance to catch up with him, and then I’ll ask him.” So now the thing is in the process.
I: So that’s what you are doing now? You’re working at the site?
AE: (55:33) Yes, the site.
I: But you think all the commissioners will be—(overlapping)
AE: (overlapping) Yes. They know the needs. I went and seen Mr Contino anyway, and may I say, he was very cagey to ask a question that he don’t know or he think he should know. He will tell you ahead of time that you can ask him, but there will be no comment, because that happened to be the other commissioner’s problem, and he’s not going to commit himself. So I told him, “Don’t commit yourself one way or the other, because I do the same thing.” So he said that I didn’t need to defend anything to him, because he knows that it was very much needed. He knows that the transportation is very bad. I was very grateful, because it did help me to get these people to these sites. I think it really is a big help when we are helping our fellow man. That they don’t really have to deprive a poor person—what I’m calling poor is somebody that don’t have anything—some people that has something, honey, they will ask for help all day, but a really poor person only has their pride, and they are very cagey to ask for anything, and it’s a last resort.
I: So they really need it.
AE: Yes, they really need it.
I: If you could do anything what would you do? In terms of how you would change the welfare department, where would you start?
AE: May I say that there are things that are being done right now that never was done before, like, people of the university are taking concern—being concerned with the problems of the world. The university asked me to give a workshop on March 9. I said, “Now, I couldn’t copy a social worker’s book. The only thing I could tell your students is what’s going on in the world.” This is what I would like for people to do. I would for like somebody to publicize what a person needs to qualify, and what they would qualify for, and where they could get this help without standing there and letting their children die of hunger.
I: So the one big need is the whole idea of publicizing the aid that is available and how somebody gets it?
I: Because I guess you see a lot of people that just don’t know they are eligible for anything.
AE: (58:58) Right, they don’t know. May I say, I’ve seen children die of hunger right here in Houston, but this never comes out in the newspapers. If you want it off the record than you can turn it off, because that was in 1952. My husband and I had a place of business, and we would go to the unemployment office—sometimes just to see how many people there was sitting there waiting for a job—and this tall, skinny, blonde woman walked up to us and say, “I heard you say that you had a place of business. I will wash dishes. I will do anything.” She said, “I have 3 kids that are dying of hunger.” My husband say, “Dying of hunger? Are you kidding?” He was very cagey to believe anybody would die of hunger here, because he could eat all day. And he say, “Die of hunger? Did you go to the welfare?” She said, “Yes. I went there for 2 days straight. They told me to have a seat. I walked from Jenson Drive to the welfare downtown.” She said, “For 2 days. I didn’t get anything and nobody seen me.” He say, “You say you got 3 children and they are dying?” And every time I think of that it makes my heart sad. My husband say, “Why you got in that position?” She said, “When I was ready to give birth to the baby, and he took me in the car, and he brought me out”—because my husband did not believe her—she say, “He walked out of the house, and he said he was going to seek some help for them”—
I: This was her husband?
AE: Yes! She said, “I never seen him again. I had my baby by myself. I cut my baby’s navel part.” She say, “My baby—I didn’t have enough milk to feed my baby, and my baby has been born now for 9 weeks.” And she said, “The baby has had no milk. It’s been living on sweet water.” I told my husband, “Well you go ahead, and I’ll stay out here.” He said, “No, you have to go in with me, because you know I’m a man, and I’m black, and they might think I done something to that white lady. You have to come in with me.” And Lord have mercy! When I saw that little baby laying in the bed—and I knew he was dead—I didn’t tell the mother, and I told him, “Don’t tell the mother.” And my husband got in the car, and he went to the corner. He went into a drugstore on Jenson Drive and called and said, “Come quick with an ambulance!” He said, “They’ve got children that is starving! They are dying! One is already dead! Don’t tell the mother!” So when the ambulance got there we were still there with the mother. There were 4 children complete, but she hadn’t said anything about the baby. She had 3 big children that couldn’t even get out of the bed anymore they were so hungry. They had to rush them children to the hospital to feed them intravenously because they were too weak to even eat. Do you know that these kids—when they pulled the baby out and the ambulance attendant told them that the baby was dead the mother was standing next to me and my husband, and she fainted. We took her to welfare. My husband won’t let her go to the hospital. He went to the welfare—my husband always wore a suit. He was always dressed up with a white shirt. I never thought a black man could have so many white shirts, because when I married him he 19 white shirts—but do you know my husband said to the lady at welfare, “I want you to write a check.” She said, “What are you talking about.” He said, “I want you to write a check for this woman. Her children are dying of hunger.” A big, tall white man was walking down the hall, and he took one look at this tall black man and said, “No black man talks to a white lady like that!” He said, “Well, how do you think this white woman feels? She is more white than this one, because she has blonde hair. She don’t have food to eat, and she’s been here two days, and don’t tell me you’ve seen her.” He gave my husband a check for $80 and sent us home with commodities for that woman. But can you imagine that poor person going for 2 days straight and walking from Jenson Drive to downtown, and being refused, and not even being seen just because she was dirty? How could she clean herself? She didn’t have nothing to clean herself with, not even soap. No food or nothing in her house. The poor blacks and the poor whites suffer the same misery. Not just the minority, but all of us. All of the poor people suffer. I am grateful to God, because when I think that my fellow man is hungry then I am hungry for him, because I have went to bed hungry. It was to give to those that couldn’t make it. I gave my food, and I went hungry to bed. But I never had the problem of going hungry, because I’ve always been very blessed. I never knew what depression was because I was in the country. Ever since I’ve been here in Houston I’ve seen more misery and so much. When I went to Washington do you know what they say about the programs? They say, “Well, you have oil fields in your backyards, because they send more money back than you use.”
I: Texas sends it back?
AE: Yeah. The reason why they do that is because the money meant for the poor never gets to the poor. The poor don’t even see it. The head crook gets it, and I tell them that, honey. See, if I could get on top of a house and let everybody know how the planning of all these things is so crooked. The poor never get the benefit of it.
I: Where does it go Miss Edwards?
AE: The rich man’s pockets honey.
I: I know that, but who are they?
AE: Well, the administrators. (overlapping)
I: It goes into salaries.
AE: And the statistic is that they paid $33,000 for a man to go around and see where the clothes went. We could have bought $33,000 worth of clothes, and I could have told them the statistic. But everything has got to have a planned variation, a planned statistic, and a planned this, and a planned that. And all these people have large salaries.
I: That’s where the money goes is into everyone’s salaries.
AE: (1:07) Yes, because that’s where the money went. You see, because a person that didn’t have a college or a high school diploma couldn’t work for welfare. Well, what was welfare meant to be for? (audio ends )