Hk Miller

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


"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


"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?"

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