W. Warren Harper Interview

Citation Information: W. Warren Harper Interview. Interviewed by M.A. Matthews, January 29, 2000.

A conversation with W. Warren Harper, author of I’m Katherine, A Memoir, published privately. W. Warren Harper is retired from the postal service. He spoke about his family paternal family history and early family memories.

“My paternal side begins with Winnie Cleiborn who emigrated from Ireland to New York City as a young girl, married a colored man named Owens and they had one daughter, Mamie. Charles Joseph Harper was born in South Carolina in 1863. He said he was Indian, but never mentioned a tribe. He spent some time in Washington, DC, and Maryland before settling in New York. He always said that he had so many different jobs that he wondered how he found time to get married. He met Mamie Owens at a church social. After a short courtship, they were married and found an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, one of the toughest sections of the city. He never liked Hell’s Kitchen, or New York City for that matter, and he dreamed of living upstate.

They moved to Catskill when Joseph ( their son) was 2 years old. The small house on North St., right alongside the railroad track, had a small barn in the back to house his horse and wagon. William, Edward, Harry, Winifred and Leo were born in Catskill.”

Mamie would be called a problem child today. She was a problem in Catholic Schools and most Irish kids went to Catholic schools; they were quick with racial remarks; she was quicker with punches. She had trouble with reading; the nuns would laugh, the kids would tease her; she would beat up the kids and defy the nuns. Today she would be tested for dyslexia; instead she was rated incorrigible and put out of the school. She was still permitted to go to church and contribute to the collection basket, and be a devout Catholic for the rest of her life. Charles must have discovered some means of getting along with her. There are many stories that he spent lots of time in the cellar making all kinds of wine.”

I remember talking with my grandparents when they would visit my family. I was a good listener because I was the second child. I was fascinated by grandmother. She referred to us children as ‘tarpots’, an Irish expression for black people.

“Grandpa Harper never talked about his early life but every once in a while, he would talk about his children when they were growing up especially their escapades in Catholic schools-then he would name some of the Irish kids who were involved-many of them were still in Catskill. He said he taught his boys to box, but if the odds were against them, they should resort to anything to make the odds even. He eve thought it was funny the way you, (Warren’s mother), transferred us to public school, and he would remind us not to tell Grandma. He always found time to talk with us.”

Irish is not part of who I am today except that I’m a good looking dude. I think there are low and high Irish and low and high of every group. The Irish and blacks took similar steps. Proving their worth. Starting at the bottom. Both were discriminated against. Every immigrant is discriminated against. Some more than others, depending on their status when they get here.

My father, Joseph Charles Harper, married my mother, Florence Louise Alexander, on December 10, 1910, in St. Brigid’s Church in Brooklyn.

“I had better describe the job market open to colored men ( in 1910): some eating places hired colored waiters, there were bell hops, porters and elevator operators, but there was no mixing of the races. Waiters, Pullman porters and red caps working for the railroad were colored. Securities runners at banks were colored. There were a few colored stenographers, but they passed for white. And no one left of their own accord. Even the Western Union Telegram delivery boys were white. So the colored were left with shoeshine jobs, either in barbershops or shoeshine stands, and such jobs as towel boy or cleaning rest rooms in large establishments. Here and there in large cities there were a few civil servants. So the dream of colored men was to study medicine, dentistry and the law, to a lesser degree. Joe was lucky to have an elementary school education.”

Walter Warren Harper was born in Catskill in 1915. “I was probably eleven or twelve years old when I started selling papers at the Point, so named because the area jutted out into the river. That was where the day and night boats landed, and where Dad had a concession lunchroom and cigar stand. Next to the landing pier was a landing dock for the ferry, from Catskill to Greendale, the station for the NY Central Railroad. The ferry also carried automobiles, I don’t remember how many but I sold papers to the passengers in cars, waiting for the ferry. The kids who lived near the Point made shoeshine boxes in order to shine shoes. They were all white kids who lived in the area; they made pretty good money, but Dad wouldn’t let me shine shoes. When the boat and the trains came in I could join the other kids carrying the luggage. Sometimes the tips would be pretty good but it was wise to have an alliance with the taxi drivers, who would pay you to lead passengers to them. And if you were lucky enough to find a passenger looking for a boarding house or a hotel, you could get a double payoff. Most of the passengers would be going to Leeds, Cairo, Palenville, Tannersville, Hunter and Windham. Today, Hinter is a big ski resort. The only place for colored was Mrs. Mims, right in town….”

Interview with W. Warren Harper was on 1/29/00. Permission to reproduce material from the interview and the memoir were graciously given by Mr. Harper.