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Cragin, Ellen

815 Arch Street, Little Rock, Arkansas

Age Around 80 or more

"I was born on the tenth of March in some year, I don't know what one. I don't know whether it was in the Civil War or before the Civil War. I forget it. I think that I was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi; I'm not sure, but I think it was.

"My mother was a great shouter. One night before I was born, she was at a meeting, and she said, 'Well, I'll have to go in, I feel something.' She said I was walkin' about in there. And when she went in, I was born that same night.

"My mother was a great christian woman. She raised us right. We had to be in at sundown. If you didn't bring it in at sundown, she'd whip you,---whip you within an inch of your life.

"She didn't work in the field. She worked at a loom. She worked so long and so often that once she went to sleep at the loom. Her master's boy saw her and told his mother. His mother told him to take a whip and wear her out. He took a stick and went out to beat her awake. He beat my mother till she woke up. When she woke up, she took a pole out of the loom and beat him nearly to death with it. He hollered, 'Don't beat me no more, and I won't let 'em whip you.'

"She said, 'I'm goin' to kill you. These black titties sucked you, and then you come out here to beat me.' And when she left him, he wasn't able to walk.

"And that was the last I seen of her until after freedom. She went out and got on an old cow that she used to milk---Dolly, she called it. She rode away from the plantation, because she knew they would kill her if she stayed.

"My mother was named Luvenia Polk. She got plumb away and stayed away. On account of that, I was raised by my mother. She went to Atchison, Kansas---rode all through them woods on that cow. Tore her clothes all off on those bushes.

"Once a man stopped her and she said, 'My folks gone to Kansas and I don't know how to find 'em.' He told her just how to go.

"My father was an Indian. 'Way back in the dark days, his mother ran away, and when she came up, that's what she come with---a little Indian boy. They called him 'Waw-hoo'che.' His master's name was Tom Polk. Tom Polk was my mother's master too. It was Tom Polk's boy that my mother beat up.

"My father wouldn't let nobody beat him either. One time when somethin' he had did didn't suit Tom Polk---I don't know what it was---they cut sores on him that he died with. Cut him with a raw-hide whip, you know. And then they took salt and rubbed it into the sores.

"He told his master, 'You have took me down and beat me for nothin', and when you do it again, I'm goin' to put you in the ground.' Papa never slept in the house again after that. They got scared and he was scared of them. He used to sleep in the woods.

"They used to call me 'Waw-hoo'che' and 'Red-Headed Indian Brat.' I got in a fight once with my mistress' daughter,---on account of that.

"The children used to say to me, 'They beat your papa yesterday.'

"And I would say to them, 'They better not beat my papa,' and they would go up to the house and tell it, and I would beat 'em for tellin' it.

"There was an old white man used to come out and teach papa how to read the Bible.

"Papa said, 'Ain't you 'fraid they'll kill you if they see you?'

"The old man said, 'No; they don't know what I'm doing, and don't you tell 'em. If you do, they will kill me."

"One night my father called me outside and told me that he saw the elements opened up and soldiers fighting in the heavens.

"'Don't you see them, honey?' he said; but I couldn't see them. And he said there was going to be a war.

"I went out and told it. The white people said they ought to take him out and beat him and make him hush his mouth. Because if they got such talk going 'round among the colored people, they wouldn't be able to do nothin' with them. Dr. Polk's wife's father, Old Man Woods, used to say that the niggers weren't goin' to be free. He said that God had showed that to him.

"Dr. Polk and his son, the one my mother beat up and left lying on the ground, were two mean man. When the slaves didn't pick enough cotton for them, they would take them down the field, and turn up their clothes, till they was naked, and beat them nearly to death.

"Mother was a breeder. While she did that weaving, she had children, fast. One day, Tom Polk hit my mother. That was before she ran away. He hit her because she didn't pick the required amount of cotton. When there was nothin' to do at the loom, mother had to go in the field, you know.

I forget how much cotton they had to pick. I don't know how many times he hit her. I was small. I heard some one say. 'They got Clarisay Down, down there!' I went to see. And they had her down. She was stout, and they had dug a hole in the ground to put her belly in. I never did get over that. I'm an old woman, but Tom Polk better not come 'round me now even.

"I have heard women scream and holler, 'Do pray, massa, do pray.' And I was sure glad when she beat up young Tom and got away. I didn't have no use for neither one of 'em, and ain't yet.

"It wasn't her work to be in the field. He made her breed and then made her work at the loom. That wasn't nothin'. He would have children by a nigger woman and then have them by her daughter.

"I went out one day and got a gun. I don't know whose gun it was. I said to myself, 'If you whip my mother today, I am goin' to shoot you.' I didn't know where the gun belonged. My oldest sister told me to take it and set it by the door, and I did it.

"Dr. Polk had a fine horse. He came riding through the field and said, 'All you all niggers are free now. You can stay here and work for me or you can go to the next field and work.'

"I had an old aunt that they used to make set on a log. She jumped off that log and ran down the field to the quarters shouting and hollering.

"The people all said, 'Nancy's free; they ain't no anta biting her today.' She'd been setting on that log one year. She wouldn't do no kind of work and they make her set there all day and let the ants bite her.

"They used to call my folks 'big niggers.' Papa used to get things off a steamboat. One day he brought a big demi-john home and ordered all the people not to touch it. One day when he went out, I went in it. I had to see what it was. I drunk some of it and when he came home he said to me, 'You've been in that demi-john.' I said, 'No, I haven't.' But he said, 'Yes, you have; I can tell by the way you look.' And then I told him the truth.

"He would get shoes, calico goods, coffee, sugar, and a whole lot of other things. Anything he wanted, he would get. That he didn't, he would ask him to bring the next trip.

"It was a Union gunboat, and ran under the water. You could see the smoke. The white people said, 'That boat's goin' to carry some of these niggers away from here one of these days.'

"And sure enough, it did carry one away.

"I went to the big gate one morning and there was a nigger named Charles there.

"I said, 'What you doing out here so early this morning?'

"He said to me, 'You hush yo' mouth and get on back up to the house.'

"I went back to the house and told my mother, 'I saw Charles out there.' That was before my mother ran away.

"My mother said, 'He's fixing to run away. And he's got a barrel of money. And it belongs to the Doctor. 'Cause he and the Dr. went out to bury it to keep the Yankees from getting it.' "He ran away, and he took the money with him, too. He went out to Kansas City and bought a home. We didn't think much of it, because we knew it was wrong to do it. But Old Master Tom had done a heap of wrong too. He was the first one spotted the boat that morning---Charles was. And he went away on it.

"My father would kill a hog and keep the meat in a pit under the house. I know what it is now. I didn't know then. He would clean the hog and everything before he would bring him to the house. You had to come down outside the house and go into the pit when you wanted to get meat to eat. If my father didn't have a hog, he would steal one from his master's pen and cut its throat and bring it to the pit.

"My folks liked hog guts. We didn't try to keep them long. We'd jus' clean 'em and scrape 'em and throw 'em in the pot. I didn't like to clean 'em but I sure loved to eat 'em. Father had a great big pot they called the wash pot and we would cook the chit'lins in it. You could smell 'em all over the country. I didn't have no sense. Whenever we had a big hog killin', I would say to the other kids, 'We got plenty of meat at our house.'

"They would say back, 'Where you got it?'

"I would tell 'em. And they would say, 'Give us some.'

"And I would say to them, 'No, that's for us.'

"So they called us 'big niggers.'

"My first baby was born to my husband. I didn't throw myself away. I married Mr. Cragin in 1867. He lived with me about fifteen years before he died. He got kicked. He was a baker. During the War, he was the cook in a camp. He went to get some flour one morning. He snatched the tray too hard and it kicked him in his bowels. He never did get over it. The tray was full of flour and it was big and heavy. It was a sliding tray. It rolled out easy and fast and you had to pull it careful. I don't know why they called it a kick.

"I married a second husband---if you can call it that---a nigger named Jones. He had a spoonful of sense. We didn't live together three months. He came in one day and I didn't have dinner ready. He slapped me. I had never been slapped by a man before. I went to the drawer and got my pistol out and started to kill him. But I didn't. I told him to leave there fast. He had promised to do a lot of things and didn't do them, and then he used to use bad language too.

"I've always sewed for a living. See that sign up there?" The sign read:

"I can't cut out no dress and make it, but I can use a needle on patching and quilting. Can't nobody beat me doin' that. I can knit, too. I can make stockings, gloves, and all such things.

"I belong to Bib Bethel Church, and I get most of my support from the Lord. I get help from the government. I'm trying to get moved. and I'm just sittin' here waiting for the man to come and move me. I ain't got no money, but he promised to move me."

There it was---the appeal to the slush fund. I have contributed to lunch, tobacco, and cold drinks, but not before to moving expenses. I had only six cents which I had reserved for car fare. But after you have talked with people who are too old to work, too feeble to help themselves in any effective fashion, hemmed up in a single room and unable to pay rent on that, odds and ends of broken and dilapidated furniture, ragged clothes, and not even plenty of water on hand for bathing, barely hanging on to the thread of life without a thrill or a passion, then it is a great thing to have six cents to give away and to be able to walk any distance you want to.

Interviewer Samuel So Taylor"

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