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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 >>

Baker, mother, and brother move back to Warren County, North Carolina

After her aunt moved to Philadelphia, Baker, her mother, and her brother moved back to North Carolina while her father remained in Norfolk to work. She describes the racial geography of the town where they lived and what the black community's culture was like when she was growing up. After the end of this passage, she describes her school in greater detail.

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:
How old were you then when you moved with your mother back to North Carolina?
ELLA BAKER:
About six. The first time I was in school was in Norfolk. My mother had a friend, a classmate or something like that, who was in Norfolk also in the same neighborhood and who had started something like a kind ergarten, a school for the smaller children of friends. And so my brother had started there. And because he seemingly was bright and people said he couldn't possibly be as good as he seemed to have been, and that he should be going to the little public school. Imagine that. So my father, who was not much to bother about that…. He didn't insist on too many things, because after all he wasn't home except on every other day. Every night he was on the water, except the few days he'd take for a little holiday. So he apparently was impressed with this concern and sent him to public school. And I was not, I don't guess, eligible to go, but my brother was thin, tall, and not combative, whereas I was the opposite as far as being combative. And when they began to rough him up, they wouldn't do anything but roll him in the dirt, and he'd come home with his clothes soiled. So I was sent to school to take care of the situation. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
That was in Norfolk.
ELLA BAKER:
In Norfolk. I was then between six and seven, I suppose. But it didn't bother me. I reacted, you see. What size you were didn't interfere with my reacting if I thought you were imposing. And so it got to the point that we could come home in peace.
SUE THRASHER:
So there was a year there in Norfolk that you were in school before you went to North Carolina.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, I think it must have been that.
SUE THRASHER:
So then when you moved back to North Carolina, was that when you lived at your aunt's house?
ELLA BAKER:
You mean when they moved back
SUE THRASHER:
Yes. They moved to Philadelphia, and you moved to their place.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, that's correct.
SUE THRASHER:
And did you go then to a public school in North Carolina?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
SUE THRASHER:
I'm interested in the time between then and when you went to Shaw.
ELLA BAKER:
I went to the public school and the teacher across the street and Professor So-and-so. For all the time that I was in North Carolina, I went to a public school.
SUE THRASHER:
This was the town of Littleton?
ELLA BAKER:
Littleton. The Norfolk Journal and Guide was started there. This is the claim to fame. And it was right across from where we were, they say. It had left when we got there, though. However, its name is very indicative of the size of the place.
SUE THRASHER:
It was really a very small place. Sort of a country settlement, or a little larger than that?
ELLA BAKER:
It was and still is a small town. You had blacks on East End. We were what are called East End Avenue; that just meant the eastern part of the town, the main road. And then you had a West End of blacks, and then on certain parts of it the white community. I don't guess the poorer whites lived right there in town, because it was dominated by a family, and they lived in the better part, and this was Littleton.
SUE THRASHER:
Was it built up around a farming community, or was there a mill there or anything?
ELLA BAKER:
It was largely farm. It was owned and controlled to a large extent by one family, and the basic name of that family were the Johnsons. And then the sisters, as they married, they were some of the dominant forces in the economy of that little town, which didn't really change very much in the sixty-odd years since we've been there. They just stayed right there and tried to control things; that's all. But it was basically a farm community. People would bring the cotton in to the gin or cotton in that had been ginned. They'd bring it to Littleton to be sold. Things like that. Buy whatever you bought. Those who lived around farm community.
SUE THRASHER:
Was your family unusual in that it owned land? Did a lot of people sharecrop or rent?
ELLA BAKER:
There were a number of people who sharecropped and rented, but there were also in certain pockets, like the little community Elums, where my mother grew up and where my grandfather, who had bargained or whatever else for a large tract of the old slave plantation which was broken up into plots of forty and fifty acres. And his relatives settled on it. This was to a large extent, by comparison, an independent community; they were independent farmers. But they also went in for the practice of cooperative…. Helping each other. When I came along, for instance, I don't think there was but one threshing machine for threshing the wheat. And so today they might be on Grandpa's place, and all the people who had wheat who needed the thresher would be there, or at least some from those families. And then they would move around. There was a great deal of what might have been a cooperative type of relationship at that stage, which does not obtain now and did not last through my early adulthood. By the time I was in college, King Cotton reigned supreme, and you had black farmers who would raise fifty and sixty bales of cotton. And still they raised all of their meat. Some of them would have and kill, in addition to hogs (which was the common commodity), beef. And there was not too much refrigeration, so you killed it and ate it, or with the hogs there were certain parts which you'd cure like the hams and the lard and all of that.
SUE THRASHER:
Did the Johnsons own most of the land around there?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, they did. They owned it and they controlled it. They owned most of it, especially in the town and out in the country. But that's a long while ago. It's been sixty or more years since we moved there. But there was this section where we lived where the blacks, our neighbors, each had their own place. Next to us was the Reverend Mr. Hawkins, who, in addition to being a minister, was a bricklayer. And men were artisans like brick plastering and so forth. And somebody else was a carpenter. So you had at that time an intermixture. All of the heads of the families and their wives who lived in the section we called East End were at least literate. They had been to school somewhere, and many of them had been to what might have been considered college or an academy, because some of them had graduated from schools that are now like Shaw University. Shaw was one of the earlier schools in North Carolina established for blacks. So you had a high degree of literacy and effectiveness in terms of public relations: speechmaking, leadership qualities and the like.
SUE THRASHER:
How big was the public school that you went to in North Carolina?
ELLA BAKER:
We had two rooms. One was one big room. And I don't know how many classes were in there, because I'd listen to all of them.