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Columbia author evokes bigotry during Great Depression

When my editor asked me to read a book and interview the author, I was interested because it was partly about Washington, D.C., where I was born and lived for 23 years.

After reading the book, "The Last Trolley Stop — Memories of Poverty, Bigotry, and Religiosity in Washington, D.C., and Rural Kentucky during the Great Depression," I had the pleasure of interviewing the author, Heber Bouland, 87, a Columbia resident who is a retired agricultural and civil engineer.

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This was Mr. Bouland's second book; his first, "Barns Across America," is what he called a coffee table book, depicting barns in rural America through 200 photographs, more than 30 in color. He took a third of those photos while driving cross-country to California.

When asked if he had always wanted to be a writer, Bouland said, "No." He enjoyed English and had written a sonnet in school, which was liked by his teacher who read it to the class. That was the only poem he has written. He did take a creative writing course about 15 years ago at Montgomery College, during which he wrote portions we now find in his second book.

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What prompted him to write his first book was an ad calling for someone to write a book about barns, placed by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, which was interested in publishing a popular-type book on barns. He responded to the call with a proposal, not for any technical reasons but because of his great love for his visits to his uncle's farm in Kentucky, and the fun times he had in the barn there.

For his second book, Bouland decided that he had a story to tell about his experiences growing up in Washington, D.C., during the Great Depression. He had seen black children and their parents living in "shanty ghettos,'" the Ku Klux Klan marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, and blacks being forced to the back of the bus. This book was self-published in 2014 through CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, a subsidiary of Amazon.

Bouland was born in 1928, a year before the beginning of the Great Depression, so his views and memories are those of a young boy. He said, "The majority of the book I wrote from memory. I did talk to my sister and got some stories from friends, but I did very little library work." The book includes photos he took of Takoma Park and family pictures from an old cardboard box.

His intended audience is older adults, those who remember the Great Depression or heard about it from their parents. Bouland said that people in their 20s to 40s, don't care much about that time.

Concerning the ills of the Great Depression, Bouland primarily describes, in great detail, what took place in his neighborhood of Takoma Park, in Washington, and the area of Marshall County in Kentucky, where he went for summers growing up.

I asked him about his use of the term "shanty ghetto," if it was used back then. He said that was his phrase. I did some research and found some sites with photos of the 1930s calling the living conditions ghettos or slums. Some of these photos were of white children living in slums. Bouland didn't recall seeing that aspect of the Depression. The unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 50 percent for blacks and 30 percent for whites.

Toward the end of the book, Bouland wrote, "Over my lifetime the worst bigotry and poverty I ever witnessed was in this shanty ghetto." He refers to the shanty ghetto a few blocks from his home in Takoma Park. He regularly saw the black children with deformed limbs walking up his street. His mother told him these children had rickets because they didn't have milk to drink. He gets emotional today when he thinks about the children of the shanty ghetto and what might have happened to them.

Bouland contrasted then and now. He said, "It was a different world." You didn't worry about crime. There were no concrete barriers and metal detectors. He recalled his youth when he and his friends roamed the Capitol building without any interference from guards. It was a tranquil time.

There were few blacks in the county then and it is the same there today.

No alcohol was allowed in Kentucky then, but he was amazed at the pervasiveness of tobacco and its use in all forms.

Bouland is doing book signings at senior living communities and some senior centers.

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