Slave Narrative of James Baker

Interviewer: Mary D. Hudgins
Person Interviewed: James Baker
Location: With daughter who own home at 941 Wade St., Hot Springs, Arkansas
Age: 81

The outskirts of eastern Hot Springs resemble a vast checkerboard—patterned in Black and White. Within two blocks of a house made of log-faced siding—painted a spotless white and provided with blue shutters will be a shack which appears to have been made from the discard of a dozen generations of houses.

Some of the yards are thick with rusting cans, old tires and miscelaneous rubbish. Some of them are so gutted by gully wash that any attempt at beautification would be worse than useless. Some are swept—farm fashion—free from surface dust and twigs. Some attempt—others achieve grass and flowers. Vegetable gardens are far less frequent then they should be, considering space left bare.

The interviewer frankly lost her way several times. One improper direction took her fully half a mile beyond her destination. From a hilltop she could look down on less elevated hills and into narrow valleys. The impression was that of a cheaply painted back-drop designed for a “stock” presentation of “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.”

Moving along streets, alleys and paths backward “toward town” the interviewer reached another hill. Almost a quarter of a mile away she spied an old colored man sunning himself on the front porch of a well kept cottage. Somthing about his white hair and erectly-slumped bearing screamed “Ex-slave” even at that distance. A negro youth was passing.

“I beg your pardon, can you tell me where to find Wade Street and James Baker?” “Ya—ya—ya—s ma’am. Dat—dat—dat’s de house over da—da—da—da—r. He—he—he lives at his daughter’s” “Could that be he on the porch?” “Ya—ya—yas ma’am. Dat—dat—dat’s right.”

“Yes, ma’am I’m James Baker. Yes ma’am I remembers about the war. You want to talk to me about it. Let me get you a chair. You’d rather sit right there on the step? All right ma’am.

I was born in Hot Spring county, below Melvern it was. I was borned on the farm of a man named Hammonds. But I was pretty little when he sold me to some folks named Fenton. Wasn’t with them so very long. You know how it goes—back in them days. When a girl or a boy would marry, why they’d givem them as many black folks as they could spare. I was give to one of the daughters when she married. She was Mrs. Samuel Gentry.

I wasn’t so very big before the war. So I didn’t have to work in the fields. Just sort of played around. Can’t remember very much about what happened then. We never did see no fighting about. They was men what passed through. They was soldiers. They come backwards and forewards. I was about as big as that boy you see there”—pointing to a lad about 8 years old—”some of them they was dressed in blue—sort of blue. We was told that they was Federals. Then some of them was in grey—them was the Southerners.

No, we wasn’t scared of them—either of them. They didn’t never bother none of us. Didn’t have anything to be scared of not at all. It wasn’t really Malvern we was at—that was sort of before Malvern come to be. Malvern didn’t grow up until after the railroad come through. The town was across the river, sort of this side. It was called Rockport. Ma’am—you know about Rockport”—a delighted chuckle. “Yes, ma’am, don’t many folks now-a-days know about Rockport. Yes ma’am the river is pretty shoaly right there. Pretty shoaly. Yes ma’am there was lots of doings around Rockport. Yes ma’am. Dat’s right. Before Garland county was made, Rockport was the capitol O—I mean de county seat of Hot Spring County. Hot Springs was in that county at that time. There was big doings in town when they held court. Real big doings.

No, ma’am I didn’t do nothing much when the war was over. No, I didn’t go to be with my daddy. I moved over to live with a man I called Uncle Billy—Uncle Billy Bryant he was. He had all his family with him. I stayed with him and did what he told me to—’til I grew up. He was always good to me—treated me like his own children.

Uncle Billy lived at Rockport. I liked living with him. I remember the court house burned down—or blowed down—seems like to me it burned down. Uncle Billy got the job of cleaning bricks. I helped him. That was when they moved over to Malvern—the court house I mean. No—no they didn’t. Not then, that was later—they didn’t build the railroad until later. They built it back—sort of simple like—built it down by Judge Kieth’s.

No ma’am. I don’t remember nothing about when they built the railroad. You see we lived across the river—and I guess—well I just didn’t know nothing about it. But Rockport wasn’t no good after the railroad come in. They moved the court house and most of the folks moved away. There wasn’t nothing much left.

I started farming around there some. I moved about quite a bit. I lived down sort of by Benton too for quite a spell. I worked around at most any kind of farming.

‘Course most of the time we was working at cotton and corn. I’s spent most of my life farming. I like it. Moved around pretty considerable. Sometimes I hired out—sometimes I share cropped—sometimes I worked thirds and fourths. What does I mean by hired out—I means worked for wages. Which way did I like best—I’ll take share-cropping. I sort of like share-cropping.

I been in Hot Springs for 7 years. Come to be with my daughter.” (An interruption by a small negro girl—neatly dressed and bright-eyed. Not content with watching from the sidelines she had edged closer and squatted comfortably within a couple of feet of the interviewer. A wide, pearly grin, a wee pointing forefinger and, “Granddaddy, that lady’s got a tablet just like Aunt Ellen. See, Granddaddy.”) “You mustm’t bother the lady. Didn’t your mother tell you not to stop folks when they is talking.”—the voice was kindly and there was paternal pride in it. A nickle—tendered the youngster by the interviewer—and guaranteed to produce a similar tablet won a smile and childish silence.

“Yes, ma’am, I lives with my daughter—her name is Lulu Mitchell. She owns her house—yes ma’am it helps. But it’s sure hard to get along. Seems like it’s lots harder now than it used to be when I was gitting started. Lulu works—she irons. Another daughter lives right over there. Her name’s Ellen. She works too—at what she can get to do. She owns her house too.

Three of my daughters is living. Been married twice—I has. Didn’t stay with the last one long. Yes ma’am I been coming backwards and forewards to Hot Springs all my life—you might say. ‘Twasn’t far over and I kept a’coming back. Been living all around here. It’s pretty nice being with my daughter. She’s good to me. I loves my granddaughter. We has a pretty hard time—Harder dan what I had when I was young—but then it do seem like it’s harder to earn money dan what it was when I was young.”

Federal Writers' Project. WPA Slave Narratives. Web. 2007-2024. The WPA Slave Narratives must be used with care. There is, of course, the problem of confusion in memory resulting from (73+ years) of the participants. In addition, inexperienced interviewers sometimes pursued question lines related to their own interests and perspectives and attempted to capture the colloquialism of the informant's speech. The interviews provide fascinating insight and surprisingly candid information, however.

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