Oral History Interview with
Life-long friend of Harry S. Truman; first black supervisor appointed in the Kansas City postal system, 1948; active in local and Missouri State civic and political affairs.
Robert L. Sweeney
December 12, 1977
by Carol A. Briley
[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. ) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 March 1978
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
Robert L. Sweeney
December 12, 1977
by Carol A. Briley
BRILEY: Mr. Sweeney, I wonder if you could tell me a little about your background; such things as where you were born, maybe a little bit about your parents or your early schooling?
SWEENEY: I was born in Highland, Doniphan County, Kansas, November 14, 1895. My mother's name was Julia Sweeney. My father's name was Robert Sweeney. My father had a very unusual position. He was a horse and mule buyer.
I went to Highland School. It was one of the best schools in my opinion, and at
that time it was a mixed school. My first teacher was Miss Allie Rankin. I went through grade school and finished high school in 1912.
My mother was a very ambitious woman. She taught me how to work and save my money. When I was eleven years old, I had a team of horses. So by the time the railroad was to be built in Highland, Kansas, I had a gentleman who worked for me, named Cecil Dillon, and my own team that worked on that railroad. But I owe that thriftiness to my mother.
After finishing high school, I went to St. Joseph, Missouri. I worked for Dr. W. J. McGill, physician and surgeon. I worked in that family for seven years. In fact, I went to World War I from their home and served in the 92nd Division, 317th Sanitary Train, Headquarters Company.
After the close of the war I came back to visit Dr. and Mrs. McGill. They were very fine white people. They received me as their guest, and I stayed in the guest room. I worked for Dr. McGill until 1921 when I came to Kansas City, Missouri.
After coming to Kansas City, Missouri, I worked at several different jobs until finally in 1923 I went to work for Mr. and Mrs. A. R. Jones, 5701 Mission Drive -- millionaire oil people. That was one of the greatest experiences in my life. I was exposed not only to a fine family, who were cultured and refined, but to an environment of very fine paintings and antiques. They had paintings like "Master McKenzie," by Rayburn; "Lady Fitzgerald," by Hoffner; Gainsborough's "The Cow;" and, the "Tambourine Girl," by Gainsborough. It gave me an opportunity to
be in a very pleasant and fine environment.
I worked for Mrs. A. R. Jones until I went into the Post Office Department . I went down to the Post Office Department to do extra work during the Christmas rush in September, 1926. While I was there working as a non-certified sub, I saw the mail was getting low. Mr. George Pair was superintendent of the railway mail service where I was working. I told Mr. Fair that if we didn't clean up that terminal that the inspectors would fire me and everybody in the front office.
They gave me an opportunity to clean up the Kansas City, Missouri terminal, not-withstanding the fact that I was a non-certified sub. So after we cleaned up the terminal, he gave me a regular job of doing the janitorial work at what was known as the annex.
During that time, while I was working as
a temporary sub, I took every examination and got on the role. I passed the examination for a garageman driver. My grade was 101.51. After getting my five points for being a veteran, I was number one on the list.
I was appointed a garageman driver in 1928, and I worked in that capacity until the Postmaster General, Jim Farley, said anyone who could get a recommendation from his supervisor could take a non-competitive examination. I took the non-competitive examination and was appointed as a chauffeur-carrier. I worked as a chauffeur-carrier until December the 8th, 1948. At that time I was called in by "Boss" [Alexander W.] J. Graham, the Postmaster who was a very good friend of Mr. Truman's. He told me to turn in my cap and uniform, and I was appointed the first Negro supervisor in the Kansas City, Missouri
One very unique thing was that I did not retire like the average Post Office employee. I sent out invitations. An invitation was sent to Mr. Truman. Mr. Truman didn't come, but he sent Mr. Tom Evans to represent him at my retirement.
I retired in the Postmaster's office. Congressman Bolling was there. Randall Jessee was there. Mr. Paul Uhlmann of the Uhlmann Grain Company sent a representative. Some of the finest people in Kansas City, Missouri were at my retirement, including: Lester Milgram, Casey Jones, and Pat Doyle of the Kansas City Star.
BILEY: Could you tell me something about your relationship with President Truman? Do you remember when you first met Mr. Truman?
SWEENEY: My relationship with Mr. Truman came about in this manner. In the early 1920s when Mr. Truman was elected Judge of the Eastern Jackson County Court he was over the homes for Negro boys and girls.
I had an occasion to visit the home for Negro boys. We were invited out there by Major Earl Beck -- a very good friend of Mr. Truman's. I was so impressed with what I saw there -- the condition of the yard and surroundings, and the flowers. I went into a shop where young men were trained to be carpenters. I had an opportunity to see the young men who were learning to raise garden and foodstuffs for the table.
I also went to the girls' home where they were taught domestic relations -- how to sew or how to get a job so they could find gainful employment after they left the home.
As you know, those children came from some bad home situations -- some of the parents were not able to take care of their children.
I was so impressed with the training in that home that I wrote Mr. Truman a letter. That letter must have been written sometime in the twenties. In that letter I told Mr. Truman that I had an opportunity to visit the boys' home and the training that they were getting was something that I had not seen any other place in the country. I wanted to let him know the fine work that was being done at the Negro boys' and Negro girls' homes. They were training these young people to be useful citizens.
Incidentally, some young men and women got fine backgrounds there. I understand one became a language teacher in New York City, another is a preacher on the west coast,
and one is an assistant superintendent of schools.
Mr. Truman answered my letter about the home. I hope it is in his files here at the Library. There were some of his records which were lost. He told me this himself, and I don't know if that letter has ever been found.
He told me that it was gratifying to get a letter from a citizen not complaining about the job the county officials were doing, and it was just like a fresh breath of air to get a letter of that kind. That was the way that I came into contact with Mr. Truman, and I have maintained a friendship with him throughout the years.
BRILEY: You mentioned that you were invited to the home by Mr. Earl Beck?
SWEENEY: Yes, Earl Beck. They called him Major Earl Beck. He was a very good friend of Mr. Truman's.
A club which I belong to -- the Beau Brummell Club -- was invited to come out there and spend a day. We had an opportunity to visit the facilities there.
BRILEY: How was Mr. Beck connected with the home?
SWEENEY: He was superintendent of the home. I believe he was appointed superintendent by Mr. Truman, who was the Judge of the Eastern Jackson County Court.
BRILEY: Did you know Dr. Earl Thomas?
SWEENEY: Dr. Earl Thomas was a teacher at that home. Earl Thomas was originally trained in carpenter work. He taught those young men carpentry and other skills that would make them useful citizens.
BRILEY: To your knowledge did Mr. Truman ever visit the boys' home?
SWEENEY: I couldn't say positively, but, I believe he visited the home. And I am satisfied of his interests. Thomas Webster told me that Mr. Truman was interested in that home and in some of the boys who were ambitious and that after the boys had left the home and gone on to Howard, Fisk, or other universities that Mr. Truman contributed to their support.
There were quite a number of young men out there and that was a rural community at that time. Some of those boys in the home became acquainted with farmers and worked on the farms and saved their money. Some of those farmers were also interested in those boys and helped them secure a higher education.
BRILEY: You mentioned the name Thomas Webster?
SWEENEY: Thomas Webster.
BRILEY: Could I ask who he was?
SWEENEY: Thomas Webster is Earl Beck's son-in-law. He married Fern Beck. Thomas Webster is a studious, very fine person. He's highly educated. He was a friend of Mr. Truman's too. Tom Webster told me, no later than yesterday, that Mr. Truman told him that he encouraged those boys to go on to college, and he contributed to their support.
BRILEY: What is the next thing chronologically that you remember about Mr. Truman? Do you remember anything about his senatorial career?
SWEENEY: I was a good friend of Mr. Jimmy Pendergast, a nephew of Mr. Tom Pendergast. Jimmy Pendergast was a very close friend of Mr. Truman's. They both went to World War I together. Mr. Truman was in Battery D,
and Jimmy Pendergast served in the same battery. I as very closely aligned with the Democratic Party through my good friend Dr. William J. Tompkins, who later became Recorder of Deeds in Washington, D.C.
At that time there weren't too many Negroes aligned with the Democratic Party -- except for William J. Tompkins, Mr. Felix Payne, Dr. D. M. Miller, and Mon Holland. They stood fast with the Democratic Party.
I was aligned with my good friend Dr. William J. Tompkins. That is the way, indirectly, through the political organization that I always supported Mr. Truman -- not only when he was running for United States Senator but later when he was nominated for Vice President. I've supported him throughout his career.
In fact, in 1948 when he came here, we
had a meeting and raised some money for Mr. Truman. That's when a dollar was a dollar. He needed every bit of money that he possibly could get. Mr. Tom Evans raised money for Mr. Truman, and we turned the money over to him. We sent money to Mr. Truman when he needed money. He needed that money in 1948 because at that time he was a hundred to one shot, but I was always confident that he was going to win.
BRILEY: Could you tell me about some of the ways that you raised money?
SWEENEY: Now this is off-the-record because I was in the Post Office Department and under the Hatch Act. I worked through some other individuals.
I remember the time in 1948 when we invited a lot of people over to Dr. L. V. Miller's
and Katie Miller's home on Paseo. We had different people to donate some money at that time. We didn't raise a whole lot of money, but whatever money we raised was needed badly, I think that when we sent him that money, he was on his way to campaign in Texas.
The Dixiecrats then were talking about seceding just like in 1860. He told me that he told them from the back end of that Ferdinand Magellan that if they talked about seceding from the United States he would take the charter from their state and turn it back into a territory. He didn't hear anything anymore about them wanting to secede . So I was very much impressed with Mr. Truman because he was a very unusual person.
BRILEY: Did you ever hear Mr. Truman speak?
SWEENEY: Yes, I've heard him speak. I listened,
whenever he was campaigning. I would always be present if he was speaking locally or listen if he was over the radio or television.
BRILEY: What kind of a speaker did you think that he was?
SWEENEY: To compare him with a speaker like Alben Barkley of Kentucky, or some of those silver-tongued orators like the keynote speaker to the Democratic National Convention when Mr. Roosevelt was running, the Senator from Nebraska, I couldn't compare him with a speaker of that kind. But whatever he said appeared to go over with the people. When he spoke to those farmers in Des Moines, Iowa, it looked like he had a hundred to one chance of being elected. But the people took to him. They had confidence in him, and they voted for him. There was something about him that was unique. I don't know if anybody
can put a finger on it. He wasn't a silver-tongued orator, but what he said was meaningful. He got his message over to the common man.
Mr. Truman never got above the people. He was a humble man and sincere. People believed in him. The common man believed in him. The working man believed in him.
I remember when Mr. Truman was running for President in '48 I was working at the Post Office Department, and Mr. Dewey's supporters in the Post Office Department came down and picked out the places where they were going to be when a new Postmaster was appointed and the Democrats were kicked out.
A very good friend of Mr. Truman's, Mr. Boss Graham, was the Postmaster at that time. He was a very good friend of mine, too. I remember that we got a list of those
individuals who were so confident that Mr. Dewey was going to be elected. They didn't fare so very well in the Post Office after 1948. Some of them resigned, and some of them retired because it was a new ball game.
BRILEY: What else do you remember about the 1948 presidential campaign?
SWEENEY: I remember one time when I was very voc