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Interview with Matthew Alston

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Alston, Matthew ; Wood, Wanda


Matthew Alston discusses his early interest in the violin and creating a small orchestra after returning home from World War I and then later a Dixie Jazz Band. He details how he became interested in photography, his first camera, which was a Colony, one of Ansco's first cameras and how it came into his possession. He discusses taking a correspondence course for photography. He speaks of taking photographs of Willis Kilmer's race horse, for the local newspaper, being hired by the government as a photographer, and taking photographs of buildings and landscapes in his free time. He talks about his photography equipment and film processing. He discusses his ancestors and family and the prejudice he suffered. He talks briefly about his work with handicapped children.




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Broome County Oral History Project


33:09 Minutes ; 12:25 Minutes ; 33:29 Minutes


Broome County Oral History Project

Interview with: Matthew Alston

Interviewed by: Wanda Wood

Date of interview: 30 January 1978

Wanda: Date is the thirtieth of January. Don't know quite where to start here, but I would like to have you tell me something about what your life has been like.

Matthew: Yes. Well, in the beginning, the reason I tried so many things, and I worked at each one of those things to make a living—now—because at the time I was coming up, it was hard for a colored man, no matter how smart he was, to get into places, you know. And he had to be twice as smart as a white person to—ah—get a chance, you know. That's the only way he could get into some places. Well, now I figured that—ah—in school I would have to learn as much as I could, and if I had the same intelligence, you know, on the same level, as a white boy under the same conditions, I should be as good as him in learning something. And that's what I did, I—I learned to do pictures, I learned to paint houses, and I took interest in everything I did to do the best I could, you know. And then I—ah—there's a friend of mine that—who was in school, and he played a recital one day, on the violin. And he was about fourteen years old. Well, that got me for music. So I went home, I says to my Dad, I said, "Gee, Clinton can play good." I said, "I wish't I could take violin lessons." 

“All right.” He bought me a violin. So then, ah—Professor—ah—from Owego there—what the heck was his name? Ah—Houck*—he, ah—he, ah—took—I took lessons from him. And I learned to play the violin, and then I, I after that developed into a, when I got older, into a—a leader of an orchestra I had. I went overseas and I came back after the First War and I had two boys I picked up over there that could play.

Wanda: Were you in the Army then?

Matthew: Oh yes. Oh yes, that was—in the First War. And so we—they wanted to stick together. They came from New York. So we formed an orchestra and—first five men and then ten. I played at the Arlington Hotel, the Bennett Hotel, and I played, ah—in Montrose every Thursday, for the college boys there. I played up in Ithaca and went all around like that and I grew up to ten men. And [laughs] that's what my violin lessons did for me. And then I wanted to take pictures. I found out something about pictures and—

Wanda: Tell me how you started in photography. Will you tell that story?

Matthew: Yeah. [chuckles.] Well, anyway, it's gonna be funny. I don't know whether I should let this out or not. I—uh—I never did see anybody take pictures, you know, and finish 'em before, and I thought it was quite a mystery about that. So I—ah—was working for some people. They had—ah—ah—ah, Barnum—it was Barnum's—they used to have a—a grocery store up on, ah, Chenango Street. And a little house, a little yellow house on the corner of Doubleday and Chenango was theirs, and then they'd go to Florida every winter—and they—and I was going to school too, up on Robinson Street at the time. They wanted me to—I mowed the lawn in the summer, so in the winter, when they went down there they wanted to keep the snow clean and keep the fire goin' so the place wouldn't freeze. And one day she wrote and told me to clean up the attic, and put things aside that I thought she might need and so they could be thrown out if she didn't. So I did and I came across a camera. First I came across a couple of boxes of negatives, and at that time they didn't have—ah—celluloid. They were glass negatives—glass plates, made outta glass, And there was no film around other than the glass. So a friend of mine, older than I was, he had been taking pictures and I took them up. And Brownie, he worked for the telephone company, you know. And I says, ah—"Ernie,” I says, “I found these up in the attic." 

And he says, ah, "Oh yeah." 

And I says, "Gee, this Mr. Barnum must know a lot of colored people in—in Florida." 

He says, "Why?" 

I said, "There's a picture. There's two girls standing up and an old man, and they all have black faces. And the girls have long black braids, you know." 

And Brownie commenced to laugh. He says, "Yep," he says, "I'll make some tricks tonight." He says, "Come up to the house after supper." And I went up and he had an old-fashioned—printing, you know, and developing. You didn't have to have, ah—all these darkroom lights and everything, and had that open-faced—ah—open flame gas, no mantle, just those you turn up and down, you know. And he says—he took me up in the bathroom and he had some emulsion he put in that dish and he had a little, a little lamp, one of those stinkin’ little old lamps they used to burn oil. And you'd smother inside of a small place with it, and every now and then they'd burn an’ smoke up the place, you know? And he come out and he'd hold the—put the negative in the frame, put a paper over it, and then he'd close it up and he come up and bring it to his chest, and he'd turn it to the light and count so many seconds, then put it back and then go around and develop it. And he was developing, you know, and he says, "I want you to pay attention to this, Matt." 

And I looked and he says—ah—I says, "What is it?" 

He says, "Now watch it change," he says, "I'm a magician.” 

And so it commenced to develop, y’know, and it commenced to come up, y’know, and it come up all white, so I says, "Hey Brownie," I says, "They're white!"

He says, "Yeah," he says, "that's a positive,” he says. "Now—ah," he says, "this is a negative." Then he showed me the negative with black people on there like this, y’know. 

So, I thought he tried to be nice to me. I thought he didn't want to say, “Negro,” or anything like that. He says, "Negatives." So I said, "You don't have to be so nice, just tell me what they are, see?"

He says, "They're negatives." He says, "So, so when you put a negative to a positive—papers—positive,” he says, "and then you develop it," he says, "it's just reversed. What's black is white 'n what's white is black." 

And I says—I studied that—I said, "Well, I just have to take pictures." So I started in doin' that and I learned a little of that—and then I wrote back and told them what I found. And I found a little Colony camera—that's, oh, it's worth a lot today. It's an old—one of the first Ansco cameras they made here.

Wanda: Colony?

Matthew: Yeah. C-O-L-O-N-Y, Colony. And, ah, it was made o’ wood and had a rubber bellows and it had a lens on there with a cap. You had to take the cap off and count and put it back. Quick—like that, y’know.

Wanda: For the exposure.

Matthew: Ayuh. Because the emulsion in those days was very slow—very slow acting—y’know, it wasn't fast and you'd just take it off, put it back on there like that. And, ah—then comes the—ah—flash light. Magnesium powder. And y’see, so you get out the first time with that and I take a little bit in a spoon and put an’ on the flash—a little spoon, little pan, y’know, and you hold it up with a handle, an’ there's a little wick, you hang down an’ light it an' wait a minute and it'd go BOOM and the explosion makes all o’ the—smoke up the room, y’know, and everybody used to jump outta their skins. And after you got through takin' ’em, y’know, you'd look at your pictures. If you had a group there'd be some with their eyes shut, some of them open, and some eyes starin' out—it was a mess. So you have to ca—take about a dozen pictures to get one good one. Because they were scared to death. And I says—I went to a dance one night, and these women had dolled the place all up. It was on the top o’ the old Herald building. You can put that down if you want to.

Wanda: Herald?

Matthew: In the old Herald building on the corner of State an’, an’, ah, Washington. I mean State an', and Henry. It's where the Army—no wait a minute, it isn't now. It used to be the post office? You know where the old post office—they call it old post office now. It's on the corner of—

Wanda: You mean the Armory—where the Armory was?

Matthew: No. No. This building is still up. It's that big building that they—that they have on—on the corner, you know, where Berger's is?

Wanda: Mmhmm.

Matthew: Just opposite Berger's. You know that big—

Wanda: —Oh yeah. 

Matthew: —Army or United States Post Office. There was another one, it was about four stories high and—it was, they used to, ah, they had—they printed a paper down in there, y’know. 

Wanda: The Republican Herald?

Matthew: Mmhmm. Right there, across, rather, on this side—where Berger's is. And right across there, where the Post Office is, there was another building almost like that. And they used to have dances in it. So this—these people, they had—they decorated—all the fancy stuff up in there, y’know—and drapes hangin' down. So I said to the boy that was gonna hold the flash, I says, "Get it away from those paper things." And I said, "Don't hold it too high. Just about that high." And he lit it. And it went phhht-BOOM and it hit one of those drapes and it went all over the—everything was burning on the ceiling at once, and the women were runnin’ out and they wanted to kill me. I said, "Oh, I gotta get my camera an’ stuff." Me an’ him, I was scared to go back. But I got some good pictures. And, ah, they said I was for damage and—I was in a heck of a fix, y’know. Well, that's the kind of pictures you took. So after that explosion comes from the flash, everything gets all foggy, and you had to let all the windows up an’ fan the smoke out—

Wanda: —the smoke!

Matthew: It'd take you ten or fifteen minutes before you could take another picture. Honest to God, that was something. And any time you held one up and says, "Look at that beautiful negative!” and you had to drop it on the floor, and bang, your negative's gone, see?

Wanda: Of course.

Matthew: All cracked up. So I—that's how I got in it, and then I sent to, ah—the, ah—the New York, ah—let's see—it was a photographic—ah—school in New York City at that time where, ah, you know—ah—you—a correspondence course.

Wanda: Oh.

Matthew: And it's still in business, I think—the American Photography, that was it—way back there, and I took a course in that to improve myself. Then I went, I took papers, at one time I took some papers—oh, a fellow that was a—a photographer on the Morning Sun. But they might’ve sold—in that same building there now. He, ah—he had to go away for a vacation, and they left me, wanted to know if I could take pictures, ‘cause I had the best equipment in town, y’know, at that time. And I met Mr. Kilmer an’ his horses an’ things, and I took some pictures and had them in the paper and, ah—Oskewanna. I think they had one horse there by the name of Oskewanna. He was a favorite, y’know, and I took a lot o’ pictures of him, see, that I took down at the old—ah, fairgrounds in—ah—Endicott. You know, where that, they had a race track down there an’ ball games an’ everything. It was—oh, I don't know, years ago. 

And now to show you how they were, y’know. The guards was up against there, y’know, where you had to go across the track. An' the only place, the good place to get to the track at the finish was right on that side, right next to the—ah—judge's stand, as they came through. So I tried to work out a way to get over there. When I was young I was an athlete—I could jump, y’know, like that—and I had this big camera, and I went up an’ said, "Will you let me cross, please?"

"What are you doin' here?"

I says, "Look, I gotta get in to take pictures." I says, "I got a courtesy card from the Morning Sun."

He says, "You aren't workin’ over here."

So—all the other guys was goin' over, y’know—so I walked down that way and I jumped the fence and I run across the track, an’ the horses were comin' and they went, "Matt, get outta there—go back!" And you see, we had the cameras like this—a line of boys takin’ pictures, you know, and ah—three of us, tracks was here, so you would—ah—as soon as the horses'd come close to you, you'd take a picture an’ you'd swing back and let the guy behind you get a chance. I was the last one, see, back here, and the horses hadn't got up to the grandstand—I mean the judge's stand, y’know—so—huh—I swung over and I got—[laughs]. Well, they, they put that in the paper an' all that stuff, but—ah—so that's what prejudice did, y’know. It made me do things.

And then I started to paint houses. No—I—I—drove a truck for Jameson-Boyce and, ah—and I get off from that and I started—when I was on it—to paint houses, and then I—that's the chance I had for—for playin’ my music, y’know. For dances. We got dances everywhere around here. The old—it was—we used to call it the Dixie Jazz Band, if anybody will remember that—y’know, and we put all the other guys out o’ business and they, they wanted me to join, y’see. I don't know whether I should—do I sound prejudiced? Huh? In the speech?

Wanda: No. Because I can put myself in—

Matthew: Well, anyway, like I'm tellin’ you—when I learned, that's how I came to do so many things. And I thought I was just as good as the next guy—if I had the opportunity. And I had to make a livin' because when I grew—I didn't know I was gonna get this old, but I learned I need to make more than a dollar a day, y’know, so ah—they had a union here and when I come, I said to the, ah—Dimmick—he's the one, the head o’ the union—music, Musician's Union—I says, "Look, I've got an orchestra," and I says, "It's gonna be good," and I says, "I want to be fair, everywhere," I says, "so I'd like to join your union," y’know.

And he says, "Well, I’ll look about it." And it went on for two months. I'm still playing, you know. So one of the guys come to me, he says—one night—he says, "Matt, I'm sorry, but," he says, "you can't play around these places here unless you—”

Wanda: —What?!

Matthew: "—join the union." I says, “Don't tell me that." We were makin' more money than they were. We were gettin' a—ah—two dollars for the first hour and a dollar and a half each hour afterwards, and that's all they were getting, see. And we'd get more because we had more time, and sometimes we'd make as much as fifteen dollars a man a night, see. That was good money, in those days. So—ah—I had three boys, the piano player and the drummer and a boy that played a—a mandolin, see.

Wanda: And it was jazz.

Matthew: Oh, it was all—all, we had a fifth guy. 'Cause I was in New York City for about three years before the War, and I went from there to War and then I was—that's how I got to playin' good, y’know, with bands. And not—cut out the high-tone music 'cause I couldn't make no music—ah—no money. And when—so I went overseas and when I came back, I brought back—ah—one white boy and two colored boys. They lived in New York and they were in the same camp, y’know? And they came back and so we formed the orchestra. And then Bill Jeter, here—he, he died not so long ago. He was, ah, he was our piano player. And—ah—Marshal Moore, he was a drummer, so anyway we went, we played up to Greene, y’know, every week, and this night they wasn't givin' to the music. And I said, "Look, boys," I says, "These people pay as much as anybody else, and I don't care if you're so tired you can't keep your eyes open. You gotta play just as good for them as you could anybody else." 

And ’e says, "Well, you know, we don't have to—play. In fact, we shouldn't play with you." They was all colored boys there, y’know. So one o’ the white boys down there that belonged to the union let ‘em in—one at a time, see—and told 'em not to say nothin' to me about it. And I says, "Whaddya mean?"

He says "We belong to the union and, ah, they just let us play tonight." And I told them where to go. I—I was mean, y’know. I was tough, see, but I was tough as they. I told 'em just how fast they could get there without me helpin' 'em. And—ah—OK. Now here's where the trouble comes in. They played a month or so. And what you do—you've got an organization here, a union. Now you've got a band and he's got a band, and you call up and say, "I need a trumpeter." Well, one of the boys that's out of work gets the job. "I need a drummer." And so forth, y’know. Well, what happened, they was getting these—ah—drummers, y’know, and other guys from the white outfit, and the colored guys would be out o’ work, they wouldn't let you. So this one boy, one time, happened to be—ah—comin’ in, and he stood out in the hall waitin' a little while, y’know. And the doors was open, see—and, ah, let's see—and so one o’ the white boys says—whaddya call ‘em? He says, "I don't—-why you wanna hire them niggers?" he said. "Don't forget," he says, "There's more people in the orchestras. Them damn niggers, they're gettin’ all the jobs."

So this boy gets mad. He told the rest of 'em. And I didn't know about it 'til later. So, I'm up on—I'm painting houses now, y’know, and I didn't work out of my trade, and so I'm up on the corner of—ah, Pearne and, ah—Chenango Street. Joseph's Brothers had a—had a—a store there.

Wanda: Oh yes.

Matthew: Remember?

Wanda: Yes.

Matthew: Well, I'm up there painting, y’know, and I look down on a hot summer day, and there was my orchestra down there, pushing those hot irons around with wooden shoes on and—and the sweat comin' off of 'em, and tar. That's the time—they used to have asphalt for roads and they didn't have the machinery. They'd do it by hand, y’know. So I looked down and I says, "Ah—hah-hah-hah," I says, "Look at the band down there." I says, "Whaddya doin'?" I says, "Boy, are you guys hot!" You know. Oh jeez, they all run and hid. They didn't want to—look this sorta thing, so, so I went down an’ I said to one of 'em, I said, "What happened?"

"Well, like you said, they'd put us outta business, and they have." And then he told me. He says so, then they didn't have no work and they wanted me to come back, and I says, "No." I says, "No.” I didn't want to have nothin’ to do with it. Ah, my—my grandfather, see, on my mother's side—was a Cherokee Indian, see. I've got three bloods in me. I've got a—I'm Indian and English and, and Negro. My father was a dark man, see. And when those—you know—touchy bits up there like that, you get mad. I don't know anybody anymore. Anybody'd ever do me—and it's easy—anybody that ever done me dirty—I could forget them. You know I—I don't make up. Some of them I never made up, see. And they know it, see, so I told him, I says, "We got along fine an’ I told you that would happen, because," I said, "I know the, ah—ah—the ideas that these men have around here. They just wanted to get you out, see?" And I says, ah, "Serves you right." I said, "We get along." I said, "I went through it like a man." And I told 'im what was gonna happen and I says I have an idea, because we had the new jazz, everything that was comin' up from New York, y’know. This one boy had a clarinet and the other one played the piano, y’know, and they were hot stuff, and me—I was—doin' everything—[laughter]—you know, and we—we got all the jobs, y’know. I—I—had worked up to ten men then. 

And here's a funny one. All o’ the pictures I took—everybody's in it but me. They say, "Where were you, Matt?" I took all the pictures, see. So this one girl that, ah—Bill Jeter died about a couple of months ago, and his daughter came from New York here, and she said she has quite a few pictures now that I took of the orchestra at that time, and she's going to send me a couple of 'em, see. Then I'll have my own, but I'm still not on them. [laughs.] So that's, that's one way that I had to learn everything. And I put an interest, now. If you see—you see that camera book there?

Wanda: Um hmm.

Matthew: Well, that's one I bought, oh, about four years ago. I take a book like that and I read it through. And nothin'. It's just like mud to me. You know—

Wanda: Yeah.

Matthew: I can't get it, read it through again. In the meantime I'm—I'm practicing with my camera.

Wanda: Um hmm.

Matthew: I put the book down about—maybe three weeks later, on Sunday or something, I pick it up and start to read—everything comes right out like that, you know, you can't—you can't learn things—in one day.

Wanda: Right.

Matthew: I can't. Well, when I get that done, then you ask me anything and I can tell you just what's on that camera, what it'll do. And then I go ahead an’—

Wanda: It's up here.

Matthew: Sure.

Wanda: Your computer is OK, isn't it?

Matthew: [laughter.] I think it is so far, but once in a while it changes, when it gets stuck there, y’know, and I go to think of something—it just don't function right away. After a while, if I wait long enough. Now like, like there's a young lady that I knew in New York City. This is way back in nineteen-hundred and, ah—well, just before the War I met her and—she was a very nice-looking colored girl, and her name was Catherine and I couldn't think of the other name. I just laid there—think—and think and think, this morning. I don't know what made me think of her, but anyway, I did, and ah—"Sullivan." Because she had a name, you know—that was an Irish name. She was a colored girl. So, as I said that—I put it together. I said it's nothing that I could call a Johnson or Jackson—now that's a name of another race. And so I just like to do—and that, that was over—since nineteen and—and sixteen, I guess. So you see, the function there, comes after a little bit.

Wanda: Yeah.

Matthew: Now there's a lady, you want to ask me about her. See that nice lady there on the table?

Wanda: Oh yes.

Matthew: I don't know whether she's dead or who she is or where she lives. I've had that for fifteen years. Now—here's what happened. I used to take a lot of portraits, right—I lived—I had two big rooms and I took all nice—portrait pictures, you know. My daughter's got all of the—junk over to her house. And I went lookin’ around. I used to go down to the Volunteers and Salvation Army to buy frames. 'Cause they were expensive. That frame—she was in that, y’know, and I took her home and she looked at me like that, you know. It—it just—I thought to myself. You take a look at it, take it up close.

Wanda: It's beautiful, isn't it?

Matthew: Uh- huh. And I said to myself, "Jesus, that nice lady, I can't just take her out of there and tear her up or throw her away." And everybody thinks she's my wife. [chuckles.] I said, "I don't know whether that's an angel or not." I said, "That lady might be dead for a long time," but I says—ah, I just couldn't throw her away. You know I didn't want—because that, ah, frame—I coulda used the frame, all right. But I says, "No." And she looked at me like that, y’know, and I said, "All right." Isn't that silly?

Wanda: No, it's not silly.

Matthew: Anyway, I got an aunt, two aunts, that—that—they're real Indian, y’know. And, but she—she looks like, like, like one o’ them. Aunt Lou, she's dead now. You see my, my grandfather William—now they're talking about the Roots,⁺ y’know. There's one of my cousins—I guess at the same time this guy started Roots—and he lives down in Jersey, so he came up and he, ah—his mother was my mother's sister. See? One of her sisters, she had five of ‘em. So he come up out of New York and he says, "Matt," he says, "What—ah—what—name some of the people."

Well, he tried to find—so I named him some and he says—ah—he wanted to get 'em. Now, my mother's father, he came from England, and his people—cut him off, because they called him the black sheep. He—he was one of an Englishman that wanted to get out and come here and have, do things, y’know. Of course they had a—crockery ware. And, ah—his name—their names were Webb. His name was William Webb.

Wanda: They had a crock—crockery?

Matthew: Well—they had a—a—crock—like, like crockery wares, y’know, dishes and things like that.

Wanda: Umhmm.

Matthew: They have a—either wholesale, or they manufacture them. I don't know what it was. Mother used to tell it, y’know. And, ah—so—I—ah—their names were Webb. They were William Webb’s. Big tall man—he had this long mustache. He looked like those, ah—colonels that they have in England, y’know, those—ah, yeah, like that. [Laughs at the suggestion of a monocle.] And so they, they, they threw him. He—he said he didn't care whether he saw them anymore or not, because he came to this country and he turned out to be a carpenter, y’know. He liked that trade. And he must’ve learned when he was young and he grew up to be a—a good carpenter, and he, ah—oh, ah—came home and told my grandmother, one night, Mother said, that he thought he fell off the scaffold where he was workin', y’know? No, not him—the fellow that was his partner—fell off the scaffold—and died. And she said it was two weeks after that—that he fell off the scaffold, and when he went down he hit his back on—on one of those tombstones, y’know? And, and he died. Broke his back. Now maybe—these days they mighta been able to do something for him, y’know? He died. Well now, he left a son, my mother's brother. And he was a handsome guy, Junie. Tall and he looked just like his dad, y’know. And, ah—he, ah—was a fireman. Years ago, y’know, they didn't tell, they couldn't tell for sure who was—y’know—what he was, see? He was an Englishman, that's all. Ah, and my uncle, y’know, I wish I had some o’ those pictures to show you, he was a handsome man, And, ah, so that's how I got mixed up. So my—they—they got some, ah—some stuff in this tree. But I think they got it mixed up with an oak tree, or something, but anyway—they couldn't put some of the limbs back. So—that's some of those things that went around, y’know, and now to show you what a nice job—a different job I had—ah—I—you know—prejudice is an awful thing. You know, they had the medical depot up here—

Wanda: Yeah. 

Matthew: You know where that was?

Wanda: Umhmm. 

Matthew: OK. A man downtown that's supposed to hire you and send you there. Regardless, see. It was a government job. So I went up there two or three times and I filled an application out and he says, ah, "I'll let you know in—in a week." A week'd go by, and I'd get up there and I'd go up and I'd see him sittin' right in the office there. And, he was up in the, ah—now let's see if I can get this filled in right where he was. I think it was in the, ah—the—the building on, on Chenango Street where the, ah—the first, ah—Union—I mean, ah—not Union, but, ah—ya had to pay your taxes—where the taxes were—in that old—in that building where—where the, ah—gas company was, see? Over there. Well, anyway—no. It was across the street, where the—where the loan place is. They opened that up for government work, y’know. At the time, y’know? Right across? Well anyway, I got tired of being run around. So, I knew a girl that was a typist down there and I said to her, "Hey look, I made a mistake on my, ah”—you know, ah—

Wanda: Application?

Matthew: “Application.” I said, "Can I have a couple of them? Better give me two so if I won't make a mistake." Says, "OK," so she gave me two. I took them home that night. I'm married, too, now, you know. And I wrote on it. Filled them out. Front and back. And the next morning I says, "I'm going up there." So I went up, and you had to have a—ah—notice from his office before you could—y’know, they had everything guarded and you had to have it to get in. So I happened to go up to the picket. It was easy, y’know, and I'm walking around, and I walked up there "biggie" like—I thought I was gonna get throwed out, see, but anyway, I walked up there that morning, y’know. And so I says, "Hi, fellas," so he says, "What fella?" 

I says, "Hi, Frank." He says, "Hiya, Matt. What are you doin' up here?" I says, "Well, I come up to go to work, but I just have a paper like that, y’know. Goin' to see if I can get a job up here and go to work." And, ah—he didn't even look at me, y’know. He says, "Go ahead," So I went in. So here was a little Frenchman. Up on the steps in the Administration Building. And, ah—he come up there and he says, "Can I help you?" I says, "I'm lookin' for a job, and I have my papers." He says, "You have?" And I says, "Yeah."

"Well, what do you do?"

And I says, "Here's my application." So down in there it says, ah—freelance photographer and experience in, ah—printing and developing and so forth, y’know? 

"Ahh—just the man I want. I need a photographer," he says. "You gonna get a job." 

I says, "Why?" He took me right in, you know, and he says, ah, “We got nothin' here, but we'll take care of ya." And I happened to have about seventeen hundred dollars worth of equipment, you know, of my own, see? And he says, ah, “Maybe you can't do no work right now,” but he says, "We—we can fix some way." So what I had to do, the first thing, was to take the pictures of—ah—thirty-six hundred people that worked there, y’know. That the—ah—numbers and everything. And I had a camera that could do that, y’know. And I brought it up. So that, and I had this—two bulbs that—hundred-watt bulbs, you know—put 'em there and I made a frame. Everybody'd sit there and I was workin' and I was developing them—every night. So the next morning I could have a string with the numbers on, see, that I took, And I got through with that, so—they finally sent down a couple of things and got my stuff in a truck, see? Brought it up. And this guy comes in there one day and he says, "What are you doin' here?" 

I says, "Me?" I didn't know anything. "Me?"

He says "Yeah."

Says "I'm workin' here."

"What are ya doin'?"

I says, "I'm takin’ all the photographs here. Big ones and little ones."

"Why, how'd you get that job?"

I says, "Just on account of you not puttin' me through." I said, "I've got what it takes to do the job and the Frenchman is not prejudiced." And I says, "Right away, he was lookin' for me but I didn't know it," I said.

"Where the hell did you get the papers?" 

I says, "I stole 'em up there one day." I says, "I'm workin' now. What are you gonna do about it? I work for Uncle Sam and you can't fire me—for nothing—if I'm handy an’ I'm workin’ for Uncle Sam. I got the job—signed up," I says, "You're outta luck." 

Wanda: This was government work, right?

Matthew: Heh?

Wanda: It was government work?

Matthew: Yeah. And, ah—I had to fill the application and everything, y’know. If you work for the government, you've got five or six people that don't like you. They're trying to get rid of you. They do everything—they can't do it. You gotta come to a—you know—a court hearing to find out why. They can't just say, "Oh, kick him outta here." That's one thing about government work, you know. You've got to have a real good reason.

Wanda: Civil Service.

Matthew: Yeah, and I was so mad—y’know—I used to box and wrassle, see. It was so hard for me to keep off that guy, you know. And, and I didn't want to spoil it because I'm gonna beat him up, then you know, they—[laughter]. So I had to take that for a while, and so every time he'd come back—so the Colonel says to me, Colonel Dowitz, his name was, ah—and he says, "Matt," he says, "Tell ya something," he says, ah, "We haven't got the room that—that—ah—you want, but," he says, "here's a place you can fix up." He says, "I'll get the carpenters sent over."

A carpenter come—"Whadda you want?" I had two big, big—I didn't need all the rooms. I had two rooms—as big as these two together, more there, and then the Monolith machine, y’know. Did you ever see them?

Wanda: No.

Matthew: Well they're, ah—they're machines that you work that, that run a lot of paper like a mimeograph machine.

Wanda: What did you call it?

Matthew: Monolith. Then, and, and so I made even plates for that. And, and, they had a big machine in there, that they—you know, you go downtown and they have, ah—records made of some papers. Years ago it cost 'em eighteen hundred dollars for the machine, you know, and I learned to work that.

Wanda: Photostat machine?

Matthew: Photostat machine.

Wanda: I used to run one of those.

Matthew: Did ya? How d’you like those things? Well, I'll tell ya, well, this, this one, I think it was eighteen hundred dollars or something like that one, and I got out on—this guy came down one day and he says, "Whaddya doin'? Now." I says, "I'm makin’ some—photostats."

"Where'd you learn?"

I said, "Look, Mister," I said, "I can't tell you all the colleges I've finished—" And I used to “bull” him until—[laughter]—he believed everything that I'd tell him. After that, you know. I said, "I can't begin to tell you how many colleges I went through—for this stuff." And ah—at the time, these were really the best of the things that I liked in my life. And I took pictures of my kids all the time, I had a little fella that big. His mother dressed him up nice one Sunday, so I says—he's my big son, one of my big sons now—he says, ah—I says, "Hey, Louie," I says, "Let Daddy put you on the table." Every Sunday I was takin' pictures like that. I got a lot of 'em in a box that my daughter's got—so—they wouldn't get lost, you see? Because—I had some kids break in my house—one time, and all the beautiful pictures I had—of street-cars—and everything—from way back—they just—gouged them all on the floor, you know. Well anyway, I says, "Daddy'll give you two cents for a picture." 

“All right.” So he stood with his hands behind him, one foot out, you know, lookin' nice. I took one and I says, ah, "Well, now Daddy'll take another one," I says, ah, "because maybe that'll be good."

"Daddy—two pennies? Two pennies?" That little rascal—he was six years old, and yet—he was toutin' me. Not ready for school yet, anyway, but, and he's tellin' me, "Two pennies, Daddy. Two pennies." [laughter] Sorry. I said even if he was panning—he was usin' his brains all the time, y’know, just like his father.

Wanda: Did you—you do much landscape photography or scenic stuff, too?

Matthew: Yes. I did a lot. I—I—wish't I—let's see—I—I—I've got everything put away, but I've got, ah—slides, you know.

Wanda: Oh, we, we can go into that some other time.

Matthew: Some other time. Yeah, I'll get some out then. That's all my daughter Charlotte and I'd do, we—ah—we went, ah, around every, ah—day that we had off, and we’d go and then there was one of the Foster grandmothers, she likes being out in the woods in the country, so we'd take her and a friend of hers, and she says—in the summer, ah—two years ago she says, "Matt," she says, "Beautiful day out," and I said, "Yeah," I says, ah, “We get out at twelve o'clock, y’know," I says.

"Well, let's go down and get a hunk of bread and a baloney," and I said "We'll go out—I'll take pictures." And I took a lot of pictures. Oh, I—old broken-down barns, y’know, with the humpbacks. One of 'em fell down and, and I knew it was an old barn and I could see the pegs were in there holding it up—the—beams about that big, y’know, and, and all these years—it was over a hundred years old. And I had a feeling. "Matt," I says, "that's only about a hundred twelve—fourteen years old.” And—and there was no bolts in it. A great big barn, put up there with these—ah—pegs, wooden pegs, y’know.

Wanda: Wooden pegs. Amazing.

Matthew: Umhmm. And then I've got pictures of old folks, y’know. I'll pick out some slides, and then I'll let ya know and then you can come in and—

Wanda: I'd love to. Mr. Newcomb is interested in—in seeing some of your—

Matthew: But. That's all I'd do. You know I—did—oh, I'd spend a lot of money with different ones who didn't have nothin' to do and they had a car. Five, six dollars worth of gas and we'd ride, and then, ah—she used to say to me, "Where'll we go today, Matt?" And I says, "Just—just get goin'." And we'll stop and get this an’ that an’ the other, and then we'd come back here and it would be very, very—why, it would be night, y’know? And here I'd go down. I'd go north, here, and what do I see? The sun is shining on this side, see? And then I take all the pictures, on this side the river, we'll say, going all the way up to—to—ah—oh—ah—Oxford, there. Up that way. Now, in the afternoon, to get—I'd cross over and come down the other side, and the sun is in the west—start in on that side. And that's what I had to do. So I went in—the morning—and we'd go up and up until about two o'clock, anyway, and go one side and take, and then, then we would always go on the old roads—on the back roads, you know. Oh, I enjoyed that. We got fooled one time. I'll show you, maybe, someday. All right. I went to a place up—above Oxford, there—where they had a civilian camp, you know. And they had this fireplace which was wide as that machine [the stereo] and it went up like that, and off the ground was that big, where they had the fireplace, y’know. And, ah—they had great big stones, they were stones about that big and they were cemented in and there was nothin' but the chimneys left—with the fireplace in there. All the rest of the buildings had been cleared away. And I says, "Gee, I've run into something." I—got a lot of slides, y’know, and I came home and I had 'em finished up. Because I don't do that 35mm stuff, y’know. Not now. And, ah—so I had 'em all done, y’know, and I said, "Gee, I've gotta get the history of this." And—everything was gone, you know. It looked—and everybody said, "Where'd you ever get this? Gee, where'd you get this?" 

I said "Oh, I don't know—it's some place George Washington fooled around in." I says, ah, "It's upstate here.” So—one of the guys—I went up there one day. I was deer hunting, y’know, and I went up there to see him and ask him if he wanted to go out and take me someplace. And I says, "By the way," I says, ah, "There's two big chimneys here, and,” I says, “a big fireplace." I says, "Boy, that must be over a hundred years old."

He says "Huh?" He says, "Whadda you mean?" So I told him where. "Ah, man," he says, "Boys put that up during the Depression.” Wh—when they had the civilians, you know, had the boys planting trees.

Wanda: C.C.C.?

Matthew: Yeah. [laughter]. I says, "Boy!" But you see the hundred in, ah—ah, Latin, isn't it?

Wanda: Yeah. Yeah.

Matthew: So CCC would be three hundred years old.

Wanda: Makes a good story, anyway.

Matthew: Yeah. Well, I was excited.

Wanda: Well, of course.

Matthew: I says, "They must have—baked people in there when they got bad or somethin’.” So I was—the fireplace was—this long, you know, and then the chimney came way out and up like that, and out of this side—it was huge chimneys, y’know. But, but they, ah, wasn't built right down low, it was built up about that high. You know, with a fireplace you'd freeze to death. Y'ever been in a house that had a fireplace—years ago?

Wanda: Yes.

Matthew: OK. When I was in Jersey, my aunt had a house, so—one at a time we'd stand up there or sit up there—and your face burns up, y’know, and here and your back is—freezing. You turn around, put your back to it an’ you freeze your face. [laughs]. You know, I used to think, "Gee whizz.” I never have been in one before, y’know, but down there, they lived out in the country when I went to visit. Well, up here we always had stoves and ranges, and my aunt—"Well, Aunt Maria," I says, "How do you keep warm all around?" 

She says "You keep turning around." I liked that place because they, they had a—ah, well, there was a kind of canal—nearby. About as far as from here—oh—halfway down the building, y’know. And ah—high w—the water come in there when the tide raised, y’know, from the ocean. And we could catch crabs in there at night—

Wanda: Oh my.

Matthew: —and—turtles that big, see. So one night we—ah—we heard ducks. Ducks are crazy, you know, they—on moonlit nights they, they walk all night long catching frogs and things, y’know.

Wanda: I didn't know that.

Matthew: Ducks, you can find ducks, ah—walkin’ around, you know, at night. And the lawn went down, sloped down to the river. So one night we heard, "Quack, quack, quack, quack." And I got up an’ looked out and there was a turtle—almost, about big around as a basket, there, ah, you know—

Wanda: Bushel basket?

Matthew: About that high, and he had this duck backin' and drivin' and the duck was just—

[END OF TAPE. They caught the turtle and made steaks of it.]


[Mr. Alston brought out some of his photographic equipment, and he and Wanda spent some time inspecting cameras, lenses, etc.]

Wanda: This is your Speed—Graphic?

Matthew: Yes.

Wanda: B. and J. Press—that's an oldie.

Matthew: Yeah. See, I can use this because I've got, ah—whaddya call it, plates. Ah—I ran that off the track.

Wanda: Just let me look at it.

Matthew: It's heavy.

Wanda: Yes it is. Kalart? —Matic Rangefinder. That's a classic, isn't it?

Matthew: Oh, it is.

Wanda: Yeah.

Matthew: And I got the lenses upstairs. You know, I never get—I can start talkin’ on cameras and I can spend a whole week. 

Wanda: You never get tired of them.

Matthew: No.

Wanda: It's like some people like to play with cars.

Matthew: Yeah. And there's a lens that's two hundred and fifty dollars, just for the lens.

Wanda: Projection?

Matthew: We can use that on—on a camera, too. See these lens boards they made? The—they're supposed to hold a 16mm Kodak. Oh, I've got three or four of these around. But you see, unless you can sell them to somebody that's got a camera like this, they're no good.

Wanda: Yeah.

Matthew: And it's better to use these now and then.

Wanda: Oh, it is?

Matthew: Oh yes. Because they, they get tired, y’know. I've got a few pictures here, I picked up when I took— Can you get it on?

Wanda: No.

Matthew: Well, pull it right out.

Wanda: It's off the, the track.

Matthew: Put it way back in there.

Wanda: Yeah.

Matthew: Now see if we can get it on the track. Leaning a little bit—easy—wait a minute. Now pull that in there—are they on the track?

Wanda: Yeah.

Matthew: There you are, now, y’see? That's a little extension bellows on there. And a lock there, see. Now—

Wanda: Oh yeah.

Matthew: That's—bring it all the way out, y’see?

Wanda: And you could use these for copy work and everything.

Matthew: Oh yes. And you see, you get the same size—as your picture, when you copied. I like to copy a lot, but now—you know—I never— And so then you take this and you lock it, see? Then it goes through, wait a minute, then this, then this. And there's a back on this, see? And, ah—this? See how it goes?

Wanda: That's a beauty.

Matthew: Umhmm.

Wanda: Do you have a darkroom now?

Matthew: Well—I make one out of the bathroom. I have a table to fit over my—a toilet bowl with legs on the side, and then it goes right across the wash basin, so it, ah—it comes in quite handy and I've got everything—that I need in there.

Wanda: You can do a lot with a little space, can't you?

Matthew: Oh yes.

Wanda: What are your pictures there?

Matthew: Here are some, ah—here's a couple o’ my, my daughters up at the park.

Wanda: Nice.

Matthew: And this is down at the old State Armory—ah, you know, the one on Washington Street at the time?

Wanda: Oh—oh yes.

Matthew: And this is Derek—that's my son. He looks just like that—you know—he was just that size when he said, "Two cents, please."

Wanda: That's a cute little thing.

Matthew: This picture I took up in Syracuse, it's a—one of the buildings there.

Wanda: You said you had one of the last horse-drawn trolleys?

Matthew: Here's three of my kids— Yeah, with the horses. I went down—I haven't got it there now, but I went down to a—I didn't go to the Traction Company. I went down where the—Exchange on Court Street, and they said all those pictures—somebody took 'em. Change the office, there you know—I gotta go down there and see. He said some of the guys, you know, put out word to see if I could get one for you.

Wanda: Oh.

Matthew: See, they've changed, that's—this is a—

Wanda: How come people are so careless with things like that?

Matthew: Yeah. This. Another one. And there's a—let's see. See, I took pictures of the kids all the time. Every time I'd turn around I had a picture of them. Now there's another one. Here's a pic—you want to got down to—oh—ah—oh, you know the one. Let's see what it says here.

Wanda: The Speedex?

Matthew: These, I just happened to grab while I was upstairs here.

Wanda: Ah, I wonder if—

Matthew: See, I did all these—I finished all these myself. 

Wanda: Yeah. Well, how did you get your—job that you told me about? Working with the insurance company and the—

Matthew: Well, I don't know, I got it. Every time I went downtown, you know when I go now, I gotta—one of those cases, y’know?

Wanda: Like this?

Matthew: No, not that thing. Oh ,it's like—like on the davenport, I guess. Well, anyway, I'll show it to ya. I—I'd go down and everybody took me for a veterinarian or a doctor, and honestly—

Wanda: Because of your camera case?

Matthew: Yeah, ‘cause I had it in my hand, see. And I had one guy, says, "You know, I see you all the time with that thing." It was never away from me. I always had it—in case of accidents and things, y’know. And he says, ah, "You always got it there. I thought you were some kind of a doctor or maybe a veterinarian." He wouldn't say a medical doctor, he had to put me in a vet—with the horses. Hah. So that's what you had to put up with, see? I'm not good enough to be a medical doctor, but I, I could work on horses. Ahah? Well, people are funny. I, it don't bother me, I get a kick out of it, things people say. And there's two ways to focus this, you see? Now you put that on a tripod, you see the footage here? And then, see this little marker? Right there? Oh, right here.

Wanda: Yeah.

Matthew: You wind it up there—focus—like that—without takin' it out.

Wanda: Hmm. Did you have any connection with Ansco? Ever—did you do any work for them?

Matthew: The only thing I did for them, I taught some of their workers how to enlarge or develop.

Wanda: Hmm.

Matthew: They came to me—it was just a short course of about a—maybe six weeks. One—one or two nights a week if you wanted to come. You see, to fill out an application there it says, ah, to get in this department—ah—“Did you ever have any experience in, a—enlarging or copying,” something, and "No." So they'd come to me and they get the experience, then they go back and fill out the application, they get the job. So I go down—after I'd been doin' it for quite a while, and I apply for a job with the office there. Got talkin'. And I told him, I says, "You know I—helped a lot of your—your workers out.” He says, "You're the man." I says, "Yeah." He says, "Well, gee, ya—did a good job on it." 

I says, "Well, now I wonder if there's any place for me down here?" I says, "I've done most anything in that line."

"Oh no," he told me. "How old are ya?" I says I was about 45, 50, ya know. He says, "Well," he says, "you're beyond the age. We don't take men over 35." There's always an excuse. I says, "I know a lot,” but he says I'm too old now. Y’know. Well, he says, "We—we might let you know," he says. "Anyway," he says, "You're willing to work?" He says, "There's a lotta room in the warehouse." I says, "Whaddya do?" 

"Oh—move racks around and, you know—and sweep or—sweep up the place." 

I said, "Go to hell, will ya?" I said, "I know more about this than half of your guys in here," and I says, "You want me to sweep?" I said, "I don't, don't do that for nobody."

Wanda: Rug beater.

Matthew: Yeah, sweep up—oh boy.

Wanda: How can you laugh about things like that?

Matthew: Huh?

Wanda: How can you laugh?

Matthew: Because it's funny. I go there, y’know, like anybody else, and then they give me that stuff, but—but they seem to, they seem to learn something. You see, now, in the Army—they had a little place up there—“If of African descent, tear this off." Nothing on the other three sides. That's to classify you. Without any trouble, see. So I left mine on. And I had trouble—tryin' to—get back to bein' a colored guy again. [laughter.] I didn't tear it off, see? That's a fact, see. Now my boys, they, they never had that. They're light, most of them, y’know. They're like their mother, y’know? And, ah—well, you see the youngsters here. So we never had much trouble in the family. But I'm telling you—my time comin' up, they was tough. Born in 1892, so you know, that's close to the Civil War finishing, and then the Spanish-American War come in, y’know, the Japanese war—years ago, see. And—I mean the Philippines—years ago—in the United States, and as I say, that just went on. When I first went in the Army—they had a—unit for colored boys. You know, I say “colored” because, ah—the Black man that's as black as—? An’ like that, that's all right for him—he's a Black man. But if he had—if he wasn't color-blind—there's all colors. Red, yellow, blue, green, orange.

Wanda: That's right.

Matthew: So—I—I—I just resent it when somebody says I'm a Black man. I says, "You're color-blind."

"Whaddya mean?"

I says, "Don't try to supply me with a Black man.” I says, "You call me ‘colored,’ and like it."

"I see your point."

I said, "Yeah, well, see my point," I says. "Just be a little, you know, ah, decent with these guys." Says, "You don't want to—?”

I says, "I've known that since I was born," but I says, "Don't try to classify me like this, 'cause,” I said, "That guy, he's Black and he wants to beauti—he wants Black to be beautiful." I said "OK," I said, "If I was Black, OK, but," I said, "I'm not black." And I says, "What color are you?" And he says, "Well," he says, "you can see."

I says, "Yeah. You're a white man, but do you know you're white?" I says, "You didn't follow your dad around, or your grandfather? You don't know what little Black sister you've got, or little Black brother you've got, somewhere in the world." I says, "Now, don't be so—quick to jump up and call somebody what they are." I says, "Look—I know a lot of people—that passes for white—nice people. And I don't blame them because you get a better—opportunity, see?" And I says, ah, "Your father and mother told you was a white boy. You're gonna remember that. And that's what you're gonna be, see? Nothin' against you, but,” I said, "a colored boy is born, they tell him he's a colored boy. So he knows that, and everybody else." So I said, "Whenever they—they mix them up so that you can't tell a white boy from a colored boy," I says, "then it's come time for you to go and study something, because you—you don't know who you look like, for an instance—that are runnin’ around this country." Some of 'em get mad and some of 'em don't, but I don't care. They don't want to belittle me, you know what I mean? God made me and He made them, and He chooses to make me different than them—that's why He give me a brain—I'm gonna use it. And that's whether you're white or Black, I don't give a darn.

See I—I've got—look, I'm invited now into a party—or not a party, but a wedding—of a—white girl. Very nice, and ah—she's gonna get married in St. Paul's church on the eleventh. And I'm invited and I'm taking—Suzanne with me, and then the reception, it should be in—well—up in Chenango Bridge, I think they said.

Wanda: Oh, the Country Club.

Matthew: Yeah. And I'm always in places like that. Now when I was a kid, the firemen would have a—a dance. The colored guys—”Now—? They don't want you there." I says, "Look, you know a lotta people there. You know some firemen there." I says, “All right, get a ticket an’ go." My wife and I went to everything and there was no—as I said, it depends on who you are and that, you know. But you don't want to be timid. You know what I mean? Because there's somebody knows you there and you're gonna enjoy—yourself, see? So I'd buy a ticket and, ah—bought a ticket to the Italian, ah—the dance they used to give down to the Knickerbocker Hall. You don't remember that—that's down on the first—you know where Henry Street, way down towards the river?

Wanda: Yeah. 

Matthew: Well, you know that building right next to it—Knickerbocker? They tore that down now, see? Well, anyway—ah—these Italians—I used to have two or three Italian friends, and they hired the hall. So this one fella—Joseph—he, he had a girlfriend and she had a sister, and we were all in school together—so he says, ah, "C'mon, Matt." 

So I says, "Sure." I wasn't married then, see. Well, I was a real Indian. I had paint on my face and I had a big Indian outfit, a—you know—ah—big feathers? And I had, ah—pants—you know—buckskin with fringe on like that, an’ moccasins? And I used to do an Indian war dance, so they—they—ah—we waltzed and waltzed and danced together, an’ I danced with everybody. They don't, they don't know me—I got war paint on, see, and Joe, he was a—oh, a—a warrior and I was the chief. His girlfriend was a—was a squaw, and this sister and I—she was Columbia—you know, dressed like Columbia, like that. So after the dance and the grand march was over, they took me aside, and Joe and the two girls, and we had to waltz around and then they took ya outta the bunch, y’know, and there was this guy up there, you see.

[Impersonating an Italian accent] "I tell you," he says, "Indian man. Big-a Chief. He's-a got-a first-a prize for men. Little-a papoose, he's got a, he's got a, for a papoose he's got a, got a prize. He's—a girl, he's-a call um a squaw and she's got a prize, a second-a, and the Chief, his-a wife, she's got a nice-a prize." So everybody took off their masks. Says, “An’ everybody, now, take-a mask off, please." So I just kept a, I kept my bonnet on, y’know, and I didn't, ah, or didn't wipe my face off too good, and then after the first few—I wiped it off good and he says, "Aw look. Attsa nice-a boy," he says, “I know that's-a Matt-chew—a-Matt-chew." And everybody went, "Look!" and I got—they wanted to know how I disguised myself, y’know? So I got a—I got a shaving kit and a mirror off here and a stem down here and a base, and it had on here—a cup for—you know at that time we used that—

Wanda: —Oh, shaving cream with a brush—

Matthew: —a brush. I hated to fool them, but that was the only time it ever happened, and the firemen—they had a hall, and it got so everybody knew us, you know, when we went down. And the funny part—we used to waltz, see, they had waltzes on. They had prizes and like that. My wife says, "I know that man. I'll tell you why," she says, "Hey, would you look at that shirt? The poor man needs a button." 

I said, "People are human," I says, "so—the farther you stay away from them the less they know about you." But I said, "You mingle with them and be around them, they come to know you. And if you're different than the other ones," I says. "Everybody has got to have fun," I says. “They sell me their tickets, and," I says, "I'd sue 'em if they didn't let me go up there and dance." Well, that's how we had our fun. My kids are the same.

Wanda: You have a wonderful outlook on life.

Matthew: Well—I have to have it if I'm going to be happy. And now I go to work, you know what I mean? They say, "How—how do you get along, going like that?" I says, "Look," I says, "I let the day take care of itself. Tomorrow I don't know what's gonna happen. When it comes, then I know what to do.” I says, "Why should I worry about what's gonna happen tomorrow?" I says, "So that's the way to do it," I says. "You don't have to do what I do, but," I says, "that's the way I figure it out." And that's a fact, because you don't know what's gonna happen tomorrow. You know today.

Wanda: Thank heaven. 

Matthew: [Laughter].

Wanda: Do you work with children all the time up at B.O.C.E.S.?

Matthew: Yeah, I do want to tell ya. Instead of taking my vacation—I go up to the, ah—other place up there—to the Broome Developmental—those little ones up there, and they're—there’re some mongoloids up there and then there's a lot of, ah—deformed kids. They're all in wheelchairs. There's six hundred altogether—some young ones and up, old ones up to twenty years old there. They live there and they take a certain bus, go to—they're active and they can, ah, understand. They bring them up to school in buses, to B.O.C.E.S.—different grades.

Wanda: And what do you teach them?

Matthew: Well—the teachers up there, women, they teach, ah—ah, the little ones, ah—oh, ah—how to read and write and so forth, y’know. And once in a while we jump in if—they've got a few that we help out, that it's a little too hard for them, y’know. Bring 'em up and then, ah, we don't teach 'em a full course, y’know, but we teach them crafts. Something they can do with their hands, you know. And like—ah—I teach them to, ah—braid, you know, pocketbooks.

[Matthew shows a hand-made wallet.]

Wanda: Oh. Somebody did this for you, huh?

Matthew: Yep. And, ah—they got spaces in there, you know, inside for the, oh—ah—well, you know—stuff there. And I, quite often the—I got the one there—the doctor—I gotta go to him tomorrow. Every now and then, when I get examined, see, I go to a regular doctor. I have to go to be examined now. After—tonight, after eleven o'clock you don't eat, and tomorrow morning you fast, and I go there and then they—draw the blood, y’know, and analyze that and then he tells me—he gives me a cup of coffee, ah—tells me to go ahead and—

Wanda: Where do you find a doctor like that?

Matthew: They do—down there, though, the girls. And he says, ah, and he says, "Well, go home and eat a—eat a horse!" He's a nice doctor. Doctor, ah—Grinberg.

Wanda: Oh.

Matthew: You know him? He's the best doctor in the world.

Wanda: I would love to go to him.

Matthew: He's nice. He's just like a brother since he's known me. He just pulled me through a—a bad sickness I had one time. So, ah—I fish and I bring him a fish like that, and I bring him squirrels and rabbits and things, y’know. I hunt a little bit, now. The boy does most of the heavy hunting. I, I just go to the—to the places that are close by, y’know.

Wanda: Your family's around here, are they?

Matthew: Well, not everybody. I, I've got a daughter in Michigan and I've got one in—in, ah, Dayton, Ohio, and I've got one in Chicago. I've got one in, ah—Los Angeles, and I have—how many's that make, four?

Wanda: Yes.

Matthew: And then I have two here. I have Peggy and Suzanne here. And then I've got a girl that's in—you know the grandchildren in—eleven, eleventy dozen grandchildren. [Laughter.]

Wanda: Has this been home all your life?

Matthew: Oh yes. It's, ah—since I was little. I came up from Jersey.

Wanda: Oh.

Matthew: When I was about nine years old. Yes. I like Binghamton. I—I knew most everybody here, and when they go fishing, you know, they—my son-in-law says to me one time—Jack is a, is, ah, is, ah, my son-in-law. He went fishing up to Afton. I know every place from here to Canada, you know? And he says to me, "Hey," he says, ah, "Dad," he says, ah, "I wish we could get up there where Jack was last week." 

I says, "Where?" He says, "Up to Afton." I says, "What part?" He says, "I don't know, but," he says, "we crossed a bridge," and he says, ah, "I don't know, we went down by the bridge and got a boat." And I said, "Was it an old bridge or a new bridge?" And he says "A modern bridge." So we got in the car that time, you know, started, y’know. And he, ah, we got up to Afton. We crossed the bridge and I look down and I says, ah—ah, I says, "Is this the bridge you crossed?"

"Yep." And I looked down to the end, and I looked down and I saw there was about ten or twelve PepsiCo bottles. He says, "That's the place! That's the place! You know how Jack is always drinkin’—big quarts, quarts of Pepsi-Cola." And there were all these bottles. So we went down and we caught fish. Went back and told Jack. And he says, "Jesus, can't get away from him." I says, "I know," I says, "I’ve fished every foot of this pond since I'm about seventeen years old." But, that's the way my, my wife and, and Johnny and his wife and Leo Payne and his wife—used to—travel together, you know? And, ah, they'd leave on Sunday. I said, "Oh, I don't think I'll go." And later on my wife says, "Let, let's go fishin'." I says, "For part of the day." So the first thing I'll say, ah, "Well, where would they go today?"

"I don't know." So we go up to Afton. We go two places there, we don't see 'em. We go back, go to Whitney Point. We don't see ‘em there. So we finally go on up around Oxford and we come down. Every place we ever fished. And I find them—Whitney Point. They gotta be one of those places. [Laughter.]

Wanda: Good a way as any, isn't it?

Matthew: Oh yes—umhmm. But as I said, I know, I know Binghamton—way, way back. 

Wanda: I think if, if you'd like, we could do this again, could we?

Matthew: Anytime, sure.

Wanda: I'm so grateful for the interview you've given.

Matthew: Oh, I've enjoyed your company too. We had a lot of fun. We relaxed and—

Wanda: You bet.

Matthew: I'm not crazy, I'm just silly. [Laughter.]

*[Correction: Professor Palze was the violin teacher.]
⁺ [Roots by Alex Haley.]

[The introduction to this interview was accidentally erased. The subject is Matthew Alston, residing at 150 Moeller Street, Binghamton, NY.]

Date of Interview



Wood, Wanda


Alston, Matthew


33:09 Minutes ; 12:25 Minutes ; 33:29 Minutes

Date of Digitization



Broome County Oral History Project

Subject LCSH

Alston, Matthew -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Binghamton (N.Y.); African Americans -- New York (State) -- Binghamton -- Interviews; Musicians -- Interviews; Orchestra; Jazz; Photographers; Discrimination; Arlington Hotel; Bennett Hotel

Rights Statement

This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.


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The Broome County Oral History Project was conceived and administered by the Senior Services Unit of the Office for the Aging. Funding for this project was provided by the Broome County Office of Employment and Training (C.E.T.A.), with additional funding from the Senior Service Unit of the National Council on Aging and Broome… More

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“Interview with Matthew Alston,” Digital Collections, accessed February 27, 2024,