Mama Duck


Jules A. Frost

Tampa, Florida

May 19, 1937


"Who is the oldest person, white or colored, that you know of in Tampa?"

"See Mama Duck," the grinning Negro elevator boy told me. "She bout a

hunnert years old."

So down into the "scrub" I went and found the old woman hustling about

from washpot to pump. "I'm mighty busy now, cookin breakfast," she said,

"but if you come back in bout an hour I'll tell you what I can bout old

times in Tampa."

On the return visit, her skinny dog met me with elaborate demonstrations

of welcome.

"Guan way fum here Spot. Dat gemmen ain gwine feed you nothin. You keep

your dirty paws offen his clothes."

Mama duck sat down on a rickety box, motioning me to another one on the

shaky old porch. "Take keer you doan fall thoo dat old floor," she

cautioned. "It's bout ready to fall to pieces, but I way behind in the

rent, so I kaint ask em to have it fixed."

"I see you have no glass in the windows--doesn't it get you wet when it


"Not me. I gits over on de other side of de room. It didn't have no door

neither when I moved in. De young folks frum here useta use it for a


"A what?"

"Courtin-house. Dey kept a-comin after I moved in, an I had to shoo em

away. Dat young rascal comin yonder--he one of em. I clare to

goodness--" and Mama Duck raised her voice for the trespasser's benefit,

"I wisht I had me a fence to keep folks outa my yard."

"Qua-a-ck, quack, quack," the young Negro mocked, and passed on


"Dat doan worry me none; I doan let nothin worry me. Worry makes folks

gray-headed." She scratched her head where three gray braids, about the

length and thickness of a flapper's eyebrow, stuck out at odd angles.

"I sho got plenty chancet to worry ifen I wants to," she mused, as she

sipped water from a fruit-jar foul with fingermarks. "Relief folks got

me on dey black list. Dey won't give me rations--dey give rations to

young folks whas workin, but won't give me nary a mouthful."

"Why is that?"

"Well, dey wanted me to go to de poor house. I was willin to go, but I

wanted to take my trunk along an dey wouldn't let me. I got some things

in dere I been havin nigh onta a hunnert years. Got my old blue-back

Webster, onliest book I ever had, scusin my Bible. Think I wanna throw

dat stuff away? No-o, suh!" Mama Duck pushed the dog away from a

cracked pitcher on the floor and refilled her fruit-jar. "So day black

list me, cause I won't kiss dey feets. I ain kissin nobody's

feets--wouldn't kiss my own mammy's."

"Well, we'd all do lots of things for our mothers that we wouldn't do

for anyone else."

"Maybe you would, but not me. My mammy put me in a hickry basket when I

was a day an a half old, with nothin on but my belly band an diaper.

Took me down in de cotton patch an sot me on a stump in de bilin sun."

"What in the world did she do that for?"

"Cause I was black. All de other younguns was bright. My granmammy done

hear me bawlin an go fotch me to my mammy's house. 'Dat you mammy?' she

ask, sweet as pie, when granmammy pound on de door.

"'Doan you never call me mammy no more,' granmammy say. 'Any woman

what'd leave a poor lil mite like dis to perish to death ain fitten to

be no datter o' mine.'

"So granmammy took me to raise. I ain never seen my mammy sincet, an I

ain never wanted to."

"What did your father think of the way she treated you?"

"Never knew who my daddy was, an I reckon she didn't either."

"Do you remember anything about the Civil War?"

"What dat?"

"The Civil War, when they set the slaves free."

"Oh, you mean de fust war. I reckon I does--had three chillern, boys,

borned fore de war. When I was old enough to work I was taken to Pelman,

Jawja. Dey let me nust de chillern. Den I got married. We jus got

married in de kitchen and went to our log house.

"I never got no beatins fum my master when I was a slave. But I seen

collored men on de Bradley plantation git frammed out plenty. De whippin

boss was Joe Sylvester. He had pets amongst de women folks, an let some

of em off light when they deserved good beatins."

"How did he punish his 'pets'?"

"Sometimes he jus bop em crosst de ear wid a battlin stick."

"A what?"

"Battlin stick, like dis. You doan know what a battlin stick is? Well,

dis here is one. Use it for washin clothes. You lift em outa de wash pot

wid de battlin stick; den you lay em on de battlin block, dis here

stump. Den you beat de dirt out wid de battlin stick."

"A stick like that would knock a horse down!"

"Wan't nigh as bad as what some of de others got. Some of his pets

amongst de mens got it wusser dan de womens. He strap em crosst de sharp

side of a barrel an give em a few right smart licks wid a bull whip."

"And what did he do to the bad ones?"

"He make em cross dere hands, den he tie a rope roun dey wrists an throw

it over a tree limb. Den he pull em up so dey toes jus touch de ground

an smack em on da back an rump wid a heavy wooden paddle, fixed full o'

holes. Den he make em lie down on de ground while he bust all dem

blisters wid a raw-hide whip."

"Didn't that kill them?"

"Some couldn't work for a day or two. Sometimes dey throw salt brine on

dey backs, or smear on turputine to make it git well quicker."

"I suppose you're glad those days are over."

"Not me. I was a heap better off den as I is now. Allus had sumpun to

eat an a place to stay. No sich thing as gittin on a black list. Mighty

hard on a pusson old as me not to git no rations an not have no reglar


"How old are you?"

"I doun know, zackly. Wait a minnit, I didn't show you my pitcher what

was in de paper, did I? I kaint read, but somebody say dey put how old I

is under my pitcher in dat paper."

Mama Duck rummaged through a cigar box and brought out a page of a

Pittsburgh newspaper, dated in 1936. It was so badly worn that it was

almost illegible, but it showed a picture of Mama Duck and below it was

given her age, 109.

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