Oregon State University
Oregon African American Railroad Porters Oral History Collection

Augustus Hawkins Oral History Interview, Part 1

July 1, 1992

Audio: “Augustus Hawkins Oral History Interview, Part 1” . July 1, 1992

Location: Location Unknown.
Interviewer:  Michael Grice

0:24:31 - Download Transcript (PDF)


Michael Grice: Okay Congressman Hawkins, I would like, for one, to say thank you for agreeing to give us some information and share some of your perspectives and interests and background. I want to explore, or have you explore, your career. And we're going to work frontwards from your early days until now, and then when we get into your career area you can jump around as need be or respond to my questions. I'm going to use a format which is an open-ended format so that the majority—because ultimately this will be edited, and all to your satisfaction, but it will be edited in a way that we'll take parts of it. So what I'll try to do is not talk very much. So I want you just to talk and talk freely and I'll just keep an eye on the levels and everything from there. And if Gene [spelling?], if you'll watch, can you hear through the headphones?

Gene: Yeah, yeah.

MG: If you'll watch the tape when we gone. I think it's a half an hour tape, so that'll give us a nice natural half hour break. And speak at a pace that's comfortable for you. I can check the volumes over here, so you don't need to worry too much about that. And...I'd like you to start off by giving me your full name, your background data; tell me about your family, your siblings, your mom and dad, your heritage and your location, and just deal with that part of your, who you are.

Augustus Hawkins: Well, that isn't very difficult to do. My name is Augustus F. Hawkins, better known as Gus Hawkins, G-U-S. I was born some eighty-four years ago in the little town of Shreveport Louisiana, northern part of the state. Most of my family came from the southern part of the state, in and around New Orleans. My dad was Nyanza Hawkins, my mother Helena H. Hawkins. I was one of five children, the youngest of four boys in the family. And I grew up largely in the city of Los Angeles, so consequently it meant that the family moved from Louisiana when I was about eleven years of age. I sometimes say that I moved my family away for various reasons. We spent several years in the city of Denver, and then moved westward to Los Angeles, arriving in Los Angeles in the early twenties. Most of my education then was in the city of Los Angeles. I graduated from Jefferson High School, which is located in the area that I represented in the Congress as well as in the state assembly for some twenty-eight years in both places, so that was twenty-eight years in Sacramento and twenty-eight years in the Congress; I have accumulated approximately fifty-six years in public life. That, I think, may give you some idea of at least my background.

MG: I'd like to—and I'll be pausing in between questions so that there's a lead on the tape for the question and the response—I'd like for you to discuss your childhood, particularly at the age when you were a boy playing and as you were moving into the high school, and the years of decision making. You know, high school and college. That—the significant events of your childhood, and particularly, as far as your family is concerned, the values that you inculcated as a family person growing up in your family.

AH: Well obviously I spent the first dozen years or so in the city of Shreveport. The most important thing about that I would say was that I was largely educated in private schools and by a private tutor. I attended the public school system only for several years at that time. So it was a mixture of the two. The reason for the private school was that, for various reasons; my dad, who was Catholic, favored a private school; my mother, however, favored the public schools, so I divided the time between those two institutions, public and private.


The exciting thing, as I recall about my childhood, was that because of my complexion being a white complexion in a black setting, I was not really a part of either setting, and that created problems in an area where there was extreme segregation so that on public transportation or on streetcars in those days, they had colored signs which always created a problem for me. I many times walked rather than ride the streetcar because of that, so as not to create any unusual situation. However, obviously my recollection of early childhood is not very significant to me at this period of time, because of passing years. I do recall that my dad was a staunch republican, my mother had to be democratic. So politically I had no very great political affiliation or persuasion at these early days. I do remember my dad was a very strong supporter of republican administration, and I recall such individuals as Booker T. Washington being entertained, and also provided accommodation whenever he was in the city, in our home. We happened to have a two-story home because of the large family, and many dignitaries did stay in the house as result thereof. And Roscoe Conkling Simmons, a great orator, I recall, and Booker, as I have said, Booker T. Washington and people of that level.

MG: How did people like Booker T. Washington—and if you can name the other gentleman again—come to stay at your house?

AH: Yes, it was because we lived in an area where large homes dominated the landscape. We happened to have a—one of the first large two-story homes built in the city, and as a result thereof we were able to accommodate visitors to the city. It was in the middle of a three-lot area and my dad was very, I would say, relatively well-off during those days; one of the few people in the city, a pioneer in the city who had accumulated a great deal of property.

MG: Your father?

AH: My father, yes.

MG: And your father's occupation?

AH: He was by occupation a druggist; a pharmacist. He was a graduate pharmacist and he had a drug store. Late in life before we moved away he was also engaged in transportation. He operated a taxicab service from the downtown area of Shreveport up to the small outlying towns. He also operated special exclusions up the Mississippi River between New Orleans and St. Louis and Chicago.

MG: What was your relationship with your father? I know you said you had brothers and sisters; what was your relationship with your father as it related to your advancing? So he provided for your schooling, obviously.

AH: I would say the dominant influence on my early life came on my mother's side. We were very, very close. I was the youngest of four boys in the family and my dad was very actively involved with the older children. With me it was always the mother that I favored and was very close to. Being young, relatively young in a family of five children, it was at her knee that I learned most of the things; my values, my early education and so forth.


MG: Generally you find that parents, when you think back about it, were saying something over and over again. They were reminding you about this or that, and those actually become our values, at least the way that our values are articulated. Are there any sayings that you recall or practices that were common that your mom made sure was a regular part of your interaction with her, such as "wipe your feet before you come in" or any—or I know my mom always told my brother "root hog, you got to root hog or die poor"; is there any—

AH: Well, with my family I do recall that as the older brothers went off to college and were helped in every way possible in the family, it was always the advice given to me by—particularly by my dad, that "look, you see the older children are being educated, that we're doing everything we can. By the time you are ready for college, you're going to have to make it on your own rather than expect that your family will do it." It was sort of a prophetic thing, because I didn't realize that by the time I became of college age that we would be in a recession and in Los Angeles, and so it was very prophetic that that type of spirit was planted in me; that I had—if I was going to make it, that largely it was going to be my own efforts to do it and that I could not depend on their sending me off to college and having me, in a way, helped as much as the older children.

MG: What would you say were things in your family, in your family life as you recall those early years, that you would consider constant? Did you have Sunday dinner every Sunday, was there always a bedtime story? What kind of things do you recall that were regular, constant—for you or for your siblings?

AH: The most constant thing that I can recall is that we expected, every Sunday, to go to Sunday school. That was a must. We were given a certain amount to put in the collection plate during the church services, and that no matter what we did that was drilled into us that Sunday was to be given to religious activity and that we weren't supposed to play tennis—we had a tennis court on the property—we weren't supposed to use a billiard room. My dad had built a billiard room over the garage so that we wouldn't have to go to the pool room, but we couldn't use that room on a Sunday. It was given over to religious activity. And we usually ended up with a family drive going out a certain distance out into the countryside and that type of activity, which we thoroughly enjoyed because it ended up with going by an ice cream parlor on the way back, and so we had plenty of ice cream to end our Sunday activity. The other constant thing I think was that my mother always prepared a wonderful meal on Sunday, and fried chicken was obviously the main part of the menu, and we had a wonderful Sunday dinner, and the drive and the Sunday school, those were the things we happily looked forward to every week.

MG: During your childhood, did World War I have an impact on your family? You were getting toward the Great Recession; what about World War I? Did men in your community go off to war? Was there—

AH: Well the greatest event that I can recall that one of the brothers was drafted. However, before he was drafted he had gone off to Michigan, to Michigan State Automobile School to become an automobile mechanic, because automobiles were very prominent in my dad's business and in his life, and he sent this brother off to Michigan to become an automobile mechanic. And so he went into the service largely as a result of this mechanical aptitude, but it was directly related to Word War I. My younger brother at that time, the one next to me in age, was too young to be drafted. The oldest brother was one or two years, as I recall, beyond. Beyond the draft age.


MG: The last part that I'm going to ask you about in this section: what forks in the road do you recall coming to in your early years? What were the decision points, or what do you recall about significant changes that you experienced as you progressed toward completing high school, or I guess you moved to Los Angeles when you were twelve years old?

AH: Yep, that is right.

MG: So these may have occurred as late as after you moved to Los Angeles.

AH: Well the major, I suppose, decision was in Los Angeles in secondary school. The—I was very gifted, or let's say inclined, towards mathematics, which was my specialty, and it—

MG: Let me interrupt you. I'm going ask you a question; I'm going to ask you the same question again, I want you to let me finish asking the question before you start talking, then that way the question and answer will be—so we just need one second in between. I want to ask you about any decision points that occurred for you; those forks in the road that we experience as we move along our journey.

AH: I think it relates to my decision in high school as to whether or not I would go into engineering, which I wanted to, or whether the decision I would make about college going into engineering would necessitate going away, at that particular time, to—which was my desire—to go to Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley and then to follow engineering. However, the recession developed. As a result of that, I decided that in order to save my money I would stay in Los Angeles, stay out of school for a year or two, and then accumulate enough to go on to engineering, which I did not do. I did not follow that up. The recession lasted longer. The condition of the family became quite changed, quite a change from our previous career. My dad lost all of his money in a bank failure during the Hoover Depression. And as a result of these things, I stayed in Los Angeles, I continued to work, and for that reason did not go off to—I graduated from the University of California Los Angeles. That I think was one of the major decisions in my life, a fork that I think changed altogether my career and determined that I eventually would go into public service and then an elective office, as opposed to becoming an engineer.

MG: I'm going to pursue the point about the recession, or the Great Depression as it related to your family and your dad's loss about that. What do you recall about the sequence of events that both led up to that and during and just beyond that as things changed for you? Obviously your choices about schooling and your work, and I'm not sure that I got what kind of work you were doing after high school or as you were going through college, but what about the Great Depression years that you recall and the effect that it had on your family, your father and your outlook?


AH: The effect of the Great Depression from about 1929 to 1933 had a great impact I think on the nation and on every family, and it certainly did have a very sharp impact on my family because, as I indicated, the banks closed up; whatever my dad had accumulated was lost and jobs were very scarce. I was fortunate to work in a drug store as a clerk. Primarily, you would say, using the jargon on the street; a soda jerker. And that is what really kept me in school through my early college career. In addition to putting myself through school, I was helpful in putting a brother of mine, a younger brother was put through school that way. He was in medicine, he wanted to go off to medical school. He went from USC off to [00:20:59 unintelligible] Medical School and graduated. And I helped in his education. That was largely my major activity at that time. Instead of going into a scientific type of career, I ended up graduating with a major in economics, and that led a little later to operating one or two retail businesses between my college career and the time that I went into public office.

MG: Anything else about those college years? What about your days at UCLA?

AH: The days with UCLA were very exciting, I would say. The...at that time UCLA was in transition from being an independent college and becoming a part of the University of California system. It was a time when UCLA moved from the downtown location to Westwood. The most exciting thing that I can recall from college days: in addition to the work that I did in the drugstore as a clerk, I was also doing janitorial work in a building at UCLA. There were about five of us, a very limited number of black students at that time. I recall a very good friend, Milo Easton [spelling?], who later became a teacher in the school system. Ralph Bunche, who later went into the state department, was in a class ahead of mine. Each of us had a building that we were assigned to as janitors, and I often joked with Ralph Bunche that he had the administration building and I had the girls' gymnasium, and if I'd had the administration building and he the gymnasium, that I might have become the statesman.

MG: Yeah. Anything else about your colleagues at that time that you recall? Your college chums? Anything that sticks out in your mind?

AH: The number of, as I say, close friends and minority students was very low. I recall only about five or six, and most of them were a little nucleus of young people that was struggling to get through. As I recall, they were wonderful students. We had no great problem with the matter of expectations. We had very high expectations of what we were going to do in life— [audio cuts out].

[end of interview 00:24:32]


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