From high cotton to the front of the bus.
This narrative is part of a larger oral history project conducted in 1993 and 1994 entitled Extraordinary Ordinary Women. It was inspired by relationships I had established with women who had been clients during my employment as a geriatric social worker by the University of California Department of Internal Medicine. After resigning from my job, I found myself unable to retire these singular individuals from my life or mind and asked that they tell me their stories. They each had a presence that refused to be erased by time or aging and an abundance of spirit and personal determination.
Oral history differs from a formal interview. The storyteller is on her own stage, decides which characters will join her, designs her own props, and authors the script. The telling reenacts and reinvents a life. Oral history tends not to be linear. Lives have a chronology, but the images and experiences most etched in memory assert their own time and place in the telling: thus the fragmentary nature of the tale.
Mary Perkins, the subject and voice of this piece, is now 86 and lives in a sparsely furnished house in a low-income neighborhood of Sacramento, California. Her beautiful face always smiles welcome. And one can't wait to sit down in her living room to listen once again.
I was born in Louisiana, Bastrop, Louisiana, 1910, on my grandfather's plan'ation. My mother's father had his own place, what you call a farmin place now. I was born at home. Hmm-hmm. Sure was. This old lady was named Aunt Jane come. A midwife. Mother said Aunt Jane brought me there in a basket. And when my brother was born, she said, "Oh, look, what Aunt Jane brought you, a brother!" I said, "Where was he at?" Mother say Aunt Jane got him out of a hollow log, out of a tree. That's what she would tell me. Yeah. But daddy would tell me better.
We was the Johnsons. My mother was Virginia Wells. She married, she was Virginia Johnson. Andrew Johnson was my father's name. My little brother was A. J., named after my daddy. Frances was my older sister. My twin sister was Roseanne. She was larger that I was. That was the reason they called her Big Bit and me Little Bit.
We raised goats, geeses, pigeons. And I'd go to huntin. Had a single barrel shot gun. Sure did. It was learned us when we were children. Shoot rabbits, guineas, squirrels. We raised our own hogs, killed them and smoked them, what you call curin it up. And have that all the winter. Washed it off real good, salted it down. Hung the strips in a little house with wood slats. Put leaves, chinaberries and old clothes in there. We'd catch it afire, but we wouldn't let it blaze up, and it made good smoke.
Grandfather's plan'ation was up in the piney woods. All kinds of trees growing there. And yes, there was a bayou. All a bayou up in the hills. It's not like a river. It's not deep, but there is plenty of water from one coast to the other. I used to swim. And I go to fishing. In them times big steam boats with wheels behind them would carry cotton from one place to another on that water.
After my mother's father died her brother sold the land. We moved up on a white man's plan'ation. This white guy, Cary Calhoun, we would be workin for him. That's the way that was. We had to do what he said. My daddy was the overseer, the rider. He'd ride out and see about the people's hoein.
Back in that time I picked cotton and I hoed, and I had to get up the mornin, go out and feed the mules and the horses in the stable while my sister was cookin. And I have plowed just like a man. In the spring that's when you would go to breakin up land, not in the dead winter. My daddy would tell me to go out to the field to plow and plow. He wasn't brutish on us. He was just learnin us to work. I wore a dress. In them times they had the dresses long. I just hitched up my mule to the plow and be up behind it. I just tellin my mule to go ahead, hit him with the line, get to the other end, turn him round and come back on the next row. I was small at this time. I know cause when I plowed, when I got to the end and turned around, my sister, Frances, would go beside me and when my plow fell down she would pick it up. That's right.
We didn't have schoolin like this today. Sometime we get to go by the month and sometime just half the month. And come back and work in the field. Get your ground ready to plant or we had to cut the cotton stalks.
I had about two or three miles to walk to school. Back in time you buyed jelly in a little striped bucket and it had a handle on it. We just take us a lunch in that. Two biscuits. The school house was one big room with benches, like the benches sit in a church. Well, that's the way it was, hmm- hmm. Just like a church. The teacher sit up in the pulpit. Black teacher named Sam Maguire. He had to go on crutches. The boys and girls, we didn't sit together. Just like the benches were on each side and the aisle down between. And the boys had to play on one side of the playground, and we were on the other. We could see each other, just we couldn't play together. Just the way we was brought up.
My twin sister had got burned up when we were somewhere around nine years old. The fire was on Calhoun's plan'ation. It was in the fall, cotton pickin time. Mother get up around four in the mornin, fix breakfast, go to the field and pick cotton. It was cold, and she told us to stay at the house. And she would come back and see about us.
My twin sister, she said, "Little Bit. Let's us go out in the field."
"No, Mama told us to stay here."
"Mama won't know it."
"I don't want to go."
But she said, "Let's we go."
I went on with her. And the cotton stalks was dry. And it was cold.
"Oh," she said, "I'm cold."
I said, "Let's go back to the house cause Mama don't know we're out here."
The day before I know that Mama and them had had a fire out in the field. So they can get warm to go pick cotton. Big Bit saw the little ditch where they had had the fire.
And I said "Oh no, don't you get over there."
But Big Bit broke off some of that stalk and put it on there like kindling and it blazed up. We had on all cotton clothes and hers caught on fire.
I said, "Let me put you out. Let me tear the trimmin off your slip."
She commence to burnin and she told me to come on and let's hug up. And we hugged up together until another lady out there, her name was Hester, looked up and seed us.
Hester said, "Virginia, look yonder, your twins over there."
Mama said, "No, I left my twins at the house."
Hester said, "Look at them burnin up."
They all ran. And me trying to put Big Bit out. Just wrapped us together, hugged up. When they got there, I was scorched on my eyebrows and my hair. They tryin to get us a loose, get us a loose. This one snatched her up and that one snatched me. And they throw those cotton sacks on her. And that made Big Bit swallow the blaze. And it burned her eyes out.
When we got to the house, the doctor come to her.
She said to me from the bed. She said, "Little Bit."
"No, Mama and them say you goin to die."
"Well you come on and hug up with me."
"No, I ain't gettin in the bed with you." I didn't know no better.
"Come here Little Bit. You not goin to hug up with me?"
"No, Bigger, I hear they say you goin to die."
So she died and they all went and bought her a casket. And them things they called a shroud. The white lady whose place we stayed on, she made it. Was pretty and had a lot of braids. I cried and I said I wanted one like hers. They went and made me a dress. They had to make me one off the shroud.
And I went to the casket and lay over the casket and hug her and I said, "Bigger, I got on a dress like you."
I missed her. And I cried, "I want to go with my honna, my honna. That's the way I call her. My honna gones up in the sky." I asked my mama, "Mama, is she coming back?" Mama said, "No." This worried me. All night I'd be seein that fire, the way it was.
After my twin sister got burned up, the boss man, Calhoun, took me in. He didn't have but one daughter, Doris. I was lonely. And his daughter wanted me there with her too. I slept every night in they house. I was raised up with her until we was good sized kids. Then Calhoun left his plan'ation and got him a loggin camp. I was around thirteen. We moved to another white man's place. The boss man was called Witfield. He was a bad man. He was tough on the colored people. Me and a girl got into it, and she didn't get to the field on time. Witfield ask her how come she's late. She says, "Little Bit got after me and I was afraid." So Witfield came down to the field on his horse where me and my daddy and mother was choppin cotton. "I come down here to whup Little Bit." I had my hoe in my hand. And I said to Witfield, "Now you just get down, you won't get back up there after you get down." Uh-uh. If he had got out of his saddle, he wouldn't have got back in cause I would have hit him with the hoe. He knew I'd do it. So he told my daddy, "Oh, I just try to scare her." And my daddy said, "I'm glad you didn't get down."
From a child on up I never was afraid. I never had a lick from a white man in my life. I never. Because they knew if they started with me it was goin to be somethin. They called me crazy. See, when you have your nerve to talk up to them, they say you crazy.
When I was nineteen, twenty I jumped up and married. Wanted to get away from home. Cause I couldn't go nowhere lessen the old people was behind me. Them days the old folks was strict on you. When a boy come to see you, they be right there and when nine o'clock come, "It's nine o'clock." Just like you were in a jail. We couldn't go out and have no fun. The old folks didn't allow us. No. If we go somewhere, some mother of the church had to go with us. When I got married, I had my freedom. I didn't have to go to bed until I got ready to.
I left my first husband. Got married again. He was mixed Black and Indian. A good man. He was lots older than me. Had kids be as old as me. We got along just like two little birds. There be times we'd go to the juke houses. Womens and men went in the juke houses. Go in there and dance. Drink and gamble, too. Shootin dices, playin cards. They sang the blues and some of them really could pick them guitars. I love that guitar music. I loves it now. We was together about four or five years. He died of cancer. So I got married to my last one. He was a deacon and I was a mother of the church.
After the deacon passed on, I didn't marry no more. You can't find any good ones these days. That's right. I don't find no good somebody. They wanted me to take care of them. And I do better by myself. Yes, I do better by myself. I could have been married so many times. You work yourself to death waitin on them.
My grandmother, my mother's mother, had been in slavery. Her name was Rose. She didn't have an African name. Just Rose. When I was born she was free. She worked in the fields her whole life. Even when she was a hundred years old she could get out in the field and pick cotton.
My grandmother, yeah, she tell me about the slavery times. When she was small she was bidded off. They put them up on a block. Like this man would buy them. She said her mother was hollerin and cryin when he come and taken her and carried her to another place. Grandmother didn't see her mother anymore. She told me about how the old master would beat her. And the boss man didn't care how sick you was, you had to work. In slavery she have her baby like the night, and the next day she would have to go to the field with the baby tied on her back and pick cotton.
With Martin Luther King that's when we was tryin to break this segregation down. "Let my peoples go, let my peoples go." In Tallulah, Tallulah, Louisiana. I was in my fifties. Me and my sister Frances lived together. Reverend Hass, a black preacher, was the organizer. He got the black people together to meet at the church and the church was full. Them that wasn't scared would go up and put their name down. I jumped up. "Where do you want me to sign?" The leader said, " Right here." When I jumped up to sign, then here the others come behind me. I said, "Do you want me to sign in another place?" He laughed and laughed.
We were goin in them cafs and drugstores. Breakin it down. So we could all eat together. Some who got there was afraid to go in, but I was one of the main leaders. Stepped out of the car and walked into the white folk's caf. I was sure that we were as good as they were, and I just went on in there.
My leader, Gary, was a white man from Texas. He wasn't a student. He was pure grown. He was for us. Gary, he'd go in that caf with me. That's the way we were bringin it down. Gary said, "I'm goin in to order somethin and then you come in and order somethin. They ain't goin to serve you." He went in and ordered some steak. I said, "I want a steak too." The man wouldn't give me mine, but he gave Gary his. Gary told me to take his plate and knock it over the counter. So I did. Then Gary said, "Let's go and dance, turn on the jukebox." Me and him, we hold up dancin and smokin. Then we walked out and down the street all hugged up.
All those who signed up went in one caf and then on to the next. Buses and trains too. So they had to arrest us and put us in jail. A police come and said, "You have to go to jail." I said, " I don't care." There was sixty-two head of us thrown in jail. There was three preachers and my pastor. Gary was in there too. We stayed in there nine hours. We was all prayin and singin. Now listen. I was up in the jail. My sister Frances was going to pay me out. She was just hollerin and cryin. My leader told her to go on back. A white man come from Florida and said unlock this jailhouse door. And they let us out free. That's the way they had to do it when Johnson was president. President Johnson. He was for us.
Then this is what happened. I went home to get dressed to go up to Lake Providence, Louisiana, to help break it down up there. And before I could get dressed, here comes somebody.
They said, "Gary went to get in his car and they come to bomb the car. Bomb the car and killed him."
If I had gone back home with Gary they would have killed me too. They put a bomb in his car and when he went to get in, they blowed him up. They never did find who did it.
Well, we just kept on. I wasn't scared. I just got angry. That's what I told my sister Frances when I left the house to go up to Lake Providence. She talkin about they might come out there and burn our house down. I said, "Let it go, let it go." "You going to die at that march." I said, "The lord is with me. If I get killed, that's the way I have to go."
I remember a time when our people were not allowed to vote. And I remember the days when you couldn't go by a white person's house singin out loud. It's the truth! I wouldn't want that life back then. No.