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Johnson, Mary

MARY JOHNSON does not know her age but is evidently very old. Paralytic strokes have affected mind and body. Her speech, though impaired, is a swift flow of words, often profane. A bitter attitude toward everything is apparent. Mary is homeless and owes the necessities of life to the kindness of a middle aged Negress who takes care of sevoral old women in her home in Pear Orchard, in Beaumont, Texas.

"Now, wait, white folks. I got to scratch my head so's I kin 'member. I's been paralyze so I can't git my tongue to speak good. It git all twist up.

"I don't know how old I is. My daddy he have my age in the big Bible but he done move 'round so much it git lost long ago. He used to 'long to them Guinea men. Them was real small men and they sho' walk fast. He wasn't so tall as my mommer and he name John Allen and he a pore man, all bone. He sold out from the old country, that Mississippi. My mama name Sarah and she come from Choctaw country, 'round in Georgia. I have grandma Rebecca, a reg'lar old Imdian woman and she have two long black braid longer'n her waist and she allus wore a big bonnet with splits in it. You know de Indian people totes they chillens on they back and my mommer have me wrop up in a blanket and strop on her back.

"I's the firstborn chile and my mommer have two gal chillen, me and Hannah, and she have seven boy. Where I's born was old wild country and old Virginny run down thataway. Everything was plenty good to eat and I seed strawberries what would push you to git 'em in your mouth.

"Cloat to where I's born they's a place where they brung the Africy people to tame 'em and they have big pens where they puts 'em after they takes 'em outta they gun ships. They sho' was wild and they have hair all over jus' like a dog and big hammer rings in they moses. They didn't wore no clothes and sometime they git 'way and run to them swamps in Floridy and git all wild and hairy 'gain. They brung preachers to help tame 'em, but didn't'low no preacher in them pens by hisself, 'cause they say them preacher won't come back, 'cause some them wild Africy people done kill 'em and eat 'em. They done worship them snake bit as a rake handle, 'cause they ain't knowed no better. When they gits 'em all tame they sells 'em for field hands, but they allus wild and iffen anybody come they duck and hide down.

"My old missy she name Florence Walker and she reg'lar tough. I helps nuss her chile, Mary, and Mary make her mommer be good to me. Us wore li'l brass toe shoes and I call mine gold toe shoes. Them shoes hard 'nough to knock a mule out. After young missy and me git growed us run off to dances and old missy beat us behind good. She say us jes' chillen yet and keep us in short, short dress and we pull out the stitchia' in them hems so us dresses drags and she sho' wore us out for that.

"Did us love to dance? Jesus help me! Them country niggers swing me so hard us land in the corner with a wham.

"My brudder Robert he a pow'ful big boy and he wasn't 'lowed to have no pants till he 21 year old, but that didn't 'scourage him from courtin' the gals. I try tease him 'bout go see the gals with dat split shirt. That not all, that boy muss he mammer breast till he 21 year old. He have to have that nussin' real reg'lar. But one time he posterin' mommer and she tryia' milk the cow and the cow git nervous and kick over the bucket and mommer fall off the stool and she so mad she wean him right there and then.

"Old massa he never clean hisself up or dress up. He look like a vagrant thing and be and missy mean, too. My pore daddy he back allus done cut up from the whip and bit by the dogs. Sometime when a woman big they make a hollow out place for her stomach and make her lay down 'cross that hole and whip her behind. They sho' tear thatthing up.

"Us chillen git to play and us sing

"'Old possum in the holler log

Sing high de loo,

Fatter than a old green frog,

Sing high de loo,

Whar possum?

"That church they have a 'markable thing. They a deep tranch what cut all 'round the bottom and clay steps what lead all the way to the top the mountain and when the niggers git to shoutin' that church jes' a-rollin' and rockin'. One the songs I 'member was.

"'Shoo the devil out the corner,

Shoo, members, shoe,

Shoo the devil out the corner,

Shoo, members, shoe.'

"Us li'l gals allus wore cottanade dresses ev'ry day. Them what us call nine-stitch dresses. Mammy make fastem-back dresses and festen-back drawers and knit sweaters and socks for the mens. She git sheep wool what near ruint by cockle burrs and make us chillen set by the hour and pick out them burrs.

"Us houses like chicken coops but us sho' happy in that li'l cabia house. Nothin' to worry 'bout. Mammy cook them grits, that yaller hominy. She make 'ash cat', cornbread wrop in cabbage leaf and put ashes 'round it.

"The old plantation 'bout on the line 'tween Virginny and Mis'sippi and us live near the Madstone. That a big stone, all smooth and when a dog bite you you go run 'round the Madstome and wash yourself in the hot springs and the bites don't hurt you.

"I seed lots of sojers and my daddy fit with the Yankees and they have a big fight close there and have a while lots of dead bodies layin' 'round like so meny logs and they jus' stack 'em up and sot fire to 'em. You seed 'em burain' might and day. They lay down and shoot and then jump up and stick 'em and sometimes they druak the blood outten where they stick 'em, 'cause they can't git no water.

"After freedom us go in ox team to New Orleans and daddy he raise cotton and sell it and mommer sell eggs. My daddy a workin' man and he help build the big custom house in New Orleans and help pull the rope to pull the boats up the canal from the river. That Canal Street now. He put he name on top that custom house and it there to this day. You can go there and see it. He help build the hosp'tal, too.

"One time us live close to the bay and that gran' and us take a stove and cotch catfish and porch and cook 'em on the bank and us go meet oyster boats and daddy git 'em by the tub.

"I git marry in Baton Rouge when I sixteen and my husban' he name Arras Shaw and he lots older'n me and I couldn't keep him. He in Port Arthur now. My husben' and I sawmill 20 year in Grayburg, here in Texas, and then us sep'rate. I been in Beaumont 16 year and I's rice farm cook in the camp on the Fannett Read. They tells me I got uncles in Africy. I goes to Sanctified church and that all I can de now.

Johnson, Mary -- Additional Interview

A series of light paralytic storks has affected mind and body, and yet, Mary Johnson, aged Pear Orchard negress, is quite spry at times. She is small in stature and her round, dark face is usually animated. Speech, though impaired, is a furious flow of words constantly profane. A bitter attitude toward society in general and a scarcely veiled viciousness is most characteristic. Mary cannot remember her age and even the names and incidents of childhood escape her at times. Homeless now, she owes the necessities of life to the kindness of a middle aged negress who takes care of several old women in her home in Pear Orchard.

"Now, wait w'ite folks, I got to scratch my head so's I kin 'member. I's been paralize' so's I can't git my tongue to speak good. It git all twis' up."

"I muster been 'bout seben year' ol' w'en freedom come. My daddy he uster had my age in de big Bible but he done move' 'roun' so much it git los' long time 'go. My father uster b'long to dem Guinea men. You all don' know w'at dem Guinea men was? Dem was real small men. Dey sho' walk fas'. He warn't as tall as my mommer. He name was John Allen. He was a po' man---all bone. He was sol' out from de ol' country, dat was Mis'sippi. Dey sol' him but dey didn' sol' my mama."

"My mama' name was Sarah. She come from de Choctaw country, 'roun' in Georgy. I hab a gramma Rebecca, a reg'lar ol' Injun woman. She hab two long black braid down longer'n her wais'. I 'member she allus wo' a big bonnet wid splits in it. You know de Injun people allus tote dey chilluns on dey back. Dey call 'em dey have dey papoose on dey back. My mommer uster hoe wid me wrop' up in a blanket and strop' on her back."

"I was de fus' bo'n chile. My mommer hab two gal chillun, my sister w'at name' Hannah. Den she hab seben boy'. I don' 'member none of dem boy' but my brother Robert. I 'member dey was Mose and Frank but I forgit de others. Dey all mos' dead now anyway."

"My ol' Injun grampa was name' Jim, and I hab grampa and gramma w'at come from Mis'sippi."

"W'ere I's bo'n was ol' wil' country, ol' Virginny run down dat way. Dey was Lower Hill and Greenbur' jis' branch dis way and day way. Dat's w'ere I's bo'n. You know de trains dere dey don't run like dey does here. Dey runs undergroun' and froo holes cut in de mountains. And eb'ryw'ere was plenty good t'ings to eat, sho' 'nuff good t'ings to eat. I seed watermilions big 'roun' as dat tub dere. Dey hab so many dey feed 'em to de cows. And I seed strawberry w'at would push you to git 'em in your mouf."

"Dey's a place close to w'ere I's bo'n w'ere dey brung de Africy people to tame 'em. Dey uster had big pens w'ere dey put 'em atter dey brung 'em dere in gun ships. Dey sho' was wil'.

Dey hab hair all over 'em jis' like a dog wo' big hammer rings in dey noses. Dey didn' wo' no close. Dey hafter chain 'em to keep 'em from runnin' 'way in de woods. Sometime dey git 'way anyway and run 'way to de swamps down in Floridy, and git all wil' and hairy ag'in. Dey ain' had no houses for 'em 'cause dey druther live in de woods or in a ba'n (barn). Dey brung w'ite preachers to help tame 'em. Dey hab two way' of tame 'em---wid a whip and wid a preacher. Dey didn' 'low de preacher' in de pen by hisse'f 'cause dey say at times, dem preacher' don' come back. Some dem wil' Africy people done kill 'em and eat 'em. Dey didn' know nuthin' 'bout no God or no 'ligion. Dey done worship dem snake as big as a rake han'le 'cause dey ain' knowed no better. W'en dey git dem all tame den dey sol' dem all over de lan' for fiel' han's. Dey was jes' like wil' Injuns though. Iffen dey see anybuddy come, dey duck and hide down."

"Back in slav'ry time dey git marry by jump' over a broom. Jes' over dey go 'lally de lally' and den dey go to housekeepin'. In dem time' it warn'n like now, though. Dat marryin' was bindin' and dey wasn' no divorce foolishment. Now, my daddy he didn' git marry til' atter freedom, and den he was marry legal in de co't house."

"My ol' mistus she name Florence Walker. She was reglar tough, but she raise' me. I didn' hardly own my mama 'cause dey tek turns 'bout sucklin' all de chillen, w'ite and black. One her li'l baby 'bout my age she name Mary, too, and us growed right up togedder, baby and chile. Atter us git growed young ladies, dat Mary, me and she would run off and go to dances. De ol mistus was pow'ful mad and she beat us behin' good, but dat didn' do us nuthin'. She say us jes' chillen yet and kep' us in short, short dress so us won't t'ink we growed up. We pull out de stitchin' in de hem so us dresses drag, but she sho' wo' us out for dat."

"Us wo' li'l brass toe shoes, bofe de w'ite chillen and us. I call mine 'gol' toes' (gold toes) and 'Lawd' dem boys to dem country dance dey better not step on my gol' toe' shoe. I kick dem a mile. Dem shoe' was hard 'nuff to knock a mule out."

"Did us lub to dance? Jesus help me. Dem country niggers swing us so hard us lan' in de corner wid a wham. My daddy was a strick man. He beat us for gwineter dances but us jes' hide in de smokehouse all day and run froo de woods dat night. Dey's big black bears in dem 'Sippi woods but eben dat couldn' scare us gals 'way from de fiddlin'."

"My brudder Robert he was a pow'ful big boy. He wasn' 'lowed to hab no pants 'til he was 21 year' ol', but dat didn' 'scourage (discourage) him from co'tin' on de gals. I try tease him 'bout go see de gals wid dat split shu't, but he 'lowed he gwineter gimme a cut wid de axe iffen I ain' quit foolin' wid him."

"Dat ain' all. Dat boy stan'in' 'bout tall he eber would git, he nuss he mama' breas' 'til he 21 year' ol'. He hatter hab dat nussin' real reg'lar. But one time he pesterin' de ol' lady and she tryin' milk de cow and de cow git nervous and kick over de bucket and mama fall off de stool and she so mad she wean' him right den and dere."

"Ol' marster he neber would clean hisse'f up or dress up. He look like a vagrant t'ing. Bofe de w'ite folks was mean. My po' daddy' back was done allus cut up from de whip and bit by de dogs. Dey wasn' good to none dey growed up niggers."

"Sometime w'en a woman big, dey mek a hollow' out place for her stomach. Dey mek her lay down 'cross dat hole and whip her behin'. Dey sho' tear dat t'ing up."

"Course, us chillen didn' pay whippin' no 'tenshion. Us uster dat. One t'ing dey didn' mek us li'l ones do no heaby wuk. Us mos'ly play. Dey was one li'l song w'at go'd:

'Ol' 'possum in a holler log Sing high de loo, Fatter dan a ol' green frog Sing high de loo, Whar possum?'

Den us play:

'Ol' Bella, ol' Bella, tu'n 'roun' and 'roun'---and-- 'Take a home, take a home,' dat kinder like 'gwine 'roun' de rosebush' is now."

"I can't read and I can't count and some t'ings I forgot, but I 'member one t'ing, how my ol' marster he done play my godfather and he done my Crissenin'."

"Dat chu'ch was a remock'ble t'ing. Dey was a deep trench w'at was cut all 'roun' de bottom and clay steps w'at lead all de way up to de top of de mountain. W'en de cullud folks git to shoutin', dat chu'ch was jes' a rollin' and rockin'. One de songs w'at I 'member bes' was:

'Shoo de debil out de corner, Shoo, members, shoo Shoo de debil out de corner, Shoo, members, shoo.'

Den all de wimmen folks would 'shoo' wid dey aprons."

"Anudder song start out:

'Lower down de chair and let me ride---but I can't 'member de res'. Den us sing:

'De Lawd is my Shepherd' and all de res' dat prayer in music, and 'Swing Low, sweet Chariot' and 'Jesus is comin'."

"Us li'l gals allus wo' cottonade dresses Sunday or any other day. Dem was w'at us call '9-stitch' dresses. My mudder could mek dem on a wheel. She mek fasten-back dresses and fasten-back drawers. My mother mek lotser knit sweaters and sox for mens, and mek lotser money for herse'f day way. She git dat sheep wool w'at hab been ruin' wid cockle burrs. Den she mek us chillen set by de hour and pick out de cockle burrs so she could mek de thread."

"Us houses was jes' like li'l chicken coop. Dey hab bed wid fo' pos'es (posts), one for de ol' folks and one for de chillen. Us was sho' happy in dat li'l cabin house. Nuthin' to worry 'bout."

"Atter freedom and my daddy he buy de food, he buy stuff by de box and bah'rel. He buy pickle' po'k and rump po'k in brine and go to de mill for co'n meal. Dey grin' in a han' mill."

"Back on de ol' plantation dey hab a han' mill, too. Us chillen jump on de back of ol' Bob, dat a big ox. Us bridle him and ride him to de mill. When us come home he was train' to frow us on de gallery."

"Mudder could sho' cook dem grits---dat yaller hominy was good. She mek 'ash cat'---co'n bread w'at she wrop in cabbage leaf' and put fire on top and cook in de ash. Den she mek pokeberry salad outen de young poke. Dey could cook in dem day'. Dey didn' use no lotser water and spile de tas'. Iffen I cook sump'n' for you in dem ol' time way, I guarantee you want some mo'."

"Dey uster hab big w'ite folks party. Dey hab 'corjan and fiddlin' music and dance wal'zin' and minuet and sich. Us call de 'corjans 'jammers' 'stead of corjans. Sometime de party las' as long's a week, and folks stay in de extry rooms over night. Dey hab de big hall all decorate' wid dem w'ite magnolias w'at grow on trees and smell so sweet."

"De ol' plantation 'bout on de line 'tween Virginny and 'Sippi, right out in de open country. Us lib near de Madstone. W'at, you ain' neber hear of no Madstone? Dat a big stone all smooth. When a dog bite you and you 'fraid he mad, you go up and run 'roun' de Madstone and wash yo'se'f in de hot springs and de bites don' hurt you."

"I see lots of sojers in 'Sippi. Dey hab on sorter yaller clo'se. My daddy fit wid de Yankees. Dey had a big fight right close dere. Dey have a whole lots of dead bodies layin' 'roun' like so many logs. Dey didn' had no time to bury 'em so dey jis' stack' 'em up and sot fire to 'em. You could see 'em burnin' night and day. I's jis' a tot but I 'member dat. Dey had long fights w'en dey can't git nuthin' to eat or drink. Dey lay down and shoot and den dey jump up and stick 'em wid a ba'net. Dey say dey drink de blood out dey side w'en dey stick 'em wid a ba'net 'cause dey ain't got time to git no water. I seed 'em marchin' wid dey guns on dey sholders and dey cankeens (canteens)."

"Dey was one time dey had had high water in Mis'sippi. Eb'rybody was gittin' drown' and all de cows and hosses and hogs. De mail boat couldn' git froo. Dat was on de Natchez Ribber. Dat was a pretty ribber when it warn't floodin', but de Red Ribber want to go dis way. I 'member seein' my mommer on a scaffol' and den de guv'ment come and tuk us out in boats. Us didn' hafter do nuthin'---jis' sit 'roun' and eat and hab us own doctor and eb'ryt'ing."

"De flood kep' on so us daddy he brung us to Baton Rouge. My mommer's brudder, Amos Wheeler, and her two sister, Susie and Hannah Hildred, dey lib dere."

"After freedom us go in a ox-team to Nu Orlins. My daddy he raise' cotton and sell it dere and my mommer ship' eggs to Nu Orlins. Us chillen didn' know no better. Us would pick cotton all day for a piece of candy. Us neber did know w'at money mean den. Sometime us find de ol' folks' money hide under de fireplace and jis' play 'roun' wid it 'cause us didn' know w'at it was for."

"My fadder was a wukkin' man. He holp buil' de big customs house buil'in' in Nu Orlins. He help pull de rope to pull de boats up de canal from de ribber. Dat Canal Street now. He put he name upon de top of de customs house and it dere to dis day. You kin go dere and see it. I 'member some of de other street'. Charter Street run down on de same side de custom house was on. My pa holp buil' de hospital, too."

"Us lib one time close to de bay. Dat was gran'. Us tek a stove and ketch catfish and perch and cook 'em right dere on de bank. Den us go meet de oyster boats and popper would git 'em by de tub. I's a 'Merican woman but I can't down a oyster or a swimp or a crab. I can't eben eat okra, dey's too slick. I don' b'leebe in eatin' nuthin' w'at I don' like nohow."

"I git marry in Baton Rouge w'en I sixteen year' ol'. My husban' he name Arras Shaw. He lots ol'er'n me. I couldn' keep him. He in Port Arthur now. He ain't dead. Us didn' hab no chillen. I ain't been marry but one time."

"I come to LaFayette, Lou'sian wid my husban' and den to Grayburg, Texas. I and him sawmill dere twenty-fo' year' den us sep'rate and I tuk back my ol' name of Mary Johnson."

"I been in Beaumont sixteen year'. I rice farm cook. I wuk in ol' man Hebert' log camp out by de Iron Bridge out on de Fannett road. Dat's w'ere us all git all mess up. A man git hit in de head wid a axe, and de boss man' car bu'n up tryin' to git him to town to de horspital."

"Its been long time since dem day'. Ol' man Jones is dead, ol' Aunt Susie dead, ol' Aunt Mary she dead, too. Dey all dead and gone 'cep'n' me and my ol' man. Dey tells me I got uncles and aunts in Africy but I ain't neber 'spectin' to see 'em. I goes to de Sanctified chu'ch and I don' miss much. It sho' mek chills run over me to hear a nigger lie."

Heloise M. Foreman Dallas District #4 (March 18, 1938 (yes))

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