- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

As Americans try to cope with lost jobs and lost homes and deal with the continuing crises in the financial and credit markets that some compare with conditions during the Great Depression, economists say that, so far, the United States has not seen the level of deprivation that marked the 1930s.

Nevertheless, the unfolding collapse in housing values has obliterated an estimated $4 trillion in home equity, which will cause millions of households to lose their homes through foreclosure. The bear market - the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down about 40 percent from its peak - has eliminated additional trillions of dollars in stockholders’ wealth. Also, last month the unemployment rate reached its highest level (6.7 percent) in more than 15 years.

But by comparison, at its nadir the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost nearly 90 percent of its value in the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate peaked at 24.9 percent and economic output declined by 13 percent in a single year. (Even if the gross domestic product plunges by an annual rate of 5 percent during the fourth quarter, GDP will still be 1.2 percent higher in 2008 than it was last year.)

Robert E. Miller, 87; Queen Esther Woodard, 96; and Lillie Deloatch, 88, lived through those hard times, and they shared their Depression-era experiences in conversations at the Stoddard Baptist Nursing Home in Northwest.

Robert E. Miller, 87.

Born in 1921 at Columbia Hospital in the District , Mr. Miller spent the Depression years as a child in the nation’s capital.

Growing up in a home at 23rd and P streets on top of Rock Creek Park, Mr. Miller had two sisters, three brothers and a big German police dog - “and that was all that boys want, a brother and police dog.”

His father worked as a night watchman from 7 at night until 7 the next morning, all for $75 a month. “We lived off that, and I don’t know how you could say it, but we were a very happy family, eatin’ with what we could get, your bread. … A loaf of bread, white bread, cost five cents,” he said.

“You didn’t have any electric lights in your house. You had what they call coal oil lamps,” he recalled. “We had no electricity at all … no running water … had to go down to the corner, pump’s on the corner, just mash on the top and the water would come out. You take your bucket and go down there and pump, get your water, come back to the house, and that’s the way you got your water.”

In the winter time, Mr. Miller and his siblings had only one over coat to share among them. On the way to school, whoever got dressed first got to wear the coat. “The rest didn’t have any, so we just walk with shirt sleeves, sweater, no sweater, and we’d walk [24 blocks] to Dunbar [High School]. We would walk that, rain, snow, whatever… . Get to school the best way you could, and still we managed to be happy, jovial, playin’ all the time, never any fightin’ anything,” as he tells it.

He and his siblings would wear their shoes until the soles were completely worn out, using newspaper to cover the holes.

“But it was a tough time, I remember. I guess that was the recession then. People didn’t have any jobs; they would stand on the corner and sell apples, nickel apiece. They were unemployed, they didn’t have nothing else to do,” he remembered. “That’s the way they made their living.”

Those were the days before credit cards, when life was simple. But one could have credit at the corner grocery store and pay it at the end of the month.

The merchant “just had a big ledger. You come in and get $20 worth of stuff. And the end of the month he was expecting you to pay him your $20, which a lot of people didn’t do, but that’s the way you worked.”

At the time, Mr. Miller didn’t know about the Depression. As a child , that that’s just how things were. Times were hard.

“I thought that was just normal life,” he remembers. “We always had some kind of food. My father would eat opossum. We’d go to Rock Creek Park, get a opossum for him, right in the park, bring it home, he’d eat it. I wouldn’t eat any of it,” he said.

“We always had sufficient food. Meager-type food. It wasn’t the best food. We would maybe get some kind of meat, maybe neck bones or something like that. My mother would cook them, my father would eat the neck bones, and we’d eat what now would be thrown away: the greases off the neck bones, that is what we would eat, heat it up and pour it on in a plate, get some bread, and sop that, and we thought we were living good. We were happy with that.”

He said, “It was a nice childhood, but it was tough times. It never occurred to you that you were living in hardship.

“I did grow up knowing that you had to look ahead: If you get a dollar, don’t spend the whole dollar. Spend maybe 75 cents, but keep a quarter. You’re gonna need it one day. And that’s the way I lived,” he recalled. “I bought my first home like that, puttin’ away nickels and dimes.

“I live in two different worlds, the world back then and world we got now, and the world we got now I don’t think too much of it, to tell you the truth.”

Queen Esther Woodard, 96.

Born on Jan. 26, 1912, Queen Esther Woodard was 18 years old when the stock market crashed Oct. 29, 1929. She is the daughter of a sharecropper.

Sitting upright in her wheelchair, Ms. Woodard is alert and full of life in a red sweater and a blue plaid blanket that covers her lap. She is surrounded by messages of faith, posters on the walls, eight Bibles on the shelves, stuffed animals on the bed and old photographs.

The seventh of 14 children , she grew up as a child in Rocky Mount, N.C. She married Oscar Woodard, a carpenter, at age 21.

Working the fields was not just for adults. Everyone who could work did so. Ms. Woodard worked in the fields from age 11, with her brothers and sisters. In the fields for long hours even after school, their labor was needed by their father, who toiled in the fields of peanuts, cabbage, sweet potatoes, collard greens and corn.

“When I was a child, we didn’t go to school but six months out of the year, and sometimes when we get home from school, we had to change our school clothes because we didn’t have but one pair of shoes. Get them shoes off so you wouldn’t wear them out too quick and go in the field and go to work,” she recalls.

In addition to the hard times of the Depression, the country was also segregated. Her best girlfriend was white, yet they couldn’t eat together at a restaurant. “But it didn’t change the taste of the food,” she says, laughing.

Ms. Woodard said life wasn’t too hard for her and her family because her father grew everything, living off the land. Although times were extremely harsh, they were generous. Her father would kill the hogs, take the meat and give it away like he had no mouths to feed. He’d kill six hogs in November and six more in February, and that meat would last.

Taking the lessons and examples of her generous parents and strict religious upbringing during life in the Great Depression, she has given to others in need through the years. “I guess some people think I’m crazy, but you know, I don’t value my money that well. I don’t value it’s so important to me that if you’re hungry I couldn’t give you a soda and sandwich.”

Lillie Deloatch, 88.

Ms. Deloatch was born on May 8, 1920 in Branchville, Va., nearly 10 years before the stock market crash. Today she sits in her room at the Stoddard Baptist Nursing Home in the District, safe, comfortable and far from the farm where she grew up near the North Carolina border. The room is clean, the bed made.

She rests in her wheelchair, and the blinds are open to the street below, with its barren trees marking the winter season as the nation’s economy remains in crisis.

Her father was a sharecropper.

“Yes, indeed, I remember,” she says. “When Hoover was in the seat, right? And we couldn’t get good flour. … The hogs had died, and we didn’t have no meat,” she recollects. “We raised our hogs, chickens; we had cows, dogs, cats and eight children. There was a lot of love. We were poor, but a lot of love. We all went to church. We were all right.

“Momma made our clothes. Somehow, I don’t know, somehow we made it. My father was a huntsman. He hunted rabbits and squirrels. We ate it.”

Even though she lived on a farm, hardships were everywhere; not many were spared. On the farm, she worked in the fields picking cotton.

“It really was really a hard time. I remember my mother asked my father one day - he was taking a bail of cotton to Branchville: ‘Joe, bring me a piece of cloth [so I can] make Lillie a dress to wear to field.’ And he bought it, cotton material, and my mother cried. She said, ‘Joe, Lillie never wore anything like this in her life.’ And I liked it. It was all right for the field.”

Ms. Deloatch compared life during the Great Depression to life today. “But back then, in those days, they was good old days. Wasn’t like we hatin’ one another like they do now. There was more love, you know,” she said.

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