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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

How rural black families experienced Reconstruction and the New South

Both of Baker's parents came from the same area of North Carolina, but after emancipation, the two families had very different experiences. Baker talks about how rural black families urbanized during the early twentieth century.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. 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

SUE THRASHER:
What kind of family did your father come from? What did his parents do?
ELLA BAKER:
Both of his parents were ex-slaves, and both of my mother's parents were ex-slaves. However, his father must have had a great deal of Indian in him. I have no specific indications as to what blood line as far as Indian input came from. Both of his parents were light. At least his mother was very light. And his father I did not know; he died before I was knowledgeable. But I knew Grandma Margaret, his mother. And both of my mother's parents were born on the same plantation, part of which is still owned by part of our family. after Emancipation, I suppose, my mother's father, who was a minister, seemingly arranged for or maneuvered to secure a great portion of that land. And it was broken up into plots of forty and fifty acres, and his relatives were settled on it. I suppose the first fifty dollars I made I sent back to help pay taxes on that land, because my mother was the only member of her family that sort of kept holding on to it. So that's where I spent my summers as a youngster. We were, as I said, born in Norfolk, and the family didn't move to North Carolina until I was about seven or eight.
SUE THRASHER:
What was your mother's family name?
ELLA BAKER:
Ross. Grandfather was Mitchell R. Ross; the "R" stands for what I don't know. He was a tall, lean, black man. He prided himself on his being black. My grandmother used to say she was named after two queens. They called her "Bet," but I guess her name must have been…. I know Josephine was one of them, and I guess the other one was Elizabeth. I don't know, but it was "Bet" as far as our record shows. I don't know what was recorded, if anything, in Warren County, North Carolina.
SUE THRASHER:
And what about your father's family name?
ELLA BAKER:
That was Baker. His father was named Teema. Now how to spell it, don't ask me, because Grandfather Teema had passed when I came along. I think there are some records I can find. I have a cracked ankle. I had a sort of an eerie kind of an accident in 1974. I was going through Philadelphia to see a relative, a first cousin who was ill. And he had much more information about that side of our family than I did, because he was older. But I fell between two cars at the Pennsylvania Station, and so I didn't make the trip. And by the time I got through with the crutches, he had gone.
SUE THRASHER:
And how about your grandmother's name?
ELLA BAKER:
Margaret.
SUE THRASHER:
Did your mother and father both have a lot of brothers and sisters?
ELLA BAKER:
I think my mother's mother had twelve or thirteen children. I knew a number of them as my aunts and uncles. My father's family must have been at least eight, because by name I can count up to say six or seven. My father apparently was the firstborn boy. There was a daughter, Aunt Eliza, who was older than he, and who ended up by having eight sons and one daughter. Those I know. But his family didn't live as long as the…. Numerically I didn't know as many of his sisters and brothers as I did of my mother's, I guess for two reasons: one, the usual pattern of women taking the children to their home. We went to the country for the summer, and so we went to Mama's family home. And I think also some of his sisters and brothers passed earlier.
SUE THRASHER:
When did they start leaving Warren County? Did most of them stay in that county for a while?
ELLA BAKER:
My mother's family and my father's family, all the older people died in the county. And my mother's father was a minister, and on part of what is now still "our land," he is buried, and my grandmother. Several of the departed sons and daughters, my mother and my father and my brother are all buried there. And that's where I became "a church member" at the age of nine in good old Baptist tradition. In my father's family, I knew my Aunt Eliza and her nine children much more than I did some other members of the family. I think this is basically because Aunt Eliza had a big farm with plenty of grapes and apples and pears and things, and at the stage at which I came along she had grown sons who were living away from home. They were living in Philadelphia. My father's oldest brother settled in Philadelphia. And incidentally, Rosetta Gardner knew him because she grew up there. And he was very prominent in a given church there, and I think it's Cherry Street Baptist Church. I don't know. But the persons who lived in North Carolina from my father's side were the aunt who had the large family, Aunt Eliza, and Aunt Mary, who didn't live too long after I became of some size. And some of his other sisters. There was one other sister that I knew who lived in North Carolina.
SUE THRASHER:
Did they mostly stay on the land and farm, or did they have other kinds of jobs?
ELLA BAKER:
I guess up to a given point they were all on the land and farmed. And as the boys grew to menhood, which was the pattern which obtained even during the period that I became grown, the boys would stay as a rule until they were twenty-one without even questioning [Laughter] , almost. And then they would go out on their own. My father and mother met in school, this little institute in Warrenton. And he went to Norfolk to make his "fortune," and my mother stayed in her home environs and taught school. And then they married.