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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 >>

Norfolk's segregated neighborhoods; Baker family's socioeconomic position

Baker describes the segregated neighborhoods in Norfolk. She also reflects on whether her family was middle class and speculates as to why her mother did not work outside the house after her marriage. She also describes the skills she learned by watching her mother.

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 was your life like here in Norfolk? Were you sort of middle class? Did your father make a good salary?
ELLA BAKER:
Everything is relative, you know. At that stage, a black man who was a barber or a waiter in a given kind of setting was perhaps more middle class than anything else. That meant you had all the things that people bought. We got the old Singer sewing machine that was bought away back then. When I came along knowledgeably, we lived in a six-room, two-story house. And we had a dining room and dining room furniture and silver and stuff like that. I got stuff like that.
SUE THRASHER:
Did your father own that house?
ELLA BAKER:
No, he was renting that house. And he had a couple of plots in the city for building, but he didn't own time we were living . Now when they were first married, they probably lived in a smaller place. It was a different section of Norfolk. It must have been an older section around Chapel Street, because I think that's where I was born. And in talking last fall with the present minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church, Dr. Proctor, who is also teaching at a college in New Jersey, it so happened he and I were born on the same street. That was a section, as it is anywhere, and especially where the color line was effective. There would be neighborhoods, and the older section where blacks were living was down near what might now be called Queens Street. As the people moved out to the more affluent sections, then those who were poorer moved into the sections that they had vacated. So by the time they got to Norfolk, in all probability there had been some exodus from the downtown section. And that's where many blacks were, down on Queens Street, Chapel Street, and places like that. And then they moved out to Huntersville, I believe it was called. I lived then on what is now called Lexington Avenue. I lived on the corner of Lexington and O'Keefe Streets, and it is now Lee Street. I guess O'Keefe is still the same. That's in Huntersville. To a large extent, that particular section was black when I grew up, and the last time I was there it was still black. And most of the people owned their homes there. And perhaps one of the reasons we were in the purchasing business of a home at that point was because my mother didn't like Norfolk. In fact, she had lots of bronchial difficulties. Norfolk is equally, if not more so, surrounded by water than New York, and so the truth of it is, she wanted to go back to North Carolina. She said there was greater culture there. I asked some questions about it, having moved there at the age of about seven. At the point at which we moved, I think I was just coming out of a severe case of typhoid fever. So when we got there, we lived in my aunt's house. Her husband, who had been in business in Lillington, North Carolina, had decided to move to Philadelphia. She followed him, and my parents owned. The house was too small for my mother. She would kind of fuss six-room house which carried with it the business of living room (they called them "front rooms" then), kitchen, dining room; bedrooms upstairs. That kind of arrangement.
SUE THRASHER:
Did your mother ever consider teaching after she got married?
ELLA BAKER:
No, she didn't consider teaching in Norfolk. I don't know whether the offspring may have begun to come, but, as I said, I heard her say there were eight children or eight births. And it could well be also that my father at that stage, in order to consider himself the keeper of the home, like many people who were in the they were, didn't want their wives to work. You see, people take on the patterns of those whom they escape from, as you well know. And so this was no doubt part of that. She did not work at any point while we were in Norfolk in terms of working out. Because he was away from home a good bit and because she always had some relative who was around and needed somewhere to stay. And when some of the young men she had taught moved to Norfolk and got to get settled, they would come and room with us. And maybe that was a source of income.
SUE THRASHER:
Was she ever active in any clubs or anything?
ELLA BAKER:
What do you mean by clubs? [Laughter] In 1900?
SUE THRASHER:
Did she have any sort of independent social activity outside of…
ELLA BAKER:
In Norfolk? My mother was a very positive and sort of aggressive person. My father and mother met there in this little academy. She was a very good student, and he was a very good student, it seems. She was particularly articulate, to the point that even when I graduated from college and I was rehearsing what had to be said, one of the professors who historically, I suppose, is well known-Benjamin Frawley—said to me, "Don't ever let anyone teach you public speaking." And I asked why. He said, "They might spoil you." And all that I had learned, as far as articulation (it wasn't so much oratory, because I didn't go in for that, but I had won a couple of medals speaking in contests, things like that), my mother was the one who taught us. She taught us to read before we went to school.