During the 1930s, Great Depression era, many writers were employed to interview people and write stories about life in the United States. The program was named the U.S. Work Projects Administration, Federal Writers’ Project and it gave employment to historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. These important stories and interviews should not be forgotten and relegated to dusty shelves so from time to time, they will be published on this website. They provide much information about our past American culture and history and we will include as many as possible on www.daysgoneby.me.
This is a transcribed, unedited interview with a former slave Rose Smith of Lowndesboro, Alabama which was written in 1939 by WPA writer, Marie Reese of Lowndesboro, Lowndes County, Alabama after an interview of Rose on March 3, 1939. Beware – The story has been written using Rose’s dialect and her own words from 1939 and may contain words that would not be used today so please do not read if you are offended.
Rose was a tall, spare woman with brown skin, small, keen eyes, and wore the slavery-time mammy bandanna as a head rag. She wore an old-fashioned (but good) dark wool dress and checked gingham apron.
She was deaf and incessantly said “ma’am” and put her hand behind her ear, a gesture used by those hard of hearing. She also spit continuously.
In age she was nearing ninety-odd and was a victim of heart trouble.
This cottage is on a back street, but was what in ante-bellum days College Street and was then a historically prominent neighborhood. It is opposite the Negro school.
It was a small cottage home consisting of two rooms and small front porch built in a neat enclosure; a front yard in which were several large boxwoods; a most attractive sweet shrub bush; a walk bordered with bulbs and annuals on each side.
There was a backyard or chicken run in which was a kitchen, corn crib, and fowl house. The entire premises were enclosed with a neat fence (palings).
The home was furnished in usual Negro style and was clean and neat as a pin.
Old shack will stand
“Aunt Rose” was sitting by the fireside on a cold disagreeable morning. It was raining and the wind was howling around the small, lonely cottage. The windows that had shut the sunlight for more than half a century, in and out, were rattling on hinges that were time worn. She said “I do not mind the noise because I am mighty deaf,” and at that remark she raised her hand and placed it behind her ear as proof of her statement.
“I am not afraid of the wind either, because my shack, if it is old, can stand a lot. In them times when me and my old man bought this piece of ground and had the house built, people with money didn’t have any houses put up with nails, but they were jined together with wooden pegs. My pappy was a carpenter and a good one when he didn’t get too many “eye openers” and I recollec” how he would make piles of wooden pegs and bore holes in the timbers and pin or peg ’em together. It makes the houses stronger and hold more better than these made with hammers and nails. Honey the world is moving fast and younger heads wants to push us on the shelf and call us fogies, but I want you to know heaps of them old ways is the best.”
“The judge that comes down here every summer to cool off and “fill up’ with fried chickens and good country victuals, told me that these old houses would be here when the new ones were gone. He comes down this street to look at the steeple on our church and brings some fine city people with him. He says the steeple is mighty important and wanted to buy it from “Sliding Elder” for $50.00″
“I disremember what ‘our color’ gave the white people for the church long time ago, but they wrote my name on a list for my part and I paid it with my ‘cook money’. I was cooking then and knew where the money was coming from. I worked right up yonder for Miss C…..” and she pointed to an old-fashioned house that had an important page in the history of the village. It was one of the dormitories of the Academy that was founded soon after the settlement of Lowndesboro.
Not working for promises
“She was regular on paying me as a bran new cook and I was not working for promises like some niggers do and when the Elder read out my name on collection day, my money was on top. I cooked three meals a day and kept my kitchen and dining room as clean as a new dollar and she paid me four dollars a month and fed. me.”
“But I kinder hated to part with my money, for I was young and had aims to buy me some ‘heel and toe’ slippers, but I was afraid the parson would read my name out if I didn’t pay. You know that’s the rule our colored parson had. If you were good pay, you were a good sister or brother, but if you were poor pay, he would read your name out and p’int you out as living in sin. So a good christian had to walk a chalk.: The old woman was not getting much comfort from the fire, as it is what they call a widow woman’s fire. Two small sticks of wood rested on the age-old dog irons which were of a nondescript design, and there were some hot coals.
A pot was suspended from a hook arranged some way in the built-in fire place and the former hung over what heat there was from the inadequate fuel.
All rich white people cooked all the grub this way
Aunt Rose said “I do not have to tell you what is in the pot, for cabbage smells strong, and I’m biling one for dinner and have two sweet potatoes in hot ashes.
“Some folks call themselves airish and don’t eat taters cooked that way, but wood is scarce and I can’t hardly get it out, so I stretch mine as far as I can. I don’t know when I might get down and have no one to help me so I try to take care while I can. You see, I have a good kitchen and a nice cookstove in it, but it is outdoors and when the weather is bad I cook in here on my fireplace. I l’arned to do this way in the slavery time days. My white mistus and all the rich white people cooked all the grub this way.”
“The pots hung down the chimney like dis’n, only you could let it up and down. If you want it to bile fust, you pull it dis way so it will be near the fire and when what-so-never is in the pot is ‘most done, you let it up like dis,” and she demonstrated by putting it up and down.”
“You younger upstarts think the world didn’t know nothing and we had no good eatings because nobody had cookstoves and all de highfalutin books to go by, but there’s where you slipped up. Folks been eatin’ ev’y since ole Marster put de fust man an’ ‘oman in dat garden together, an’ de’ made close out of leaves. He tested dem and de man failed because de ‘bidden fruit looked too good, and he could not ‘sist de ‘oman and de eatin’ nurther and man-folks is just like that today. When I was brung up we had sho nuff good victuals and some white men had 200 and 300 head to feed and ‘find’, but that was in slavery time.
“My white marster always said give a nigger all he could eat and let him lay down awhile and he was all right, that he was like a mule. Feed him and work him. Hit’s a big difference in buying of de rations too. Dey were called rations den and grocer’s now, and come in hogsheads dem shipped up de river, den from big stores at a place dey call Mobile.”
“Now de people buy de grocer’s dey call ’em, in paper sacks and when you dig down in dem sacks to get out enough to cook, you have to tetch it mighty light or you will cook it all at once and before you can say ‘scat’, all de grocer’s done gonen and more got to come. You know peoples can promise dey backs but dey can’t promise de stomachs. I know one ‘oman what re’lecks good old slavey time doin’s like me, an’ said: ‘Dey used to get rations by loads and now dey come in de mail.’
Not ‘spensive eatin’
The cooking odors from the cabbage in the pot arranged Gypsy style like, grew stronger and stronger and Aunt Rose, after spitting twice in a cup on the hearth, kept for that purpose, returned to the subject uppermost in her mind, the approaching noonday meal. “I hope you don’t mind how loud dey smell,” she said. “I have dem ‘most eve’y day.”
I asked if she was that fond of them, and after putting her hand behind her ear, she answered without hearing me, but made a very good guess, “I get them because I get more for my money, at the same time they fill up as big a crack as anything else. The white heads sell for 1 cent a pound and the heads that have green leaves cost 1 ½ cents and a pound is enough for me two days. You know that is not ‘spensive eatin’. The green ones are more better as de taste is better. Another thing, niggers sho like greens. They will go rampant any day for a good mess of greens and cabbage is next thing to greens.”
“Peoples with book learning will tell you that vetables, like everything else, have families and I ‘spose de two are some kinder of cousins. My mind tells me if you don’t bile a pot at dinner time, your dinner is ‘slim Jim’. Folks need victuals what will stick to your ribs, and if you don’t ‘ole Pete’ (hunger) will get you.”
“But chile, you must know how to handle these things. There is biling and biling. If you cook ’em too much you have ‘gestion as quick as if they are not done enough, so you must be on your job. They are tricky, I don’t care what family they belong in.” After another use of the spitton can, she continued, “The best way to bile any kind of pot is to let it take its own time, the slower the better and gives time to drown out the taste. But smothering is all the go now. Put what you want to cook in a pot or skillet and sprinkle salt and seasoning over it and kiver with enough water and let it simmer.”
Fireplace big enough for chillum to sit in
“I can see my old mistus’ fireplace in de cook room and can almost smell the good old ham meat now. They had a great long fireplace, long enough for a full-length stick of wood and rams of cooking pots hung over where the fire was, and then the ovens and skillets down in the hot ashes to bake and fry victuals in.”
“The fireplace in her house was big enough to save the end corners for the li’l’ chillun to sit in.” She smiled at my surprise and said, “Yes’m, some of the chimneys in the houses way back yonder was made ‘zactly that way. Look, at each end of the chimney was a li’l’ bench and chillum sat on ’em. Wasn’t so much sood cuttin’ for a pole piece in wagon length fit in to a ‘gnat’s heel’ and lef’ room for chilum at de ends. An’ see, whosoever was cooking had to ‘tend chilun too. If they wuz big enough to lap ‘lasses you nuse in good luck, all you had to do wus to give ’em a plate of ‘lasses and enough skillet biscuits to sop it up, or if they wanted flopginnies, fust butter ’em and flop over in de ‘lasses as fast as they could ”story.”
“Flopginnies, why I thought every lady knowed what they were, but some flolk did call ’em battercakes and now for ‘put ons’ and to dress ’em up, they call ’em ‘hot cakes’. But they are like I ‘splained while ago about, there is billing and biling; there is different kinds and it’s sho a case of what you put in a thing is what you get out of it.”
“The slipshod cook is ‘scused of falling back on battercakes when she wants to dodge work but the secret of good old-time flopginnies is lots of eggs and lots of beatin’ and then more beatin’. Both makes ’em nice and light and my marster said, ‘Rose they are so good and reminds me of eatin’ bananas and kissin’ babies, a fellow never can tell when he gets enough.’ I bet dese old hands done fried enough to make piles as high as de skies, and ‘lasses, don’t you say nothing. Dey had ‘lasses till ‘lasses come again.”
“My white people didn’t have to buy that. See they had wide ‘spanse of land and niggers to et and they planted plenty stuff to make it outer. White folks sopped up what was made outer sugar cane and it was pure cane too, and us black folks sopped up de sorghum ‘lasses and da was hundreds of barrels of it. We had more than the storekeepers had to sell.”
I kept my house so nice
Aunt Rose showed me her home and said: “I try to keep it clean and nice always. I was brung up to keep things clean and then I think it a good idea to do this because you never know when company is coming in, like you today and the ‘Leaf Ladies’ from Hayneville come real often and look over my house and what I got.” (She here refers to the visitors from the Welfare Department at the county seat, we handle the relief situation, and call on those who are on this list.) “They told me they could tell I was a nice deserving auntie, for I kept my house so nice.”
She was proud of the small cottage that consisted of two rooms and a small front porch. She told me that she and her husband had saved their small earnings some 50 years ago or more, and bought two acres of land from the tract or lot that had been the long past site of the historical academy, which was founded when Lowndesboro was known as Lock Ranza, and according to some authority, was located in Montgomery county.
Land was a good bargain
She had a confused idea that it had an interesting link with something important, but only said when the academy was torn down the location was sold to Dr. Mansfield Tyler, (colored), for a small sum and he in turn divided it into small lots and resold them. “You know, he had loads of book learning,” she continued, “and made it a skin game. He went to the capitable and sat ‘mongst de ‘big bugs’ and made laws and such, and made ’em up there let niggers vote. Anyway he sold us two acres for $60.00. That seemed a pile of money and that night I thought how many days I would have to sweat and ‘sling pots’ to pay it.”
“Then sumptin said to me, ‘Dat land is on College Street, dat land is jam up to de church with that steeple on it that everybody is wanting to see and put sumptin in books about so my mind told me that it was a swell trade, so I ripped open my mattress and pulled out my money I took and hid in there and ‘sisted my old man to pay off.”
“The land had a pine grove on it and our white friends said we made a good bargain and ‘vised us to cut and ‘change it for lumber. We got enough out of it to build our house and it was good stuff too. Me and my old man ‘greed never to gin anybody a scratch agin it and we didn’t. I hear ’em say des things you call morgages is de debbil and intrust working while you in your bed getting’ sleep. I’se always been what folks call ‘a white folks nigger’. I listen to their ‘vice. They know everything more better. They come in the world knowing more and giving out some way.”
“My old man been dead ten years or better and Rose’s sticking to dat ‘greement about not tying up my home. It’s small and I’se been mighty hard up, but its mine.” “Aunt Rose,” I ventured to ask, “are you in any of the burial or insurance companies? They are good protections if anything should happen and of course you can’t tell when something might.”
Burial dues a problem
Between spit spats in the cup she replied “No, ma’am, they are good things all right, but I am not able to keep up my jews (dues). I was in one burial ‘socation once and after I had scuffled to keep myself going in it a long time, the company failed and the head man run away with the money and that cooked me for awhile. I hated to drop out as I was a poor widow ‘oman and knew some day my time was coming to die.”
“Policy men come ’round ev’y week to coolect jews and someone sicked his on me to gine another society and he reasoned so nice and called himself showing me points, so he overpersuaded me and I took out a policy with him, but my money soon played out. I lays ‘wake at nights and thinks how I’m going to keep gwine in it.”
“About time my old rooster started to crow my mind told me what to do. When Miss S. the white ‘oman I cooked for so long, give me some furniture when she lef’ here. It was old and out of date, but bless you dem things done come in style again and de peoples done took an’ name ’em antics, and buys ’em up. Anyway ‘mongst de things I had to ‘member de good ole critter by, was something day called ‘somewhat’ or ‘whatnot’, a real hogany piece. Heaps of white ladies did their level best to buy it an’ said it was a swell antic. So when I wanted to gen in this new society so bad till my mouth watered, I parted with my antic for $10.00.
“Waal that paid my installment for a good while and inside me I had a feeling if old Marster blow his trumpet I’d be ready, but after a while I paid my bottom dollar out and the policy man said ‘You can’t ford to drap out now’ so I said to myself ‘I’ll part with another antic.”
House is the solution
“I had two pretty pots of wax flowers under a high oblong glass case – I hear ’em say they are ‘never-lasting’. I sold these for five dollars and carried my ‘jews’ along till I paid all that out and then I was bogged up sho nuff. Pay day rolled around again and I didn’t have penny one to pay on it. The man what collects every week started off with some more big expressions, trying to ‘suade me again. ‘Auntie, you have a nice little home here and could easy raise money on it and sich sweet mouth talk, but auntie seed that the antics were gone and I’m still in the suds, so my mind told me this:
“‘Scratch along the best I could and if the house was clear it would more than pay for putting me away. Hope Miss S. didn’t look out de pearly gates and see me trading off dem things she lef’ me to ‘member her by, an’ I sho couldn’t meet my old man on de other shore if I busted us agreement.”
“The two acres of ground we bought come in handy too. It was enough ground for a corn patch, a good garden spot and some lef’ to grow some cotton in. That’s a great help to you, I remarked, because those kind of things come in mighty nice. I just have my garden and a li’l’ corn now,” she said, “for some of the ground is plumb worn out and some of it has gullied, see them deep gullies yonder have washed most half way up to the yard, but you see that has been better’n fifty years ago and old Rose is still scuffling round the world to keep soul and body together.”
How she got relief
She was extremely difficult to carry on a conversation with, so I gave her the floor and she seemed to talk about herself, and then she began to tell the story of how she got relief assistance. “I was hard up as I could be and the white ladies ‘hoped’ till one day one of them said she was going to try to get me ‘on.”
“She sent me an ‘answer’ to get ready and told her yard boy to tell me she was going to send me to Hayneville to ‘ply for relief monty. I brushed my old duds bes’ I could and put on my Sunday-go-to-meetin’ dress and hat and waited. About dat time a fine shining car tooted at my gate and the lady’s own putter gal called me to come on. I got in and sot on the soft cushions on the back seat ‘longside of a black ‘oman who was going to git on too. I had ‘fluttering’ of de heart and the lady sont me some money to see de doctor wid too.”
“He said my heart was leaking and told me to never git mad or ‘cited and wouldn’t take the fee. He give de white ‘oman some sweet mouth words and told her to not let ne ‘sert myself. We went over to the ‘lief office and my goodness it was so many the courthouse couldn’t hardly ‘commodate ’em.”
Writing what we say down
“There was white trash and niggers too, to let and my mind said to me, ‘Rose if all dis crowd come for help, you have a poor showing.’ Folks were so thick you couldn’t get a case knife ‘twixt ’em, and that place you can bet smelled like niggers. There was more than an little putty white ‘omans setting to tables or around the room playing on something with their hands. They asked questions and when the hands worked the thing went click, click, click. The ‘oman said next to me, ‘They are writing what we say down and when it says click you can’t take it back.'”
“I watched everything saw an uppity looking black gal all dressed up come in leading an old ‘oman. She told the ‘lief lady it was her ma and wanted to get her ‘sistance and used some large words. She told the lady that her ma had seven sons who had trades and that she herself had a home and school, but thought her ma needed ‘sistance.”
“The ‘lief lady said id that’s the case, your mother can’t get on relief here. If she is really so poor, we of course can get her in at the County Poor House. Does the prosperous daughter and well-to-do sons want me to put her application in to go there? Dat gal’s uppity airs dropped from her like dey ‘were shot at and missed,’ and I noticed that her ma forgot to limp when she was gwine out de courthouse too.”
I told the gospel truth
“When my turn come ’round, I told her de gospel truth. I didn’t know one day where my next day’s victuals were coming from and no near kin to help me. I didn’t know how old I was, but was half-grown, ‘a nussy gal’, at time of surrender. She smiled and put her hands on that thing that sounded click, click, click, click.”
“She told me go on home and help myself bes’ way I could and she would let me hear. I heard too – with a $5.00 check and some grocer’s every month. They send me flour, dried fruit, canned beef, dried vegetables. I’s proud to get anything, because I can eat anything with my store bought teeth I had put in a long time ago. I gummed my victuals till I saved up money to buy me a set. I never will forgit the time Miss S. carried me to Montgomery to pull mines out and buy these and that’s been a ‘whet’, but I know all the grub I ate there all went to my head and made it hurt.”
“And my mercy! That night made me sick. I was rest-broken for they hauled all night. I wondered if they never caught up with it. We went by land in her kerriage and had to stay over as it was too far to go and come in one day. We went de old stage coach route.”
That old woman had nerve
“The deniscy, but then they were called tooth doctors, waal, he took and set me in a cheer and pull my snags out and put a wad of something soft like dough in my mouth and said ‘mash down on it’, and when he took it out he had a pattern to make my teeth by. I heard him tell a man in another room, ‘That old woman had nerve. I pulled out everything she had out, meat and all, and she wouldn’t take anything for fear she wouldn’t wake up.’ I was proud of my bought teeth til I came home and the other niggars said they looked like grains of corn, but I knew they were grudgeful hearted.”
I want her to ‘member me by it
“I shur ‘preciated the white missy carrying me to Hayneville and I proved it by making her some good brandy – peach brandy is de bes’ and as plums are ‘bundant in their time of the year, I make plum brandy. Here’s my rule, I take de fruit and put it in a bottle, a layer of it and a layer of sugar, and so on and just stop it up close and let it stand a week or two. My,” she said, smacking her lips, “it’s so good I can taste it now. I carried a bottle to her when she come home with the flues. And I am going to give the ‘lief ladies some flower plants and a root from my sweetshrub bush.
You know, she got married and I want to give her something nice to set out in her new yard. I told her though the bush must be sot out in Fall or early Spring. When my bush is in bloom you can smell de sweet scent long ways. I want her to ‘member me by it. I will be in glory and she will be smelling de scent of de sweetshrub bush do old ‘leif nigger give her.”
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