Births Deaths Marriages, Oral History, Paternal Kin, Photographs

Remembering Nina F. Hardy.

My parents married in 1961. When my mother arrived in Wilson shortly after, my father took her around to meet the elders who had not been able to travel to Virginia for the wedding. Along the way, they stopped at Dew’s Rest Home. As my mother stepped through the door, Aunt Nina threw up a cautionary hand: “Wait. You ain’t expecting, is you?” My mother, mortified: “No, ma’am!” “All right. ‘Cause it’s some uggggly folks in here!”

My paternal grandmother had a thousand stories about Nina — with a long I — Frances Faison Kornegay Hardy. Though she called her “aunt,” Nina in fact was her cousin. She was born March 15, 1882, probably in northern Duplin County, to John Henry Aldridge and Addie Faison. (John H. Aldridge, born 1844, was the son of John Mathew Aldridge, and first cousin of my grandmother’s grandfather, John W. Aldridge.)  She seems to have been married briefly to Joe Kornegay in 1899 in Wayne County, but I have not found her in the 1900 census. By 1910, she had made her way 40 or so miles north to Wilson and was boarding in the household of Jesse and Sarah Jacobs as “Nina Facin.” The census also shows a “Nina Facon” living and working as a servant in the household of Jeff Farrior in Wilson. Though described as white, this is almost surely Aunt Nina, who cooked and cleaned for the Farriors most of her working life. Though she and her husband lived just outside Wilson on what is now Highway 58, she was at home only on her days off.

Said my grandmother:

Aint Nina lived up over the Farrior house on Herring Avenue.  Herring’s Crossroads, whatever you call it.  And that’s where she come up there to live.  Well, the maid, as far as the help, or whoever, they stayed on the lot, where they’d have somewhere to sleep. So Aint Nina was living on Nash Road, way down there, and when we went to see her, me and Mamie would run down there five miles. She was working for Old Man Farrior then.  When she was living out in the country, she was working for white people, and so she went up to their house and cooked for them.  And when we’d go down to her house, she’d have to come from up there and cook when she get home.  So we would go and spend a day, but it would be more than likely be on her day off.  But when we had the horse and buggy, Mama drove out there once, and we went, I went with Papa with the wagon to where you grind corn to make meal, down to Silver Lake or whatever that place was down there.  Lord, them were the good old days.  

The Farriors, their back porch was closed in.  It had windows.  And had a marble floor in the back, and that stairway was on, where it was closed in on the back porch, you could go upstairs, and there was a room up there.  You couldn’t go from out of that room into the other part of the house.  You had to come back down them steps then go in the house.  And that’s where Aint Nina stayed.  I said, Lord, I wouldn’t want to have stayed up there.  And then something happen … She had to come down and go down the steps, go upstairs, I mean, and come out of the kitchen, and then go up them steps out on this porch in her room.  So she stayed up there.  Lord, I wouldn’t want to stay up there.  She get sick out there, she couldn’t get nobody.  I didn’t see no – I was up in there one time, and I went up there just to look around.  Well, she had a nice room, nice bed and chair and dresser and everything.  There was a whole set in the room where she was.  That was the only time I was up there. But I wouldn’t want to stay up there.

In 2004, J.M.B., a Farrior descendant, sent me copies of several photos of Aint Nina. My grandmother had described her (“She wasn’t real short.  But she was heavy built, and she had big limbs.  But she wasn’t that fat, but she just had big limbs and had a big face.”), and I had seen a couple of pictures of her before, like this one, taken in the mid-1950s with my uncle’s children:

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And this one,

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[There’s a photo booth shot that I can’t find right now. But I will.  UPDATE: I found it. 1/3/2016]

But these …

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… these touch me. Nina at work. Nina in a kitchen with a floured pan, perhaps making biscuits, perhaps the dumplings my grandmother relished. Nina, her own legs aching, tending to whitefolks. The columned Farrior mansion, since torn down, with Nina’s little room tucked out of sight.

In 1917, Nina married Julius Hardy in Wilson township. It is likely their house that my grandmother and great-aunt visited out on Nash Road:

They had guinea chickens.  A car run over a chicken and killed it, and it kept going.  And we, me and Mamie, was going out there, and we picked up the chicken and carried it ‘round there.  And Aint Nina poured water and scald the chicken and picked it and cooked it, and we had the best time eating it.   Wont thinking ‘bout we was going out there to eat.  And so we come walking in there with that chicken, and she wanted to know, “Well, where’d you get that?”  “A car run over it, and we picked it up and brought it on over so you could cook it.”  And she said, “Yeah, it’s good.  A car just killed it?”  And it wasn’t too far from the house.  And I reckon it was one of her chickens anyhow.  Honey, she cooked that old stewed chicken, had to put pastry and vegetables in it.  Lord, we stayed out all that time, then had to come home from way out there.  But we was full. 

And her brother, his name was James Faison, lived across the street from her, and his wife, and I think the lady had been married before because they wasn’t his children.  It was two girls.  And he worked at the express, at the station.  The place was on that side, Nash Street station was over on this side.  Baggage used to come over there.  The baggage place where’d you take off the train.  That’s where you put it over on that side at that time.  And he was working over there.

Nina was a font of information about the family back in Dudley that my grandmother barely knew. Mama Sarah was impatient with questions about the past. Nina, on the other hand …

Mama never talked about her daughter Hattie.  But A’nt Nina, she would tell everything.  Mama got mad with her, said, “You always bringing up something.  You don’t know what you talking ’bout.”  So she’d go behind — Mama wouldn’t want her to tell things.  And she never did say, well, if she said, I wouldn’t have known him, but I never did ask her, who Hattie’s daddy was.  I figured he was white.  Because she looked — her hair and features, you know, white.

Even as she waited on others, Nina struggled with her health:

But she was kind of sickly, and I went up there for something.  See ‘bout her.  Carry her something.  And then when her leg was sore, and she come to stay with us.  Oh, she stayed with us a long time ‘cause she had to go to the doctor, had to be taken to the doctor with that leg.  That leg was still big.  But it was much bigger than the other one.  But it healed over.  But it was so knotty-looking, like it’d heal up and draw up in places, and it just looked so bad, and so she’d wear her dresses long.  But she had big feet!  Oooo, she had big feet.  With those big legs … And she was the one that Mama made Mamie iron her clothes on Sunday.  ‘Fore you even got to playing, had to get her clothes.  She was at Rocky Mount in the hospital with that leg.  They had operated on that leg and Mama would go every Sunday and take her clothes, bring her dirty clothes home and wash ‘em and bring them back to her.  So, Lord, we had a time with that.  And I looked at that big leg and just said, ‘Wooo….  What in the world is that?’  Looked like it just swelled up.  And I saw a lady right here in Philadelphia.  I had passed, and I seen her, and she had a great big leg.  And so by that woman having that big leg, I said, ‘Lord have mercy, I hope I don’t get that.  I wonder what’s wrong with it?  How come the swelling won’t go down in it?’  People don’t know what they’ll have to go through….  Yeah, ‘cause we went over there, and you didn’t have — it was an open sore, and it was always running.  She had to keep her foot up and had to keep the flies from on it, and so I said, well, finally it got better, but that leg healed up, it drawed up and you could tell where the sore was all on her leg.  And that leg was much bigger than the other one.  It took a long time to heal.  It was all healed up though before she died.

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In the photo above, taken in her last years at the rest home where she protected my young mother from a disastrous maternal impression, Nina smiles her same sweet smile despite ailing legs wrapped and swollen feet encased in split loafers.
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Aint Nina died 20 March 1969, just five days after her 86th birthday. Frances Sykes Goodman, granddaughter of Nina’s aunt Frances Aldridge Wynn, was the informant on her death certificate. She was buried in Rest Haven, Wilson’s black cemetery. (I’ve walked that graveyard and never seen her stone. Is her grave unmarked? If it is, and I can find it, it won’t be.)
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Births Deaths Marriages, North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin, Photographs

Remembering Mother Dear.

I had pneumonia twice.  The first day I went down to Graded School, that day it rained.  I come back – there was a hole in my shoe, and I slopped in all the water and got my feet wet.  That’s what Mama said, anyhow, and I taken with a fever.  

If I got wet – when I went to Graded School, it rained, and I slopped in all the water coming back from there.  Had a hole in my shoe.  Had pasteboard in there.  And then I’d go to sneezing and coughing.  And so Mama said, “You know you oughtn not to got wet!”  Well, how was I gon help from getting wet?  Had to come from school!  So that was the first year I went to school.  I remember that.  And I was sick that whole rest of the year.  I mean, wasn’t strong enough to go down to Graded School – she wouldn’t let me go down there.  So I stayed home, and Mama put all them old rags, that old flannel cloth, and she’d put it in red onions and hog lard.  And I had pneumonia.  And they was sitting up with me.  Said I hadn’t spoken in three days.  And so that old clock where Annie Bell took, it was up there on the mantel, it struck two o’clock.  Mama was sitting on one side of the stove, and Papa on the other.  So I said, when the clock struck, I said, “It’s two o’clock, ain’t it, Mama?”  And they thought I was dying.  So they had been sitting up with me.  So I think didn’t think nothing ‘bout it.  I went on back to sleep.  I didn’t know nothing ‘bout it.  Said I had double pneumonia.  So Mama got – honey, I had to wear a piece of cloth up here on my chest, one on the back, with Vick’s salve and hog grease or whatever that stuff was, mixed all up together and pinned it to my undershirt.  

And I thought about it, with Bessie dead — she died when I was eight months old.  And Mama Sarah took me as a baby and brought me to Wilson.  And I was the only child there.  Well, that’s how come, look like Papa, he felt sorry for me, I reckon.  Her husband did, and I called him the only Papa I knew.  So they all – I was always sickly and puny and: “Give her anything she wanted,” that’s what Dr. Williams – white doctor – so he said, “She can’t live nohow.”  And that’s when I had the pneumonia.  And so I didn’t want nothing but water.  So, “Well, give her all the water she want ‘cause she can’t live nohow.”  But I fooled ‘em!  Dr. Williams’ gone, Mama’s gone, all of ‘em, and I’m sitting right here!” 

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The mantel at 303 Elba Street, 2014.

And for most of my life, she was right there indeed. Every summer, when we drove up from North Carolina to spend a week with her in Philadelphia. Every winter, when she came down to spend the holidays with us and my aunt’s family and her sister. Later, when I was in law school and grad school, I spent my breaks with her, and I even lived with her a short bit when I moved to Philadelphia. I will regret till I’m gone that I did not visit her more often after I left, but when I did I had the good sense to record her stories. Her death was my first real loss, the one that broke the spell, and it pangs me almost as much now as it ever did. I miss this woman.

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Remembering Hattie Mae Henderson Ricks (6 June 1910-15 January 2001), my Mother Dear.

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Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Oral History, Photographs

Emma McNeely Houser.

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Aunt Emma was so pretty.  And I never heard her raise her voice.  Not ever.  And she was she was so sedate and so pretty.  We’d go to her house, and we’d eat, and everybody would get up and start – “Oh, goodness!  Leave the dishes alone,” she’d say, and we’d all go in the living room and sit down, and then she finally would let us get up and go clean up the kitchen. 

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Photograph of Emma M. Houser in the possession of Lisa Y. Henderson; interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.

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Births Deaths Marriages, North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin, Photographs

Bessie Lee Henderson.

Bessie Henderson is the fulcrum.  Or Bessie’s death anyway. The point at which my Hendersons diverged from the line, left Dudley’s track, frayed the thread that bound to them to their people. Her death launched my grandmother out of Wayne County and away from what could have been.  Given all that happened later, the ways things turned out, it is not hard not to see why my grandmother cast the first few months of her life as the glory days.   She was with her own mother and surely cherished.

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Let’s look at her.  At the only photo we have.  Probably the only one there ever was.

She is a broad-faced, heavy-lidded beauty, the barest hint of a smile playing on her lips, a high-yellow Mona Lisa.  Thick dark hair pulled up a la Gibson Girl; a hint of widow’s peak; a straight-bridged nose; a full bottom lip.  The fat lobes of her ears depend from the nest of her hair.  I recognize them as my grandmother’s.

What was the occasion?  Why the first photograph of her life?  It was surely taken in Goldsboro, or maybe Mount Olive, the small town and smaller town that bracketed Dudley, the crossroads at which she passed her entire  short life.  There are no props.  The painted backdrop is mottled and indistinct, save a white bird swooping downward, a wingtip brushing her left hand.  The portrait is three-quarter length, and it is hard to gauge her size.  She was surely of no great height, perhaps an inch or two over five feet, and slim, but with a hint of hippiness.  Her daughter and nieces were narrow-shouldered, but she seems not to have been so.

One arm, folded behind, rests on her hip.  The other hangs loosely at her side, a slender hand brushing her thigh.  I do not recognize the fingers; they are not my grandmother’s.  Her arms, exposed below the elbows of her ruffled white blouse, are much, much browner than her face, evidence of her time in her grandfather’s fields, straw hat shielding her brow.  There is a ring on her left middle finger.  There are also two lockets hanging from her neck.  She barely knew her mother; her father was a kind but distant white man; she never married.  Who then gave her these trinkets?  What became of them?  What tiny images hid in the clefts of the lockets?  Who loved her?

Like her own mother before her, Bessie was just nineteen when she died.  She looks older here.  A little weary maybe.  A little sad.  A second child born out of wedlock would get her drummed out of the church that her grandfather had helped found.  The baby’s daddy joined church weeks later.  Within months, Bessie was cold in her grave.

My grandmother tells it this way:

I thought of many times I wondered what my mama looked like.  Bessie.  And how old was she, or whatever.  See, she was helping Grandpa Lewis.  The pig got out of the pasture and, instead of going all the way down to where the gate opened, she run him back in there, to try to coax him in there.  And when they picked him up and put him over the fence, she had the heavy part, I reckon, or something, and she felt a pain, a sharp pain, and so then she started spitting blood.  Down in the country, they ain’t had no doctor or nothing, they just thought she was gon be all right.  And I don’t think they even took her to the doctor.  Well, she would have had to go to Goldsboro or Mount Olive, one, and doctors was scarce at that time, too, even if it was where you had to go a long ways to get them.  And so she died.  She didn’t never get over it.  I don’t remember ever staying down there.  ‘Cause they brought me up to Wilson to live with Mama and Papa.  I stayed with them after Bessie died.  My sister says she does, but I don’t remember Bessie. You never know what you’ll come to. 

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Photo in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson. Interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.

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Free People of Color, North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin

Lewis & Mag’s children, part 1: sons.

Lewis and Margaret Balkcum Henderson had nine or so children in Sampson County before shifting a few miles north into Wayne County, where they settled with other free-issue families near a tiny crossroads town called Dudley.  Before the Civil War, Margaret bore Lewis T. (1856), James Lucian (1858), Isabella J. (1860), Ann Elizabeth (1862), and Caswell C. (1864), and after, Mary Susan (1868), Carrie (1870), Sarah Daisy (1872), and Loudie (1874).

Of Lewis T., Isabella and Mary Susan, there is not enough known to talk about; they died as children.  But Lucian was my grandmother’s favorite great-uncle; the only one of Lewis and Mag’s children to stay in Dudley and farm.  He and his wife Susie (born a McCullin) had only one child, a daughter Cora Q., who died early and is remembered only by her headstone in the cemetery of the Congregational Church.  (I am endlessly fascinated by the Q.  What could it possibly have stood for?) Lucian so impressed my grandmother that she named her firstborn son after him. He is gone, but my cousins Lucian Jr., the III and the IV, remain.

My grandmother said:

Uncle Lucian, now he look more like an Indian to me than anybody.  Didn’t have too much hair, but what he had was straight and was that brownish color like it was fair.  We’d come down there and stay with them.  Get off the train and run all the way down there to their house.  That wont nothing.  And they had two beds in that front room.  One on one side and one on the other’n, and they slept on that one side, and me and Mamie slept in the other’n.  In the same room.  ‘Cause it wasn’t no door to it, and the fireplace was in the front room.  I don’t think they ever had a lamp or no light.  We’d go to bed with the chickens and get up with the chickens.  ‘Cause time it’s day, Uncle Lucian was up.  A’nt Susie couldn’t cook.  Because she couldn’t be over the stove, she’d fall out if she was over the stove.  She never left the house that I know of.  ‘Cause she had this thing, that, her head shook all the time.  I said to Mama Sarah, I said, “That thing’s gon shake her head off.”  I told Mama, “She’s gon shake her head off.”  She said, “It was a palsy, that’s how come.”  So Uncle Lucian always got up and cooked breakfast.  And, Lord, I used to love to go down there.  We would get up early mornings, and Uncle Lucian would cook breakfast and, honey, that old ham where he cooked you could smell a mile!  Honey, you could smell that ham before you even got there.  It was on the highway, and we didn’t go all the way ‘round the bend and come up the road.  We’d come down over the fence and come down the cornrow and come up to the house.  And he’d make rice, and it would be that ham gravy.  And the biscuits, they looked like they’s hamburg muffins, the biscuits was so big.  And you talking ‘bout good.   Ooo, you’d be ‘bout to have a fit, it smelled so good. Cooking ham and rice, and had to have ham gravy, just pour water in there from frying.  Great big old milk biscuits.  You eat one of them — you couldn’t even eat a whole one, ’cause they was so big.  And cooked on a little old bitty tin stove, a four-cap stove — the burner wont no more than bigger than that — where you had to put two, three pieces of wood in the stove, and the pipe run right straight up in the house.  Yeah, I thought that was some good days and some good food.  Look like to me, I thought it was the best.  We had good food at home, but seem like down there, it just taste better.  We didn’t have no ham everyday like they had down there, and by him having and curing it, the way they cured ham, his was different from what we had.  Like with that pepper and salt and stuff and seasoning outdoors.  And every one they’d kill, he’d get the hog and cook ‘em and hang ‘em in his packhouse. 

But every great-uncle was not as favored as Lucian.  There was also Caswell, from whom my father gained his middle name, but about whom my grandmother was ambivalent.  Caswell was in New York City by 1890, where he was a white man on his job with the Customs House, but moved among colored folks at home in the Tenderloin and later in Harlem and the Bronx:

Uncle Caswell come to Wilson visiting Mama Sarah.  He didn’t never bring his wife down there ‘cause he was passing for white, and she was kind of brown-complexioned.  But he’d leave our house, and he would go and get a paper every morning down there to Cherry Hotel.  Walk down there for the exercise and get that paper.  He’d go in the hotel there and ask for a paper and talk to the people, and they all said, “Who is this white man?”  And then he’d come all the way back a different way, then walk back down Green Street and come on home, so they wouldn’t know he was crossing the tracks.   And so he wanted Mamie, he didn’t want me, he wanted Mamie to come stay with him and his wife.  And he was gon send her to school and take care of her.  He’d buy all her clothes and everything.  But me, he ain’t said nothing ‘bout me.  But Mama said, “Naw, you can’t. I don’t want her to go to New York.  ‘Cause she don’t know nothing ‘bout New York, and, too, that would leave Hattie down here by herself.”  She said, “They’s gon stay, she gon stay with me ‘cause I promised Bessie that I’d take care of them as long as I lived.  I promised Bessie I’d keep ‘em together.  But if you want to give her something, or help me out with her, buy ‘em clothes or something like that, you can.”  So I didn’t like that. He ain’t said nothing ‘bout me.  But then they said I liked to read, and so he saved the papers where he was taking, and he would send ‘em in the mail to me.  But he sent Mamie candy.  And I told him I wont no goat!  Uncle Caswell didn’t like me.  And I started to tell him he was down there trying to be cute, playing, wanting folks to think he was white.  Passing for white.  Well, he could pass for white.  Least that’s what he was doing up in New York.  ‘Cause he was working at the roundhouse, had a good job.

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Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.

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Births Deaths Marriages, Maternal Kin, Newspaper Articles, North Carolina, Oral History

Introducing Martha McNeely.

My grandmother had the sweetest memories of her mother’s mother, Martha Margaret Miller McNeely.Image

In the 1920s, Martha McNeely left Statesville for Bayonne, New Jersey, where her daughter Emma McNeely Houser had settled, followed by several siblings. She settled a few blocks in from the river at 87-A West Sixteenth Street, a 1920 duplex that is still occupied. Said my grandmother:

I went up there one summer from Hampton and worked, and she would let me help her in the kitchen and everything like that, and so I told her, I said, “I’ll cut the corn.”  And she said, “Baby, you can’t cut no corn.  You can’t cut my corn.”  And I said, “Yes, I can, too.”  She said, “I’m sure you can’t, but if you insist, let me see you cut it.”  So I cut the ear of corn like Mama had done, you know.  And she said, “Mmph.  Your mammy taught you.”  [Laughs.]  I didn’t ever forget that.  “Your mammy taught you.”  I said, “Yes, she did.”

And the same story, another time:

… She was so sweet and — I said, “Grandma, now, I can cut the corn.” And she liked to cook. She didn’t think anybody could cook but her. I said, “I can cut the corn for you.” She said, “Honey, you can’t cut no corn for me.” I said, “Yes, I can, too.” And so she said, “well, I’ll let you try it,” she said, “to get rid of you.” So I cut this corn down. She would split the grain, split the grain, and then you cut the top of the grain off, and you cut the second one off, and then you scrape it. And when I did this first ear, she said, “Hmph! Your mammy must have taught you!” “She did.”

When my great-great-grandmother died in 1934, two newspapers marked her passing.  On June 16th, the Bayonne Times announced:

“McNEELY – Martha, at her residence, 87A West Sixteenth street, on Saturday, June 16, 1934, beloved mother of Mrs. Emma Houser, Mrs. Carrie Colvert, Miss Minnie McNeely, John and Edward.  Notice of funeral later.”

Two weeks later, the New York Age informed readers that:

“Mrs. MARTHA McNEELY, one of the older residents of our city, died at her home on Saturday.  Her body was taken to Statesville, N.C. for burial.  Funeral service was preached by Rev. W. Atkinson at Wallace Temple.”

Photo of Martha M. McNeely in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.

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North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin

Scuffalongs and muscadines.

Great big old black ones.  Lord, he might as well have told me to go out there and eat all I wanted.  I eat all the way down the corn row down to that lady’s house, Mary Budd, and come up through the corn field and come back to the road and went over there stood up there and eat all I want and throwed the hulls over in the pasture.  The hog pasture, or whatever that thing was out there where pigs was.  They thought I was gon give ‘em something to eat, I reckon.  And I throwed the things over there, and I reckon that’s where Uncle Lucian discovered that we was eating ‘em.  And he said, “Y’all stay away from out there!  Somebody’s been out there —!”  “Wont me!”  [She laughs.]  Them things seem like was the best things I ever had.  And the arbor there on the yard where was all up in the trees, it’d be grapes.  And I’d go there and eat them, but they was little.  It was what they call scuffalongs.  White grapes.  And I’d eat them, too, but I wanted some of them old big ones.  Them old big black ones.

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I recorded interviews with my father’s mother in 1994, 1996 and 1998. Her scuppernong story was one of my favorites.

Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.

 
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