Oscar R. Ewing Oral History Interview, May 2, 1969

Oral History Interview with
Oscar R. Ewing

Attorney, Hughes, Hubbard & Ewing, New York, New York, and predecessor firms, 1919-1947; Assistant Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, 1940-42; Vice Chairman, 1942-47; Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney General, 1942 and again in 1947; Acting Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, 1946; Administrator of the Federal Security Agency, 1947-53; and organizer and member of an unofficial political policy group during the Truman administration, 1947-52.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina
May 2, 1969
by J. R. Fuchs

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Ewing 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 July 1971
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Oscar R. Ewing

Chapel Hill, North Carolina
May 2, 1969
by J. R. Fuchs


FUCHS: Mr. Ewing, I thought that we would go ahead with a few more matters concerning your administration of the Federal Security Agency and might start by asking about an attack on you by Representative Daniel A. Reed, a Republican from New York who, I believe, demanded that Mr. Truman recall you from a London Health Conference. Do you recall anything about that, sir?

EWING: Yes, I had gone to England and a number of other places in Europe to get firsthand information about how their health services were functioning and how well they were succeeding. In London I learned that the Medical Society of Muncie, Indiana had been sending money to a group over there that was opposing the British health service. At a press conference I was asked questions about it and I said that I thought it was no business of the Medical Society in Muncie, Indiana to be taking sides on the medical problems of Britain. That apparently stirred up some controversy. Lord Horder, who was the physician to King George VI, who was on the throne at that time, got into the controversy


in some way. I don't recall the details because the incident wasn't very important. After I returned home I learned that Representative Reed had demanded my recall but I don't think I even knew of it until I got back home.

FUCHS: What year was that, sir?

EWING: I think that was late in '48 or early in '49.

FUCHS: I see. The Social Security Act of 1950 was generally accorded to have been one major Fair Deal accomplishment, and I believe you appeared as a witness before committee hearings in regard to that. Do you recall anything of that situation?

EWING: That was the bill where we were able to get Social Security benefits extended to people who were permanently and totally disabled. That was something that was very much needed. If a man died who was sixty-five or over leaving surviving dependents, those dependents would get certain benefits. But if he were twenty-five and became permanently and totally disabled there were no benefits payable to him or to his dependents, yet the man was economically dead, just as much as if he had been buried


in the ground. We felt the law should be amended so that people who became totally and permanently disabled could draw benefits, and if they died their dependents should get certain benefits, too.

FUCHS: I believe that the state relief boards were against this rather strongly. Do you recall anything of that and how did you overcome this opposition?

EWING: I don't recall.

FUCHS: In 1948 you worked out an agreement, I believe, in which Gallinger Hospital in Washington, the municipal hospital, would be open to Negro doctors and that they would be accepted for residency or internship. Do you recall anything about how this came about? And the implementation of it?

EWING: Oh, yes. At that time there were only two Negro medical schools in the United States, one of which was Howard University in Washington and that was within the bailiwick of the Federal Security Agency. Shortly after I became Administrator, it was brought to my attention rather vividly that there was a great shortage of doctors in the United States and a necessity to find


ways and means to get more of them. But I was particularly concerned when I learned that there was really an acute shortage of Negro doctors. There were various counties in the South where there was not a single Negro doctor and on the whole Negroes got short shrift from the white doctors. For instance, examples were given me where Negro workmen would go to a doctor for a shot of some kind and the doctor would give him the shot right through his work overalls.

I conferred with Dr. Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University, and also with the dean of the medical school at Howard to find out if there was anything that we might do to increase the output of Negro doctors by Howard University. Dr. Johnson told me that the output of graduate doctors of Howard Medical School was severely limited by a rule of the American Medical Association, that required a medical school to have a certain number of clinical hospital beds for each student. He said that in Washington the only teaching hospital for Howard medical students was Freedman's Hospital, which was also under my jurisdiction. It wasn't a large hospital so the result was that Howard Medical School could only educate the number of students for which Freedman's Hospital


could supply the required number of clinical beds. Dr. Johnson added that in Gallinger Hospital, the great municipal hospital in the District of Columbia, the teaching privileges were only given to Georgetown University Medical School and the George Washington Medical School. Gallinger did not extend teaching privileges to Howard professors. Well, I thought that was something I might do something about. So, I first got in touch with the commissioners of the District of Columbia. They were the governing body of the city, and they recognized the problem but seemed reluctant to do anything unless I could get the two universities, that is George Washington and Georgetown Medical Schools, to agree to some change. I then discussed the problem with the presidents of the two universities. I got the most cordial cooperation from both of them and also from the dean of the medical school of George Washington, but the dean of Georgetown was very much opposed to allowing Howard medical professors having teaching privileges in Gallinger.

FUCHS: Internships?

EWING: No, they weren't internships. It was a question of


whether or not Howard professors could take their students into Gallinger and the patients there could be used for clinical teaching.

FUCHS: Was not the privilege of interning there also involved?

EWING: It was. It was involved but it was more important to get this privilege for medical professors at Howard University to take their students into the hospital in order to have clinical cases to show their students. It's an essential part of teaching in a medical school. And, as I say, the dean of Georgetown was very much opposed to it.


EWING: He just didn't want Negroes in the school, it was a pure racist attitude.

FUCHS: In the hospital?

EWING: Yes, I mean in the hospital. So, I went back to Father Guthrie, the President of Georgetown, and had no trouble whatsoever with him. I simply said, "Father, this is a religious medical school. It is a medical


school run by a church. The dean of your medical school is opposed to allowing Howard professors bringing their medical students into Gallinger Hospital for teaching purposes. I just don't see how a Christian organization can take that position."

"Well," he said, "I don't either." And he straightened that out in no time so the Howard University Medical School was given the teaching privileges.

There was also a question of how the patients would be assigned. The dean of the Georgetown Medical School argued that no white patient would consent to having a Negro doctor. I took the position that that was up to the patient, and not up to the dean of the medical school to decide in advance that the patient wouldn't want a Negro doctor. I asked what system they were then using in assigning patients between Georgetown and George Washington Medical Schools. I was told that number one was assigned to George Washington, number two to Georgetown and so on, alternately.

"Well," I said, "why don't you just include Howard as number three?"

That was finally agreed to and they had no trouble. I learned afterwards that there were a few white patients


who did not want a Negro doctor and some Negro patients who didn't want a white doctor. And it balanced out all right. So, it's been a great help to Howard University. I think they were able to increase their graduating class from seventy-five to a hundred. That figure sticks in my mind, but it could be something different.

FUCHS: Now, do you know that Negro interns were accepted in 1948 at Gallinger Hospital?

EWING: When you pin it down to 1948, I would say no, for the simple reason that even after Howard got this right to take their medical students into Gallinger, Howard made a very cautious approach. They started by taking over services only in subjects where they had really topnotch teachers. There were a few areas, I don't remember what they were, I just say pediatrics for example, I don't know that that was it, where they would be weak and they didn't take on that service until they got their own house in order and had a strong faculty in the particular subject. I'm not sure just at what point they began taking interns but it did come I'm sure.

FUCHS: The original agreement did provide that interns


would be taken on, as you recall?

EWING: As I recall, yes. And residents, too. But Howard University handled it very well. They were quite sure that they could do their part before they undertook any service.

FUCHS: Yes. Well, I have a somewhat deep interest in this because of the work one scholar is doing on civil rights and he was wondering about some of the statements made about this and when it was actually implemented; and your current biography in the 1948 issue of Current Biography stated: "Washington's Jim Crow policy toward hospital doctors was ended on February 16 , 1948 when Ewing announced Gallinger Hospital would be opened to Negro doctors and that Negroes would be accepted for residencies or internships. (They had accepted Negro patients.)" Then a recent book by Constance Green called The Secret City, Civil Rights in the Nation's Capitol, published in 1967, stated: "In 1951, the head of Gallinger Hospital agreed to accept some Negro interns, but otherwise except for a few half-hearted gestures..." and then it goes on to talk about integration in Washington and I wondered if that were just simply an incorrect


date. Then there is a letter in the files dated November 29, 1948 from the corresponding secretary of the Washington chapter of the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice which complimented the President for the part he took in the negotiations: "Which resulted in the admission of Negro interns from Howard University Medical School to Gallinger Hospital. Previous arrangements were obviously inequitable and impractical. We feel that much benefit to many will result from the action taken." Now, I wondered if you had any comment about this which was in November 1948, and also about the ' 51 date given by Miss Green in her book?

EWING: Well, after I got the arrangements made, I more or less put it out of my mind. The only thing I recall, two or three times Dr. Mordecai Johnson, who was president of Howard University, told me that everything was going fine. I really have no knowledge, after I got through with the original agreement, I have no firsthand knowledge of what happened afterwards other than what Dr. Johnson told me.

FUCHS: In regard to the statement that in 1951 the head of the hospital agreed to accept some Negro interns,


would you say...

EWING: No, I think that date's wrong.

FUCHS: You commented earlier about the transfer of the Bureau of Employment Security, which contained the U. S. Employment Service and the Unemployment Compensation program, to the Department of Labor in June '49. The Bureau of Employees Compensation functions were transferred to the Secretary of Labor in May 1950 under the Presidential Reorganization Plan Number 2 of 1949 , do you recall anything about that or were you in favor of that transfer?

EWING: I do not recall that at all because if the President wanted to transfer something out of my bailiwick he had a perfect right to do it and I would gladly go along. I wasn't trying to build an empire. I had headaches enough.

FUCHS: There was a controversy in 1951 regarding the making public of records in regard to welfare in the states. Do you recall anything of that?

EWING: Oh, yes.


FUCHS: Would you care to go into that a bit sir?

EWING: Well, that controversy chiefly involved the State of Indiana. I don't recall that any other state was involved. I've always been interested in things that go on in Indiana because it is my native state and I have a sister living there. Also I have a farm in Indiana and I am out there once or twice a year.

In order to explain the controversy to which you refer, I will have to give you some background. As originally enacted, the Social Security law contained no provision regulating the inspection of relief rolls and therefore anyone could look at them. In an election in Kentucky held in the late 1930s the Democrats got the names of all the persons on relief. These persons were called upon by party workers a day or two before election and were told that any person on relief who voted the Republican ticket would be taken off the rolls. This was cruel and utterly unjustifiable political pressure. It so shocked a Democratic Congress that they passed an amendment which prohibited the inspection of relief rolls by anyone except for official purposes. The amendment also provided that if any state permitted inspection for any other purpose the Federal Security


Administrator must cut off further payments of Federal funds for relief to the offending state.

During the late 1940s and the early 1950s two Indianapolis newspapers, the Star and the News, were conducting a vicious campaign against the relief program. The Star assigned to the job one of its