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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 >>

Stories Baker heard about slavery

Baker's grandmother was an important influence in her life, and she retells some of the stories she heard as a little girl. Particularly important to her are the stories from when her grandmother was a slave.

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:
Your grandmother was still living at this time.
ELLA BAKER:
My grandmother lived till ninety-six. But she was my escape valve, because she was very gay. She identified with young people. She played catch ball with us. I'm sure she must have been in her seventies. And she was something of a raconteur, I suppose, recounting what took place during her period of slavery. And she was very healthy. We did some farming, and if Grandma was around she would have rest periods. If you were chopping cotton or whatever elseā€¦. She was seldom there, though, at the time of chopping cotton. My mother couldn't stand stripping the corn for fodder for the cattle. She had, I guess, hay fever and asthma, and so she would start sneezing. So Grandma, even after we got some size, would come over, and we would go and pull the fodder. In one instance, there was a man who raised lovely watermelons. Grandma would go buy a watermelon, and she knew where to put it in the woods in the shade to keep it cool. Before maybe lunch even, she'd let us stop and eat something.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you remember any of the stories that she would tell about slavery?
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes, I remember the stories that were told about slavery, one in particular about her birth. She was the offspring of the master, and her mother apparently was a very attractive young woman. And she was born on Christmas Day, the story goes, and the young mistress was jealous and sent some food to her mother, who had been given calomel. That's what they gave people when they got sick with colds or something. I ought to look it up and find out what its composition is. You couldn't eat sour things after you took this. And I think if you took it at night, then the next morning they'd give you some castor oil or something ugly like that. It was a medication. But whatever it was, the story goes she had been given this. Grandma was born on Christmas, supposedly. And of course the Christmas season was a big season for the business of eating fresh-killed hog and pickles and all kinds of things. And the story goes that her mother was sent this dinner by the young mistress, and she knew that she had and had the medication. And she ate it and died. So Grandmother's [grand?] mother raised her.
SUE THRASHER:
And she passed on this story to your grandmother.
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes, and a lot of other stories. And Grandma passed them on to us, you see.
SUE THRASHER:
What had your grandmother done on the plantation?
ELLA BAKER:
They put her in the house; she was the house person. But at the point at which she was of marriageable age, whoever was the mistress wanted to have her married to a man whom we knew as Uncle Carter. He was also light. And she didn't like Carter. And so when she refused to concur with the wishes of the mistress, the mistress ordered her whipped, but the master, who was still her father, refused to have her whipped. He was no doubt old then. But he did put her out on the farm, and she even had to plow. She remembered plowing. You don't know anything about "low ground;" that means land that's near the water. The Roanoke River runs through there, and it's still part of it now. And so she would be plowing and had to warm her hands by the horse's belly, she said. They'd start to plow and breaking up the land in February; during my period, people would start doing that. I've heard her say that she would plow all day and dance all night. She was defiant, you know.
SUE THRASHER:
Was this plantation that she was on in Warren County?
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes, that still hasn't left Warren County. It's still there. I've got to go pay the taxes on the part that we have charge of still. A little church which I joined and which was one of my grandfather's churches is still there, and that's adjacent to his land.