Interviewee: Ernie Attwell
Interviewer: June Hahner
Date: November 19, 1977
Ernest “Ernie” Attwell was a resident of Houston and grew up in the Third Ward, an African-American neighborhood. An African-American man, Attwell owned a human services consulting firm at the time of the interview. He attended the IWY Conference to act as an interpreter for the international committee as he spoke French, Spanish, Italian, and German. Interview includes discussion of: Attwell’s support for human rights and women’s rights organizing; his views on how a conference like the IWY could only take place in the United States; and his perspective on what type of organizing should come out of the IWY. Attwell also discussed the history of the Third Ward in Houston. Issues important to Attwell included human rights and the historical awareness of the fight for civil and political rights of African-Americans, women, and Chicanos.
June Hahner: I should ask you your name, first of all.
Ernie Attwell: My name is Ernest Attwell.
JH: May I ask you to spell that on here?
EA: Ernie Attwell. Or E-R-N-I-E. Attwell, A-T-T-W-E-L-L.
JH: And you are from?
EA: Houston, Texas.
JH: You said Third Ward. I’m sure I should know more about the Third Ward, but I don’t.
EA: That’s Third Ward, Texas as far as we’re concerned.
JH: Okay. Let’s see you are here…I’m going to read the name tag.
EA: I’m a volunteer.
JH: You’re a volunteer.
EA: Right, in the International Committee, only because I speak four languages and I want to give my service to them.
JH: What languages?
EA: French, Spanish, Italian, and German.
JH: Very good, very good. I’m impressed.
EA: Don’t be impressed. Just an average human being.
JH: No, I tried to learn other languages. I’m impressed. (Laughter) And what is your occupation?
EA: I have my own consulting firm, and I consult in human services. We wish to have an idea at helping children, for instance. Ex-offenders, adults or children, or juveniles. We have Social Security (unintelligible at 1:31), and we have an idea and I’d like to get that idea through. And I help to fund it. I write the proposals and budgeting but for human beings, not for nuts and bolts or anything like that.
JH: Good work, good work.
EA: That’s what I do.
JH: It’s crowded.
JH: You’re here in Houston. That’s one reason to go to this meeting. You’d hate to miss it when you’re right here. How did you get interested in this whole thing?
EA: I’m interested in human rights. Women’s rights are one thing. I’m a black. I do know that we were enslaved as blacks, whether they be men or women. I love the fight for human rights, and only in America could we be here having this meeting. Not necessarily here in Houston, but only in America where it is allowed, where the dissenters can be outside with their signs, and where you can have your meeting in here. You can’t have your meeting in any other country, I don’t think, but here.
JH: I know what you mean. I know exactly what you mean. I’m thinking of other places, too.
EA: And I have been to France and I’ve been to Belgium and I’ve been to Switzerland and I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been to East Berlin and anywhere, but I don’t think that it could be held here. I’m sorry, you can cut that and splice that. I don’t think it could be held anywhere else but America. You’re allowed to voice your rights, you’re allowed to do whatever you want to do. Home of the brave and the land of the free. It is definitely the land of the free.
JH: But what do you think will come out of this meeting, though?
EA: I don’t know. The only thing that determines that is your politics. Can you politically get enough votes to do what you want to do? That’s what I operate on, that’s what will decide it. How good is your organization? How many votes do you have? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to get your point across? That means person power, and you have to have the ability to win people’s minds. That’s what I think, that’s what’s going to happen. Whatever comes out of this depends upon your ability to articulate, to get somebody’s mind out, to take their mind to make it yours.
JH: You seem to know an awful lot about organizing.
EA: I’ve done a lot of it.
JH: How did you get started in doing things like this?
EA: I was born. Three things I can do: easy to pick up foreign languages; easy to play sports; and easy to organize. Everything else I’ve learned and I’ve had to be taught. I learn well, but those are the three things I was born with. I’ve done a lot.
JH: I’m impressed. What kind of things have you done?
EA: Ah, you don’t want to ask that.
JH: Why not? I’ve got lots of tape.
EA: I may not want to answer. (Laughter)
JH: I’ll ask a different question.
EA: I’ve done from systems engineering to showing you how to make a systems chart so that you can flow people through easily. I’ve been an interpreter for De Gaulle in a helicopter. I’ve done everything. You name it, I’ve done it. I’m saying I haven’t done it all, but I’ve been in some interesting places and I just imagine it’s just luck.
JH: Oh, it doesn’t sound like luck to me. It sounds like you know what you’re doing and how to do it.
EA: Oh, I know how to do it. I’ve always known what I’m doing.
JH: I don’t know much about the Third Ward, the politics here in Houston.
EA: Third Ward, black ghetto, black territory, like the Fifth Ward, or the Fourth Ward. And then there are six wards. In the old days, in 1925, there are six wards here in Houston. That was made up because of averting any political thing. There’s the First Ward, Second Ward, Third Ward, Fourth Ward, Fifth Ward, and Sixth Ward. Interestingly enough, though, those were political districts, political pieces of turf, and at that time they were being sure that blacks and Chicanos could not vote. So, you could only vote in the First Ward as white, Second Ward and Sixth Ward. Third, Fourth and Fifth were the people that couldn’t vote. History, just a little bit of history.
So when I see here what is going on, when I see this going on –
JH: Don’t mind me holding it so close to you? The background noise.
EA: I don’t mind. No, no. But when I see this going on I think it’s fantastic because I am old enough to remember the political times and the law. See, it was law that we could not, we as blacks could not go to the same bathroom as you went to. I mean a female or a male or whatever. I remember by law that I could not go to your school. But now the laws are changing and so are the attitudes, and I still say you could not have had this happen in any other country by America, this convention. I love it, because it is for all people. It is not only for women, it is not only for blacks, isn’t only for Chicanos, and it’s not only for men; it is not only for abortion, or it is not only for making love and have your baby. (Unintelligible at 8:11) The only place I know that it could happen, America. I happen to be a resident of Houston so I know something about that. But I still say in America, this convention could have been anywhere in the United States.
And I’m going to have to go and take care of my child care and day care and all of that.
JH: I appreciate this. Thank you very much.
End of Interview