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Interview Summary of Mr. Cliff Smith

At the time of this interview Cliff Smith was living in Waterloo, Iowa.
He was born in Carbon, Kentucky January 6, 1902. He moved with his family to Waterloo in 1911. His father was a carpenter by trade but he came to Waterloo to work on the railroad. Educational opportunity was one of the chief reasons the Smith family moved north to Iowa.

The prejudice in the South at that time was intense. African American children were not generally allowed to go to school with white children. In this regard Mr. Smith said, “I lived across the street from the only white school in that town and when the teacher was sick, my mother would go over there and substitute for the teacher, but we couldn't go to school. So my oldest sister went twenty-five miles to the county seat to school everyday.”

Following grade school and high school, Mr. Smith attended Howard University for three years before attending Morningside College in Sioux City. As a young man, Mr. Smith was a concert organist. He said, “I did nothing but concert work and I played at theaters. I am the first person that ever played the Paramont Theater organ. I played at the old Plaza Theater once here in Waterloo. Then as a youngster I traveled. I played at Louisville, Dayton, Washington, D.C. and Columbus, Ohio.”

Mr. Smith said he was always able to get work during the Depression. He managed the Elks Club 290 and Sunnyside Country Club. Of his experience during the Depression he said, "In those days it was very rough for people . . . I was very fortunate. . . my father always had a job. But people suffered a lot. Malnutrition, doctors would come to your house and say 'Well the child needs food.' But you know, I never run into anything so terrible in the Depression personally. . . We were always able to have a job. So we got along all right.”

Mr. Smith didn't feel that the Depression affected African American people any differently than white people. He said, “Everybody was having a hard time. African American people were not hurt any worse than anyone else. Everybody was suffering from it. Lack of food, lack of clothing, lack of homes, run-down property... everybody suffered from it. Today when I look at the houses on this street and the houses on Sumner Street where I live, the property today is better than it was fifty years ago, when it was owned by white people. Because the people now, African American people, are making a little money. They keep their homes up and in those days it was not possible for anyone hardly to keep their homes up.”

Mr. Smith started his own restaurant as a result of the segregation in Waterloo's restaurants. He said, ". . . There was one restaurant downtown. All the [African American] kids that worked downtown went to this segregated place. They had to go in the back door and go in the basement I went down there one day and I saw all of those people down there and I said, 'What are all of you guys doing down here?' I said, 'If I was in Mississippi I wouldn't mind going in the back door, but that's policy. But in Iowa, never!' So I came over there and bought that deli over there and started me a restaurant.”

Mr. Smith felt there were some good effects which came from the Depression. He concluded, “Well it taught people how to live when they didn't have. I am telling you that. Depression wouldn't worry me anymore, but I feel sorry for other people. That was one of the fortunate things about [African American] people. We have learned to stand hard times, so we have been very fortunate.”

From: The Explorations in Iowa History Project, Price Laboratory School, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls IA



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