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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 >>

Role of church in Baker family's life and its influence on her later activism

During Baker's childhood, the church was a very important part of her family and community life. She reflects on how that heritage affected her participation in later social activism.

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:
As you were growing up, did you take religion seriously?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
SUE THRASHER:
Did you believe?
ELLA BAKER:
I took the position that you were supposed to change. And I think the manner in which I manifested was, I was to control my temper. I had a high temper; I was very quick-tempered. And I'd strike back very quickly. I didn't take teasing. I wasn't good at teasing, and I wouldn't take it but so long. I'd say, "Stop," and if it didn't stop I'd hit, and it didn't matter how large you were. And so this was my way of demonstrating my change, by trying to control my temper. So we didn't shout; we weren't a shouting family, for the most part. I've seen my aunts and my mother, who were very religious, sitting on the usual front seats, and the tears would roll down. But there was only one aunt who occasionally would do a shouting bit, but my grandfather didn't care too much for noise in church. Of course, he was dead by the time…. But the story goes that if they began to do a lot of shouting and throwing their arms, he'd call them by name and tell them to sit down and keep quiet. And if they didn't, then he had his sons, who were big, tall men, or others who would go and take them up and sit them outside the church, let them cool off. Or if you started shouting too much when he was baptizing. In fact, as I understand it, the deacons had to accompany him, because he wasn't going to try to hold them. If they wanted to shout, he'd let them fall back in the water [Laughter] , I guess. I don't know whether he actually did, but he [Laughter] threatened to do that.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you think that that period of being religious was important in terms of the basis of social action later?
ELLA BAKER:
It was important for the sense of the value of the human being. I look upon it as having had a family who placed a very high value on people. We were the kind of family that was not just my mother and her brood, but if somebody came by who needed something, you got something; you got food. One of the things my grandfather had was a large production of food, and there was plenty of food. He had an orchard that was very superior to the kind that people have now. There were different kinds of fruits, and the rotation: you'd start off with the early peaches, and then you'd have peaches all through the summer up until the fall. He had enough cows to have, say, ten or twelve gallons of milk a day, so if you came there was plenty to eat. They raised their own wheat; they ground their own flour and their cornmeal; they had the hogs, and they had plenty of chickens and plenty of eggs. He believed in that kind of living, so going up there every summer, to me it was just like, how did I know he wasn't rich? As far as I was concerned, there was plenty to eat. In fact, there was no question; riches never entered into it. It was the business of good living. And nobody ever got turned away. As I understand it, he was certainly in terms of food. So this was the pattern, and if somebody called and needed help. On many a night after we moved from Norfolk, the three children and my mother, people would knock on the door in the middle of the night and say, "Mrs. Baker, So-and-so is sick." And my mother had one of those very positive voices. They'd knock, and she said, "Ye-e-es?" She would get up, and I always waked up early. (It sounds like I'm being very self-serving, but it happened to be true that I was quick when…. I never slept much. They said even as a baby, if you walked across the floor too much I'd wake up. Maybe it's nervousness.) I would be the , as it were, for the other two children, because we were home, just the three, my mother and the children, for a good deal until such time as from time to time if there were people who…. Like a mill had opened up near us, and young men came into town, she'd rent out one of the upstairs rooms and let them stay there. But she didn't do much about feeding them, because she wasn't too eager to cook anyway, I don't think.