Miller, Henry K.
The following data is extracted from Arkansas Slave Narratives.
Interviewer: Beulah Sherwood Hagg Person interviewed: [HW: Henry Kirk] H.K. Miller 1513 State Street, Little Rock, Arkansas Age: 86
"No ma'am, it will not bother me one bit if you want to have a long visit with me.... Yes, I was a little busy, but it can wait. I was getting my dishes ready for a party tomorrow night.
"Yes ma'am, I was born during slavery. I was born at a little place called Fort Valley in Georgia, July 25, 1851. Fort Valley is about 30 miles from Macon. I came to Little Rock in 1873. My old mistress was a widow. As well as I can remember she did not have any slaves but my father and mother and the six children. No ma'am, her name was not Miller, it was Wade.... Where did I get my name, then? It came from my grandfather on my father's side.... Well, now, Miss, I can't tell you where he got that name. From some white master, I reckon.
"We got free in Georgia June 15, 1865. I'll never forget that date. What I mean is, that was the day the big freedom came. But we didn't know it and just worked on. My father was a shoemaker for old mistress. Only one in town, far as I recollect. He made a lot of money for mistress. Mother was houseworker for her. As fast as us children got big enough to hire out, she leased us to anybody who would pay for our hire. I was put out with another widow woman who lived about 20 miles. She worked me on her cotton plantation. Old mistress sold one of my sisters; took cotton for pay. I remember hearing them tell about the big price she brought because cotton was so high. Old mistress got 15 bales of cotton for sister, and it was only a few days till freedom came and the man who had traded all them bales of cotton lost my sister, but old mistress kept the cotton. She was smart, wasn't she? She knew freedom was right there. Sister came right back to my parents.
"Just give me time, miss, and I'll tell you the whole story. This woman what had me hired tried to run away and take all her slaves along. I don't remember just how many, but a dozen or more. Lots of white folks tried to run away and hide their slaves until after the Yankee soldiers had been through the town searching for them what had not been set free. She was trying to get to the woods country. But she got nervous and scared and done the worst thing she could. She run right into a Yankee camp. Course they asked where we all belonged and sent us where we belonged. They had always taught us to be scared of the Yankees. I remember just as well when I got back to where my mother was she asked me: "Boy, why you come here? Don't you know old mistress got you rented out? You're goin' be whipped for sure." I told her, no, now we got freedom. That was the first they had heard. So then she had to tell my father and mother. She tole them how they have no place to go, no money,-nothing to start life on; they better stay on with her. So my father and mother kept on with her; she let them have a part of what they made; she took some for board, as was right. The white ladies what had me between them fixed it up that I would serve out the time I was rented out for. It was about six months more. My parents saved money and we all went to a farm. I stayed with them till I was 19 years old. Of course they got all the money I made. I married when I was 20, still living in Georgia. We tried to farm on shares. A man from Arkansas came there, getting up a colony of colored to go to Arkansas to farm. Told big tales of fine land with nobody to work it. Not half as many Negroes in Arkansas as in Georgia. Me and my wife joined up to go.
"Well, ma'am, I didn't get enough education to be what you call a educated man. My father paid for a six months night course for me after peace. I learned to read and write and figure a little. I have used my tablespoon full of brains ever since, always adding to that start. I learned everything I could from the many white friends I have had. Any way, miss, I have known enough to make a good living all these years.
"Now I'll get on with the story. First work I got in Arkansas was working on a farm; me and her both; we always tried to stay together. We could not make anything on the Garner farm, and it was mighty unhealthy down in Fourche bottoms. I carried her back to Little Rock and I got work as house man in the Bunch home. From there I went to the home of Dudley E. Jones and stayed there 28 years. That was the beginning of my catering. I just naturally took to cooking and serving. White folks was still used to having colored wait on them and they liked my style. Mr. Jones was so kind. He told his friends about how I could plan big dinners and banquets; then cook and serve them. Right soon I was handling most of the big swell weddings for the society folks. Child, if I could call off the names of the folks I have served, it would be mighty near everybody of any consequence in Little Rock for more than 55 years. Yes ma'am, I'm now being called on to serve the grandchildren of my first customers.
"During the 28 years I lived in Mr. Jones' family I was serving banquets, big public dinners, all kinds of big affairs. I have had the spring and fall banquets for the Scottish Rite Masons for more than 41 years. I have served nearly all the Governor's banquets, college graduation and reunion parties; I took care of President Roosevelt-not this one, but Teddy----. Served about 600 that day. Any big parties for colored people?... Yes ma'am! Don't you remember when Booker T. Washington was here?... No ma'am. White folks didn't have a thing to do with it, excepting the city let us have the new fire station. It was just finished but the fire engines ain't moved in yet. I served about 600 that time. Yes ma'am, there was a lot of white folks there. Then, I have been called to other places to do the catering. Lonoke, Benton, Malvern, Conway-a heap of places like that.
"No miss, I didn't always have all the catering business; oh, no. There was Mr. Rossner. He was a fine man. White gentleman. I used to help him a lot. But when he sold out to Bott, I got a lot of what business Mr. Rossner had had, Mr. Bott was a Jew. All that time my wife was my best helper. I took a young colored fellow named Freeling Alexander and taught him the business. He never been able to make it go on his own, but does fine working on salary. He has a cafeteria now.
"Well thank you miss, speaking about my home like that. Yes ma'am, I sure do own it. Fifty-two years I been living right here. First I bought the lot; it took me two years to pay for it. Next I build a little house. The big pin oak trees out front was only saplings when I set them out. Come out in the back yard and see my pecan tree.... It is a giant, ain't it? Yes ma'am, it was a tiny thing when I set it out fifty-two years ago. Our only child was born in this house,-a dear daughter-and her three babies were born here too. After my wife and daughter died, me and the children kept on trying to keep the home together. I have taught them the catering business. Both granddaughters are high school graduates. The boy is in Mexico. Before he went he signed his name to a check and said: "Here, grandpa. You ain't going to want for a thing while I'm gone. If something happens to your catering business, or you get so you can't work, fill this in for whatever you need." But thank the good Lord, I'm still going strong. Nobody has ever had to take care of H.K. Miller. Now let me tell you something else about this place. For more than ten years I have been paying $64.64 every year for my part of that asphalt paving you see out in front. Yes ma'am, the lot is 50 foot front, and I am paying for only half of it; from my curb line to the middle of the street. Maybe if I live long enough I'll get it paid for sometime.
"I haven't tried to lay by much money. I don't suppose there is any other colored man-uneducated like me-what has done more for his community. I have given as high as $80 and $100 at one time to help out on the church debt or when they wanted to build. I always help in times of floods and things like that. I've helped many white persons in my lifetime.
"Well, now, I'll tell you what I think about the voting system. I think this. Of course we are still in subjection to the white people; they are in the majority and have most of the government on their side. But I think that, er,-er,-well I'll tell you, while it is all right for them to be at the head of things, they ought to do what is right. Being educated, they ought to know right from wrong. I believe in the Bible, miss. Look here. This little book-Gospel of St. John-has been carried in my pocket every day for years and years. And I never miss a day reading it. I don't see how some people can be so unjust. I guess they never read their Bible. The reason I been able to make my three-score years and ten is because I obeys what the Good Book says.
"Now, let me see. I can remember that I been voting mighty near ever since I been here. I never had any trouble voting. I have never been objected from voting that I remember of.
"Now you ask about what I think of the young people. Well, I tell you. I think really that the young people of today had better begin to check up, a little. They are going too fast. They don't seem to have enough consideration. When I see so many killed in automobile accidents, and know that drinking is the cause of so many car accidents,-well, yes ma'am, drinking sure does have a lot to do with it. I think they should more consider the way they going to make a living. Make a rule to look before they act. Another thing-the education being given them-they are not taking advantage of it. If they would profit by what they learn they could benefit theirselves. A lot of them now spend heap of time trying to get to be doctors and lawyers and like that. That is a mistake. There is not enough work among colored people to support them. I know. Negroes do not have confidence in their race for this kind of business. No ma'am. Colored will go for a white doctor and white lawyer 'cause they think they know more about that kind of business. I would recommend as the best means of making a living for colored young people is to select some kind of work that is absolutely necessary to be done and then do it honestly. The trades, carpentering, paper hanging, painting, garage work. Some work that white people need to have done, and they just as soon colored do it as white. White folks ain't never going to have Negro doctors and lawyers, I reckon. That's the reason I took up catering-even that long ago. Fifty-five years ago I knew to look around and find some work that white folks would need done. There's where your living comes from.
"Yes, miss, my business is slack-falling off, as you say. Catering is not what it used to be. You see, 30 or 40 years ago, people's homes were grand and big; big dining rooms, built for parties and banquets. But for the big affairs with 500 or 600 guests, they went to the hotels. Even the hotels had to rent my dishes, silver and linens.... Oh, lord, yes, miss. I always had my own. It took me ten years to save enough money to start out with my first 500 of everything.... You want to see them?... Sure, I keep them here at home.... Look. Here's my silver chests, all packed to go. I have them divided into different sizes. This one has fifty of every kind of silver, so if fifty guests are to be provided for. I keep my linens, plates of different sizes, glasses and everything the same way. A 200-guest outfit is packed in those chests over there. No, ma'am, I don't have much trouble of losing silver, because it all has my initials on; look: H.K.M. on every piece. Heap of dishes are broken every time I have a big catering. I found one plate yesterday-the last of a full pattern I had fifteen years ago. About every ten years is a complete turnover of china. Glassware goes faster, and of course, the linen is the greatest overhead. Yes ma'am, as I was telling you, catering is slack because of clubs. So many women take their parties to clubs now. Another thing, the style of food has changed. In those old days, the table was loaded with three four meats, fish, half dozen vegetable dishes, entrees, different kinds of wine, and an array of desserts. Now what do they have? Liquid punch, frozen punch and cakes. In June I had a wedding party for 400, and that's all they served. I had to have 30 punch bowls, but borrowed about half from my white friends.
"You have got that wrong about me living with my grandchildren. No ma'am! They are living with me. They make their home with me. I don't expect ever to marry again. I'm 86. In my will I am leaving everything I have to my three grandchildren.
"Well, miss, you're looking young and blooming. Guess your husband is right proud of you? Say you're a widow? Well, now, my goodness. Some of these days a fine man going to find you and then, er-er, lady, let me cater for the wedding?"
Source: Arkansas Slave Narratives