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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Henry Ell Frye, February 18 and 26, 1992. Interview C-0091. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Recollections about growing up, farming, and going to school

Frye talks about his experiences growing up in Ellerbe, North Carolina, during the 1930s and 1940s. Born into a large African American family that owned fifty acres of land and also participated in "half-farming" with other local farmers, Frye spent much of his childhood working and playing in tobacco and cotton fields. He also describes race relations at the time, noting that he attended segregated schools during the week, but played and interacted with white children on the weekends.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Henry Ell Frye, February 18 and 26, 1992. Interview C-0091. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Justice Frye, could you tell us about your background, growing up in Ellerbee, on the farm, being the 8th of 12 children.
Yes, I suppose I can. The question is where do I start? As you indicated, I was the 8th of 12 children. Six boys and six girls, born to Walter A. (for Atlas) and Pearl Motley Frye. Both of them moved to the Ellerbe area prior to the time of my birth and I was born in a small, white wood-painted house. I recall that because they told me about it and I saw it sometime later. Ellerbe is a very small town and I was born I suppose within the town limits, but as long as I can remember, we had lived about a mile or so from town. It was a small farm, little less than 50 acres and we farmed tobacco, cotton, and various other crops - corn, watermelons, cantaloupes, and beans, you name it. But the money crops were tobacco and cotton. In addition to that we farmed other people's properties. There were several of us, so my father kept us busy by farming a lot of other property in addition to that we owned. They had in our area, as I'm sure in a lot of other areas, what they call farming on halves. The person who owned the land would furnish the land and would furnish the fertilizer and things of that nature and the other person would farm the property, supply the labor and so forth and then when the crops were sold, you would divide the funds one-half to each side. So they called that farming on halves. So we did a lot of that in addition to the farm which we owned. Also, my father had a truck and so he hauled a lot of wood for people and at times hauled what we call lumber and later pulp wood. In addition to that he at times ran a saw mill. So we had plenty of work to do all of the time. I went to school there for the full length of my school term which was grades 1-12. I think I'm correct on this that at the time I started school you graduated with grade 11, but they changed it to 12 grades. While I was in the 7th grade, I stayed about 12 weeks if my remembrance is right and another student and myself were promoted to the 8th grade, so we really made the 7th and 8th grades in one year, so I still ended up with only 11 years of the secondary education. The schools at that time were separate - black and white. Ours was called Ellerbe Colored High School, even though it had grades 1-12; and the other school was just Ellerbe High School. However, I checked later to look at my diploma and my diploma has Ellerbe High School, so apparently they did not bother to make separate diplomas for the two schools. I thought that was quite interesting that all of the correspondence and everything in reference to the school was Ellerbe Colored High School and sometime they would put Ellerbe Negro High School and that type of thing. But the actual diploma just has Ellerbe High School on it.
At the time, what did you think of schools being segregated?
Well, at that time we sort of understood that that was the way it was. I recall one thing in particular that with our basketball, we did not have a gymnasium and the other school did. I always wondered about that. Why we had to play outdoors on a dirt court while they could go inside. Interestly enough in the small towns and rural areas and that type of thing, whites and blacks lived almost next to each other. In other words, our farm was on one side of the road and then on both sides - north and south of our home - were white families. We farmed together and worked together in tobacco barns at night. I guess you are probably not familiar with that. In those days, the tobacco once you harvested it, it had to be placed on sticks and placed in a barn. Then for several days and nights you would have a fire which would heat the barn and we heated it with wood, so somebody had to stay there all night long keeping the wood in the furnaces to keep it warm. So as kids we had a lot of fun really going from one tobacco barn to another at night, keeping the fires going. We had a lot of fun doing that and we did it, black, white, everybody did it together and it was no big deal. In the fields where we worked, everybody was the same, but on the weekends, the whites went their way and the blacks went their way. Usually they had very little contact until Monday morning when time came to start back to work. At that point those who were workers - some of course were people who didn't have to work and that's a different class - but I'm talking about the working people, all of us were the same as far as getting out there and doing the work. That's the way it worked.
How early did your mornings start back then?
My father described it as from "cain't to cain't", and what he said was that you can't see when you start in the morning and you can't see when you stop at night. So the idea was to get up and be ready to go as soon as it was enough light so you could see how to do whatever had to be done. I recall on occasions going to the sawmill to get lumber to take to the plant and I recall getting there too early and having to wait until we got some light so that we could see how to load the truck. Of course, we would load the truck and take that and deliver it. I did that at times even during the school year. We would take a load of wood before I would go to school in the morning. My older brother, who at that time was beyond high school age, was driving, so I would go with him and we would load the truck and everything, and I would come back home and eat breakfast and go on to school. He, of course, would haul lumber the rest of the day. We understood what work was all about. Interestingly enough, in the small towns, most farmers did not like to work on a Saturday afternoon. About 12:00 or 1:00 on Saturday, most farmers quit work and they would go to town to buy whatever you were going to buy or whatever you were going to do. If there was nothing else to do, some of them would stand around on the street, that type of thing. Because we had the truck and hauled wood, my daddy kept us working lots of times until almost dark on Saturdays. That was one of our major complaints - everyone else was off and we had to work, so we were the exception in that sense.