Parts one and two of a two-part biographical story in which our 101-year-old storyteller remembers part of her family’s journey prior to the Emancipation Proclamation up to her birth in St. Louis, MO, and her move as a young adult to Gary, IN.
Part I: But I’m Still Here
“The doctor…made a comment, ‘Oh, the girl doesn’t have a chance.'”
Transcript for Part I: But I’m Still Here
Part II: Here on Earth to Help Each Other
“…we must do it in a good way so we don’t destroy our earth.”
Transcript for Part II: Here on Earth to Help Each Other
Hold a Conversation
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But I’m Still Here
This goes way back to before the Emancipation Proclamation. My grandfather’s father was born in Virginia, and he knew about sea plants and what you could eat and what you couldn’t. A whaler, a man who was captain of a whaling ship fell in love with George because—my grandfather’s father—because he was a wonderful cook, and no one who ate his food on the ship got scurvy. “George, as long as you are on my ship, you’re free.” He said, “But if you go out there, do you know what’s going to happen? They’re going to snatch you and want to take you to the plantation.” Now this whaling ship, it didn’t go too far out into the Atlantic because at that time, they would go up and down the East Coast, they would leave Boston and go all the way down to the Carolinas, and way down around to Florida, around the edge of Florida, sail out to sea a little bit, then come on back. In order to see his family, the cook would slip out at night and go to see his family in Virginia. And he’d have to hide in order to go, and sometimes, some of the seamen say, “George, come on with me. We’re going to take you back to the ship.” And so they would do that in the dark because they didn’t want to have to fight someone to, you know, because they would want to take George back into the plantation and put him back into slavery, you know?
My grandfather was, he was a Baptist minister, and he wanted to find a better and larger church so he was asking around, and he talked to a very well-known man called Booker T. Washington, and Booker T. Washington said, “George.” (Now, my grandfather’s first name was George.) “George,” he says, “go west. Everything, everybody’s going west. Go west. Go to St. Louis. They’re begging for ministers.” So Granddaddy packed up his family and they moved to St. Louis, Missouri. They had to practice because when they went to school, they would—these people were talking and they did not understand how they talked. The people were saying, “To-maaaa-to,” and they would stand in front of the mirror and say, because they were coming and saying, “to-mA-to” and then speaking, you know, and my grandmother was so angry. She says, “Just go ahead and you’ll learn in time.” Because she was provoked herself that she had to learn, too, you know.
I was born at my grandmother’s home in Saint Louis, Missouri. My mother fell down a back stairway at her mother’s home, my grandmother. And because she fell, it caused her to have delivery of myself and my twin brother—I have a twin brother, Henry. And because we were at my grandmother’s home, she insisted that we call the doctor, and he came. Delivered us, and he made a comment, “Oh, the girl doesn’t have a chance. She won’t live. But the boy, he might live.” We were two-and-a-half pounds. Mother said that she could slide her hand under both of us. One was in one palm and one was in the other. My grandmother was a Quaker and she used olive oil, and bathed us in olive oil all times. Because we did not go to the hospital, because in St. Louis, black babies and black mothers were not admitted to the hospitals there, but I’m still here. I’m 101 years old.
Here on Earth to Help Each Other
Always, whenever you spoke of Gary, people said, “Oh, the mill.” Because that’s why people came to Gary. Joe Chapman, when he got to working in the Urban League, he found some people would come even—two, three people he met—from England. And then another person was from Germany. They wanted to come to see what was happening with this mill and why they would be producing so much steel and how they did it, you know? And that’s why they came.
Louise was a friend of my sister-in-law. And she and her husband were—now, Joe Chapman was Louise’s husband. Now, Joe, even in high school—I was a freshman, and I remember Joe. He was a senior, and he was helping to run the school newspaper. And he was always all up and down the place and all over the school. And everybody knew Joe Chapman, you know? But at any rate, Joe and his family—Louise wanted me to come to help her move her family. “I can’t—I don’t know how we’re going to move all of our stuff, and the children, and I’ve got—we can’t pay her, but we’ll—she’ll have time and maybe we can give her a little money, and she can run out to see Chicago.” And that did it, when she said, “Chicago.” Oh boy!
About 1943 or ’44 that we made that trip. And when we came into Gary, we were coming up 5th Avenue, and I was amazed. I looked out the car window and there was tumbleweed blowing down the streets. I said, “This looks like the Wild West.” I could see these sand hills that were between buildings and I said, “It’s so flat,” I said. People had houses, but nobody had a house over two stories. And then I found out that everyone wanted to come to Gary because there was a mill. The people that Joe, Louise’s husband, knew took us for a trip to go down Broadway, and then he took us all the way down so we could see the gates to the mill and realize what it was and why people kept wanting to come to Gary. In the old days, the mill would take the huge, molten steel and dump it directly into the lake. These were the days before EPA, and all of that wonderful, pure, wonderful water in Lake Michigan was being contaminated, and when that hot steel hit the water, Uh-whump! and it would be—you could hear it past the borders of Gary. It would go way—it was loud. But then I cringed, I said, “I don’t like it,” you know? Then—but I’ll tell you what I did like. I learned about the South Shore.
Well, I knew I could relate to the South Shore because it looked so much like the streetcars that were in St. Louis. when I got on that South Shore, I looked out the window and there were some trees. And then past that canal, you could see pheasant. And I knew they were pheasant because my grandmother told me about the pheasant and how the beautiful feathers that they had. And I said, “You could see the colors of their feathers as they would fly, be flying through these trees.” But then, they were soon lost and gone because whatever they were throwing into the mill were frightening the birds, and so they left. The pheasant weren’t there anymore.
I’m an old lady. I don’t know when God will call me home. But as long as I can talk with young people and at least let them know that we are here on Earth to help each other, but we must do it in a good way so we don’t destroy our earth. Our earth is beautiful—we must try to find a way to keep it. And in our keeping it, and taking care of our earth, we can take care of each other, too.