Harry McPherson Text of Interview: January 27, 2003Catherine Nugent2022-04-26T15:24:20-04:00
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ORAL HISTORY OF
HARRY C. MCPHERSON, JR. – SECOND INTERVIEW
It is Monday, January 27,2003, the day after the Super Bowl.
Mr. Vanderstar: We will resume more or less where we left off in our interview.
Harry, you told me a lot about your childhood and about your parents and
grandparents, and we talked a little bit about life in Tyler, the economics of life in Tyler and so
forth, but I want to go with you a little bit more, what did you do in the summer time or what did
you do after school in the afternoons or on the weekends during, say, your high school years?
You said you worked at the bank as a messenger when you were 13-
Mr. McPherson: And I worked as a messenger for that railroad, the Cotton Belt
Railroad, when I was 14. I had the impression of being aware for the first time of adult affairs,
some of which were going on among the employees of the railroad. They, of course, treated me,
some of them, as insiders that they could sort of bring in and educate to their amusement, though
some of them were nervous that I might learn something I shouldn’t know. (laughter)
I played a lot of baseball. I played a lot of tennis. I think I mentioned last time
that my dad wanted me to be a golfer. Because I could hit a ball a long way, he would bring
people to look at me hit, although when he did I would usually top it or hit a terrible slice.
So I became a tennis player. I played on the public courts. Not too many people
in my town, for some reason, played tennis. I became one of two guys of the tennis team. Tyler
was, like most Texas towns, football crazy. There’s a book called Friday Night Light that is
about that, and it is, if anything, an understatement. People were nuts about football. Probably
the football budget was well over 90 percent of the school athletic budget. As for the tennis
budget, when we would play meets, one of the football coaches, one of the assistant coaches,
would come pick us up in his car and he would have a couple cans of balls that we could use to
play the match against another high school. Nobody ever showed me how to do anything. I
played tennis for about 60 years-a lot of tennis-and I think I had four lessons in the entire
time. For some reason, that part of Texas was not big on tennis; west Texas and central Texas
were the homes of good players.
I studied quite a lot. Probably like you, I enjoyed learning things. I wanted to be
a good student, I wanted to make good grades. My mother died, and it knocked the wind out of
me for a while and I kind of struggled to get back on track and graduate in good shape.
My dad was of several minds as to where I should go to college. I think
somebody must have persuaded him that it would not be a good idea for me to stay around him,
that I ought to be freed up a little. It turned out to be a bad mistake; I should have gone-if we
had known anything about such things-to prep school; since I was so young it would have been
wise to send me to a prep school for a year and get me ready for college-level courses.
As it was, I went to SMU in Dallas, a big school in a big metropolitan area. I had
learned in the summer of 1945, when I was 15 years old, how to join with 17- and 18-year-olds
in drinking and smoking and all sorts of misbehavior. When I got to SMU, the GIs were all
coming back from World War 11. I was sort of adopted, almost like a mascot. I was treated very
warmly and agreeably. I made terrible grades; I didn’t know how to stop making terrible grades.
Didn’t know how to study in such an environment.
I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I must have read a book about some reporter
and thought that that would be a good thing to be. I took a course in journalism and suddenly,
having cut a number of the classes, I learned that we were to turn in in a couple of days a book
report on a book about some aspect of journalism. Well, I was desperate. I hadn’t read a book
in a long time, but I did read Time magazine. So I flipped through Time and I found on the
masthead the name of a senior editor, just picked it at random, and it was the great fingerer of
Alger Hiss. It wasMr. Vanderstar: Chambers?
Mr. McPherson: Chambers, Whitaker Chambers. I thought it was a very
attractive name. So I made up a book, in my book report, by Whitaker Chambers-about the
methodology of getting out Time magazine. Totally made it up. The youngish professor of
journalism said, he was curious because he had never heard of the book. I said, well, it had just
come out. (laughter)
Anyway, I was trapped. I was just a dreadful student. I forget what I did in the
summer of ‘46, but I went back to school telling my father that I would try to do better. But he
could not help me much. He had not had a bit of college himself. He didn’t know what to do
about this. The only thing he knew about SMU is that he liked it because he liked the Mustangs,
he liked the SMU tailback Doak Walker, and he was rather proud that his son was in school
where Doak Walker was. He didn’t have the foggiest idea of what a mess I was creating for
myself and unable to get out of.
Well, I did just as badly as ever in that first semester of my sophomore year, and
when I saw my grades posted on the board, I went back to the fraternity house and called my
father and said, “Come get me. I want to go home to the junior college. I can’t get on the right
track here.” My friends in the fraternity put me in a room and “hot boxed” me-gave me the
treatment you gave a fellow who was considering whether to pledge the fraternity. They really
worked me over, they were going to get me tutoring, and help me with this and help me with
that. But I just knew that I had to get out, I had to quit.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did your father before that have any clue of what your
performance had been?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, he did.
Mr. Vanderstar: He knew you were not doing well.
Mr. McPherson: Yeah, but probably, now that I’ve had children of my own and
have a 16-year-old now, I know how quickly lies and fabrications and excuses and dissembling
come to the teenage tongue. And they sure did with me. I had just managed to tell him, “I’m
going to do better,” until at last it was clear to me that I couldn’t do better.
So, he came and got me, we drove home, and I went into junior college, to try to
make up in that semester enough grade points so that I could get into a decent school in the fall.
And I did. My father had become an Episcopalian and he asked the diocesan
bishop of Texas, Bishop Quinn-an enormous man who would stand in the pulpit and wave his
arms about until you felt as if the arms were going right over your head. My dad said, “My son
needs to go to a good school, maybe one that is associated with the church. He has become an
acolyte in the church.” Bishop Quinn said, “Well let’s try Sewanee, the University of the South,
So that fall, I got in, thanks to Bishop Quinn. As admissions people do, they
looked at my last semester and since I had done better they figured maybe I was on the mend.
That summer I dug ditches. There was a pipeline being laid, a gas pipeline. I dug
ditches and learned something about really rough, redneck Texans. Then, after about a month
and a half of that, I worked as what was called a “swamper” on a truck, on a wholesale grocery
truck. I was the guy who got off the truck, went around to the back and pulled the sacks of beans
and rice off and delivered them to the grocery store in the small villages of east Texas. I did that
for about a month. So, at the end of that, I had worked hard and was a little stronger than I had
My father was amazed. He was a widower, he had identified a woman that he
was thinking about getting married to (in fact he did, but in the summer of 1947 he was still a
widower), and, maybe because he was going to get married again, he felt guilty toward me.
Maybe he felt that I, who adored my mother, would feel unhappy with him if he remarried, so
partly from that and partly as a prize for working hard all summer-I got up at five in the
morning and waited on a corner at six to be picked up in a truck and driven out to the work
site-he gave me a brand new, powder blue Buick convertible. (oh boy)
I got two fellows, one a friend from Dallas and one from Tyler, and we took out
across the West. We went to Colorado, we stayed in our fraternity house in Boulder, went up
into Wyoming and Utah, saw the Mormon Temple, drove across the Utah desert into Nevada,
and wound up in Las Vegas. Shortly before, Bugsy Siege1 had been killed out there, and we
were excited when we saw the Flamingo Hotel, which he created, and we overcame the skeptical
look of the manager of the hotel and got a room. We went out and lay on air mattresses around
the pool, being served Tom Collinses. (laughter) There were loud speakers reporting the races
at Hialeah; it was pretty daring stuff to us. Then we went to Los Angeles and finally home and
went off to college.
Mr. Vanderstar: Before we get to Sewanee, let me go back. What had you done
the previous summer, the summer after your first year?
Mr. McPherson: I don’t remember. It’s just a blank.
Mr. Vanderstar: What about the summer before you started college?
Mr. McPherson: I don’t know. I must have goofed off. I can’t remember any
job I had that year.
Mr. Vanderstar: You said that in your first year at SMU you didn’t know how to
study, and that’s a problem for youngsters when they get to college. Why do you think that was?
You had done well in high school, I assume.
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: Was there one high school in Tyler?
Mr. McPherson: One high school.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. You went there, you, where did you stand, high up in the
Mr. McPherson: Yes, I was pretty high up. Pretty much an A average. In the
fall of ‘43 when my mother died, I think my grades slipped some, but then I made them back up
in my senior year.
Tyler, despite having only 11 grades, like other Texas schools, had some
wonderful teachers. There were two Marsh sisters, spinsters living in a grand old house. One
taught in junior high and one in high school. That one particularly, Sarah Marsh, was a
diminutive, very attractive woman, hair in a tight bun, looking something like Ohia
deHaviland, She was a very demanding teacher, not a shouter, but very demanding. If you
showed an interest in English literature and if you could write well, she really put the pressure on
you-instead of backing off and saying, “Well, you’re doing fine by yourself.” Having that
interest and ability, such as it was, caused her to say, “All right, let’s see you do it right, really
right, let’s see you get these sentences done correctly, let’s see that you understand this poem
correctly.” At home I’ve got my old grades from high school, and I got all A’s from her, but it
really took a lot of work to get them. I was sort of the1 wouldn’t say the apple of her eye-but
I was the person that she seemed to think had most interest in the subject and maybe some talent
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you write for the high school paper?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, I was the editor of the high school paper and wrote-when
you look at your writing of those days, 15 years old, you remember that you thought it was good.
God, you look at it now and you just want to weep. How can anybody write so badly?
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes, yes indeed. What about other main subjects in high
school-science, math, history?
Mr. McPherson: I had a huge interest in history. The history teacher was a
rather nutty fellow, I think he was the only male teacher I had, and he was a joke to many
people, but he cared a lot about history. I have said before that one way to cure the evils, the
shortcomings of education is to eliminate the “gender” provisions of the Civil Rights Act, which
created today’s opportunities for women, Bright women would have to teach again, and be
nurses again, (laughter) and then you would get the people like Sarah Marsh who would teach,
instead of doing other things. People like the Marsh sisters today become lawyers or doctors or
In math I did well, I enjoyed it. Science, not too well; I was a B student at best in
chemistry and physics.
Mr. Vanderstar: How good were the facilities in your high school? Was it Tyler
Mr. McPherson: Tyler High School.
Mr. Vanderstar: How good were the facilities for things like science?
Mr. McPherson: I think probably pretty limited.
Mr. Vanderstar: That requires test tubes and lab stuff.
Mr. McPherson: Well, they had test tubes and there was always an explosion in
the lab in which several boys were aghast and smoke was rising everywhere. The tale got more
and more awesome as it was repeated.
Mr. Vanderstar: So science was not the strong point and partly because the
school just wasn’t probably very good.
Mr. McPherson: Well, I certainly was never excited by a teacher in science and I
never had a man who mistook his wife for a hat, like Oliver Sacks or Stephen J. Gould, or
someone like that who could make science absolutely the only thing you wanted to think about.
I never had anybody like that.
Mr. Vanderstar: What foreign language did you study?
Mr. McPherson: Spanish, and didn’t really focus on it.
Mr. Vanderstar: Were you required to take a foreign language?
Mr. McPherson: Yes. I took Latin in junior high and a year in high school, and
then a couple of years of Spanish. I wasn’t much good at it. In those days, although Texas was
near Mexico, there just wasn’t the feeling of living in a large world in which one might want to
use languages like that. It was just something students had to take.
Mr. Vanderstar: Was there what we would now call a Hispanic population in
Mr. McPherson: A small one. Tyler was probably a third Black, probably no
more than two percent or three percent Hispanic. I think Hispanics would have come up through
central Texas from Mexico to San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Dallas, Chicago. I think the Mexican
flow would have passed Tyler by about 100 miles.
Mr. Vanderstar: Who worked in those rose fields, rose gardens?
Mr. McPherson: I think it must have been Blacks and poor Whites.
Mr. Vanderstar: If Black people represented a good third of the population of
Tyler, was there any Black middle class in the town or Black businesses or Black professionals?
Mr. McPherson: The people you thought ofwhen you thought of Blacks, I mean
the Black middle class, would have been preachers, teachers, undertakersMr. Vanderstar: Doctors?
Mr. McPherson: Obviously had to be some. I don’t remember any, and I do
know that some White doctors had Black patients, but I don’t know how that was.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you have any friends or even acquaintances who were
Black when you were say, up through high school?
Mr. McPherson: Except for the women who worked in our house and the
Woldert’s house and the fellow who cleaned up in my father’s store, I don’t think I had any
Black acquaintances my age.
It’s a good question. With a third of the population, it would have been hard not
to know some, and the experience I had with Eddie Finnel, the waiter who had been a
bandleader, suggests that I had at least some interest in connecting with such a Black person. I
did that when I was 15, I think, that summer; I took him home several times. There must have
been others, but it was very much a segregated society.
Mr. Vanderstar: What about the summer you worked for the railroad. You were
in a menial job. Were you working with Black people?
Mr. McPherson: Well, in the railroad I was an office boy, in effect, working with
Whites. In the summer working as a ditch digger I believe there were Blacks as well as Whites
in our gang, our working gang, I’m pretty sure there were. And certainly many of the stores that
I delivered bags of beans and rice to.
One day, one hot summer day, I was doing that trucking job, and I took to sitting
on the tailgate because it saved time-we were stopping about every mile in front of a general
store of some kind. We were banging along this road at about 30-35 miles an hour when one big
bang caused the chains of the tailgate to slip and the tailgate just fell away. I hit the road and did
a flip and landed finally in the ditch. I yelled and yelled but the guy drove on, didn’t know what
had happened to me. He pulled into this store a mile or two down the road.
I had cut my arm pretty badly in falling. When I finally got to the store, and there
were both Blacks and Whites standing about in it, and I said, “I cut my arm here, I fell off. I was
yelling at you but you didn’t stop.” The guy said, “I was wondering where you were.” I said,
“DO you have anything I can do for this arm?” The store owner, who was White, said, “Just
stick it in that tub of kerosene, that will help.” (ouch) And that’s what I did, it didn’t seem right
but I didn’t have any alternative at that time. (laughter)
It’s curious, when I got to Dallas, it was also a segregated city, but there were a
lot more well-dressed Blacks in the city than had been the case in Tyler. And yet, I don’t think
the university, SMU had a Black in it, at least I can’t think of any.
Mr. Vanderstar: You mentioned a couple of Black colleges in the Tyler area, and
I want to go back to that in a minute, but while we are on Dallas, was there a Black institution of
higher learning in Dallas, as there are in Nashville and other cities.
Mr. McPherson: Houston certainly has substantial ones, Texas Southern is a big
one in Houston, and as I was mentioning, Marshall, over near the Louisiana line, near where
Lady Bird Johnson grew up, had two Black colleges. I think Dallas must have had some.
Mr. Vanderstar: You mentioned the other day three Black colleges in the Tyler
area, two over at Marshall: Wiley and Bishop.
Mr. McPherson: And the one in Tyler called Texas College.
Now that you’ve mentioned it, colleges mean there were professors in the
Mr. Vanderstar: There were professors, there were studentsMr. McPherson: -and students, absolutely.
Mr. Vanderstar: -who had an education and got into this college and then got
some college training and went on out into the work place.
Mr. McPherson: And I am appalled to realize as you are saying this to me that I
don’t think I ever set foot on the campus, I’m not even sure where it was. And I don’t think I
ever met anybody who said, I am a professor at Texas College, nor anybody who said, I am a
student at Texas College.
Mr. Vanderstar: So was there an area of town where people who were, for
example, professors at the college, lived that you were aware of?
Mr. McPherson: That’s a tough one.
Mr. Vanderstar: That’s going back a ways.
Mr. McPherson: It is, it is really. I’m just trying to think of where our maid
lived and I would take her home, go in or see her when she was ill. When I think of that part of
town I struggle with trying to see at all. I have a general idea, it was in north Tyler and I
remember even some of the street names, but I don’t, I just can’t see Black middle-class families
-with students, certainly college students and professors-in my mind. I feel really
embarrassed not to have such a concept.
Mr. Vanderstar: Was there a newspaper in Tyler?
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: A town paper? Was there a Black newspaper that you were
Mr. McPherson: I don’t think so. You know, it’s curious. I’m sure when I was
in high school and even in college out drinking beer, that I enjoyed and told racial jokes, I am
sure I did. I am also pretty sure, for reasons I can’t be entirely sure of-although I think that it
may have to do with reading Time magazine and Newsweek and, as we were talking last time,
about these interventions in one’s life from even a small east Texas town-that if you listened to
Edward R. Murrow, and if you drew maps of the war and if you read national news
magazines-largely because you wanted to read about the war-you also read a lot of stories
about racial intolerance, racial hatreds, racial incidents. Those magazines were clearly on the
side of Blacks, they were against racism. So, despite my enjoying jokes in which “niggers”
would be featured, I was having built into me a sense of rejection of Texas racism as I had
witnessed it, as I had grown up in it. Probably, I was responding to what I perceived as racism
on the part of my father, and anti-Semitism. I was responding to that in a teenaged rejectionist
way so that, just as my 16-year-old does right now, and certainly as my 44-year-old daughter
did-she writes for the Village Voice and Rolling Stone (laughter) and just this morning was
giving me hell about some policy or other or some politician or other that I thought very well
of-I was just kicking back in the way teenagers do against their families and, I guess, the
society that they see, at least some of it.
I remember feeling when I came back from college, when I came back to Tyler
for vacations, I remember feeling this very strongly, that I was just not part of this anymore. I
didn’t believe as they did and I didn’t enjoy the mockery. In fact, one night, I remember, an old
friend, kind of the social leader of the crowd-he reminded me a little of Clifton Webb, very
witty, acerbic, gay probably, very wealthy with a roughneck millionaire father-one of those
guys who had fallen into the oil business and done very well and produced, as often happens, a
rather effeminate but witty, wonderfully well-dressed son. And I remember the son, Burt, saying
to me when I said how good it was to be back with friends, he said, “Oh, you’re not with us any
more. You’ve left us.” It was true.
You aren’t aware every time you say something that illustrates that divide, you
are not aware of it all the time, but to them, to those who are there and are based in your home
town, they see it. Even though they may have gone to Yale, the Citadel, or the University of
Texas at Austin, to a number of places to school, but then they all came back to Tyler. When I
came back from Sewanee and later from Columbia, it seemed clear to them and to me that I had
taken another road.
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes. Do you remember, on this subject, do you remember any
teacher or any clergy or anybody like that who had a direct influence on your thinking; in other
words, who really started to open your eyes to these questions, apart from reading Time
magazine and so forth, does anybody stick in your mind who had that kind of influence on you?
Mr. McPherson: Not in the sense of someone who made it his or her purpose to
do that. I know that on a number of occasions, surprising people, people that one wouldn’t have
expected to hear such things from, would suddenly speak with real sympathy about the plight of
Blacks and what it’s like to try to live among Blacks. If I had been older and listened better or
known what to listen for, I guess, among those men in my father’s store I would have discerned
differences between them. Some of these guys had come from the Midwest or some other place
out of the South and kind of gravitated to Tyler because of the oil business or the rose business,
or maybe a doctor had gone away to medical school somewhere and had a slightly different view
when he returned.
I don’t recall anybody really taking me through the steps that would have caused
me to see what racism was and how one could think in a different way about Blacks.
People say things that suddenly turn a light on, you suddenly see how it might be
different from the way you’re accustomed to. When I went to basic training in the Air Force, I
got to know a bunch of guys from Brooklyn and from Boston, fellows from working class
families expecting to live a tough life. I learned a lot from them. You go to a school like
Sewanee with a bunch of people like yourself. They are all middle class or well to do, for the
most part White, sons of clergymen, professionals, businessmen. And you don’t really see, you
don’t really live among people who aren’t in that category. The answer to your question is that I
don’t remember anybody changed me through methodical explanation. I do remember being
educated in little bursts.
Mr. Vanderstar: Do you remember becoming conscious of organizations like the
NAACP when you were, say, in high school or at SMU or at Sewanee? In other words, before
you went to Columbia, before you went into the Air Force, while you were still in the South.
When did you become, if you ever did, become conscious of the NAACP?
Mr. McPherson: Probably in the Sewanee years, in ‘47, ‘48. I remember
listening to Humphrey’s speech at the 1948 convention on the radio, and I remember staying up
all of election night and running out of my dormitory room shouting in the midnight hours that
Truman had won.
I was the managing editor of the college newspaper, the Sewanee Purple, and I
was fascinated by the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948. I was fascinated by his effort to put
together poor Whites and poor Blacks. This will-o’-the-wisp that populist politicians had chased
forever, “there is more that binds us than there is that divides us” and so on, and I don’t know
how many times I, and many other people, thought, “This is it!” Fred Harris of Oklahoma was
going to be such a guy in 1976, and then something would just happen that would cause you to
see that underneath all of that was Henry Wallace.
Anyway, I went down with a friend to Dalton, Georgia, near the Tennessee line,
where Wallace was to come and make a speech in a church. The church was inter-racial and
made a big deal of this. The ministers wore white suits, the choir was mixed, the women, girls
wearing tight-fitting sweaters with red “Vs” on them for “virgin.” And the place was hot as
Hades. We waited and waited. Right next to me was a woman breast-feeding her baby,
perspiration coming down off her forehead and pouring down her chest. We waited and finally
Wallace arrived. He was exhausted. He had been campaigning for quite a while. There were
songs, hymns, he was introduced at enormous length by this preacher who wasn’t going to miss
his chance to introduce Wallace. Wallace got out about a sentence before fainting. And so the
boy reporter from Sewanee was writing all this down, I was fascinated by Black and Whites, and
you could see the cops across the street, the local Dalton police looking as if they would like to
shoot everybody there in the church. And Henry Wallace being carried out with his feet up in
the air, on a cot, and put into an ambulance and hauled off, and the preacher was assuring us he
was fine and hoped the press wouldn’t make anything of this.
I was fascinated by racial politics. Sewanee had a mixture of genteel southern
Episcopalianism, literariness-people from Mississippi and South Carolina who wrote a
lot-plantation boys, whose families owned plantations, ministers’ sons and that kind of hightoned class consciousness, not so much racism. I’m sure to a Black it would have been racism,
but mostly those people made distance between themselves and Blacks, they didn’t try to
intervene or harm them, they just didn’t think of ever taking them into anything they had to do
with. And we were in one of the poorest counties in the United States.
Mr. Vanderstar: In Sewanee?
Mr. McPherson: In Sewanee. This is about 50 miles north of Chattanooga, 100
miles southeast of Nashville. It is up on the Cumberland Plateau. And it’s desperately poor.
There was, about ten miles away, a town called Tracy City, the home of the Tennessee Iron &
Steel Company, connected to Carnegie, and it’s just about as poor a town today as you can find.
To White people there, race issues were not difficult, you know, you just have to keep the
“niggers” down. They had no problem with that.
Mr. Vanderstar: Well, I think we will have to suspend.