As cold weather settled over Pittsburgh 85 years ago, folks living in the city’s ragged shantytowns became desperate. They huddled in huts made of scrap wood and boxes and wondered if life would ever get better. The odds didn’t look good.
The U.S. economy was in terrible shape. One shantytown along Liberty Avenue between 16th and 17th streets in the city’s Strip District was crowded with bricklayers, clerks, mill workers, barbers, shoemakers, tailors. None could find work.
They’d leave their encampment shortly after dawn, some trudging far up Fifth Avenue, looking for work, hoping for food. But by 1931 the economy had been in the tank for more than two years and some of the city’s more fortunate residents were weary of scruffy men knocking on their doors and seeking help. The unemployed were ignored, had doors slammed in their faces.
Mayor of the Strip District shantytown was Father James Cox, pastor of Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, located on the corner of 17th and Liberty. “Pastor of the poor,” people called him.
Cox felt the federal government was doing too little to help the jobless, and he was savvy enough to realize he’d have to do something spectacular to draw attention their plight.
So in late 1931, he suggested an “army of unemployed” make a pilgrimage to Washington D.C. The response was spectacular.
Early on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 5, 1932, jobless men from throughout the region — from Mon Valley steel towns to West Virginia coal country — packed Liberty and Penn avenues. They wore sheepskin coats, overalls, ragged overcoats, pieces of old military uniforms.
The men jammed themselves into a collection of nearly 1,000 automobiles and trucks. Cox climed into a red truck so overloaded the wheels rubbed against the vehicle’s body. The men inside shifted position to redistribute their weight and the journey began.
Curious people lined sidewalks in Pittsburgh neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and Bloomfield to watch the hour-long procession. Domestics pulled back curtains and peered out at the curious site of vehicles, followed by stragglers on foot trying to keep up.
Rain drenched the caravan as it passed through Blairsville, Johnstown, Ebensburg. Men squeezed in trucks found little comfort. Roofs were a leaky patchwork of canvas and wood. Exhaust fumes rose through floorboards. Men stood on their toes and thrust their heads through holes in the roof and breathed fresh mountain air. They joked about the stock market, roared with laughter.
The column stopped to give stragglers a chance to catch up. Cox walked back along the line for more than a mile, talking to men huddled under sheets and grinning, streaks of cold rain marking their faces. Many had stood on for hours on running boards and bumpers, keeping tight grips with numb hands.
Tuesday night, the army reached Huntingdon and bedded down in cattle sheds at a county fairground. Hundreds by then were stranded between Pittsburgh and Blairsville. They’d tried to keep up on foot. Cox’s secretary Margaret Harbison and her brother Ray carried 800 sandwiches, apples and graham crackers to 500 marchers stuck at Delmont.
The next day, Father Cox led his army to Harrisburg and then pressed on to Washington. The road was littered with cars idled by blowouts, engine trouble, empty gas tanks.
Cox reached the wary city near midnight. His exhausted army slept on marble floors of the old National Hotel, in vehicles and abandoned churches and nearby armories. Churches and residents offered food.
On Thursday, the ragged throng packed the plaza in front of the U.S. Capitol and sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and other patriotic songs. Father Cox and a few others met with President Herbert Hoover in the White House reception room.
Cox later told a radio audience that measures taken by the president were “utterly inadequate’ and he hoped Hoover would “rise to the occasion” and recommend that Congress authorize, among other measures, a public works program.
“We ask only what is reasonable — the right to work,” Cox said.
Cox and his army returned to Pittsburgh around noon on Friday. Crowds applauded as the caravan moved along Grant Street to Liberty Avenue and then to Old St. Patrick’s Church. Cox gave the men special dispensation to eat meat on Friday, so they chowed down on soup, sandwiches, sauerkraut and wieners.
Cox’s Army didn’t change things right away. And for many in the ranks, tough times lasted through the decade as the Great Depression ground on. But in 1932 Hoover lost in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt, a president who heard the voices of the dispossessed.
The Post-Gazette archive contains several pictures of Cox, the shantytown and the march on Washington. But perhaps most revealing are several stark portraits labeled “character study, Cox’s army.”
— Steve Mellon