Queen Mother Audley Moore interview pt. 1: The early days

Dec 11, 2018

Photo: Schlesinger Library

Editor’s Note: Liberation School continues our Black Communist History series with a transcription of an interview with “Queen Mother Moore,” a legendary figure in the Black liberation struggle. These interviews were conducted over three decades ago and the audio files have been digitized as part of NYU Tamiment Library’s invaluable Oral History of the American Left project. Liberation School has been transcribing and publishing interviews from this collection not as an endorsement of all the statements expressed in them, but to help a new generation of organizers and revolutionaries gain access to the experiences, lessons and perspectives of prior generations of U.S. communists. While much has been written in academic circles about the role of communists in the Black freedom struggle, this history is systematically omitted in history textbooks and rarer still do we get to hear from the Black radicals themselves.

Interviewer: This is a taped oral history interview with Queen Mother Moore, a leader of three generations of Black political activity, and cultural re-awakening in the United States, and I suppose, we should perhaps start from the early days in the South when things were happening which are rarely recorded for the present generation to know about.

Audley Moore: Good morning!

Interviewer: [Laughs]

Audley Moore: I am happy to be here again from Fordham University, where I’ve had the privilege of giving a lecture, some time ago. Speaking about New Orleans, I would say there never was a time when we were not in struggle. I don’t think that anybody needed to come on the scene to lead us, either. Innately in our very bones we wanted to be free, always. My father was a sheriff, a deputy sheriff in Louisiana and my little brother was playing with a little rich white boy, next door. The little boy began to cry, went to his mother, and when the father came home, he called my brother out and horse-whipped him. My brother was around ten years old, and when my father came home and heard about it, he called that white man out and horse-whipped HIM. Now, that’s my background. Those were days before Jim Crow had actually been established firmly in the South, right after Reconstruction, and I can still remember my mother going to French opera in New Orleans. I can remember my father and mother dancing. And my father belonged to the Society. And generally, the people were getting along fairly well. Then, of course, came a complete reversal on all the progress that had been made, with the establishment of the Black Code laws. The Black Code laws had many restrictions against us. The Black Code Laws established the Jim Crow, and established the fact that our people couldn’t vote. That unless you had three hundred dollars’ worth of property, you couldn’t vote, or if your grandfather had voted, then you could vote. And it established the white primaries. Just in case you could reach a poll tax and all of the qualifications, there was the white primaries, you certainly could not lay things out because there was a blanket law, saying that no Black could vote in the white primaries. At that time we had had Black leaders of every sort. Political leaders rose in the South. We had Black senators in Congress, the U.S. Congress, the House of Representatives, and we had a Black Lieutenant Governor, who had become Governor of Louisiana. We had, in my life time, Black Customs inspectors, and a Black chief of police, and Black builders, construction, builders, of great buildings there — architects and engineers. And I can remember those. So there was a great change. And the people began to fight back, as best they could, the infringement against us. So by the time that Marcus Garvey came on the scene in Louisiana, we were already in struggle, and therefore, it was not accidental that we joined, in large numbers, the UNIA.

Interviewer: Did Black people lose some of the land that they had acquired in the course of the Jim Crow period?

Audley Moore: Oh my goodness, yes, land. People was run off their land by the Klan, and the white people riding in their homes on horseback, whipping the people, running them out of town, and tarring-and-feathering people, and there was a great depression, as far as the land question was concerned. We used to think it was only jealousy but it was much deeper than that.

Interviewer: Because Abner Berry told me that in the Thirties, when they were developing the line on self-determination, the Black farmers in the South understood it as getting back the land that had been taken away from them.

Audley Moore: That’s right, you know we had been promised land. During the Civil War, there was talk about forty acres and a mule, and also General Sherman had issued a field order: number fifteen, saying that we were given land thirty miles from the shore. That all along the coast of Carolina, that were to have thirty miles. There was a great feeling of deception on the part of the government against us — that we had been cheated, you see.

Interviewer: And when the Garvey movement first came to Louisiana, was this through representatives or through Marcus Garvey himself?

Audley Moore: Well, Garvey himself came. I don’t recall if he had been invited — I’m sure he was, by our enlightened people. But when he did come the police wouldn’t allow him to speak to us. And we heard about it and we went there, as a matter of fact, and called for his appearance and then the police had prevented him from coming, and everybody vowed to go back the next night, with a guarantee that we were going to hear Garvey. So we went, all of us went. Well armed: everybody had guns, and big bags of ammunition. The police filed in the hall, and they stood up all along the side of the benches. Man-to-man, they stood on both sides of the aisle, and of course across the front. And the outer aisles, they stood. So when Garvey came in, everybody stood up, and applauded. And Garvey said, “My friends, I wish to apologize to you for not speaking to you last night, but the Mayor of the town, the Mayor of New Orleans permitted himself to be used by the police, the Chief to prevent my speaking to you and when he said that the police jumped up on the platform and said, I’ll wring him in, and when he did that, all of us stood on the benches. There were benches there, not like you have nowadays, you all wouldn’t really know what to do, you’re so to your type of chairs. We stood up, on the benches, and everybody’s gun came out. And with our hand in the air, gun pointed. Blue steel, Smith & Wesson, .44s, .38s, all kinds of guns. And everybody had a bag of ammunition. We said “Speak, Garvey, Speak!” And Garvey said, “And as I was saying…” He went and repeated himself. So the police filed out of Longshoremen Hall in New Orleans.

Interviewer: This was the longshoremen hall?

Audley Moore: The Longshoremen Hall. Now, a lot of people don’t know this but in 1872, Black men organized the first longshoremen organization.

Interviewer: This was a union?

Audley Moore: Yes and controlled the entire waterfront. Nothing came in and out of the Port of Louisiana without going, including the Customs Director — Commissioner, but what they came through Blacks. Of course, you know, they used to put on the White House, I mean on the jailhouse, the names of the whites who would support Blacks, and there was a real campaign like the McCarthy era.

Interviewer: You mean it was that, you mean if they saw a white person who was working with the Black community, they would ostracize them?

Audley Moore: Oh, oh yeah, they would more than, oh they’d tar-and-feather them! And also, they’d put their names up and they couldn’t get jobs and so on, those who voted for Blacks, you see. So we didn’t have that prejudice. You see. So they made that prejudice, the whites made that prejudice, well a certain little element of whites made that prejudice. And I can remember when this was done.

Interviewer: How did Jim Crow affect the education that Black people were receiving in Louisiana? Was there a decline in the quality of the schools, and the education during that time?

Audley Moore: Well, we had — our schools went to 8th grade. And those who went to 8th grade became teachers. My cousins were teachers, they went to 8th grade. I went to 4th grade, so I had a reasonable amount of education, therefore.

Interviewer: You only went to 4th grade?

Audley Moore: Half the way. And my grandmother used to always say, gal you have too much learning to be cutting up like you do. Once you had that kind of learning, you was expected to have a certain decorum. And so I was always conscious of that much learning until I grew up to the point where I realized that I was ignorant, and had to do something to cure my ignorance, so I had to study. But more of our people went to the Catholic school than to the public school. And there, the nuns were very diligent in teaching us our ABCs, how to read, our arithmetic and so on, they taught us. They were good, the nuns, very conscientious. And so that those of us who were fortunate enough to go to Catholic school at that period, since then the Catholic school does not hold my respect. I’ll give you one little example: In New Orleans, if you go and look at the records for 1955. Look in the newspapers in the advertisements section. You will find that they had two schools, the Catholics did, two universities in New Orleans. And the white university, they had alphabetized the courses that they were giving in both universities. That’s one little example, and I could quote more. But under “M”, when they got to “M”, in the black university had “music”, and the white university, same Catholic university, had marketing and management. You see? So this very case, I think this tells the whole story of the difference, and they always had white nuns over our black kids, in Xavier University. Now, in St Catherine’s School, we had black nuns, under the school in which I attended. And the reason why we had St Catherine’s school is because in the Catholic church, and I can recall that just as good — my mother and I went to church, on Sunday, and I was only five when she died. And now I’m seventy-five, so seventy years ago and it’s like it happened yesterday. I can recall when I went to church and there was a screen in the church, saying “Colored: Sit Here”. “For Colored Only”. And we had a pew in the church, but that was disregarded. It was disregarded. And I can remember my mother sitting back in the back seat, weeping, in the church. And incidentally, this is interesting about her weeping, because she had taught me that it was unladylike to show your feelings. And even when I was swinging once, somebody was pushing me against, my father had fine horses, a stable, a beautiful stable, and in the stable there was a nail sticking out. And somebody had laid me a swing, and pushing me sideways, a nail went in my leg and all the way to the hospital she was telling me not to show my feelings, and I didn’t cry with that big nail, big rusty nail had stuck in my leg.

Interviewer: Were your parents looked upon as leaders in the community? People who were looked up to?

Audley Moore: Oh my people had great, enjoyed great, great respect. My father was a man amongst men. Beautiful, powerful man. Beautiful man. Do you know I haven’t seen anybody as beautiful as my father in my lifetime? He was so beautiful. And my mother, my mother was very dark, and my father was the son of a white man who had raped his mother. So, a thing that I always feel terrible about, the rape of the Black women, every one almost, almost every one of us was raped. Women and young girls. And so this complexion that I have, I want reparations for it, because I had a right not to have been tampered with, my complexion has been passed on to my son, and he’s passed his complexion on to his children, which is injury beyond any — there’s no compensation in the world can repay you for changing your complexion. From having your complexion forced on you, you see. Also our names. We demand reparations for the white man imposing his names on us, taking our names completely away from us. Then forcing us to nurse his babies — we nursed his babies from our breast. All of this, you know, the injury has been horrendous to us. Then after of course, during that, during the time that I mentioned that our people enjoyed a little freedom in this country, after the Emancipation Proclamation, where the Union Army deserted our people, and the North withdrew its forces from the South leaving us to the mercy of the people under whom we had been slaves. And so, after that, not only had they imposed citizenship on us, this is something very serious. They imposed citizenship upon us, instead of allowing us to, I mean, giving us reparations, restitution, because after all they had changed us in the course of slavery from an African to a “Negro”. Then of course, they imposed their citizenship. And after they imposed citizenship upon us, which some people might think was magnanimous, after always getting your citizenship, which actually was a violation of our human rights. Because, we should’ve had a plebiscite. You see there should have been restitution, reparations, a plebiscite for us. There was none of that. So that the citizenship is illegal. But then after they did that, what did they do? They enacted their Black Code laws to deny us the very benefits of the citizenship that they had imposed on us. You see! So here we were citizens, without — we had the burden of citizenship without any of the benefits. That’s happened in our case, that’s why we have to go way back to our enslavement in order to get a correct position from our people and anybody who glosses over that whole slavery period will never get a correct — never have a correct analysis of our status in the United States. But in spite of all of that, in spite of all of that, our contributions have been something else, to this country.

Interviewer: Do you think that the strength and dignity of your father and mother, as an example, was largely responsible for your personal ability to be in the struggle for, you know, over so many years?

Audley Moore: Oh, there’s no question about it. My background, my blood, oh yes. I was born with pride, my people had pride in themselves. And I remember so many times, rich white men would come to our door to see Papa, and he said, “Tell them Papa’s eating.” No seeing to him directly. You know it was, “Papa’s eating. Have a seat”, you know, and so on. Father never ran, jumped up and ran to no white man.

Interviewer: What did he tell you to instill pride, you know, the children, you know, did he talk to your — you know — to all of you?

Audley Moore: I think it was our lifestyle, for one thing. Our very lifestyle. I remember we lived around five or six big mills, and the boss of one of the mills — we called it — “insulted” me, said, you know, wanted me for his girl. I was a little girl. And my brother broke his jaw. So that was our tradition. I remember when they first put the screens in the streetcars, my brother threw the screen out the window. Yeah, so I came from a tradition of fighters.

Interviewer: Right, right. And your father was able, and your brother were able to maintain this standard of dignity and self-respect and still survive?

Audley Moore: Of course they survived. Oh yes, they survived. They had businesses and everything, and in those days, after they put the Jim Crow signs up very few of our people rode the streetcars. They mostly rode their horses’ buggies so on, or wagons, a lot of our people had wagons. They rode that into town. But only the very down trodden rode the streetcars. Our people were too indignant to ride the streetcars.

Interviewer: When you first heard Marcus Garvey, what was the main message that came across?

Audley Moore: Well at the time we heard Garvey, I was of course in business doing fairly well, but I wanted my — I wanted to be free. I never was satisfied — to be enslaved. Garvey brought us a message the likes of which I’d never heard. He told us about the splendors of our ancient history and culture, of the great kings and queens that we had been. Of the riches of Africa, and of the kind of people that we were. And we were just enthrived to no end. All of us wanted to be Black then, just like then we recognized what had happened to us. Prior to that time, I used to feel that, “Oh, to be white would be wonderful”. Not poor white. On that very clear wanted to be rich, rich white, because many of you don’t know it, but in the South, we look down upon poor white people, we were taught to look down on them, and nobody would allow a poor white man to come into their home, he had to come around the back door. And they used to come to get food, and everything, beg us for bread, and so on, but they never was allowed in the house. “Oh poor white man”, we used to say you know, and out there. So it’s a — there’s a great contradiction, really, of the way the ruling oligarchy has shut up this country, and the mean time he was slipping and dodging with as many Black women as he could, and that way for all of them. I mean the rich. No Black women went with a poor white man. But all the rich imposed themselves on the Black woman. This was after slavery time, now, where they threatened the husbands, ran them out of town when they wanted a Black woman, ran the husbands out of town, lynched them, for Black women. Most all that lynching was for Black women, because no Black man was with no white woman. Hadn’t had nothing like that. As a matter of fact it was rich white women used to get nude and call the Black chauffeurs in the house to hand her a towel or give her something. And daring to look her, and daring not to. That’s right, if you didn’t look at her, it was an insult to her, and if he did look at her, God help him.

Interviewer: I have had people in the South tell me that there was a lot more of that kind of thing going on in the big house than anybody has ever written about: with the white women enticing the Black men, and that there were babies that were born which were handed over to Black women to raise.

Audley Moore: That’s right, that’s right, they were paid! And Black men were paid, too, to marry beautiful, Black girls so that the rich white men could have her. And I knew Black men that walked around with diamond stick pins, and diamonds in their teeth, their gold-filled teeth with diamonds setting in it. And diamonds on their walking cane, and diamonds in their bulldogs’ collars. Just paid for by these millionaire white men. Multi-millionaires. They had sporting houses where only rich, rich white men went with Black women in there. Beautiful black women. So all this talk about us being beneath him is a lie. Is a lie! He’d sneak out, every chance he could get, to come to Black women, you see.

Interviewer: That’s what Malcolm X said in that autobiography.

Audley Moore: Yes, while he, he has persecuted the Black man.

Interviewer: So when Marcus, the message that Marcus Garvey brought was very much about the whole history of Africa.

Audley Moore: From Cape to Cairo. And that really impressed me a great deal. I came up north and went to the launching of the Black Star Line. Garvey brought ships, and oh my God, just to think that we too could have ships on the ocean! And of course we had no idea of the intrigue that was in his organization. You can just imagine: here’s somebody speaking about the freedom of Africa. And you can imagine: who owned Africa? Germans, the Dutch, the French, the English, the Italians — everybody under the Sun had a piece of Africa, and you can imagine their agents would be sent into Garvey’s organization, and that’s what really happened, but I want to tell you that even to this day, we have Garvey chapters all over the country. Still need him. Even until this day, they have not killed the spirit of Garvey. Then they had all of their trained “colored” people, you know there was a time when we was “colored”, and then of course, we became “Negroes”. At first we were [slurs]. To then we became “crime in the street”, and now we’re “the Other”. Call us “the Other”.

Interviewer: “The Other”!?

Audley Moore: “The Other”! That’s what they’re calling us now, “the Other”, you see.

Interviewer: Did you know, was there much talk of Africa in your community before Garvey came?

Audley Moore: No, only about the slaves, like my grandmother had told us, that was handed down from their grandmother, you see.

Interviewer: So Garvey opened up a whole new vista.

Audley Moore: Opened up a whole new world for us, taught us about Africa, it was music to our ears. And then we understood the whole business of slavery and what had happened to us, you know. So of course I wanted the freedom of Africa and from then on, that’s been my total concern. The freedom of Africa.

Interviewer: Let’s see, you were in business for yourself, in the South.

Audley Moore: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

Thanks to the Tamiment Library for digitizing these audio files and to Scott Simpson for the transcription.