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“Can I Scrub Your White Marble Steps?”A Black Migrant Recalls Life in Philadelphia

In the 1910s hundreds of thousands of African Americans headed North in the Great Migration. Arthur Dingle was one of them. Dingle was born in the small town of Manning, North Carolina, in 1891. After holding hotel jobs in several cities, he took a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad in Philadelphia. Promised his job back if he enlisted in World War I, the company made good on its promise when Dingle remained in Philadelphia after the war. This interview with Arthur Dingle was conducted by Charles Hardy in 1983 for the Goin’ North Project.

Listen to Audio:

Arthur Dingle: I came out of school pretty early, and I worked for the stores around town there, and then I worked in the little hotel. So when I was about 19, I got the idea that I liked hotel work. So I left home and went to Wilmington, North Carolina, worked at Oraton [inaudible] Hotel. Then the next year, I went on to Norfolk.

In 1913, when Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration, another friend of mine and I left Norfolk and went to Washington, and I got a job in the New Raleigh Hotel there, and I was a waiter there during Wilson’s first inauguration. And I worked around back and forth all over the country, you might say. I worked in the Saratoga in New York. Then I went to Scranton. I worked in the Casey Hotel there.

And I went to school in Scranton, the International Business School. I didn’t get much education down South, so I tried to, you know, improve myself by working and going to school at night. So I stayed there quite a while.

Charles Hardy: What was it like then with all these new blacks up from the South in the city?

Dingle: Well, it was all right because everybody was working. They was coming up to get jobs. And there was the Navy Yard, there was Sun Shipyard, and there was Midvale’s and this big steel plant up here in the North, toward—I’ve forgotten the name of it—Allenwood. And all these big places was hiring people as fast as they came up. And everybody was working and everybody got money. Why, things seemed to be all right.

When they got pretty close behind me to go to the Army, I came to Philadelphia and went to working for the railroad. And I worked here twenty-three days and they called me to the Army. Well, the luck was that they said that everybody at Pennsylvania Railroad said everybody that worked for the railroad and had to go to the Army, they had their job when they came back.

Well, in 1919, when I came back from France, you couldn’t—it’s worse than it is now—you couldn’t buy a job because of all those fellows, you know, being discharged. So when I was discharged at Fort Meade—Camp Meade they called it then—I came right back to Philadelphia because I knowed that I had my job when I came back. I stayed there twelve years.

In those days, there was no welfare and there was no Social Security, and people was actually suffering. I know when I was living in North Philadelphia, I was working, but there was plenty of people around there that had no job, no income, no nothing. It was very hard for them.

Hardy: What did they do? Did they go back South? Did they stay in the city?

Dingle: [laughter] I can’t remember anybody going back South.

Hardy: No?

Dingle: No. I can’t remember any of them going back South. But they made out somehow or another. They’d go around and hustle. And people had these white marble steps, and there was people who’d go around, ring your bell, asking, “Can I clean your steps, scrub your steps?” and they’d say, “Yeah,” give them twenty-five cents, and they’d scrub your steps. And there’s all kind of ways of making a few pennies.

Source: Interview done by Charles Hardy for the radio programGoin North, 1983, West Chester University.

See Also:"We Tho[ugh]t State Street Would Be Heaven Itself":
Black Migrants Speak Out

"Don[']t Have to Mister Every Little White Boy. . .": Black Migrants Write Home