1. Home
  2. Library Collections
  3. Oral History Interviews
  4. Roberta Barrows Oral History Interview

Roberta Barrows Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Roberta Barrows

Stenographer-typist, Hoover White House; Secretary to appointments secretaries of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower.

Washington, D.C.
June 11, 1987
by Niel M. Johnson

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened September, 1988
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
Roberta Barrows


Washington, D.C.
June 11, 1987
by Niel M. Johnson


JOHNSON: I'm going to start out, Miss Barrows, by asking you if you would tell us when and where you were born and what your parents' names were.

BARROWS: I was born in Waynesville, Pulaski County, Missouri, on April 30, 1900. My mother was Louella Mitchell Barrows. She was born on a farm in adjoining Laclede County. My father's name was William Joseph Barrows, and he was born in Laclede County, in Lebanon, Missouri.

JOHNSON: So they're Missourians.

BARROWS: But that had nothing to do with Mr. Truman; he only knew me as a White House employee.

JOHNSON: Did you go to school there then?


BARROWS: No. I came here when I was six years old.

JOHNSON: You came to Washington?

BARROWS: Washington, D.C.

My father came in 1901, with our Congressman whose name I do not recall. He first worked in the Census Bureau, and later in the Wilson administration he was deputy to the Postmaster General.

JOHNSON: So he was in the Census Bureau and then the Post Office.

BARROWS: Yes. And I lived on Capitol Hill, in a big three story house.

JOHNSON: Near the Capitol Building?

BARROWS: We were eight blocks from the Capitol Building.

JOHNSON: Do you remember the address?

BARROWS: 907 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E. I lived there until 1951.

JOHNSON: You lived in that same building until 1951, from the age of six?


BARROWS: No. At first we rented, a few blocks away, but the house wasn't quite large enough, so we bought the Massachusetts Avenue house. I don't recall the year they bought it. I was still in grade school; I do remember that.

JOHNSON: So you went to elementary schools here?

BARROWS: I went to elementary school and high school, Central High School, which is now Cordozo. It was called Old Central High School, but it doesn't exist under that name. I went two years to Felix Mahoney's School of Fine and Applied Arts, which has gone, long since. Then my father died and I went to business school and learned to be a stenographer.

JOHNSON: What school was that?

BARROWS: I went to two. The first one was the Washington School for Secretaries, and the second one was the Temple. I think that's correct.

JOHNSON: Temple?

BARROWS: One of them is still in existence; I think the first one.


JOHNSON: This was after you got your high school diploma?

BARROWS: Yes. I then went to art school. After father's death, I had to go to work. I did work first at Suffrage headquarters, where my mother was active. That was where the Supreme Court Building now stands. It was called the National Woman's Party, and was run by the women who had picketed the White House in the First World War. One of them happened to have been my French teacher. My mother used to go there but, of course, she didn't have the time to really do anything but fold envelopes and stuff them, that kind of thing. Women had the vote by then. At that time they had what they called the Bill of Rights, trying to get it through Congress. It was sponsored by, of all people, Senators [Kenneth D.] McKellar and Cordell Hull, both of Tennessee. When my father died I went to work for the National Woman's Party at a very small salary. I liked it.

JOHNSON: What year would this be?

BARROWS: 1922; that's my recollection.

JOHNSON: Your father died in 1922?


BARROWS: In June of 1922. Then I went to business school.

JOHNSON: Then you went to business school, and lived with your mother?

BARROWS: Yes, I lived at home. I could walk up to Suffrage headquarters. It's too bad they razed that building. I'm positive that now they would not have been allowed to, because it was the old Capitol. When the British burned the Capitol, they [Americans] used that as the capitol building. And the Supreme Court met there. In my childhood, it consisted of three gray, slate-colored enormous mansions, which were boarding homes. Washington didn't have many apartments at that time. And then the National Woman's Party bought it, but I don't know when. I think in 1923 it was razed and the Supreme Court was built. But during the Civil War it was a Federal prison, and when Lincoln was assassinated, all of the culprits except Booth were quickly dumped into it. Even as a girl, when we'd go downstairs in the basement to get flags and things for big parades, you could still see the remains of the cells left from the Civil War.

JOHNSON: That was where those implicated in the assassination were held?


BARROWS: Yes. Even before, during the Civil War, it was a Union prison, and only for officers, usually Confederate naval officers.

JOHNSON: Were you an only child?

BARROWS: No. My mother had five daughters and two sons. Only one son lived.

JOHNSON: So you are one of six...

BARROWS: I'm the baby.

JOHNSON: Oh, you're the youngest.

BARROWS: The only one left, the afterthought.

JOHNSON: Did any of your brothers go into Government, Federal service?

BARROWS: No, they did not. My oldest sister and my brother were married about a year before we came here. The rest of them came to Washington and were married here. When we moved here they were young too.

JOHNSON: You're the only survivor now.


BARROWS: The last one died three years ago. They were all married; I'm the only single one.

JOHNSON: After your father died, you began work then as a...

BARROWS: I took the Civil Service exam after working for the National Woman's Party. I don't know why -- I didn't enjoy business school. I wanted to be an artist. It's just as well, I'm sure.

JOHNSON: But you were still able to do it as a hobby weren't you?

BARROWS: In other words, what happened to me was never my own doing. I was dragged, screaming as it were. So then I took the Civil Service Examination. I went to work in a small office called the Intelligence Unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The Intelligence Unit was new then, and it was an investigatory unit. It was ridiculous; it not only investigated people's income tax, it investigated their personal morals. They also enforced the Prohibition Act. I was young enough to enjoy that too. I worked there for about six years during Mr. Coolidge's administration,


and I traveled some. They'd take me on trips. That was before the FBI was put under Civil Service. Edgar Hoover -- I remember him when he was young -- was head of it. We interviewed bootleggers when they'd catch them. It was all a big joke really. We'd take their deposition; they’d go to jail for a day or two and come out and start in again.

JOHNSON: So you had to type transcripts of those interviews -- you had to record and...

BARROWS: I took it in shorthand. I had taken speedwriting. I would go to Savannah. There in Savannah were the "rum runners," as they called them then, going by boat between the Carribean islands and Cuba, to Georgia, and Florida. I've forgotten how many trips I made down there. There was one chap, I've forgotten his name, Willie somebody.

JOHNSON: To take depositions?

BARROWS: Yes. He was the Al Capone of the South.

JOHNSON: Now what year did you start work for the Intelligence Unit?


BARROWS: 1923.

JOHNSON: So you've had a long career with the Federal Government.

BARROWS: Yes, I really have.

JOHNSON: How long did that job last?

BARROWS: Well, that lasted about four years until I went over to the Board of Tax Appeals, as it was called then. It's now called the United States Tax Court. It was then downtown in the Earle Building.

JOHNSON: What year was that?

BARROWS: I don't know, in the late 1920s. A friend of mine told me of this wonderful place to work in which each judge had two law clerks; I think there were twelve judges. Each judge had a secretary, and then the law clerks shared a secretary. They paid good salaries, and in the summertime the judges -- most were men of wealth -- would go to their summer homes. Life was pretty soft. That's really why I went there.

JOHNSON: So you started working there then.


BARROWS: Well, I knew the head judge.

JOHNSON: Talking about going to the summer homes and so on, what kind of...

BARROWS: I didn't get to that point. I never saw a summer home.

JOHNSON: What kind of vacations, and what kind of pay did they give in those days?

BARROWS: Let's see, I got about $2,300 a year. I went in in February of 1929. I was in New York in '28 working for the Intelligence Unit taking depositions. I had my mother come up, and A1 Smith was the candidate against Hoover that year. Of course, we were for A1 Smith. I do remember where I was and what happened there. I had applied for the other job, and when I came home I got it. I went to work for the Tax Board in February of '29.

I loved the Tax Board. It was a court, but hadn't been named a court. In July the Chief Judge, who was an old friend from other days, called me into his office and said, "I have to tell you this; the White House, under Mr. Hoover, doesn't have enough help. Heretofore


the White House only had male help, but the girls who came in with Hoover and have been with him for years in his career, are just about exhausted. They've sent out a man to the Civil Service and they've looked up records, and they looked at yours and they've told me you have to be released and sent over for an interview." I said, "Oh, please, couldn't you get someone else?" "No," he replied, "because you're the last girl we employed. I'll tell you, I'll promise you this, if you don't like it, stay three months and I'll make someone else go." Nobody wanted to go.

JOHNSON: No one wanted to go to the White House?

BARROWS: No, you have no idea. The White House was a nice place I'm sure, but no women worked there.

JOHNSON: Is that right?

BARROWS: Really.

JOHNSON: All male secretaries in there?

BARROWS: I think there was always a female social secretary on the distaff side, but never on the President's side in the West Wing.


JOHNSON: This judge that you were working for, what was his name?

BARROWS: Benjamin Littleton.

JOHNSON: Littleton?

BARROWS: From Tennessee, a Republican.

JOHNSON: So now you're in with the Republicans.

BARROWS: East Tennessee. Politics made very little difference in the Government then, none at all. You know, if you read the papers they always say, "Washington, before World War II, was a little southern town." Well, I never lived in a little southern town to remember, but I guess it was. We were not impressed with the White House. You might come in from lunch and say, "Oh, I just saw the President and "Mrs. Whoseit' come out and take a ride," or something. "Oh, you did!" And that would be it. Mr. Coolidge took a walk every day after his nap. I can at least remember two instances when I was walking on F Street looking into windows at clothes, and bumped into Mr. Coolidge and the Secret Service.


JOHNSON: Is that right?

BARROWS: Right with the crowd. Everybody paused.

JOHNSON: Did he have just one or two Secret Service men with him?

BARROWS: Yes. Two I think; I don't know.

JOHNSON: But you would literally bump into him on the sidewalk?

BARROWS: Everybody would stop and smile, and he'd bow. He liked to walk and he loved to look in store windows; I understand he selected his wife's clothes.

JOHNSON: Did you tour the White House? Did you ever tour the White House before you...

BARROWS: I suppose I must have; we always had a lot of visitors.

JOHNSON: So you did go up to the White House to work for Hoover then?

BARROWS: I went over and we interviewed in the lobby. I told the Civil Service scout that I preferred not to


come if he could possibly find someone else. That was the Fourth of July weekend.

JOHNSON: In '29.

BARROWS: In '29, and I can remember how hopeful I was that I wouldn't have to go, after having rather begged off to the gentleman at the White House as politely as I could. But when I got to work the Monday after the holiday, I was called in again by the Chief Judge and he said, "You're it, you have to go. But I'll still give you my promise. I'll have you relieved in three months if you want to come back." He didn't blame me. So I went. I worked first in a room in the West Wing. I presume it would be