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Oscar L. Chapman Oral History Interview, May 19, 1972

Oral History Interview with
Oscar L. Chapman

Assistant Secretary of the Interior, 1933-46; Under Secretary of the Interior, 1946-49; Secretary of the Interior, 1949-53.

Washington, DC
May 19, 1972
Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Chapman Oral History Transcripts]

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 1980
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Oscar L. Chapman

Washington, DC
May 19, 1972
Jerry N. Hess



HESS: All right, Mr. Chapman, to begin this morning, we have a Xerox copy from the New York Times of August 1, 1948. It's entitled: "Professionals Take Full Charge of the President's Election Campaign." It's an article by Anthony Leviero. The first two heading the list are yourself and Oscar Ewing. What are your recollections when you look back on those days? Did you regard yourself as one of the top professionals that were taking over at this time?

CHAPMAN: Well, I never thought of myself as a professional. I thought of myself as a crusader on the issues that Truman was fighting for, and that was always utmost in my mind. I developed some experience in handling a presidential campaign. I had traveled throughout eleven western states for President Roosevelt on two campaigns for him, not as an advance man, but as one of his many men


that were gathering information and putting together groups that we could get together to develop a campaign.

HESS: What two campaigns did you do that for Roosevelt?

CHAPMAN: Well, I was working in the ‘36 and '40 campaigns very much, and in the '44, too. I worked in the ‘44 campaign. The '36 campaign was an easy road. That was an easy campaign.

HESS: You didn't get into Maine and Vermont in that one?

CHAPMAN: No, I didn't. I didn't get into Maine and Vermont. I followed the instructions of Jim Farley very carefully. He was chairman most of that time, and he was a very good chairman. He had an exceptionally good chairman, far better than the average man that could manage this kind of a thing. He had a personality that was very intriguing and interesting to people. He would


give me instructions to go into certain areas, spend some time there, as much as I felt was necessary, to gather the information and get some people lined up and get them together and get them to work together. That was a lot of my work.

HESS: To build an organization.

CHAPMAN: At that time it was to build an organization out in the states; that was primarily what I was doing then.

HESS: Did you concentrate on the Western States?

CHAPMAN: Pretty much.

HESS: Did you work in Colorado?

CHAPMAN: Yes. I pretty much concentrated on the Western States. I didn't go into the South at all, because as far as I was concerned, I was not the best person to work in the South with them, because I had been too outspoken on the


issues of civil rights and things like that, and I had done several things that gave my position a good airing, a good airing to the public mind, of my feelings about civil rights for people, particularly there the Negro was the principal one that needed help. However, there are many other minorities that needed the same help, and many the very same kind of help.

You see, you get to working in the civil rights question and you work from a principle that this individual has inherent rights, as you do. You begin to follow that through in a practical sense and to bring it about in a coordinated way so that the help that you want to give to the minority groups, and the Negro especially in history; he was so far behind in doing the little thing that should have been done a hundred years ago. There were so many things that were still undone, that had not been attended to, in clarifying their rights and letting them exercise their rights.


HESS: What is your opinion of Mr. Roosevelt's view of civil rights?

CHAPMAN: Oh, I was very much impressed with his fundamental belief and his sincerity in trying to help these people. He realized that there were limitations to what any one man can do before he would lose his power in getting together an audience.

You see, in President Roosevelt's last term, he was not too well, and when he came back from the Yalta Conference (that was his last trip), he was obviously, at that time, you could see his health had deteriorated very seriously. I had the opportunity to see him, visit with him one day, and I said, "Mr. President, I hope we can get some of these basic principles nailed down in law and some legislation to protect them, because whoever succeeds you will have a hard time trying to push the program that you have been pushing."


He said to me, "You know, you're mistaken about that. People get the wrong impression on that. As a matter of fact, a man that succeeds me can push it further than I did, because the groundwork has been laid so hard and so solid that my successor can even be more aggressive about it and can push it further and probably faster than I did." He had gotten the basic work done in terms of some legislation to create some of these things.

We so often think of the civil rights program as, say, giving a minority or the Negro, in this particular case, his rights to attend meetings with white people, and participate in sitting in hotel rooms and not be excluded from the right to use of a hotel, for instance right here in Washington. They couldn't do it when we first started. Before we finished the second term of President Roosevelt, practically every hotel had come around and let us use the hotel for a Negro banquet, we'll say, and it didn't cause us any


trouble after awhile.

But what we had not accomplished, we had not gone far enough to establish his economic rights and give him the opportunity to an economic foothold into the present economy of our country and into the level of society that we were trying to maintain. There is one of the weakest points that we have at the present time on the Negro and the minority groups, the economic opportunities that we've got to work out to help him. We've got to give him some help, too, so he can be able to make his own living, make a standard of living that is substantial and is adequate for his health and welfare.

HESS: How can that be done?

CHAPMAN: That can be done in many ways. For instance, if we spent one-tenth as much time trying to find a mechanism to work out help for the poor people of this country, regardless of their color, as


we spend on trying to give Lockheed three hundred million dollars to keep their manufacturing going, you'd find it mighty fast; you'd find it mighty quick, a method to do it. It can be done. There are several ways. I don't claim to be an expert to say that this is a better way to do it than we are now doing it, but we should improve it. We ought to improve it each year a little bit, and tighten it up in the administration as we go. That has to be done, and over the course of years it will be improved.

HESS: Some black leaders point out that it's often difficult for some of their men, some black men, to join unions, or to be accepted as trainees in unions.

CHAPMAN: That was one of the hardest places that we had difficulty with, but the union people...

HESS: That picture hasn't completely changed yet today, has it?


CHAPMAN: No, it hasn't completely changed, but it has begun. It has begun with a substantial, solid backing, and it's only a matter of a few years and you'll have that, I think, the other way. I think that will clear itself away in a short time, partly because of the need for a labor force that we need to have. You've got a certain number of unemployed practically all the time. I think it was five and one half million this year, approximately.

HESS: Let's go back a little bit more to civil rights and the conditions that existed here in the Nation's capital during World War II, shall we say. Now, it wasn't until after World War II when Negroes could eat in restaurants, was it not?

CHAPMAN: That's right.

HESS: And housing was and yet today is quite a factor.


CHAPMAN: Housing is still the hardest place to break through with harmony with the community and so on.

HESS: Did you have a lot of pressure brought against the things that you were trying to do by real estate interests?

CHAPMAN: Oh, yes. They were obviously trying to oppose any advance help towards the black man's having a free choice of buying a livable house in a community which he wanted. He had a lot of trouble with that. Now that still exists to quite an extent. It's not cleared yet.

HESS: It still exists today.

CHAPMAN: Yes, it does. Now, the Roosevelt campaign contrasted with Truman's quite differently, totally different. You had two types of men, two entirely different types of men. Truman had, but most people didn't appreciate it at first, Truman had a real understanding of what I


consider the real poor people, the real man on the farm and on the street looking for work. Truman had a much better understanding of him and his problems than even Roosevelt.

HESS: To what would you attribute that?

CHAPMAN: That was the difference in their backgrounds. The thing th