If These Walls Could Talk: The Bill and Miriam Crawford Dining Room



















Miriam Crawford (1917-2011) and Bill Crawford

Introduction

Bill and Miriam Crawford were well-known activists in Philadelphia from the late 1940s. Many people first met Bill when they visited his store, the New World Book Fair at 113 S. 40th Street in West Philadelphia. Open from 1961 to 1974, the store featured Marxist and African American books; it was an invaluable resource and a gathering place for many people and for progressive cases. The Crawfords' home was an equally important setting for formal and informal political work.

Bill Crawford began a habit of placing significant memorabilia - posters, handbills, clippings, announcements from campaigns and struggles - on the walls of the family dining room in the Parkside neighborhood of West Philadelphia. Eventually, the dining room was covered with more than 500 items: four walls collaged with 40 years of social change memorabilia. The walls of their dining room chronicle four decades of their political life - and four decades of Philadelphia movement history.

Like other folk arts, these lovingly tended walls of memory and struggle trace community and convey folk history. An artistic creation in its own right, this assemblage evokes the homes and workplaces of many activists. The dining room walls record the Crawfords' involvement in the Communist party, the civil rights, Black Power, and anti-war movements, the "Stop Rizzo" campaign, and Bill's own campaign for city controller. Like an elaborate, oversized scrapbook, the walls seamlessly mix political memorabilia with favorite images of African American literary and musical figures, popular culture, cartoons, and photographs of old friends. Each piece has a story.

In 1998, when Miriam and Bill were preparing to leave their home, the Folklore Project was doing research for what would be the 1999 exhibition, "Folk Arts of Social Change." Curator Teresa Jaynes met the Crawfords who were about to leave their home of many years. We began to think about what could be done to preserve the dining room walls. Thanks to help from PFP members and the William Penn Foundation, conservators were hired to painstakingly remove the entire dining room collage, and to preserve it for reinstallation in the exhibition.

It was clear, during the brief time that "Folk Arts of Social Change" was on display at the Samuel Fleisher Art Memorial (former home to PFP), that the Crawford's dining room had meaning for many. Older activists would explain posters to their children and grandchildren. People would argue the significance of particular items. Posters and flyers would spark storytelling.

Now that the PFP has its own home, the Crawford's dining room has been permanently reinstalled, brought back home to West Philadelphia, not so very far from the Crawford's own house on Parkside. Their walls trace a lifelong engagement with social justice issues. So many words and wisdom have been shared around the family's dining room table. How do we pass on some of what these walls mean? We begin with the words of Bill, Miriam, and friends. (Let us know if you have a story to tell).

The following tracks are excerpted from recordings made by Teresa Jaynes (1997), and by Nancy Yan (2004). Thanks to: Bill, Miriam, Fanny and Doug Crawford, Bertha Waters, Nuraldeen Storey, Richard Watson, and to Sarah Whites-Koditschek for audio-editing and compiling the stories.

TRACKS

1.) Bill Crawford's bookstore. (3:36). Bertha Waters, Bill Crawford, Miriam Crawford
2.) The Crawford's dining room walls. (2:45) Bertha Waters, Richard Watson, Miriam Crawford
3.) Bill was a teacher. (3:25) Nuraldeen Storey
4.) "Thomas Henry Barnes was my grandfather." (2:15) Bill Crawford
5.) Getting the CP message out. (2:45) Bill and Miriam Crawford
6.) Moments of learning and activism. (2:29) Miriam Crawford
7.) "You know Bertha, they're not after Communists, they're really after us." (1:44) Bertha Waters
8.) "Oh yeah, I remember him." (1:01) Richard Watson

PDF of transcript

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TRACK 1.) Bill Crawford's bookstore. (3:36)

Bertha Waters:
I was walking back to 40th and Market so I could get the bus home. And I passed this bookstore and there was a Freedom Ways. I don't know if you're familiar with Freedom Ways. It's a journal about African American life and literature. And it had an article about James Baldwin. At that time James Baldwin was just emerging as a major writer. And I was fascinated with James Baldwin, so I said to my son, "I'm going to go see how much this book is, and if I buy it we may have to walk home." So I went in and here was this man, you know, and I assumed that he was either Italian or Jewish or something like that. And the first thing he said to my son was, "Oh, would you like a comic book on Russia?" So, right away I knew where he was coming from.

Bill Crawford: Someone would walk in and they would browse for three or four minutes, and maybe twenty minutes later they would come back and say, "Man, where the hell did you get all this stuff from?" They had no idea that there was a Marxist library of any sort. You know. And so in that sense, I think people came in because they saw that the Black material was an important magnet. But Marxism—Jesus, a person would just stand there and look at it—like that section over there—just stand and look at it for five minutes. It was amazing at the reaction. Some people sort of shrugged it off, but then there were people who—it sort of gave them a shot in the arm. And whether they were Marxists or not, I don't know. I don't think so. I think they just felt that this was—that this should be done. That the store should be here. It should be here. That I got from quite a few people, that I was doing a good job.

Miriam Crawford: Mostly I guess it was friends coming by, people who knew him, knew about the bookstore. And so if they were nearby they might drop in, and more and more of the younger Black people around, students some of them—a number of people have said that they learned a lot from Bill, at the bookstore, and other times. But especially at the bookstore, in discussions.

Bill Crawford: Yeah, there were two areas. The African American material. And the Marxist and Socialist materials were the two main interests, as far as I was concerned. Every once in a while I meet someone now who reminds me of that—what a good thing it was for them to participate in the struggle without having to be a part of a committee that met every other Thursday, or something like that. I felt that the store was a contribution and gave many people who wouldn't otherwise have found a place to come and express themselves. There were a core of people who felt that it was their store. I was the manager, but it was their store.

TRACK 2.) The Crawford's dining room walls. (2:45)

Bertha Waters:
I mean this is very rare. I mean people may have a lot of these things scattered around the house. But the Crawfords actually recorded everything that was going on at the time, and that had gone on in the past. So you could really see a whole panorama of African American and political history and social change history.

Richard Watson:
Well it's about the expression of a character of someone more than just a collection of posters. So the posters are a combination of things for me. They bring back a lot of memories. So that's basically where I start with: memories of the time in which these things were occurring. Although Bill was much older than I, his sensitivities were imparted to people of my generation, just through being involved in the Movement. So, a lot of people may not be able to relate to some of the interactions between Socialism, Communism, the Black Power Movement, and human rights, civil rights—all of that has a lot to do with levels of thinking and consciousness.

Bertha Waters: And the funny thing was if you went into their house, if you went into the living room, it was a typical middle American house. It was not overly impressive but certainly a very, very, respectable looking living room. And then you go into the dining room and there's this wall with all these representatives and symbols of protest. And they didn't discriminate. They had people— There were maybe a couple of extremely right-wing African Americans, but they were very, very conscientious about recording, you know, what was going on, what was happening, who were the players, you know.

Miriam Crawford: You know, it isn't just a political wall— it was almost anything that Bill might come across could end up there. I think if people are trying to learn from it, it would be more: "Open up. Accept different points of view and different activities," rather than just the Left position, that was ours to a certain extent, [and] was Bill's.

TRACK 3.) Bill was a teacher. (3:25)

Nuraldeen Storey: This anti-Communism. You know sometimes I sit back and say: "Damn. Did I go through that? Did I go through that?" Cause they used to sit out on— The FBI used to sit on my block when I was growing up. My sister was a youth organizer for the Party, and they used to sit out there, and wait for her to go to work. Wait for her to go to work. And people knew who they were, and we took a lot of ridicule. But, today I think the people in the neighborhood and the block, I wouldn't say revere, but they know what we are. And they know that we were forerunners. And we took a lot of abuse. But we came through. Not without scars now, but we got through. And there's a lot of scars in my family, believe me when I tell you.

But getting back to Bill, he was a teacher. And he taught me many things. Politics. And we worked together. And we organized together. And many times, where he was, I was there. When he ran for mayor, I was right with him. And at the time, you know, anti-Communism was still—you know it was a force. And you had to try to be careful if you could. Some people were careful—they were too damn careful. But he wasn't. He wasn't. He strolled out, and you looked at him. So you strolled out. You went out with him. And you knew there would be repercussions. But he went out. I went out. A lot of other people went out with him. But he always emphasized who he was. Where his background [was]. So he didn't make no bones about it either. He was a mulatto, but he emphasized his Black heritage. That's why he had all these—did you see his collection of books? I guess they got rid of them, but he had quite a collection. And he loved Dubois. He loved these guys. They taught him —boom boom—like he taught me. But he was a beautiful individual.

TRACK 4.)"Thomas Henry Barnes was my grandfather." (2:15)

Bill Crawford:
Thomas Henry Barnes was my grandfather, who was the son of a runaway slave. And he had a left-leaning outlook on politics, but he was a member of the Republican Party. He himself had an extensive library, which I had access to, which his grandchildren and children had access to. Which was a very important factor in my life—that there were books always available on the kitchen table or like on a bookcase like this. And also, he was full of questions. When he saw you take an interest in a book, he would thumb through it at least, you know, get acquainted with it, and then make notes on questions for you. He had this kind of interest in his grandchildren. An amazing old man in many ways. Also, something that my grandfather was reading, he would not necessarily bring it to the table, but in the course of the talk at the table, he would discuss a book he had been reading. All of the young people, all of the young people there—knew that sooner or later he would get around to you with a question on the book. What he was doing was suggesting that you should read this, but it wasn't a suggestion, it was a directive. Which I think helps. Whether it was all necessarily the best book at that time—but yet, he was consciously trying to mold this family and get them into the struggle, not just through the readings, but ideologically.

TRACK 5.) Getting the CP message out. (2:45)

Bill Crawford: Most of the work I did, well, a big part of it, were street meetings, on the street. That was a very important outlet for the CP [Communist Party] because first of all it was much easier to organize it, and we were reaching ordinary working class people. But the party, the CP was, for me, was an important vehicle because it got me to meetings outside of Philadelphia. Conferences and discussions. And the Party had schools. And organized special schools, so I got an education that I didn't get. I didn't go to college. I went to high school. But the Party schools were my source of education. We had small groups for special discussion for people in union, in a particular union local. I guess running for public office, I think was a very important CP method of getting out among millions of people, and bringing the Party forward, and also organizing particular types of struggle, say in relation to schools and getting certain types of books into schools. And it was used as a means of reaching people and developing little movements here and there around the campaign. So the question of getting Communists elected into government—we felt at that time it was a very important method of reaching people.

Miriam Crawford:
It wasn't so much getting Communists elected…

Bill Crawford: No.

Miriam Crawford:
…which wasn't expected in most cases, but giving them the opportunity to run where they could be visible and help to bring the Party's program forward.

Bill Crawford: And bringing [the] message to— reaching masses of people. That's the problem generally with these kind of things.

Miriam Crawford
: I would say he didn't decide to run. The Communist Party decided they wanted somebody to run, and finding somebody who was willing to run on the Communist ticket was not easy. Right?

Bill Crawford:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I did run.

TRACK 6.) Moments of learning and activism. (2:29)

Miriam Crawford: I guess since I was in my teens I was interested in what was going on, but I went to Brooklyn College. Brooklyn College was kind of a hotbed of radicals, I think most of the City Colleges were. This was the late part of the Depression, and young people were fed up with what was happening around them, what they were seeing, what they were hearing about it. What seems more and more important to me now, is the class division that's becoming so obvious in the country. Those who have the money get in power and use it for their own ends. And the fact that people go on fighting wars because they are sent off to do it by those who don't do it themselves, for the most part. It just doesn't make sense. Any kind of race attitudes came later in life. I don't remember any awareness at all of what was happening to Black people in earlier years, or to any other people. It came through the Party I think, more than anything else. And of course I got a lot from Bill.

I had started to work at Temple in 1958 and I worked there until 1986, and when I was at Temple I was mostly involved in library activities. I thought I could be more effective in library activities and I worked through the two organizations that covered my area of work: the American Library Association and the Society of American Archivists. In both cases putting in a lot of time on working for a broader working force, more representative of other groups in the community.

TRACK 7.) "You know Bertha, they're not after Communists, they're really after us." (1:44)

Bertha Waters: I learned about Communism during the 50s, during the McCarthy years, and I think like a lot of Black people, even Black people who weren't political, had this underlying fear, that it wasn't about Communism, it was about Black people, you know. I remember a friend of mine, a very well educated friend said, "You know, Bertha, they're not after Communists, they're really after us." In some instances that was the only medium through which Black people could see any progress being made for Blacks as a group, not for themselves personally, but for Blacks as a group. The Communists were the only ones that were organizing Black people to protest against some of the injustices. I mean I know that now. I didn't always know that, say in the 30s and 40s. I just sensed that some things they were doing [were] designed to be beneficial to Black people, and it was certainly more than was happening in the larger community. Communism, in its organizing, included everybody. And I think it always has made the larger population nervous, if Black people were prominent in any, you know, organization. No matter how worthwhile someone seemed, if you put that Communist label on them, then you could get people, you know, not to support them, and just to dismiss them.

TRACK 8.) "Oh yeah, I remember him." (1:01)

Richard Watson: Bill Crawford was by the way of being involved with the civil rights struggle, that I met him and saw him. We weren't like buddy-buddy because I was like twenty years younger. You know you meet people, you see people who make an impression. Cecil B. Moore was the main character in this scenario, in the Civil Rights Movement, for me. He was the head of the NAACP. And we were brought to the Girard College picket lines because of him. You know, his direct initiation of that picket line was why I was there with Bill Crawford. And so there was not an intellectual meeting. It was more of a meeting of seeing someone who has a distinctly different look about them. You know some people have distinctive looks. Some people could walk into a crowd and someone can';t identify that they were there. I could walk into a place and people will remember I was there. Bill Crawford could walk into a place and someone would say "Oh yeah, I remember him." He had a distinct look about him.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

"If these walls could talk" occurs thanks to the research and curatorial work of Teresa Jaynes and Nancy Yan. The exhibition was reinstalled at PFP by Kim Tieger. Recordings include Bill, Miriam, Fanny and Doug Crawford, Bertha Waters, Nuraldeen Storey, and Richard Watson. Sarah Whites-Koditschek audio-edited and compiled the stories. To visit the Crawford's dining room at PFP, call 215.726.1106.

Photo credit: Bill and Miriam Crawford in their dining room. Photo: Will Brown.

RESOURCES

Folk Arts and Social Change exhibition (1999)

Judith Emprechtinger, "'If these walls could talk. . .': Treatment of the Crawford Dining Room Collage," The Book and Paper Group Annual 19 (2000).

The Philadelphia Folklore Project is committed to paying attention to the experiences and traditions of "ordinary" people. We work to sustain the diverse folk arts of the greater Philadelphia region, build critical folk cultural knowledge, and create equitable processes and practices for nurturing local grassroots arts and humanities. We're a 25-year old independent public folklife agency; annually, we offer exhibitions, concerts, workshops and assistance to artists and communities.

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Exhibit Links:

Introduction

Audio tracks:
Bill Crawford's bookstore
The dining room walls
Bill was a teacher
Thomas Henry Barnes
Getting the CP message out
Learning and activism
They're really after us
I remember him