Getting in touch with our roots. Exploring our heritage. These have become something of a fad in recent years. But their popularity just means more people are sharing in the personal enrichment — and fun — that comes from digging into history.
Among the more enthusiastic new historians is a group of high school students in Port Gibson, Mississippi, who have been interviewing and photographing their neighbors and relatives and sharing what they discover in a magazine called I Ain't Lying. They've borrowed its name from a phrase they encounter over and over again in their interviewing, a standard, passionate disclaimer that signals the start of a good story.
The students' work is part of a project called "Mississippi: Cultural Crossroads" (MCC), begun in 1979 to offer cultural and educational opportunities for local children in their out-of-school time and to provide opportunities for black and white children in this majority-black community to get to know one another.
I Ain't Lying started out with some help from friends at Foxfire, which it resembles. But there are important differences, the most important being that it's not based in the schools. Instead it is privately run under the guidance of Patricia Crosby, who has raised money from foundations and the National Endowment for the Humanities — and lately even the county board of supervisors — to buy equipment, pay the printing costs and so forth.
Based in an office across the street from the nearly-all-black public high school, and a block away from the mostly white private military academy, the magazine staff comes from both schools. Both school principals allow students to schedule their afternoon study halls for the same time period and to spend it off campus at the MCC office working on I Ain't Lying.
Over the past few years, the students of Port Gibson have managed to preserve the stories of dozens of local people and inform themselves about ways of life now gone forever — but not, thanks to their efforts, lost to history.
Here Southern Exposure shares pieces of the stories they have found. Then on page 18, we reproduce portions of a conversation between Della Davenport and her story-telling uncle, Robert Mobley. And on page 21, Vincent Goods reports the answers to his questions about home remedies for various ailments.
Octavis Davis recorded the reminiscences of Janie Clara Breckinridge, better known as Mama Janie, who was Port Gibson's favorite midwife — as Davis says, "She delivered my brothers and sisters, many cousins and me." Breckinridge was well-loved for her charity work, for helping to start a health clinic in town and especially for her thoroughgoing belief in cleanliness. Davis writes, "When she went to deliver a baby, she went prepared to clean, wash, cook, sew, iron and do whatever was necessary."
Now 83 and retired, Mama Janie recalls starting working life on a farm, but "I just wanted to be a midwife." Here is part of her story: "I started back in May 28, 1925. I midwifed 47 years and I delivered 1,500 babies.
"Well, I tell you darling, I never was scared. We had a Mrs. Mary Oliver that was our instructor, and Mrs. Jackson. She would come bout every two months. And then we had books to read on delivering and everything like that. Back in them days then, I had taken a great step.
"I tell you about working. I didn't get nothing for my work when I started working. They barely paid $7, and as the years passed on it went up to $15, and from $15 to $25.
"Well now, see $7 was the price after my mother-in-law give up. She'd give me training and all like a that. Sometimes for pay I'd take nothing, and I'd walk right out. I could walk up to a house — no porch, no steps, no yard around it — and I knew it was charity work. I knew there wasn't no pay. You see, they give me hogs, cows, cow peas, sorghum molasses, all that for just pay. Stuff like that.
"Sometimes I needed rest. I never had it. Sometimes my husband said I was gonna fall dead one of these days. If he'd come home, I'd rest for three hours at home. I'd stay for three days after they'd call me, to help with the housework.
"Some of the homes I went in they didn't even own pine oil or Lysol. I took that stuff out of my bag and washed them things. Hang em out and let em dry. Other midwives thought I was crazy — say they oughta had their own stuff. But see, I couldn't work like that. See, I'd have to put my mother to bed clean."
Julia Jones is a former school teacher who has been circuit clerk in Claiborne County since 1971, one of the first blacks elected to public office there. She described for interviewer Marhea Farmer the coming of the Civil Rights Movement to the county and how she came to her decision to run for office.
"I had thought about running in 1967 or '68. That first year after civil-rights marches came into town, a lot of people started to thinking politically. Basically I ran because blacks were kept out of the political structure a lot. Earlier, a lot of blacks came to register to vote and could not. They hadn't passed the Voting Rights Act at that time, and a lot of them were turned around because of the severe test that they had to undergo.
"I think everybody should vote. I don't think one person ought to be turned away and another let vote. That is for white and black."
Now, it is Jones's job to register voters, and she takes great pleasure in it: "Seeing people come in freely and register, that's one of the excitements I've seen. I've seen a lot of people come in, pleased with the office, and see smiles on their faces. They come in and sit down and they are definitely at home. I like that. I think they should come by their elected offices and check in at least once in a while and say how do you do, or how are things going, and just be part of the office. I think they should be, because they put us there."
Elvin Jenkins learned something about survival when he interviewed Frances Pearl Lucas, who's been taking care of herself since she ran away to the Delta at age 12 to pick cotton and corn. In the fields, or working in someone else's kitchen, she learned how to sew, make quilts, preserve fruits and vegetables, plant a garden and raise animals. She married at 18 and raised eight daughters and a son.
Now in her sixties, Lucas is alone again and, reports magazine editor Octavis Davis, "When there is work around her house such as gardening, cropping, slaughtering hogs and housework, she does it all." In her interview she passed on detailed instructions for making her specialties and described how she learned all she knows:
"I never did no public work. I never did no nothing but housework. Cook for different people. They'd pay you. I would come in your house and see you do something, and come back home and do just what you did. I seen other people. I used to sew a long time ago, make overalls, T-shirts, pants and all of that. I done got old now. I can't see too good, but I piece quilts. Piece em at home, and we'd go round and have quiltings.
"I used to preserve peaches, pears, apples, blackberries, meats, sweet potatoes, beans, peas, all that. Make tomato ketchup when I feel like it, and hot sauce. And I made green tomato pickles. I used to can a jar of fruit for every day of the year. Nobody but me now — I don't have to do that. Nobody learned me how to do this. I'd go to your house, help you out, and I'd go back home and do it too."
A Conversation with Robert Mobley
by Della Davenport
I wanted to interview my uncle because, when I was about nine years old, he used to sit down and tell me bedtime stories and jokes. I enjoyed them very much. I was so used to him telling me stories that I wanted to hear a story every time I was with him because he would make me laugh no matter what kind of mood I was in.
He is very funny and every time I see him he has some kind of riddles or stories to tell. He still makes me laugh from the time I am with him till the time I leave. I enjoy him very much.
—- Della Davenport
I was born in a place call Carlisle, on the Richmond place.
How old are you?
Well, I'll tell you when I was born, I won't tell you my age, but I'll tell you when I was born: 1905, March the third. Now you count that.
Did you all play games?
Oh, plenty of em. We played ball games, basketball, football and then played ring play.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Yeah, I believe it. Well, I know it musta been something, cause wasn't nobody else around, but couldn't been none. I didn't see nothing else but that.
Well, I coming home one night and I got off my horse — gon open the gap and something told me, say, "I dare you!" Told me, "I dare you." And I looked and I didn't see nothing. The moon shining just as pretty and bright, and all. It was a big opening. I stood there a few minutes; didn't say no more. I didn't take time to put my foot in the stirrup. I jumped up on it, so went on home.
So next when I got to home something come round to the house with a lot of chains and I thought it was my daddy. He was in there in the bed. And I went back, turn my horse loose and all them chains, and I broke and run back in the house. And I knew wasn't nobody there. Now that's the truth. Yeah, it was — you could hear them things.
Me and another boy was coming long one night and a big old shabby dog, just bout that tall — moon shining just as pretty and bright — just walked between me and him. Walked bout from that door there, disappeared. Ain't seen it no more.
Do you know any stories?
I got so many. Well, there was an old preacher once, he went home with the deacon's wife. He got there and they all went to bed. The deacon had a little old boy — he laying down on the floor — and the little old boy say, "Papa been stealing old Jones's hogs." And Jones was the preacher, you know. "Papa been stealing old Jones's hogs, and Jones know nothing bout it." Kept a-saying it. So the old preacher told the deacon's wife, say, "You carry that boy to church tomorrow. We want him to sing that song."
So she got the boy ready and she carried him on to church that night. The old preacher got up in the pulpit. "I got a little boy here, he sings a song here." His daddy was there too, you know. He say, "Boy, come down, I want you to sing this song." The little boy got up, "Papa been stealing old Jones's hogs, and Jones don't know nothing bout it." His daddy say, "Boy, hush!" The old preacher say, "Sing it, boy!" The little boy tried it down again. "Papa been stealing old Jones's hogs, and Jones know nothing bout it!" His daddy say, "Hush, boy!" The old preacher say, "Sing it, boy!" The little boy turned it around, you know, say, "Jones been sleeping with papa's wife and papa . . ." The old preacher told him, "Shut up, boy, don't sing!" His daddy say, "Sing it, boy!"
Well, I can tell you again on the preacher. It was an old preacher once. He was a great big preacher. He just come in and he told em he could call Gabriel and tell him to blow his trumpet, and Gabriel blow his trumpet. Everybody wanted to hear that preacher that night. Two boys — they was awful devils — they slipped in the church fore anybody come there and got in the loft of the church.
The old preacher didn't know the boys was up there. He say, "Oh, Gabriel, blow your trumpet, Gabriel." The boy say, "Umm, umm." Everybody looked. "Oh, Gabriel, why don't you blow your trumpet, Gabriel." The boy, "Umm, umm." The boys had gone up in the church. The old preacher walked down out the stand, you know, and walked in the alleyway. He said, "Oh, Gabriel, blow your trumpet, Gabriel." The boys went to blowing.
Everybody broke and ran out the church, come cross the church lawn. Old preacher was last one out. Big old hog on the lawn and he run into it. He say, "Look out, Gabriel, god damn it. I'm in my own church and I'll do it."
I want to ask you a question. If it's a hundred ears of corn was in a corn crib, and a rat was going in there toting three ears out at night, how many nights will it take to take that hundred ears out that crib?
A hundred ears of corn? Three a night?
He carry three out at night. How many it'll take him to carry that hundred ears out? I'm asking all of y'all. Asking that lady over yonder in the corner, asking her too.
Well, I have this suspicion that he wouldn't get to take three out a night. But if he did it would be 33 nights to get him 99, but I have a feeling that there's a catch somewhere. But I don't know what it is. He can't carry that much.
Oh, yeah he can.
Unless he eat it up. Take it off the cob.
No, no he won't. It wouldn't take him but a hundred nights. He take one ear out — ear of corn in his mouth and carry his own two ears out.
Well, you got us that time. You got another riddle?
What is this: got eyes and can't see, a mouth and can't talk, a tongue and can't talk, and a soul you can't save?
I don't know.
Ain't your shoe got a tongue, got an eye, and a mouth?
What is this here? Round as a biscuit, busy as a bee, and carry his hands before his face all the time?
Ain'tyou got a watch?
We 're not doing real well.
No, but I can tell you what, you can get a black cat's bone and put it in your purse and you'll have good luck.
In your purse?
Yeah, you'll have good luck if you put a black cat's bone in your purse.
Where you gon get one from?
You have to kill it and get the black cat's bone.
I ain't killing nothing.
Why, you'll be getting good luck, and you can just sit at home. You wouldn't have to worry bout your boyfriend. When he come he'll tell you where he been. Black cat bone make him tell you where he been.
Well, let me see. I wanted to ask you something too. What this: got four legs, wears an apron and smokes a pipe, and got four eyes?
That's what it is. Somebody told. Well, tell me this. How come you go to bed at night?
To go to sleep, I guess?
No, you don't. Cause the bed can't come to you.
Do you know any songs?
Let's see now. I got two, three different ones on my mind. Now let's see which one must I sing.
Shining Billy, Shining Billy,
Did she ask me in?
Yes, ask me in,
And she rest my hat
And she hung it on the rack.
She's a young girl,
Too young to leave her mother.
Sing me another one.
Let me see:
This train don't carry no liars,
This train don't carry no liars,
This train is bound for glory,
This train don't carry no drunkards,
This train don't carry no drunkards,
This train don't carry no drunkards,
This train is bound for glory,
Sing us some blues.
Nah, we never did sing no blues. Cause you get to singing them blues, get you stirred up and you wouldn't stay at home then.
I wonder why you don't like to sing the blues?
Well, the blues will put you to studying. Get your mind all tore up. I get to singing them blues, I may walk off and leave my wife sitting here. See, my wife don't like me to sing that cause she know em. Think I'll be going somewhere watching them young gals there.
Just sing one.
One? One will call for another one. Better not sing no blues here.
How did you meet your wife?
When I met her I thought she was the best looking girl I ever saw, you know. I hadn't courted many girls, and so I run up to her. First time I asked her about coming to see her, she said, "Now, I'll see bout it." I said, "Well, now, how long it gon take you?" She say, "I don't know." I said, "Well, take you three or four days?" She said, "I don't know!" I said, "You gon tell me?" She said, "Yeah." I said, "What you gon tell me, no or yeah?" She dropped her head. I said I was about to burn her now. She said, "Don't hurry me now." I said, "I'm gon let you take your time. I'll be over there tomorrow night." I said, "You gon tell me?" She said, "Yeah."
I didn't go that night. Wait till the next night. I was trying to find did she have another boyfriend. So the next night I went. She said, "I thought you was coming last night." Say, "Well," I say, "I didn't get here last night." Say, "Was you looking for me?" She said, "Yeah. I was looking for you." I said, "Well, you ready to tell me what I asked you?" She says, "Ah, I woulda told you if you'd have come last night. But you didn't come." I said, "Well, you ain't gon tell me?" She said, "No." I said, "Now listen, baby, I'm gon tell you like this. Now, I want you to do this:
I want you to go up on that mountain,
And fall down in the deep blue sea.
You won't fall in no water
Till you fall in love with me.
Take my picture, baby,
Hang it up side the wall.
Every time you look at it,
You say that's my all and all.
Set my table high,
And set my table low,
Set my table in the middle of the floor
So I can eat some more.
The times done got hard,
And the money done got scarce,
If the times don't get no better,
Baby, I'm bound to leave this place.
See, she know I was gon leave then. I told her, I say:
Peaches in the summertime,
And apples in the fall,
If I don't get you now, baby,
I don't want you at all.
Going away, baby,
I won't be back till fall.
If I don't get no hint from you,
I won't be back at all.
What I told her, you see, I told her like this:
Paper is paper, and tin is tin.
Baby, the way I love you is a dog gone sin.
What did she say? Did she give you an answer?
Oh yeah, she told me, she said, "Baby, let me tell you one thing," she says, "I have loved a many one, but I ain't love nar' and I fell in love like I did with you." I said, "Baby, look," say, "I'm a tell you what I'm gon do." She said, "What?" I said:
Sugar is sugar, and tin is tin.
Now sure as the grass grow round right on the stump,
You oughta be my sugar lump.
Sure as the grass grow right on the ladder,
You oughta be the girl God sent me after.
My first wife, she kind of wild. I let her went, you see. We stayed together about a year. I told her, I say:
Gee you got a little slow, I got to bundle up and go.
I told her, I said, "Now listen," I said, "Listen now, I'm gon tell you right now." I said, "You gone, ain't you?" She said, "Yeah." I said:
Your shoes gon wear out,
And you gon come walking back.
Baby, please don't wear black,
Cause I ain't gon take you back.
Well, it's another gal right over the road that way. If somebody got that one there's another one right up the road from her. Cause the train I ride 18 coaches long, and baby, I can love em. I maybe just now leaving home. I know I got 30 more years here. I know that. Yeah, I got to court a hundred womens.
See my mama told me six months before I was born I was gonna be a boy child and I wasn't gonna stay at home. So I gots to steady go. Now, you better not fool round. You better bundle up and let's go.
Maybe you all come back again. I got a whole lot of stories. I just don't want to put em all out today, better save some.
Fixing What Ails You
by Vincent Goods
Just as I got off the bus early one Friday morning, my grandmother came and hugged my neck. As she turned me loose, she heard me sneeze and said, "You have a cold." So as soon as we got home, she got some weeds, boiled them and gave them to me. She said they would cure a cold.
I thought she was sick, me being from the city and her giving me weeds. I was used to doctors. But they worked. I was feeling good the next day. And I'd thought that weeds were to be cut and thrown away.
I decided to ask several women in our community about the remedies they used.
Mrs. Buck told me her cold remedy: "You take tallow and put turpentine and a little coal oil, and grease that child from head to toe, and next give him some castor oil." She also recommended nine swallows of water for hiccups. In case of a bee-sting, she said, take some tobacco juices and put it on along with some tallow.
Mrs. Gaines told me for a cold, "You give him some peppermint and whiskey or bathe your child down with some hog hoof tea. And when you get a rash, you take a watermelon rind with all the red out of it, rub the rind all around your neck and back." Mrs. Gaines also said that rabbit ear — "a little fine root that grows flat down on the ground, and when it dries up it has a flower on it" — is good for diarrhea. For chapped skin, she suggested the leaf of a blackberry bush. "Take that and put it in your pocket, and you will never be chapped again." (That is, as long as you carry the leaf.)
Several women had remedies for measles and mumps, "those troublemakers." Mrs. Woodard said her parents would give her some warm lemon tea for measles. Mrs. Breckinridge said, "Just like we had hog jowls, we'd tie a rag around they head and that'd get rid of mumps." Mrs. Gaines's mumps remedy was similar: "You take some sardines and rub them on your jaws and get the oil out of the sardines and then tie a rag around your face."
After school one day a group of us students got together under a big oak tree and started talking about cures we had heard of from parents, grandparents and other people.
Octavis Davis said you could boil pine straw, add a little sugar for taste and drink it for a cold. Or you could sniff a lemon.
I said all you need to do for a headache is put a hat on your head. Charles Ham said for an earache you put urine from a baby in your ear to stop the hurt, or put three baby maggots in the ear to eat the infection. And dab vanilla flavor on your tooth for a toothache.
We heard other old remedies. For red bugs (chiggers) and ticks you take an alcohol bath. If you step on a nail, put a patch of salt meat on it and put coal oil on it. If you get a serious burn, put molasses on it. It cools the burn and reduces the swelling. You could also put baking soda on a burn.
As time passes, people are slowly moving away from old cures. But even if most people shy away from things like that, others will still believe in them. I believe that more people would be feeling better if they were still using old remedies.
Copies of the first two issues of I Ain't Lying are available for $3.50 each from Mississippi: Cultural Crossroads, Box 89 ASU, Lorman, MS 39096.