Interview with James Pruitt
Civil rights movements
An interview conducted by the African American Community Cultural and Educational Society (AACCES) as part of an oral history project documenting the lives of African Americans in the Tri-Cities during the Manhattan Project and Cold War.
Oral History Item Type Metadata
John Skinner: Ladies and gentlemen, my name is John Skinner for the African American for an Academic Society History and Recognition Committee. Our committee has been involved with ongoing interviews with African American men and women that was brought or were lured to the Tri-City area in 1943-45 for the Manhattan Project, formally became known as the Hanford Atomic Energy Commission, and subsequent projects. Tonight we have with us, we have Jim Pruitt, a long-time resident. James, excuse me, James Pruitt, a long-time resident of the Tri-City area, community activist, civil rights leader, human rights leader, youth counselor, and a number of other things. Jim also has a wealth of knowledge about the Tri-City area and Pasco, and Pasco in particular. So, we’re going to get started here, Jim, on this interview. And some of the basic questions we want to ask is in connection with the Tri-City area. Jim, when did you come to the Tri-City area?
James Pruitt: I came to the Tri-City area in 1948. I got here on June 20th, on my wife’s birthday.
Skinner: Well, James, did you come alone when you came to the Tri-Cities or Pasco or Hanford?
Pruitt: That was the only—well, another guy, a friend of mine from Los Angeles, Bill Mathias.
Skinner: Bill Mathias?
Pruitt: And I came up with me on the bus.
Skinner: Okay, okay. Jim, let me ask another question. Approximately, how old were you when you came to this area?
Pruitt: I were 22 years old.
Skinner: 22 years old, okay. Jim, when you came to the Tri-Cities, was there a particular city that you lived in, since now we have Pasco, Kennewick and Richland? Was there any one of those particular communities that you first—
Pruitt: I first lived in Richland in the barracks. Because when I got here, it was on Saturday. I went to the union hall. I worked labor. And I had a meeting with the business agent. So they dispatched me out for work Monday morning. I went to work out in Richland on the housing project up there.
Skinner: Jim, what was the name of the housing project that you went to work? Do you remember? In Richland?
Pruitt: It was—in Richland, it was Militant Sound, was the construction company that I worked for.
Skinner: The contractor that you worked for?
Pruitt: I worked for them.
Pruitt: Militant Sounds Project in Richland on the Bypass highway.
Skinner: Okay. Jim, let me back up a little bit. When you came to the Tri-Cities and, say, Pasco, or Richland barracks, where did you come from when you came here?
Pruitt: I came from Los Angeles.
Skinner: Los Angeles?
Pruitt: Los Angeles, California.
Skinner: Okay. Jim, you’re native to what state?
Skinner: Mississippi, okay.
Skinner: Okay. Let me ask you this next question, Jim. How did you hear about Hanford? Or when did you hear about Hanford? What did you hear about Hanford that—
Pruitt: Well, a friend of mine, in fact, it was my sister’s boyfriend, Emmett Hoy, came up here. And he was working out there for Militant Sound for the project where I went to work. I was working in Los Angeles, and he asked me if I wanted to make some money, to come up to Richland, Washington. So I decided to come up here and I stayed up here for six months. The dust and the tumbleweeds were so bad, I left and went back to Los Angeles and stayed three months. And I came back. And I’ve been here ever since.
Skinner: Okay. Jim, let’s talk about the social environment in the Tri-City area, you know, again, Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland, for the African American at that time, 1948. What was the relationship between the African American and the white community or the majority community at that time?
Skinner: Give me a—
Pruitt: Very, very prejudiced. Very racist. I was surprised when I came here to find a place that I had left a few years back from Mississippi and came here and found the same thing that I found in Mississippi.
Skinner: So we—again, we’re talking about we just had blatant and overt racism and discrimination towards the African American community.
Skinner: Was it, again, was that exhibited as not only—was it on the job?
Pruitt: It was on the job, it was in housing, it was in foods, restaurants, it was in the bars, in the lounges, and wherever you went, there was a sign—[LAUGHTER] If it wasn’t a sign, it was, no, we don’t serve you in here. We don’t serve your kind. We couldn’t eat. I remember 1950, Hazel Scott suing the bus station.
Skinner: Mm-hmm, when you say the bus station, was this—
Pruitt: Greyhound bus station.
Skinner: Greyhound bus station?
Pruitt: Greyhound bus station, because she was going to Richland to perform. And that was Adam Clayton Powell’s wife. She was an entertainer. She went to the bar to get some food. They were riding the Greyhound bus, she and her secretary. They told her they didn’t serve black people in there. So she went back and sat down and her secretary was white, and she goes to the bar, and they gave her the whole setup, and the whole courtesy and everything. And she said, you know, I don’t want to eat. They said, why? She said, because you refused my boss. Mrs. Scott is my boss. And they went over and asked Mrs. Scott to eat, and they apologized to her for what they had done. And she says, no, why should I eat now that I’m good for $50,000. So she sued the bus station. From 1950 to this day, the bus station has not been anything progressive, nothing.
Skinner: Okay, okay. Jim, let me speak on—or say on the economics, in terms of comparable pay at that time, we’ll say, for the white community. Doing the same work that—a black was doing the same work that the whites were doing, was it the same pay involved, or was it lesser pay?
Pruitt: No, it was the same pay, because it was union. The guys that worked in the union, it was same pay. But they tried to see that the white guys got the better jobs, the higher-paying jobs, like foreman, supervisors, and whatever.
Skinner: Okay, Jim, also on that note, we’re speaking on the—we spoke about some of the accommodations in restaurants and other public facilities. Let me ask you this question. In 1948, we had some groups that was formed in the black community. Could you give me any information on some groups that were formed? Was it the human relations committee that was formed around those times?
Pruitt: The most that I can remember started in 1949, like the East Pasco Improvement Association. That was started in 1949. Out of that, came the Tri-Cities Human Rights Commission. Mrs. Merricks and Mr. Merricks and other people, Shirley Shepard and her husband, Mr. Shepard.
Skinner: Also on that committee, did you say that was Heidlebaugh?
Skinner: Heidlebaugh was on that?
Pruitt: George Heidlebaugh.
Skinner: Okay, and we had some other members.
Pruitt: Luzell Johnson.
Skinner: Luzell Johnson, Iola James.
Pruitt: Iola James, Ray Henry. Joe Bush. Gilbert Owens. We had, I think—who was Mr.—Miner. Charlie Miner. He was one of the guys on that.
Skinner: Jim, you were also saying that you went to work in ’48, and you were working on the housing project on the Bypass highway in Richland. At that time, Jim, I know that there were African Americans working on the Hanford Project. Could you tell me if there was a large number of African Americans, a small number of African Americans, that was employed on that Department of Energy site, or the Atomic Energy Commission, or—were there many African Americans employed on that?
Pruitt: Yes, there was quite a few African Americans. I can’t give you a round figure of what it was, but there was quite a few African Americans.
Skinner: Can you recall some of the job description, the titles of some of the African Americans that did work on the Project? Were they laborers?
Pruitt: Laborer, cement finisher and painter. And a truck driver every now and then. They’re riding this truck and it wasn’t—they’d haul the honey wagon. That was the only thing that they could get. They couldn’t get no higher than that.
Skinner: So the jobs were limited—
Pruitt: Were limited.
Skinner: --to menial task jobs and also back-breaking jobs as far as laborers and stuff like that.
Pruitt: That’s right.
Skinner: And very little chance for advancement.
Pruitt: Yup, that’s right. There was no supervisors or foremans or none of that on that job.
Camera man: We need to change the tape.
Skinner: So, Jim, let me—we were just talking about employment. And obviously we see that there was a disparity in employment, and also there was—the African Americans were limited in being able to elevate themselves above just a certain level. Let me ask a question on the African American women. If they were employed, what type of employment, most generally, were the African American women?
Pruitt: Dishwashers, a few cooks (not many), bed makers, that kind of thing.
Skinner: So it would be an African American woman at that time, again, 1948, was more domestic?
Pruitt: House-making, yeah, housekeeping, more or less.
Skinner: Okay. Jim, let’s go on to social entertainment for African Americans, say, ’48, and let’s work down, work this way. What type of entertainment as far as if it’s night clubs, eating establishments, that black businessmen/businesswomen in the community—what was the social life like at that time for blacks?
Pruitt: Ho, ho, ho, ho. Well, they had one club to go to at that time. That was out on Lewis Street. What is the name of the club? I have to think. I forgot it already. But there was only one club at that time. And I think 1950 was when Mr. Moore, last of ’49, first of ’50, he had a club down there on 1st and Lewis Street. The M&M was a place where you could go and eat. It was next door there.
Skinner: When you say the M&M, [LAUGHTER] I know that’s initials for something. Do you know what the M&M stood for, as far as the restaurant or that eating establishment?
Pruitt: I don’t know what. That was the name of it. The M&M. I don’t know what—[LAUGHTER] But I was trying to think of Mr. Moore’s night spot he had there. God, I can’t think.
Leonard Moore: Poulet Palace.
Pruitt: Poulet Palace is what it was, right. Yeah, that was the swinging place in town, was the Poulet Palace. But the other place across the street over there, that was where most of the people hung out at one time when I first came in 1948. It was the only place that I know that black people could go. I have to come back to that name, because I can’t think of it right now.
Skinner: Okay, we got time, we can come back to it, Jim. Also, again, as far as black businesses, and we use the term entrepreneur here today, right or wrongly, but black businesses, were they limited at that time?
Pruitt: Oh, yes. Yes. Mrs. Iola James had a trailer court. That was her business. Mr. and Mrs. Haney had a trailer court. And eventually they had a pool hall and stuff there. It was about—you know, eventually as the years went by. And they built a tavern over there, Norse’s Tavern. And Ms. Iola James had a restaurant in there. That was kind of entertainment and that was a black business.
Skinner: Okay. What was that—you said Norse’s Tavern and you said Mrs. James had a restaurant in there. Where was that located? What was the location of that?
Pruitt: On Oregon and—was that—hmm. What was that street?
Moore: It was south of Lewis Street. It was kind of south of Lewis Street.
Pruitt: Yeah, it was—
Skinner: Columbia? Hagerman? Marvin?
Pruitt: I think it was Hagerman.
Skinner: It was Hagerman?
Skinner: Okay, okay. Mrs. James—you mentioned Mrs. James, and she had a trailer park business. Where was that located?
Pruitt: 820 South Oregon. Right in the middle of where Mr. Moore’s junkyard is today.
Pruitt: That’s where my kids was born, right in the middle of the junkyard. [LAUGHTER]
Skinner: Okay. And I know that there were other businesses, and as far as trailer park owners.
Pruitt: Aretha and Bob—Robert Dillon had a trailer court.
Skinner: Okay, what was the names again?
Pruitt: Bob—Robert Dillon and his wife, Mrs. Dillon.
Skinner: I want to make sure we get the--
[camera man]: Try not to hide your mouth with that, with your glasses.
Skinner: Okay. Also, Jim, on some of the black businesses, I know it appeared to be a number of blacks at that time, because housing was limited and substandard at most, but at that time, most of the living was in trailer parks for African Americans in Pasco, east Pasco if you want to section it off, and there was a number of trailer parks. I don’t remember the names of the individuals besides Mrs. James and Dillon. I understand that Mr. Ely had a trailer park. Ed Ely’s father. There was a Bud Walker had a little trailer park.
Pruitt: Yeah, he had a little trailer park there. Eventually, there was Dew Drop Inn. I almost forgot that. JD Evans had the Dew Drop Inn. That was a little hole-in-the-wall. We had that. It was a black business.
Skinner: Okay. Were there any other businesses that as you recall and as we’re going over this, black businessmen or women, as limited as it was as that time?
Pruitt: No, that’s about—that was it. You couldn’t live no place else in town but east Pasco. That was the limit of black businesses there and that was the—Ms. James, Iola James, and JD’s place was it. And then years after that, I guess, well, in 1955, Ed Jackson opened up the place. It was Jack’s Bar and Grill. That was the really beginning the hangout of most black people was this restaurant, this bar.
Skinner: Jim, let me go on and just speak in terms of the black community and the black churches where the blacks’ worship area. At that time—and I’m speaking, again, from the time ’48 and early years—where were the paces of worship for African American men and women and children in the area? Or was it also very limited at that time?
Pruitt: Yeah, it was. You know, they had two churches at that time. It was Morning Star Baptist Church and the Church of God and Christ was the only two churches. And Saint James was built in 1950, the Methodist church, CME church. And from the expansion came New Hope Baptist Church now, and then Greater Faith. And I understand there’s a Seventh Day Adventist in—and then there was another, Holiest Church. Reverend Vaughn, the two churches split and that was two church, one of them was the Holiest Church and the other was the Church of God and Christ, I guess, the way it split.
Skinner: James, let me again ask the question. We know the race relationship at the time was bad at worst. Jim, when did you see any changes on the horizon in the black community in the Tri-Cities? When did we start seeing some substantial changes, social change, in the area?
Pruitt: After 1964.
Skinner: And that’s dealing with—we’ll say 1964, 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Affirmative Action.
Pruitt: Yes, that’s right.
Skinner: And that was some of the most significant changes was occurring at that time for the blacks and the black community.
Pruitt: Yes, because we still could not go to Kennewick and any place, enter the clubs at night and stuff like that.
Skinner: Okay. Jim, tell me a little bit about Kennewick at that time as far as blacks being able to freely move in the City of Kennewick. It sounds there was no freedom to move in Kennewick.
Pruitt: There was no freedom to move in Kennewick. There was only one grocery store in the Tri-Cities at that time stayed open after midnight. It was Tri-City Foods. And if you go across the river to that store, the police were sitting out there somewhere. If you went anywhere like you was going downtown, they would stop you and tell you you was on the wrong side of the river. And you had to come back on this side. You could go to the movies, but that was it. When you get out of the movies, you come on back across the river.
Skinner: It was just that pervasive?
Pruitt: Yes, it was. No eating, no messing around in Kennewick, period.
Skinner: Okay. Jim was there—you know, again, we’re talking about that, you know—we’ve seen how things was blatant and pervasive. Did the African American men and women, when they did, we’ll say, cohabitate or comingle with the white community, were they subject to derogatory treatment of any kind? Were they treated with an even hand?
Pruitt: No, they weren’t treated with an evil hand. But you always stood back. You was never their friend. A lot of times, as long as you was on a job with the guys, they’d laugh and talk and treat you like you was a part of them. But then when they get off and you meet them on the street in Kennewick with his wife and kids, he acted like he didn’t know you. He wouldn’t speak to you. Sure. It was a lot of that, man. It’s like I said, I didn’t know that this place would be like that when I came here. That you couldn’t walk into a restaurant and sit down and eat. You could not do it in Kennewick.
Skinner: Okay, Jim, let’s talk about Jim—James a little bit more. James, I know that you’ve been involved in any number of activities, organizations, as I said earlier, being a human rights, civil rights, community relations, working with the youth. Jim, tell us a little bit about some of yourself and some of the miles that you’ve walked as far as some of your job descriptions over the years, being involved in the East Pasco Improvement Association and a number of other groups. Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you were involved. Obviously, you cared, so that’s why you were involved. I can remember—
[man off-camera]: Okay.
Skinner: Again, Jim—James, as I was saying, tell us a little bit about yourself. Again, because I know myself, as a younger—as a kid—I know you was involved in youth baseball, you were involved in officiating, as far as umpire, you were involved with the community relations between the City of Pasco police and the community, involved in Affirmative Action in a number of areas—Jim, tell us a bit about yourself and when you first got involved.
Pruitt: Well, I’ll tell ya, when I first came to Tri-Cities, I went out on a job, I never, never heard my name called Jim until I came here to the State of Washington. Everybody called me James; nobody in my family knew anything about Jim. My older brother was named Jimmy, and they called him Jim. But for James, I thought it was really odd. I’d tell people what my name is, and they’d say, well, we call you Jim. And I said, no, that’s my brother’s name. They didn’t understand that, I guess. I just got tired of trying to tell people that my name was James and not Jimmy. So this one white lady told me that my momma was crazy for naming my brother Jimmy and naming me Jim. And I told her if she said that again, I would slap her. [LAUGHTER]
But I got involved, because when I was a kid growing up in Mississippi, there was no place for us to work in city council, anything that would help us to make any kind of progress in life. When I came to Los Angeles, I would go into the city council meetings when I got a chance. My brother-in-law would take me in. I wanted to see what was going on. So I said, if I ever got to a place where I could work and do something, I would.
And when I came to Pasco, it was a small town. So I begin to see what was going on after I seen all the racism here. So that’s when I begin to do that. I begin to look out and see what was going on. That’s when put forth an effort to do something about this kind of thing. And marching and demonstrations that we put on and stuff like that, I was a leader in that, in the civil rights thing.
I begin the Scouts, I believe it was in 1954. I’m the first black Boy Scout master in the Tri-City area to belong to the Blue Mountain Council. I worked with the young people. Out of the 22 kids I had, I lost two of them. The rest of them has progressed very good in life. It makes me feel very good about that.
Working with the youth, Youth Council, and doing something to try to get them to understand where we had to go. Because the place was—I mean, it was bad. It was segregated. The kids couldn’t go in the swimming pool. We couldn’t go in the Memorial swimming pool and go in. They filled up a swimming pool out at the navy base out there to keep black folks from swimming in it. Those were the things that I seen that I worked on--
Skinner: Okay. So, Jim, you mentioned in 1948 that in the African American community there was a group that was formed to promote social change. What was the name of that organization? 1948, was it the—it wasn’t the East Pasco Improvement Association, was it? Or what was it?
Pruitt: The East Pasco Improvement Association was 1949.
Skinner: It was 1949.
Pruitt: 1949 was when that began. I just gave you some of the names of that. Napolea Wilson, Shirley Shepard, Mr. Shepard, Luzell Johnson, Ray Henry, Mrs. James, Mrs. Barton, Gilbert Owens. There was many people that seen that this needed to take place. These were the organizers. Mrs. Merricks and her husband organized the Tri-City commission.
Skinner: Human Relations Committee?
Skinner: Those two organizations, Jim, they were focusing on—when you say improvement, it is basically improving social conditions and economic conditions in the African American community. What were some of the projects or efforts that initially started that? Was it substandard housing, no housing, streets, water—what--?
Pruitt: Substandard housing, streets, street lights, the dusty streets that we were having and these things, for better homes and for better jobs. They worked to get me the job for the city in 1960. I’m the first black man that worked for the City of Pasco.
Skinner: Okay, Jim, I know that there was, again, I can say there’s a number of organizations that you’ve been involved with on the civil rights area, the human rights area. Jim, if I can recall that you were also City of Pasco, and I believe it was on police and community relations?
Pruitt: Police and Community Relations department.
Skinner: Okay, how did you get tied into that—
Skinner: --we’ll say, human relations program?
Pruitt: Since I was working in the black movement, and I led quite a few demonstrations and marches on the streets in Pasco and in Kennewick and also Richland, they decided to grease the squeaking wheel. That’s why I got the job. I put in the application for it and everything, but there was over 200 applications. People had doctor’s degrees that they didn’t get it. What happened, in 1969—if you remember, ’68, they had a little riot over in Kurtzman Park. In 1969, they had the riot in front of the court house in the park there. And there was over 400 that was out in the park. And police went down and they had four warrants. They went down and arrested—got the four young men they was after for drugs. They—well, it wasn’t they, it was Lieutenant Butnam, we’ll just call his name out. He hit a couple of girls with his night stick, and he drew the crowd. And the kids came back the next day with rocks, rifles, shot guns—there was over 400 people out in that park, young people. There was only three white people in that park. Lee Brush—
Skinner: A police officer?
Pruitt: Yes, Sergeant Lee Brush. And Sam Hunt was one of the teachers, and Mr.—oh, he run Columbia Light Products down there on May Street. I can’t call his name right now. But anyway, I’ll get back to that. But anyway, those kids was out there fixing to get destroyed, because they’d come to destroy the police department. They’d torn over police cars and stuff up there in the street; they’d burned down the trees in front of the court house. And they had Reverend Allen—yeah, Reverend Allen, he didn’t come, but Reverend Vaughns, Wayne Jackson, Annette Jackson and myself. And everybody spoke to those young people.
I got on the wishing well and I cried like a baby. Because I seen what was going to happen. If those kids had pulled out those guns out there and start shooting at them police, they were going to destroy them. And these was all white kids. And I got on the wishing well, and I promised them, if they would just think about it, because they were going to get destroyed—and go back home and think about it. I said, as long as there is blood in this body, I would never let this happen in this town again. I promised them that. And the kids dispersed. I went down and put in my application after that. They started sending out applications, and I went in and put in my application. That’s how I got that job.
Skinner: Okay, okay. Jim, you had also mentioned that you organized a number of marches in the Tri-Cities area of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland. Can you tell us something about the first march that you were involved in in this area here and the reason why you were marching?
Pruitt: Yes. For the same reason we’d been fighting all the time. For better housing, for better streets, for better lights and for better jobs, for better schools. Whittier School over there had rats and roaches and they had no place to put the food. The food was on the floor out there with roaches and everything else crawling trough it. The white people moved all their kids out of Whittier. There was four white kids going to Whittier School over there. Those were the things we demonstrated.
We had no black policemen, we had no black lawyers in this town. We had nothing. And why not? Why not recruit some of these people? Because they were unwelcome. And that’s why I—we did that. Mozetta Orange was one of the young people that I worked with very rapidly.
East Side Market was right in the black community. They wouldn’t hire a black person. Gene and Gerald would not hire a black person in their store. Before they would hire a black person in that store, they sold the store. And we got Roland Andrews the job there. And then Reverend Wilkins, he went to work there as a clerk. Those were the kind of things that we done.
We had Slip’s Firestone down there in the black community, wouldn’t hire no black people. Finally, when his place went up for something down there, then we got the—we hired the black man. I guess he retired a couple of years ago.
Skinner: Okay, I’m trying to think of the gentleman’s name here I believe that was working out at Slip’s Firestone. But I can’t think of it. [LAUGHTER]
Pruitt: I can’t, either. It was Wild Bill. Mr. Wild Bill, everybody know his nephew. But I also, I worked—the first 18-wheeler driver was Henderson.
Skinner: It was Henderson?
Pruitt: Yes. Not Clyde, but—
Skinner: Was it Gilbert? Gibson?
Pruitt: Yeah, Gibson Henderson. Gibson Henderson, I got him a job out at that Chevron station. Way out there, driving an 18-wheeler. Avery Johnson. Not Avery—Tony—not Tony, but the other Avery.
Skinner: Jim Avery, we call him Jeb, there’s a Henry, there’s a Larry.
Pruitt: I guess it was Tony, Tony and--
Skinner: And he had a brother named Danny.
Pruitt: No, Tony. Tony was the one. I got a job for PI. I talked to PI down there about them driving. I got him a job down there. Oh, it’s another young man, he killed his wife up in Spokane. He was a secretary when I was there with the police department. What was that boy’s name? Ah, god. It’s right on the end of my tongue, and I can’t call it. But he was driving. They were driving 18-wheelers.
Those were the kind of things that I were working for. You know, to get these positions. That’s why we had the demonstrations. In Kennewick, we demonstrated over there because nobody could go to Kennewick.
The first black man who had a house over there in 1961, he left and came over to Mr. Walker’s. It was Mr. Walker’s daughter’s husband. Mr. Walker’s daughter had the house over there. And she and her husband came over to visit him in Pasco; when they got back the house was burned down.
Skinner: This was in 1961?
Pruitt: 1961 in Kennewick. Yes. These was why we was demonstrating. Herb Jones and his family moved to Kennewick in 1965. They cut the tires on his car, broke the glass out of a brand new Ford he just had bought. These was the things we were marching for. Why not? Why not live in Kennewick, anywhere, if you wanted. We were citizens—
Skinner: And this is America, you know what.
Pruitt: And this is America. I look at it today, and people are saying we’re together. For over 400 years, we haven’t been together. And now they want to say, we are together. But we are not yet there.
Skinner: James—and obviously the story that you told about being called James, which is your given name, opposed to Jim. Is there a story behind that right there? Is there—in the past, that the white community referred to African American men outside of their given name? Jimmy, if their name was James, and that was a negative connotation?
Pruitt: Yes. And “boy.” They wanted to call you “boy,” “say, boy.” I didn’t allow nobody to call me “boy.” Because my name is James, and I feel like this, like I tell guys, I say, whatever—whoever you meet, and they give you their name, they tell you what my name is, that’s what they feel comfortable with you calling them. And that’s what they try to do. But yeah, they’d call you Bob for Robert, if your name was Robert. They wouldn’t call you by your full name.
Skinner: Your given name.
Pruitt: No, your given name, they had to put something else to it.
Skinner: So this was out of, obviously this was—
Skinner: Is it lazy or out of respect, not having respect for the African American?
Pruitt: That’s right, didn’t have no respect for them at all. None. None, and I tell you what. Believe it or not, I hit a guy in the mouth for calling me a nigger. Right here in Pasco, I hit him just like God had forgot him. And I wouldn’t’ve ever thought that that would happen. And they would do that as long as they felt like they could get away with it. And they’d call you “boy” as long as they felt like they could get away with it.
Skinner: Oh, so in other words, you’re saying as long as you allowed it to occur, it would continue to occur.
Pruitt: They would play with you out at Hanford out there. The man would come—the foreman sometime would come up and he would kick you with his knee. I’ve seen guys laugh and walk on off on me. Don’t take your feet off the ground towards me. Never. But they’d do that. And then finally a few of let them keep bumping you with your knee and then soon they start absolutely kicking. Oh, yes.
Skinner: So it was just a general disregard for African Americans, if you allowed it to happen.
Skinner: Jim, let us revisit some of the, again, some of the firsts that you had mentioned now that—some of the firsts for blacks in the Tri-Cities area. Whether it was jobs, whether it was patronizing white businesses, night clubs and not have that Jim Crow stigmatism. Can you share for us some of the first things that you recognized as far as accomplishments or positions that blacks never had held before but now was holding, stores that blacks formerly couldn’t go in but now we could go in. Could you give me some of the firsts on that, Jim?
Pruitt: Yeah, that’s what we were talking about a little while ago, when black people couldn’t go into the restaurants, job situation, they couldn’t work in the stores—the clothing stores or food stores or none of those places. I think, it was about 19—it was in the early ‘60s, before we really seen any changes to where people—and like I said, one of the things, east Pasco was a big grocery store there. We made them guys rich, and they wouldn’t hire a black person in the black community.
Skinner: And you mentioned the name of that store was Gene and Jules?
Pruitt: Gene and Gerald.
Skinner: James, as I can recall, the Gene and the Jules, their last name were Wright? If I’m not mistaken, their last name was Wright?
Pruitt: Gene Wright and Jules—I don’t know what Jules’ last name was.
Moore: Was it Meyers?
Pruitt: Might have been Meyers.
Skinner: They also had not only the Gene and Jules over in east Pasco, but they also had a Gene and Jules on the west side of town.
Pruitt: They sold Gene and Jules over there and built this one over here because they did not want to hire no black person. They wouldn’t hire no black person.
Skinner: Okay, and on that relocation of the Gene and Jules from east Pasco to west Pasco, where was the Gene and Jules Store that they built to avoid hiring blacks, where was that located? Was that located on Court and Chase?
Pruitt: Mm, that was on Court—
Skinner: Which is, it’s 20th now, but it used to be Chase.
Pruitt: That’s right. Chase.
Skinner: Used to be Chase. Was it located around that area?
Pruitt: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Skinner: Jim, you also said it, the City of Pasco, that you were the first black that was employed by the City of Pasco?
Skinner: What year was that?
Pruitt: 1960. I was employed through East Pasco Improvement Association. They fought the city. Shirley Shepard and Mrs. Heidlebaugh, Mr. Heidlebaugh, Mrs. Merricks and all of those people, Kenny Moore, he was a councilman at that time—city councilman. And they called him the East Pasco Nigger Council.
Skinner: Mm-hmm, tell us some more. Who was the mayor at that time, can you recall?
Pruitt: Let’s see, who was the mayor? Ted—what was old Ted’s name? Oh, god. I can’t call the last name. But Ted was the mayor there in 1960. He was the mayor. He was a real racist. Real prejudiced.
Skinner: Jim, you also said that you were the first black Boy Scout troupe leader in the Tri-City area, Pasco area or whatever. And you mentioned you had 22 scouts at that time. What else were you first in, Jim, in the Tri-Cities?
Pruitt: I was the first black man to run a service station. 76 Union Station down on 4th Avenue at the Dodge place. I worked for Mr. Don Hammer. He went in, he was talking to his buddy in there, and he said, I got a man here needs a job. Because my son was going to be born in February and we couldn’t work on the dam because there was too much ice, and I needed the job. He was from Louisiana, and he said, man, black guys worked the station there all the time. He said, I’ll give you a job. He gave me a job working for him and I would run the station at night.
There was people come to the station to get gas and I’d go out to serve them, and they’d ask me for Mr. Hammer or Bob. They was out to lunch or if they was going some place, I’d say, well, they’re not in right now. Can I help you? No.
So one day—one evening—one night I was there, and this lady came in and I went out to fill her tank, because I know she come by to get it full. And she asked me where was the boss? And I say, he’s gone home. He might’ve not—he wasn’t going home that night, but he went and got him a sandwich and he said he was going to leave and he was going home. So I said, he may be going home, I don’t know. Well, where’s Robert? And I said he may be going home. I’m the only one here. I said, can I help you? No.
So about that time, he went back up in the driveway. He got out and he says, what’s wrong? I said, I don’t know, that lady want to see you. So he goes over to her and he says, ma’am, can I help you? She says, yes, sir, she says, fill ‘er up. He said, James work here. He said, why couldn’t you fill her car up with gas? I said, I asked her what does she want and she asked for you. She didn’t tell me she wanted no gas. And he said, why didn’t you tell him? I didn’t want him putting gas in my car. He said, well, I tell you what, ma’am. He works here. And if he can’t put gas in your car, then we don’t need your trade.
Skinner: So this female customer, because you were an African American refused to do business with you at a station that she does business with on a day-to-day basis.
Pruitt: Yes. She would not let me fill that car up that day. So he said, if he can’t fill it up, I won’t fill it up. So she said, fill it up. And he went on the inside. So she asked me if I knew where she could get six black chickens. I said, no, I don’t. And I called Don and asked him. I said, Don. The lady ask me if you know where she could get six black chickens. He’s very squirrelly anyway. He says, well, let me see, but I don’t know, but if there’s any around I could sure get them for you. He say, why? Why you want six black chickens? She said, I want them for pall bearers. My cock is dead. [LAUGHTER] Those were the kind of things that that you get from them kind of people. A lot of people come in didn’t want me to serve them. Yes.
Skinner: And is—that’s interesting and I know it was true, Jim, but it’s really pathetic that people were that shallow and that small to not want to give individuals the same extension of the hand that they would extend to other people. It’s really sad that we have individuals in this world this way that feel that they’re out here by themselves. Jim, is there any other firsts?
Pruitt: Yes, when I was working for the city department, Buck Whistler was the supervisor there. He was so racist, he’d tell me one thing that the foreman—Herb Carr was the foreman—he would give me a job to do, and Buck would come on after he’d leave and tell me something else to do and then go tell him that I wasn’t doing what he told me to do, I was doing this. Buck Whistler was the supervisor. He didn’t want me on the job.
Skinner: So he was doing everything he could to undermine you and get you run off.
Pruitt: Until the last minute. He did it too many times. He did that one day, and Herb come to the shop. I was threading some pipe, I was cutting some water joints and threading them. And he says, why weren’t you threading them joints? I said, Buck told me to go out there and cut weeds and leave that alone. He said, Buck says you wasn’t doing what I told you to do. I said, I was there threading pipes, man. These two-foot pipes, I had to thread them at each end. I said, I was cutting pipe and threading them. He told me to go out there in the yard and cut them weeds out. He say, he did? I say, yeah, that’s what he done. So Buck came down, and I was so mad, I couldn’t wait. When he come down, I run at him. I was going to kick him up one side and down the other. So he took off.
Skinner: So, again, well, then it seems to me that you were being set up.
Pruitt: Yes, yes, but I had got tired of that.
Skinner: Being set up, as far as African American men or women, it didn’t seem like it was—
Pruitt: The thing was, John, we were trying to get unionized. He did not want a union, the city employees. So he laid three of us off in September. In 1961. It was two white boys and myself, Robert Noonan. Because we was organizing a union. Even though we did get it, oh yes, we got it.
Skinner: So Jim you trying to tell me you was a union organizer also?
Pruitt: [LAUGHTER] Yeah. There’s a lot of things, John, that I tried, you know? Because I always never had a chance when I were growing up. And I always wanted to do something to try to help young people. I’m still trying to do the same thing today. I live in Alaska, but I’m still doing it.
Skinner: Jim, let me also ask you about—you were also employed for the City of Pasco and you were in the capacity of a community relations officer between the Pasco Police Department—
Pruitt: As a liaison.
Skinner: A liaison—and the African American community. Could you tell me some parts of that job description? You’ve already shared with us on some, as far as the what they called riots or demonstration, Kurtzman Park, and also volunteer across for the Franklin County Courthouse. And you were there mediating that crowd. It sounds to me that you were able, was effective in your mediation to quell the crowd and you promised that you, as far as your involvement—tell us about that involvement with that liaison position.
Pruitt: When I went to the police department, I went there with this in mind, to bring about a better relationship between the police department and the people in the city of Pasco. Not only in the African community, but also in the white community. That was my goal. I had ballgames set up between the people and the police department, softball team. And we also had a pigs-and-the-freaks game with the police to bring about better relationship with the police department.
The police had been pretty rough on black people in Pasco. That was one of the things—I had an office set up there in the Matrix Building. And when people would be involved with the police in any way, form, they’d come to me, and I would investigate it. Police would be harassing certain people, oh yeah. That was quite a bit. That was my thing, to investigate it and find out and see what was happening and what was going on. I also got the guns out of the police department—I mean out of the cars, they were sitting up in the—they had them in the trunk. Because that’s intimidation. Intimidation to people when they see, and knowing that you got something to kill them with.
Skinner: Jim, following up a little bit more on that community relations job, liaison job you had for the City of Pasco, James, the question I want to ask of you now, what kind of cooperation did you get from the City of Pasco and Pasco Police Department? Were they committed of trying to establish better community relationship, or was it lip service?
Pruitt: No, they did. They worked very diligent with me. The city manager and the chief of police. You had a few guys in there that regretted me. There was a joke told one evening and I cussed them out. [LAUGHTER]
Skinner: Jim, did you say that, at that time was the city manager, did you mention Marv Wenniger?
Skinner: Was the city manager?
Pruitt: City manager.
Skinner: And the mayor was?
Pruitt: The mayor was Ed Hendler.
Skinner: Ed Hendler at that time?
Pruitt: Ed Hendler was the mayor at that time. Yeah, they’d work with me, and one thing the chief set up when we went in, he told the police that my job was not to investigate no cases for the police department. And he told me these words, he said, if any policeman come to you and ask you any questions about anybody out there that he should be working on investigating, I want to know about it. You see? And he will pay for it.
And any time that a person would come to me with some type of action between them and the police, and I investigated it, if there were some wrongdoings in there, that policeman was reprimanded. There was some police reprimanded. I’d write them up. I’d write them up, and I would give one of the write-ups to the chief and one to the city manager. There were some police left the department because of that.
Skinner: So they were committed to making the changes. And when you did the investigation and on your findings that there was some activities that was inappropriate, they dealt with it effectively.
Pruitt: Yes. And Al Tebaldi thanked me many times for opening doors to him that has not been opened to the police chief by inviting him into east Pasco and to different organizations and into the night spots and getting to know people and setting up the ballgames and stuff where we could have some interaction with each other. That was good. He was for all of that.
Skinner: And you say that at this time the chief of police of the Pasco Police was Al Tebaldi?
Pruitt: Al Tebaldi. Yes. And he worked with me on that very, very well. I appreciated that.
Skinner: Jim, again, you’re a person that’s multi-faceted, like I say, and involved in an incredible number of different things in the community. You also mentioned that you were involved, not only with organizing, but you also were involved with the Ironworkers and apprenticeship programs. In your involvement with the apprenticeship program, I assume—or let me ask you, were you involved in minority recruitment? Raising that window for blacks to have opportunity in building and construction trades?
Pruitt: Yes, that was a part of my job.
Skinner: Tell me, Jim, some of the encounters that you had, some of your success rates of recruiting black young men and/or women into the program. Tell us something about that.
Pruitt: Well, I’ll tell you, it’s very understandable that young people, young black men, didn’t know anything about the four crafts that black men could not participate in. It was electricians, the pipefitters, sheet metal and ironworkers. Those were four crafts that the judge recommended that no other person [UNKNOWN] could be hired except blacks for five years. We had to graduate 625 black men and women through these four locals.
Skinner: Well, this was through Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action, was it?
Pruitt: Yes, Affirmative Action.
Skinner: Blacks, African American, were not involved in the building and construction crafts in those four crafts.
Pruitt: No, that’s right.
Skinner: The reasons why they were not involved, was it closed to the father-and-son type of—
Skinner: Because I can recall myself, as I was graduating from high school, I had no knowledge of building and construction apprenticeship programs such as Electricians’ and stuff like that. So you saying that, by mandate, you had to recruit as well as graduate a number of African American men or women in a specific period of time.
Pruitt: Both, yes. Both. Both, men and women.
Skinner: Jim, you also said that recently you ran across some of the young men that you were involved in recruiting in the Ironworkers’ and it sounded like they were thanking you for reaching out and showing them the way. Jim, how does that make you feel as far as that accomplishment and being able to reach down, reach back and provide the direction?
Pruitt: Well, it makes you feel very good, John, because these guys did not understand about these different crafts. And it makes a lot of difference when you are put out in a position and you’ve never been there before. And you’re out there with all the white guys, they’re going about their business, because their dad has sat around the dinner table and talked about these things. But my daddy wasn’t able to do that. So these young men’s fathers didn’t know anything about the Ironworkers’, the Electricians’, the Pipefitters’. So we had to have a counsel. I was—what’s it called, a counsel. I worked with these guys, I recruited them, and I went on the job to see how they would function, what they needed, what their weak places was, whether they needed help. They went to school five nights a week, two hours, to learn this trade. They had to do this. And if they didn’t, then they were thrown out and somebody else was recruited.
Skinner: Jim, let me ask you this, in your area of being a counselor of apprenticeship programs, was the success rates where you thought they should be? Were they good? Were they low? Did we have a good completion rate of African Americans in the apprenticeship program?
Pruitt: I’d have to say 87%.
Skinner: That’s successfully completed the program?
Pruitt: It was good. Charlene Bell was one of my ironworkers. Her brother, Alfred Bell, was one of them. And her little brother got killed up there.
Pruitt: John? Yes. There was Ron Howard coming under that, and Tony Troy. You know Tony? Faye’s son?
Skinner: Yes, yes.
Pruitt: He’s an ironworker now. He’s getting ready to retire. Some of the guys that I had worked with that I had to get in in the morning and call them if they didn’t go to work.
Skinner: You had to jumpstart them, Jim?
Pruitt: I had to jumpstart ‘em. I’d go and I always kept my little piece under my arm, because the guys were rough. And they’d be out all hours of the night and didn’t want to go to work the next morning. And they’d get up and go, I’ll shoot you if you come in here, I’ll do this, I’ll cut your head off. And I’d go in there, well, I’m going to shoot you back. I said, you going to go to work this morning. The man need you. If he hadn’t need you, he wouldn’t have hired you. You’re going to work. I’d make them go to work. Every day. And seeing that they go to school. Every night, I was at that school. I checked them out. Every night, brother, I was out there. If there was any problem, the teacher, he reported it. He reported it to me. And I would talk to these fellas. I went on the job to see how they were progressing. I talked to the foreman whom he worked with, these guys, the journeyman. I had some guys through 19 months were journeymen. So these are the kinds of things that we worked for. We had ladies that were ironworkers. Juanita was a good ironworker. She was just one here from Pasco. They was very good. They was very good.
I met some guys last summer in the park, in the shop that’s over on 23rd up there, in June. They rushed me and was hugging me and going on. Please don’t do that, people be thinking we’re sisters. They were getting ready for retire, and they were thanking me for what I had done for them, to give them a chance in life and have something to retire. They got good retirements from these jobs. It make me feel very good, very good, I have helped somebody.
Skinner: Good. Jim, you know, on opening some of these doors, and knocking some of these barriers down—it wasn’t done voluntarily, Jim. Certain action, whether it was civil disobedience at the time, because in the majority community, the majority community just wasn’t listening. Sitting down to the round table might have worked for certain groups, but in the black community, we have sat down to the round table any hundreds of thousands of times and we still did not get any effective change.
What do you think are some of the causes that moved, for some of the social change, to break down the barriers, to get the apprenticeship program, we’re talking about college education, where we’ve always had African American men and women graduating and going to college, but through Affirmative Action, we started seeing more folks, blacks, getting involved in apprenticeship programs, going to college and graduating college. But what I’m saying is, it didn’t happen by accident; it happened because of individuals out there on the line and were calling for social change. Do you agree on that? Or not?
Pruitt: Yes. I think a lot of us—our young people was misled. I worked in OM over there a lot with young people. Three years ago, I was in Walla Walla. I had breakfast over at the Black Angus. There was two young ladies walked up, they almost looked like twins, and grabbed me, I thought they were trying to get my money, so I started scuffling with them. And they said, Mr. Pruitt, you don’t know us? And I said, no, I don’t, I’m sorry. And they said, do you remember OM? And I said, yes, I do. And I looked—
Moore: Operation Motivation?
Pruitt: Yes, Operation Motivation. And she said, I want to thank you and Trooper Kennedy for helping us to turn our lives around. She says, I’m a doctor, and the other one was a teacher.
Pruitt: And—I’m sorry. [emotional] But those kind of things make you feel good.
[camera man]: We can stop it.
Pruitt: --and on a Saturday hit a little bit of blues. That’s about it. Sunday, all day, you would hear all gospel. And the sheriff would ride around the church, is everything all right, boy? See if everything all right. So you’d be ready to go to work Monday morning. As soon as Dr. King come along and said, let’s get up and do something. We’re going backward, not moving forward. What did they do? They started bombing the black churches and killing black folks, because they begin to move out.
The ministers should tell our young people, whatever your talent is, use it. I’ve seen Milton Norwood’s little daughter blowing trumpet in the church up there. Now, she done went through four years of schooling to learn how to blow, and the minister telling her to blow for God. Don’t get out there in the streets and blow no horn. Now who going to pay her salary?
BB King, I talked to him. He and I were 80 miles apart. I said, BB, supposing we had still been in Mississippi? He said, we’d be down there smelling behind them mules. But I’m able to do something for my kids and my grandkids. He’s got 29 grandkids. He got a club set up in Hollywood, he’s got one in Memphis, he just set up one in New York. To him, that’s a job. But to black folks, because the white folks said, if you sing the blues, you going to hell, we couldn’t swim on Sundays, we couldn’t play baseball on Sundays. A lot black folks wouldn’t cook on Sundays because they done told them it’s a sin. And we still living under that old tradition.
And this is what I’m telling you young people: get out from under that. Don’t believe that kind of stuff, because all it is, they taking the Bible and keeping you on the slave. Get up. And whatever is the pleasure in your life and other people enjoy, do it. That’s what I do today. Whatever people in Georgia are doing. People call me on the phone and ask me sometime to sing a couple verses of a song in New York—that’s the truth—or Detroit or some place. I sing. Why? Because I may not have that chance again. I don’t care if it’s the blues. I sung the blues plowing the mule—I learned how to plow the mule singing the blues. And the blues ain’t nothing but—the preacher says the blues is singing for the devil.
My little blind friend up there used to play at the Black Angus here. He was playing up there in Anchorage. He offered the church to play for them. They didn’t have a keyboard player, and he play in the club. That’s his living. You know they wouldn’t let him play in that church? Because he’s playing for the devil and you can’t play for the devil and to God. And then turn around saying, you got to earn your living by the sweat of your brow. If Satan ain’t sweating I don’t know what it is.
I can’t understand why the ministers are still going through these things. It’s a shame and holding the young people back. This is one of the reasons, John, that we can’t get nowhere, is because they got the kids’ minds poisoned. They not teaching them nothing. And we have to teach them that they’re number one in their life and whatever is available to them that they want to do—go out and be a policeman, go out and be a lawyer, be a doctor, be a city councilman, be the mayor—whatever you want to be. But you don’t ever hear them say that. You don’t hear them say nothing about the people that have paved the way for us along the way.
Reverend Allen has never contributed nothing to this community. Never. And he told me, Juneteenth day down there, he had a $4 million project in Portland. I said, Reverend Allen, what about here? You live here. Well, Reverend Allen say, it’s in Portland. He ain’t never contributed nothing. And people tell me, well, it’s because of the way his family is. I’m a man. Don’t let nobody tell you what you can and cannot do as long as you right. He’s the boss of the house. How his wife going to tell him he can’t be involved in nothing? He come to one council meeting.
But they ain’t telling young people nothing. You see? I tell them, you number one in your life. Your heart is the church. Your body is your temple. Whatever you need, you look within yourself. The inner strength, the god within you is the one that give you direction. See, that house over there is a house of fellowship. That’s where people go and communicate and swap conversations with each other. But this is the house of God. This is the temple, is here, your body. And when they start telling young people this and whatever—use it. Whatever your talent is, use it.
Love, you have to find it within yourself first. When you find that, you can go anywhere in the world and find it. I have no problem nowhere I go. Peace—people say, I’m going out here and find me some peace and happiness. It starts with you. Any change you want made in life, brother, you have to start with you. Because it’s not going to change if you don’t put forth an effort. And you can sit here and pray until doomsday. Until you get up and do what you’re supposed to do, you ain’t going to get nothing. See, and people is talking about, if you got the faith of a mustard seed, the Bible said, if you got as much faith as a mustard seed, cut into four parts, one little square, you can move mountains. Now, the preachers don’t explain that. You’ve heard that before, ain’t you?
Skinner: Yes, I have.
Pruitt: But now you know what he was talking about? You know what kind of faith he was talking about? You see these big machines they built, they move the mountains. See, that’s what he was talking about. If you got as much faith, you can build these kind of things. They blow a hole in the mountain and take them big Eucs and stuff and run it in and get it out. The way they tell you that, if you have enough faith you can stand and look and pray at that mountain so long it’ll move out of your way. If there’s something in your way that—no, you’ve got to be able to move it. You got to be able.
Skinner: So, Jim, you’re saying that before the black community can help itself, help ourselves, we’ve got to get up and take some steps.
Pruitt: That’s right. We got to find ourselves. We got to find ourselves, and that’s something we have not done. We’re still dependent on somebody else. And you all know, when you talk to people that are supposed to be Christians, they’ll tell you something that’s wild and is a whole lot different from what it is in the Book. It is. And the Book has been translated 15 times. It has been translated. And you look in the Bible, now they got pictures in the Bible. See how many black people in the Bible. See how many’s in there. And I’m very angry with our ministers. Not that I’m—but you try to tell them, and they all, you wrong. Where you get your philosophy from?
But I tell y’all something, I had an experience in 1966. I was driving from here to Bellingham. I was working on Whidbey Island, I was building some barracks out on the navy base. I was driving along one evening when something called my name. I was singing, “kindly take this message to the other side.” Something called my name at the double bridges. And you ever go into Canada, when you get between—before you get to Mount Vernon, there’s two double bridges there. And just as I crossed that bridge, something called my name three times, I’m driving. Said, James, James, James. It said, live your life that others may see the life you live. Because your life may be the only Bible that they will ever read. And it scared me so bad, man, I didn’t know what to do. I put on my brakes and I was sweating like mad. And I don’t know what in the daylights said that.
1986, I was working up on Mount McKinley. I built bridges out there for Samson & Sons. We stayed out there at the camp. So in the evening, I’d usually get in my truck after I’d worked 12, 14 hours a day, sometime 18. And I’d go out there, the sun didn’t go down until 12, 12:30. I’d get in my truck and go out there, and sit out there and look at all the animals on the side of the mountain, the bears and the goats and the moose and everything, doing they thing out there. But I sat there one evening, something call my name the same way, man. And I mean it just shocked me again. I’m sitting there and it scared me. And I asked a question when it said that three times to me. I said, why me? It said, because you’re you.
That time there was some little—there were some ducks crossing the road, had some little bitty baby ducks. And all them ducks was in a little hook following they mom. And one started off, and she turned around and pecked him. And he got back in. The Spirit said something to me. If that duck can train his duckies, looking at the bears—if the bear can train his little cubbies, if the goats can train their little lambs, the cows can train their calf, why can’t we, our people, our children? Why?
You know those things that—it’s because—I don’t know. I don’t know why. But these kind of things—I don’t know why they come to me, but it did. And I think about it. And I talk to young people about these things. I still work, brother. I’m still going to the schools. I’m still going to young people’s organizations and talk to them.
Skinner: Jim, you’ve always been active with the youth in the community. As I said earlier, as I was growing up, I know that you were involved in and organized baseball. And I know, James Junior and I were also playing ball together. And you’d take us to ball games—at that time, I believe it was the Tri-City Braves.
Pruitt: I bought a $50 Cadillac from his Daddy. [LAUGHTER] And I went everywhere, to Portland, Seattle. [LAUGHTER]
Moore: We’ve got another one down there, too.
Pruitt: Do you?
Moore: We’ve got another one.
Pruitt: For $50?
Moore: A Cadillac, yeah.
Pruitt: I want it! [LAUGHTER]
Skinner: Jim, again, you have a wealth of information about folks in the community, about the signs of the times, where we were, where we came from, and we measure it in different ways. Right now, Jim, I suspect, I guess you’re retired here, right now.
Pruitt: Yes, I retired in ’89.
Skinner: Jim, I know that you were—you’ve done a multitude of things. I know you’ve been a contractor—
Pruitt: [LAUGHTER] Yes, yes.
Skinner: And you’ve been a sports official.
Skinner: And I guess when I interviewed you, you’re saying, I just had that intestinal fortitude to want to get up and want to do better for myself and see my people do better.
Pruitt: Yeah, especially young people. I want young people to have the opportunities I didn’t have. I want them to have that.
Skinner: Jim, in that same line is, where do we go from here? Do you think that African Americans acclimating more into the mainstream society, do we have a uphill battle from what you can see in the trends out here now?
Pruitt: Yes, we still have an uphill battle. Because people is not yet grasped what is happening. They still, some of us still living back in the ‘20s and the ‘30s. You’ve got to leave that. If you don’t move with time, time will leave you standing still. We have a lot of people like that. They don’t believe in what—I mean, you look at the music today. You look at the gospel, contemporary. Young people—[COUGHING] excuse me—they don’t want to go back and sing the old songs that we sang. [singing] Lord, I wanna be ready. Lord, I’m getting ready. I’m going to meet my God. You see, when young people come to the world, black people, they start teaching you to die. You going. How to get to heaven. And this is my speech. How you going to heaven if you haven’t did nothing here? We have got to learn to live here first.
And this is what we are not doing. They’re not teaching us how to live here together, John, they’re teaching us how to get to heaven. But what we going to do here first? And a lot of people here, you can talk to them about that, child, I know I’m on my way to heaven, I’m going. Look, this is your heaven and hell right here on earth, son. When you leave here, your spirit will be left, but your body’s going back to the dust. That spirit will be in the body of some other human, not yours. You’ve finished here on earth and when you are done—ain’t nobody been back to tell you how it is over there, is that old folks’ comment. So that’s why he said, don’t put off today for tomorrow for what you can do today. Because there is no tomorrow. It’s either today or yesterday.
Skinner: Jim, you know, again, in a black community, uphill struggle from where we may have been 50 years ago to now, young people’s better access to education—quality education, maybe a little finer—I’m not going to say finer minds, but now they have some credentials because of their college education. Do you think that the young people and seeing more with a college education, are they going to be able to benefit and help blacks move vertically? Progressively vertical enough, vertical movement. Do you think because of more blacks are being educated that they’re going to be able to reach out and be more salvation because of their education?
Pruitt: I hope so. I hope so. I hope they’re not selfish. But a lot of us are. And I hope—they should reach back. And that’s what I always try to do. If I get three steps up on the ladder, I like to have someone on the second behind me. See, as we step up the ladder, we should always be able to look back and bring somebody else along with us. And I hope—and that’s what I tell young people each day that I talk to them. Don’t forget where you came from. Don’t forget your sister, your brother, your African American. Don’t forget where you come from. Always try to help those that need help. I hope it brings about a change.
Skinner: Jim, so you’re saying then, don’t forget from whence you came.
Pruitt: That’s right.
Skinner: And speaking of selfishness, the selfishness, you’re hoping that by having access to education, that we’ll be able to look at things conceptually and not keep starting back off at square one. That we can be able to move forward with the knowledge and progressively move up vertically.
Pruitt: Right. And I think—what I was saying, if our ministries, too, in the community. Because they have the crowd, they have the majority of the people. They have a chance to help young people more than what they do instead of holding them back. But they tell them what you can and what you cannot do. That’s not right. And I think if we could get them to understand, they’re not helping the young people in the way they’re teaching them. They’re not teaching them how to live here on earth and how to get out and do things and help that person that needs help that’s a little bit less fortunate than they are. They ain’t teaching them that. You don’t ever hear that. All they talk about is what Paul done and what John done and all of these people back—that’s fine.
But bring in some of these people. You never hear anything about Dr. Martin Luther King. You never hear them say anything about Randolph Philips. You never hear George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington. You never hear them say anything about that. You never hear them say anything about Jackie Robinson; you never hear them say anything about Muhammad Ali. And look at most of the things that have changed in the last 70 years since I’ve been living. Who has changed it? Black folks. Muhammad Ali, what did he do? He refused to go to service, didn’t he?
Skinner: He was a conscientious objector.
Pruitt: Yes. What did he do? Didn’t he change the way we go into the service now? Did he change that?
Skinner: Yeah, he was a modifier on a number of things.
Pruitt: Didn’t Dr. King change the whole world? You ain’t never seen people demonstrating and marching and—after Dr. King, all of this come about. Booker T. Washington. George Washington Carver. Granville T. Woods.
Moore: Thurgood Marshall.
Pruitt: Thurgood Marshall. Then you ask the average black person right now, who invented the first telephone, who will they tell you? Who invented the first telephone?
Skinner: They’ll say Alexander Graham Bell. [LAUGHTER]
Pruitt: It wasn’t. Granville T. Woods was the first man who invented—he sold out to Bell. The first cowboy. The first cowboy hat was worn—who wore it? A black man. They taken that from him. The horseshoes, the cowboy boots. Black man. Pencil sharpener, the piano. The grease device you grease your car with. All those things. The two-cylinder gasoline, the refrigerator, the fan up there. You know why he invented that? The clock was a—all of these things. You ask black people, they don’t know anything about this. But the black man got tired of fanning all the time. They had to fan boss. And he invented that. He got tired of working from can to can’t. From the time I can see until the time I can’t, you had to work. He invented the clock. These things, we don’t teach our kids none of this stuff.
And when I tell young people, I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to have to go through what I went through. And I know you guys are young men, you haven’t through what I gone through from Mississippi and Louisiana and all those places where I’ve lived. But try to tell them they’re the best, because if you don’t, they want to slip you but right back in the same place you was in the ‘20s. And if you don’t tell them how you came through and what life is about so far as you can, then it’ll be easy for them to slip back in there. Because they don’t say anything about it in the church.
Now, see, white people do. That’s why they churches and their businesses—they don’t care about you being in there. Because they can’t talk about it when you’re involved. When I went to the police department, it made a great difference, a great change. Because I was sitting up in every meeting, and when something come down, brother, I was right there. And they couldn’t get in there and talk about us and call us names and different kind of stuff, because I was there. And that’s why I tell young people, get involved. As long as you’re on the outside, you don’t know what’s going on in the inside. But when I was on the inside—hey. A lot of people that I had to—they knew what was going on. Yeah. But they don’t want you there whupping his mom and his daughter and his sister. And he ain’t going to be whupping yours. But as long as he ain’t got nobody in there to protect that, he going to dog ‘em. Yeah.
Skinner: Jim, again, you have a lot of interesting information that we would love to glean. We don’t have a lot of time, because I know you’re getting ready to go back to Alaska tomorrow morning. But Jim, before we end this interview—and like I said, it’s been good. Jim, we want to thank you. There’s no question about it, we definitely want to thank you because you’ve definitely helped us out. But, Jim, I want to go back and I want to touch on one thing. Jim, and I know that you have been musically inclined, been involved in entertainment, singing, choirs, night club groups and stuff like that. Tell me—tell us a little bit about where you got—you also mentioned that you learned to sing the blues behind a plow line and a mule. Tell us something about how you—
Pruitt: Well, I’ll tell you, I started plowing when I was five years old. And all my folks sing. I started singing plowing that mule. I listened to the rhythm of the mule’s harness. The hames would be—you know what the hames is? Them things that go around his neck on the collar. The traces—the traces are the chains that run down to the plow. And the mule would walk, and he had more rhythm than the drum and his ears would flop just like—and he was stepping to that. And I learned to sing from that.
And I remember the first blues song that I learned to sing, it was Louise. And I started singing that song one evening. I’ma sing just a little bit of it for you. And the guys across the field over there—that’s why we didn’t have no telephone, because they could holler so loud. I was singing [singing] Louise, Louise. You the sweetest girl I know. Oh, Louise. You’re the sweetest girl I know. Well, you made me walk from Chicago down to the Gulf of Mexico. And somebody over there, the next cut over there would holler, say, hey, James, say, sing that one more time. [LAUGHTER] And I would sing it again. But my dad didn’t know no better, he said, boy, you’re going to hell, singing the blues. [LAUGHTER]
But I did. I learned—I remember the first gospel song that I learned to sing. I sang that in church when I was five years old. “There’s no room at the hotel.” And I still know every word of that song today. I’m going to sing a little bit of that for you. [singing] There’s no room, no room at the hotel. There’s no room, no room at the hotel. When the time fully come for my savior to be born, they said, I’ve no room, no room at the hotel. They said, bell boys, the porters and the waitress, high maids and cooks, will be a witness in judgment because they saw them overlooked. Well, they heard the manager say, when he turned poor Mary away, he said, there’s no room, no room at the hotel.
Skinner: That was the first that you sang, five years old.
Pruitt: That was the first. And I sang that up in the night club in Anchorage, Alaska. And people just, they were talking about they wanted to hear that.
Skinner: Well, Jim, as I’ve said, you’ve been involved in church choirs, different quartets, little groups around over the years. What was the first group that you performed with here locally in the Tri-Cities? Do you know the name of the group? Can you remember?
Pruitt: The Christian Travelers.
Skinner: The Christian Travelers?
Pruitt: The Christian Travelers, 1949.
Skinner: 1949? Who was on—
Pruitt: John Tharps, we called Peewee, was a tenor stringer. Joe Straws was the first lead singer. And Otis Denham.
Skinner: Who now?
Pruitt: Otis Denham.
Pruitt: Yeah, he lives in Spokane now. He’s 87 years old. He’s kind of feeble—my foster brother. I’m going up to see him probably before I leave. I gotta go up—I told him—he called me this evening. I said, well, I’m going to put it off. I was going to leave tomorrow, but I’m going to wait and go Sunday, because I don’t have to catch the plane until Monday night.
Skinner: Oh, okay, okay.
Pruitt: So I’m going to go up and see him. Otis Denham, he was the baritone singer. Me, I was the bass singer. They made me sing bass. I never sang bass before. Because I used to sing seven different voices. But since I trained my voice to sing down, I can’t go—I can go, [singing] oh—I can go down, but I can’t go up to the high no more. But Cassalee Turner was the first tenor. Peewee was the second tenor. Otis Denham was the baritone, and I were the bass. But I got something I’m taking up to him is one of the old recordings that we had back in the ‘50s.
Moore: You have a recording?
Moore: You have a recording still?
Moore: Oh, okay. Hmm.
Skinner: Well, you know, that’s interesting, also, Jim, because not only is that keepsake information for you, I know our group is interested in materials such as that. Having access or copies or whatever, because we feel it’s so important for us to document and put contributions that African Americans have made and things they’ve been involved with. We’re trying to gather this information. So that’s why it perked our interested that you have a copy.
Pruitt: Yeah, I think in 1952, we broadcast some Sunday mornings out of Pasco.
Skinner: Do you remember what station it was?
Pruitt: Yeah, Pasco.
Skinner: I know. Was there any call letters at that time?
Moore: It was KEPR, wasn’t it? That’s the only thing—
Pruitt: Yeah, KEPR.
Skinner: Was it? In ’52?
Moore: Mm-hmm, I was there.
Skinner: Well, I know there was—
Pruitt: We broadcast every Sunday morning for 30 minutes.
Skinner: Or was it K-I-M-A? K-I-M-A, being—I’m just trying to think because before we had the KEPR radio station here or television station, the broadcast was coming out of the city of Yakima.
[camera man]: Go ahead.
Skinner: Jim, again, you shared with us a number of things, again, on the last we were talking about your music involvement, being involved in some local choirs and entertainment in general. And I know that you’ve been involved in any number of groups, and entertained any number of businesses and night clubs around the Tri-City and around the country and stuff like that. Can you tell me the second group that you got in—became involved in as far as music?
Pruitt: Yes, the Heavenly Harps, here in Pasco. That was the second group. And then I went down in Los Angeles and I was with the Rainbow Gospel Singers there for a while. And also in Las Vegas, the Clouds of Joy. I was with the Clouds of Joy in Las Vegas. We set up Local Number 11 down there with Odessa Perkins, was with the Ward Singers at one time. Ward’s was—Ward Singers were a professional group. I was with that group for a while.
Skinner: Well, Jim, again, as I’ve said that you—
Pruitt: But I would like to say this, John. When I first started singing, I remember, here—the first time I went to blues, I never sang blues in the club before until 1969. I was drawing $42 a week. Ed Jackson came to me and asked me if I would want to sing. I said, man, I don’t sing the blues; I sing gospel. But I was drawing $42 a week. He said, I’ll pay you $130 if you will sing, and I’ll give you the band. You take the band and you go ahead. I’ll pay you. It was easy $130 a week if you take that, if you sing and help keep the young people out of here. Because you know everybody, and keep them out of the club.
And I went and talked to my wife. She said, if I were you, I wouldn’t sing. I don’t know. Because people are going to say you ain’t nothing if you go and sing, because you’ve been singing gospel. I said, baby, I said, I got bills to pay, I got my kids to feed. I said, nah, you know? What am I going to do? $42 a week ain’t very much. I said, the man offered me that and I can still draw my unemployment and I’d make enough to where we can eat and pay our light bill and everything until spring come, maybe my jobs’ll come back. She said, no, I don’t think I would do that. I said, well, sweetheart, this is one time I’m going to have to overrule you. I’m going to take this.
And I went down and started to sing. I held no office in the church. I still went to church, but you know, nobody ever said anything to me about it. But they didn’t agree with me singing down in that club. But the members, the choir members of each church were paying $2.50 a night to come to Jack’s Pit and Grill to hear me sing. And we had more fun—because to me, it was a job. I wasn’t there women-chasing and getting drunk and all that. I was trying to make some money. That’s what I done.
People who got mad at me because they said I wasn’t a Christian. But I am a Christian. And a lot of people don’t know what a Christian is. You ask most people, say, what is a Christian? A Christian is Christ-like. A Christian is not a murderer; they don’t harm people, they don’t destroy. I’m not a peace-breaker; I’m a peacemaker. And anywhere you go, you will find that within me.
Anywhere I go in Anchorage, Alaska, they call me Mr. Pruitt. In Fairbanks, they call me King James. [LAUGHTER] They do. And I ask the young people, why y’all call me Mr. Pruitt? You think I’m getting old? But I get that kind of respect. I go to the Hilton, I go to the band, to the Sheraton, to the—any of those places I go. And if I go in there, I bet you I can go in there and stay in there for three minutes and my table’s going to be full of people. I don’t go and tell people, you ought to go do this, and you oughtta go—I tell how life has been with me. And what’s on the inside of me. And people enjoy that.
This is what I’m saying, the minister’s afraid to go out in the community and go into these places. See, if you were such a strong person, why should you be afraid to go in? I don’t want to go to where young people live. I’m where young people are. Young people keep you hopping. They keep your mind—you don’t have time to think about them aches and pains and them hurts. But when you sit around with them old folks, child, say, my old knee hurting me so bad and my old hip hurting me so bad, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t want to hear that.
My next birthday, I’ll be 78 years old. I get up and I go, I say, I got a little combo. I sing two nights a week. I sing gospel in the club. Black folks told me, you don’t sing gospel in the clubs. You don’t sing that. Mahalia Jackson turned out a million dollar contract. She didn’t sing in no club. Why not? That’s where you’re supposed to sing. That’s where the preacher’s supposed to go. He said, go into the hedges and highways.
And I go in there, old woman 89 years old, I went in the VFW and she said, Mr. Pruitt, do you sing gospel? I said, yes, ma’am. She said, will you sing some for me, please, sir? I did “Just A Closer Walk with Thee,” wasn’t a dry eye in the house when I got through. [LAUGHTER] There wasn’t any white people.
But I mean, this is what it’s about and what I’m doing. I’m not going in there to get drunk. Because drinking is something I ain’t never cared about. Now, I take a drink every now and again, but I ain’t never cared about no drinking and stuff. But I am concerned about people. Young people, man, I’d do anything in the world to help them. And I try—all my grandkids, I try to talk to them, try to show them the way and help them to understand. But you know, if you don’t have some backing sometimes, it’s hard.
Skinner: Yes, it is.
Pruitt: And like I said, you can go to church and everything else, but if you ain’t got some backings, you don’t learn. And I’m still—the preachers, used to be the preachers and teachers used to be the outstanding people in the community. The preachers sold out. They want some money. Bring the tithe. And they don’t think about what the young people going to do.
Skinner: Mm-hmm, yup.
Pruitt: Just do this today. And I wish that they would wake up and start doing something and taking the bridle off of young people and tell them to go. You know, whatever your talent is, go out there and do it. As long as you ain’t going out there and killing and robbing and stealing and doing things that’s not good for your life. But whatever your talent is, go out there and do it.
Skinner: Jim, I want to say this right here. The African American for an Academic Society History and Recognition Committee truly thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule and interviewing with us. And I want to say it was a pleasure. It was a pleasure.
Pruitt: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Skinner: Yes, and we glad to have you. Jim, is there anything else you want to add at this time to the interview? If you want to ad lib or—just feel comfortable saying—
Pruitt: Well, I would like to say that it’s a blessing that you guys are doing this, because this has never been done before. I think a lot of people actually are afraid to come forward and say something. But me, I’m like Paul. Silver and gold have in number such as I have, I give of thee. So I’m glad to see you doing this. And I walked in and saw Lynn down in the park, I was surprised. It did me good to see you down there. And the few people on the chart there that I named, I saw that he was interested in that, and that’s good. That’s beautiful. I wish you could get some more young people involved in that, in this, to—
Skinner: Well, we’re trying now, Jim. That’s the whole reason behind this. We want to be able to reduce to paper, video, the contribution that African Americans have made, and with the hope that we can get the black community more involved in a number of programs and as you say, being on the inside. Again, Triple-A-S as far as an organization is invested in the young people. We’re just basically trying to get the information together and trying to get the information out. So we’re glad we’re able to do it and we’re hoping that when we do put the finished product together, that the community folks or folks in the community or folks that may see this exhibit would be appreciative that someone took the time to tell the story that my family or part of my family or someone I know came this way in the Tri-Cities.
Pruitt: Well, I’d like to say something else. Kurtzman Park over there, the black men that put that park together that was given to us. Every tree that was sent out over there, these hands dug them up. Me and one white boy, Roy Hagerton.
Skinner: What was his name again?
Pruitt: Hagerton. We went out to Job’s and we went out there and worked four hours on a Saturday morning, and he gave us those trees. While we would go in there, other men was digging the trenches for the waterlines. Some of the guy were out at the old navy base up there digging up the pipes that had been given to us, and St. John’s Trucking was hauling them over to Kurtzman Park, free.
Skinner: Did George Kurtzman donate this land, was it to the City of Pasco, or—
Pruitt: Old Man Kurtzman?
Skinner: Or was it to—
Pruitt: He dedicated that to the park. Yeah, he dedicated that to us.
Skinner: So the initial work that went into what we now know as Kurtzman Park, but I remember it first as Candy Cane Park.
Pruitt: It ain’t never had been Candy Cane.
Skinner: It never had?
Pruitt: Never been. It’s always been Kurtzman.
Skinner: Well, you know, for some reason, I’m wondering why I’m getting the Candy Cane.
Pruitt: That’s Kurtzman.
Skinner: I know it’s Kurtzman Park, but I remember when they—now, we look at the park as the physical size it is now. When it was initially put in there, they had a merry-go-round, a monkey bars, an elephant slide there, and if I’m not mistaken it says Candy Cane Park, but maybe I’m wrong.
Skinner: It was right across the street—we had California Street and Wehe Street came together.
Pruitt: That’s right.
Skinner: So this is just interesting, because I do know it was a community involvement—
Skinner: --project, as far as the initial work as far as stabilizing the area and stuff like that.
Pruitt: And I will say this, I don’t think—two people in this, Joe Jackson and Webster Jackson, never got out in the ditches with us. I never seen them out there. And he’s the guy, Webster—I am the cause of Webster Jackson having the job he got today.
Skinner: For the City of Pasco?
Pruitt: Yes, sir. Webster—Oweda, you can ask Oweda. She’ll tell you. I begged her to take the job she can down there.
Skinner: Was that Weda Ran?
Pruitt: Yes. Webster Jackson, Marv Wenniger gave me the authority to set up all—from the chief of police, the sergeants or whoever, that’s why I said they worked with me on that. I set up the screening process for everything. When they come down to the three people to take over Urban Renewal, it was Wayne Jackson, Herbert Houser or Webster Jackson. Marv Wenniger came to me and he said, I’ll give you the choice to pick whichever one of these men that you think would be suitable for Urban Renewal.
Skinner: Urban Renewal Project was around 1968, wasn’t it?
Skinner: About 1968.
[camera man]: Four minutes left, John.
Pruitt: Yeah, so I selected Webster over Wayne Jackson and Herbert Houser. Because I felt like Webster knew more about the community than anybody else. And that’s why I picked him. And a lot of people was dissatisfied with Webster.
Skinner: James, there’s a lot of unsung heroes and heroines, if you will, in the community. When I say unsung, individuals that were behind the scene and individuals that were out there in the trenches and never got the credit for it. Do you know some of those people out there, James?
Pruitt: Gilbert Owens, Emma Hawkins, Joe Bush, Cloy, Ray Henry, Herman James--he worked out there with his son—oh, it’s so many people that gave a hand out there. They worked with us. Even George Heidlebaugh, they’d come out there and they’d help. Whatever little they could do. That’s one thing they done, they really did. And we appreciated that. But there was Vanis Daniels and Willy Daniels. They worked out there.
Skinner: Anyway, again, James, we—when I say we, again, it’s African Americans for an Academic Society History and Recognition Committee, do greatly appreciate you taking this time out and sharing this information with us and we’re working towards successfully putting together this exhibit. With your help, I think we’re going to achieve it.