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Mama Duck

From: Florida


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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