Saba Waheed: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, you’re listening to Re:Work.
Henry Walton: Solidarity. Well, today they are going to turn the tables on me. We have two people here who are going to be working with you, our listeners, in the future.
Saba Waheed: That’s Henry Walton. Many of you know that Re:Work originated from a previous show on KPFK called LABOR REVIEW. Henry hosted this show for over 19 years. I’m Saba Waheed.
Stefanie Ritoper: And I’m Stefanie Ritoper. So, before we took over the show, we sat down with Henry for an interview in the conference room at the UCLA Labor Center. Henry had a natural ability for storytelling, so every time we’d ask him a question, he’d just jump right into a story. The conversation became a series of stories about his life, his influences, and his journey to becoming a pioneer of radio broadcasting.
Henry Walton: After 19 years, I think it’s about time for me to take a short rest. We’re going to be turning over the program to some young people with some great ideas, and some outstanding thoughts. The key thing they’re going to do today is interview me which I apologize for in advance because I have no idea what I can say that would be of any interest to anyone, I’m going to let them try anyway. Thank you so much for taking over here.
Saba Waheed: Henry passed away in January 2017. On this week’s episode of re:work, we delve into the life and legacy of Henry Walton, our kind and generous mentor.
Stefanie Ritoper: You’re a photographer, you’re a radio host, and you have all this experience in storytelling. So I’m wondering, you know, how did you get interested in, in these kinds of things? How did you get interested in radio? Any kind of early memories?
Henry Walton: Well, I’m in a rather unusual position, I think, that I think is unusual. I have never found anyone else that has said they learned to talk from the radio. But I literally did. My parents, were from the deep south. And they had very heavy, not only southern, but African-American southern accents. Which would have required, I guess, for me to almost learn two languages in order to handle the situation in school and in the community. And at the same time, at home.
I don’t know exactly how it came about, but somehow I ended up listening to the radio, a lot. And even before, even long before I started school. I would just, we had one of the old-fashioned upright Philcos. Which most people wouldn’t have any idea what I’m talking about. It was about 3 feet, 6 inches high from the floor. It had a huge speaker in the front of it and I would lie there listening at the speaker. And literally, listening to the announcers in particular. In those days they were very careful with their, with their diction and English. And I would listen to them and I found myself copying them. So, basically, I have to say I learned to talk from the radio. I had no plans of ever being on the radio, that never even occurred to me that that might happen.
Stefanie Ritoper: Do you remember any of the radio shows that you would be listening to?
Henry Walton: Oh goodness, everything – Amos and Andy, Suspense. Gunsmoke, when it was on radio. The Jack Denny Show. And just on and on, all of them. Baby Snooks. Just all sorts of things. And for me, as a young African-American in those days, it was also an escape. Because the situations that we would have been were really untenable. And although, you know, I didn’t really understand the full impact of it because it was all I knew. And you know, to a kid whatever he is, is normal. But I do remember thinking some of the things they talked about on the air I, I didn’t see around me. That gave me kind of a vision, a picture of what other parts of the world were doing, what people were doing in other places that were not happening in my community.
Stefanie Ritoper: I really love listening to Henry talk about this. Because I really like this image of him just on the floor of his house listening to the radio. It gives you a feel for how important radio was culturally at that time.
Saba Waheed: Yeah, for me it actually makes me think about when I was a kid and I also used to kind of lie around thinking about stories, but it was through books. And it’s about the different ways, the different mediums we use, so if you can’t actually go to other places, you can still reach them. Whether it’s through radio, or books, or other sources.
Stefanie Ritoper: And so how did Henry come to focus on labor issues? Here’s his story.
Henry Walton: When I was very young. Long before I was even, I don’t think I was even in school let alone ready to go to work. My father started drilling into my mind, that the first question you ask when you go to any job is ‘how do you join the union?’
Over the years I found out that he had had a real experience. At that time it was 1920, so he would have been 19 years old. … they rounded up African-American, mainly African-Americans. A few people from Europe that, you know, immigrants. And they would actually March them to the mine, because they had to go through a picket line. Well, my father and the others had no idea what this was all about, you know. They see all these guys yelling and carrying signs. They got guys with guns that are taking them to the mines, you know. So they started asking questions.
There was a fellow there. My father described him as a socialist. A member of the socialist party, apparently. And he came and met with the scab miners, late one night. And they asked him questions. You know, what is going on here? He explained to them what a union was, he explained to them what they were trying to accomplish. That they were being used and the whole thing. Well, the next morning, my father and the others decided, they weren’t going into the mine. And the socialist himself, led them over and they joined the picket line and started picketing with the others. Well shortly after that, that broke the strike. The miners decided that this was not going to work.
So they decided to go back to the table with them. But, there were no blacks in the union at that time. So a decision had to be made, you know what were they going to do about the blacks who had joined them and helped them to win this. And they voted to allow them membership. And my father became a member at that time, and remained a member of the union for the rest of his life.
Saba Waheed: And you know one thing I was thinking listening to this story is how much things change, and then how much things stay the same. And, you hear this story of Henry’s grandfather and then you hear his own story of growing up, in Watts. And then you feel some of that tension.
Your family was a part of the great migration, and you grew up in south LA. You were around for the Watts riot in 68’ and 92’. What was it like to grow up in south LA and how have you seen it change?
Henry Walton: The people there were working class people. There were green lawns. There were trees that actually overhung the street. That was before the smog laws so, in the autumn, people swept up the leaves by the curb into small piles and they would burn the leaves there to keep the streets clear. And I remember the smoke lifting up into the trees and forming a kind of a fog light. Almost a fairy like existence. It was really a pleasant youth. I really was enjoying myself.
I didn’t know that we were poor. I didn’t know that we were in a segregated area. I didn’t know that we were locked in there at that particular point in time. Unfortunately, as I grew older I started to learn these things and I think my earliest memory of racial tension was on Slauson Avenue. It’s still there. A railroad track runs along there. I used to ride my tricycle first, and then later my bicycle, all the way down to Slauson Avenue. And I would sit there and watch the trains go by.
One day there was a group of, young caucasian kids playing, up the track from where I was. And when the train came by they made the, you know the tugging movement so that the engineer would blow the whistle. And he did, and I thought that was great. So when he got close to me I made the same sign. And he leaned out of the cabin and said: “Get off the track,” and he used the N-Word. It blew me away. First of all, I didn’t know what the word meant. But I knew it was negative from the way he said it. And I was trying to figure out, you know, this was an adult who was speaking with anger to a kid. So I figured I must have done something really terribly wrong. And I couldn’t figure out what it was.
I struggled with that for quite awhile. Actually, I remember asking my father is it wrong for me to be on the tracks, or what you know, what was the problem? And he sat down and had a long talk with me that day about race relations and the intellect of certain people, that kind of thing.
The key thing that he said was, the world’s not what it’s supposed to be. And you didn’t do anything wrong. Some people think that it’s wrong that some people are born black. And therefore they feel like they need to punish them. But, they’re wrong. All people are people. And he says it’s no worse to be born black, than it is to be born with brown or blue eyes. That … it was not to let the small mindedness of other people affect my love for humanity.
Saba Waheed: Radio wasn’t his only medium. Henry was also a photographer. I actually remember, he used to come by the Labor Center and tell me about all the different photography classes he was taking. And I found that so inspiring. And when you look at his photos, they’re just like his interviews. Henry has this way of getting inside of his subject matter, taking us into a depth we would have missed otherwise.
Henry Walton: When I was 8-years-old, my sister gave me a camera. An Anoscope Sure Shot. It was a little tiny box, literally a box camera. She gave me the camera and a roll of film and I went out and took pictures of all my friends on the street and everything. Took it to the drugstore and used my allowance to get it developed. And when I saw those picture I thought, oh wow, this little box is magic. I was stuck on it from then on. I’m seldom without a camera. As a matter of fact, I feel a little odd right now because I left my camera at home today. That’s basically how I got started.
Stefanie Ritoper: When we launched the first episode of re:work we had a launch party at the UCLA Labor Center, and in the space we had photos that Henry took of the Black Panthers.
Henry Walton: I was an ambulance driver in 1960 … [contemplates] I guess it happened December the eighth 1969, was the actual shootout. It was the first action of SWAT in Los Angeles. It happened at 41st and Central. We went out early in the morning sometimes on ambulance runs to pick up people to bring back to the clinic. At that time there was, one of the reasons for the Watts riots was there was no hospital in south Los Angeles. So people would have to be transferred all the way up to General Hospital from Watts to General Hospital, and back, just for clinic appointments.
And, there was a crowd of people. You know, along the sidewalks and actually coming out into the street because the police had blocked off the street. And I remember thinking wow, it’s awfully early for a parade. You know, I just assumed, that must be they’re gonna have some sort of parade down Central Avenue, which happened occasionally.
As I approached the police officer, saw the ambulance, and he had the crowd part. And he flagged me on in. So I said I guess cause’ I’m in the ambulance he’d let me go on through. So I drove on in. And I drove down a couple of blocks and I starting hearing this popping sound. And my partner who was in, in the ambulance with me said, “that sounds like gunshots!” And I said, “no …” And then I heard on a loudspeaker, “Get that – expletive deleted, ambulance – out of here!” And that was when I realized we had driven into the middle of a gunfight. And between the police and at the time I didn’t know who.
Although I did know that the Black Panther headquarters was right in that area so, I mean, in some level I may have known it was the Black Panthers. I had my camera with me. And, the statute of limitations is run out. But it’s illegal for civil service employees to take pictures while they’re on duty. But … And it was then too. But I took myself off duty a few minutes and started shooting pictures. Well I belonged to a group at that time called, The Photographic Medium. We wanted to do social commentary photography. This was long before cell phones. So, I got to a phone booth and I called the President of our organization and told him what was going on. He called some other people and I told them they’re, they didn’t even have a chance to completely surround the area yet. I gave them the streets where they could get in. And they came down and took pictures and we ended up with a, quite a few pictures.
Saba Waheed: In the 1960s, Henry was attending Los Angeles City College as a photography student. He goes out and he, takes a photo of his friend and shows it to a professor. The professor tells him that cameras aren’t designed to capture dark skin tones. Because of that comment, Henry decided to leave the program.
Stefanie Ritoper: But he never stopped taking photos. He continued to capture photos of the world around him, which was a Los Angeles that was still very deeply segregated. He had a special eye for civil unrest, and he continued to capture moments of protest throughout his life. In 2012, the photos that he took as a young man in Watts debuted at a UCLA Art Gallery entitled, ‘The Light Between Dark Places’.
Saba Waheed: And what’s even more amazing, is that in 2014, the Los Angeles City College awarded Henry Walton with an Honorary Photography Degree.
Saba Waheed: You have been a dear friend of the Labor Center and even used to live next door. How did the labor review show get started?
Henry Walton: That’s an interesting story I must say. Actually it was started by the advisory board from the UCLA Labor Center. Some members of the advisory board apparently got together and decided that KPFK really needed Labor presence. Gill Cedillo, who’s just been elected to the City Council of Los Angeles. And Gill has been a state senator and an assemblyman. Prior to that, he was a general manager for SEIU Local 660, where I was the political director at the time. Gill one day called me into his office and says I want you to go in and sit in on this meeting for me, I can’t make it. Take good notes. They’re talking about starting a radio program, and I’d like the information on that.
So I said okay. I went out to UCLA, was sitting there, taking notes. Been going on for, I guess, nearly an hour and someone raised their hand and said, ‘Who’s going to be on the air besides Henry Walton?’ And I’m writing notes – who’s going to be on the air besides, and then at that I recognize, I realized they said Henry Walton. I looked up and said, ‘Henry who?’ You know, I said, ‘Wait a minute there’s some mistake. I was just sitting here to take notes.’
And then I was told, well, Gill said that you would be the perfect person to do the show. And I still haven’t gotten back at him for that one. But I agreed to do it for 15 days while they found someone else to take over and now 19 years later I’ve finally found someone to take over. So thank you so much. I’m just sorry it took so long for you to get here.
Stefanie Ritoper: I just wanted to close with asking you, you know, since we’re now gonna start working on this show, what words of advice do you have for us?
Henry Walton: Just, stay real. You know, just follow where your heart leads you. There are so many things, so many issues that need to be dealt with. And just remember everything – it took me a long time to realize this. That everything, everything in life relates to working people, everything. I used to try to stick to the labor union did this, or this labor union did that. But that, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Life itself, is about what we accomplish, what we create, and what we do. And all of that is work.
Stefanie Ritoper: We are so honored that Henry trusted us with his show. He continued to reach out to us even after he passed along the show, after every episode — he would tell us how happy he was with the stories and where we were going. And that really meant the world to us. One of my memories of Henry is really just that he was present at so many different actions and community events, and he always had his tape recorder with him. For him, telling stories of the movement was his passion. So, even when bigger news outlets ignored us, Henry was there, and he took the time to sit down with people and just ask these deep, thoughtful questions. You could just tell that he really put so much thought and care into his interviews and to making change.
Saba Waheed: What I remember about Henry is that camera hanging around his neck everytime I would see him. Henry is one of those people who holds the stories of our community. He has this precise memory, and can place people and places from years ago. Most of all he was such a kind and humble being, and you knew you were in the presence of someone that radiated brilliance.
Stefanie Ritoper: You’re listening to ReWork, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This weeks show was produced by Stefanie Ritoper, Saba Waheed, Nathan Moore, Veena Hampapur, and Citlalli Chavez. You can tweet your reactions to this show to @uclalabor or comment on Facebook at forward slash uclalabor.
Saba Waheed: And special thanks to Henry Walton who taught us about solidarity. Thank you Henry, and we miss you.