Person Interviewed: Gus Clark
Location: Howison, Mississippi
Place of Birth: Richmond, Virginia
Age: (about) 85
Uncle Gus Clark and his aged wife live in a poverty-stricken deserted village about an eighth of a mile east of Howison.
Their old mill cabin, a relic of a forgotten lumber industry, is tumbling down. They received direct relief from the ERA until May, 1934, when the ERA changed the dole to work relief. Uncle Gus, determined to have a work card, worked on the road with the others until he broke down a few days later and was forced to accept direct relief. Now, neither Gus nor Liza is able to work, and the only help available for them is the meager State Old Age Assistance. Gus still manages to tend their tiny garden.
He gives his story:
“I’se gwine on ’bout eighty-five. ‘At’s my age now. I was born at Richmond, Virginny, but lef’ dare right afte’ de War. Dey had done surrendered den, an’ my old marster doan have no mo’ power over us. We was all free an’ Boss turned us loose.
“My mammy’s name was Judy, an’ my pappy was Bob. Clark was de Boss’s name. I doan ‘member my mammy, but pappy was workin’ on de railroad afte’ freedom an’ got killed.
“A man come to Richmond an’ carried me an’ pappy an’ a lot of other niggers ter Loos’anna ter work in de sugar cane. I was little but he said I could be a water boy. It sho’ was a rough place. Dem niggers quar’l an’ fight an’ kills one ‘nother. Big Boss, he rich, an’ doan ‘low no sheriff ter come on his place. He hol’ cou’t an’ settle all ‘sputes hisself. He done bury de dead niggers an’ put de one what killed him back to work.
“A heap of big rattlesnakes lay in dem canebrakes, an’ dem niggers shoot dey heads off an’ eat ‘em. It didn’ kill de niggers. Dem snakes was fat an’ tender, an’ fried jes lak chicken.
“Dere in Loos’anna we doan get no pay ’til de work is laid by. Den we’se paid big money, no nickels. Mos’ of de cullud mens go back to where dey was raised.
“Dat was afte’ freedom, but my daddy say dat de niggers earn money on Old Boss’ place even durin’ slav’ry. He give ‘em every other Sat’dy fer deyse’ves. Dey cut cordwood fer Boss, wimmens an’ all. Mos’ of de mens cut two cords a day an’ de wimmens one. Boss paid ‘em a dollar a cord. Dey save dat money, fer dey doan have to pay it out fer nothin’. Big Boss didn’ fail to feed us good an’ give us our work clo’es. An’ he paid de doctor bills. Some cullud men saved enough to buy deyse’ves frum Boss, as free as I is now.
“Slav’ry was better in some ways ‘an things is now. We allus got plen’y ter eat, which we doan now. We can’t make but fo’ bits a day workin’ out now, an’ ‘at doan buy nothin’ at de sto’. Co’se Boss only give us work clo’es. When I was a kid I got two os’berg[FN: Osnaberg: the cheapest grade of cotton cloth] shirts a year. I never wo’ no shoes. I didn’ know whut a shoe was made fer, ’til I’se twelve or thirteen. We’d go rabbit huntin’ barefoot in de snow.
“Didn’ wear no Sunday clo’es. Dey wa’nt made fer me, ’cause I had nowhere ter go. You better not let Boss ketch you off’n de place, less’n he give you a pass to go. My Boss didn’ ‘low us to go to church, er to pray er sing. Iffen he ketched us prayin’ er singin’ he whupped us. He better not ketch you with a book in yo’ han’. Didn’ ‘low it. I doan know whut de reason was. Jess meanness, I reckin. I doan b’lieve my marster ever went to church in his life, but he wa’nt mean to his niggers, ‘cept fer doin’ things he doan ‘low us to. He didn’ care fer nothin’ ‘cept farmin’.
“Dere wa’nt no schools fer cullud people den. We didn’ know whut a school was. I never did learn to read.
“We didn’ have no mattresses on our beds like we has now. De chullun slep’ under de big high beds, on sacks. We was put under dem beds ’bout eight o’clock, an’ we’d jes better not say nothin’ er make no noise afte’ den. All de cullud folks slep’ on croker sacks full of hay er straw.
“Did I ever see any niggers punished? Yessum, I sho’ has. Whupped an’ chained too. Day was whupped ’til de blood come, ’til dey back split all to pieces. Den it was washed off wid salt, an’ de nigger was put right back in de fiel’. Dey was whupped fer runnin’ away. Sometimes dey run afte’ ‘em fer days an nights with dem big old blood houn’s. Heap o’ people doan b’lieve dis. But I does, ’cause I seed it myse’f.
“I’se lived here forty-five years, an’ chipped turpentine mos’ all my life since I was free.
“I’se had three wives. I didn’ have no weddin’s, but I mar’ied ‘em ‘cordin to law. I woan stay with one no other way. My fust two wives is dead. Liza an’ me has been mar’ied ’bout ‘leven years. I never had but one chile, an’ ‘at by my fust wife, an’ he’s dead. But my other two wives had been mar’ied befo’, an’ had chullun. ‘Simon here,’ pointing to a big buck of fifty-five sitting on the front porch, ‘is Liza’s oldest boy.’”