Slave Narrative of Mama Duck

Interviewer: Jules A. Frost
Person Interviewed: Mama Duck
Location: Tampa, Florida
Age: 109

“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 wash pot 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 rains?”

“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 courtin-house.”

“A what?”

“Court in-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 grinning.

“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 job.”

“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.

Florida Folklore

Jules Abner Frost May 19, 1937

“Mama Duck”

1. Name and address of informant, Mama Duck, Governor & India Sts., Tampa, Florida.

2. Date and time of interview, May 19, 1937, 9:30 A.M.

3. Place of interview, her home, above address.

4. Name and address of person, if any, who put you in touch with informant, J.D. Davis (elevator operator), 1623 Jefferson St., Tampa, Florida.

5. Name and address of person, if any accompanying you (none).

6. Description of room, house, surroundings, etc.

Two-room unpainted shack, leaky roof, most window panes missing, porch dangerous to walk on. House standing high on concrete blocks. Located in alley, behind other Negro shacks.

NOTE: Letter of Feb. 17, 1939, from Mr. B.A. Botkin to Dr. Corse states that my ex-slave story, “Mama Duck” is marred by use of the question and answer method. In order to make this material of use as American Folk Stuff material, I have rewritten it, using the first person, as related by the informant.

Personal History of Informant

[TR: Repetitive information removed.]

1. Ancestry: Negro.

2. Place and date of birth: Richard (probably Richmond), Va., about 1828.

3. Family: unknown.

4. Places lived in, with dates: Has lived in Tampa since about 1870.

5. Education, with dates: Illiterate.

6. Occupations and accomplishments, with dates: None. Informant was a slave, and has always performed common labor.

7. Special skills and interests: none.

8. Community and religious activities: none.

9. Description of informant: Small, emaciated, slightly graying, very thin kinky hair, tightly braided in small pigtails. Somewhat wrinkled, toothless. Active for her age, does washing for a living.

10. Other points gained in interview: Strange inability of local Old Age Pension officials to establish right of claimants to benefits. Inexplainable causes of refusal of direct relief.

Mama Duck

Gwan away f’m here, Po’-Boy; dat gemmen ain’t gwine feed you nuthin. You keep yo’ dirty paws offen his close.

Come in, suh. Take care you don’t fall thoo dat ol’ po’ch flo’; hit ’bout ready to go t’ pieces, but I ‘way behind on rent, so I cain’t ask ’em to have hit fixed. Dis ol’ house aint fitten fer nobody t’ live in; winder glass gone an’ roof leaks. Young folks in dese parts done be’n usin’ it fer a co’t house ‘fore I come; you know–a place to do dey courtin’ in. Kep’ a-comin’ atter I done move in, an’ I had to shoo ’em away.

Dat young rascal comin’ yondah, he one of ’em. I claiah to goodness, I wisht I had a fence to keep folks outa my yahd. Reckon you don’t know what he be quackin’ lak dat fer. Dat’s ’cause my name’s “Mama Duck.” He doin’ it jus’ t’ pester me. But dat don’t worry me none; I done quit worryin’.

I sho’ had plenty chance to worry, though. Relief folks got me on dey black list. Dey give rashuns to young folks what’s wukkin’ an’ don’t give me nary a mouthful. Reason fer dat be ’cause dey wanted me t’ go t’ de porehouse. I wanted t’ take my trunk ‘long, an’ dey wouldn’t lemme. I got some things in dere I be’n havin’ nigh onto a hunnert years. Got my ol’ blue-back Webster, onliest book I evah had, ‘scusin’ mah Bible. Think I wanna th’ow dat away? No-o suh!

So dey black-list me, ’cause I won’t kiss dey feets. I ain’t kissin “nobody’s”, wouldn’t kiss my own mammy’s.

I nevah see my mammy. She put me in a hick’ry basket when I on’y a day and a half old, with nuthin’ on but mah belly band an’ di’per. Took me down in de cotton patch an’ sot de basket on a stump in de bilin sun. Didn’t want me, ’cause I be black. All de otha youngins o’ hers be bright.

Gran’mammy done tol’ me, many a time, how she heah me bawlin’ an’ go an’ git me, an’ fotch me to mammy’s house; but my own mammy, she say, tu’n me down cold.

“Dat you, Mammy” she say, sweet as pie, when gran’mammy knock on de do’.

“Dont you “nevah” call me ‘Mammy’ no mo’,” gran’mammy tol’ ‘er. “Any woman what’d leave a po’ li’l mite lak dat to perish to death ain’t fitten t’ be no dotter o’ mine.”

So gran’mammy tuk me to raise, an’ I ain’t nevah wanted no mammy but her. Nevah knowed who my daddy was, an’ I reckon my mammy didn’t know, neithah. I bawn at Richard, Vahjinny. My sistah an’ brothah be’n dead too many years to count; I de las’ o’ de fam’ly.

I kin remember ‘fore de fust war start. I had three chillen, boys, taller’n me when freedom come. Mah fust mastah didn’t make de li’l chillen wuk none. All I done was play. W’en I be ol’ enough t’ wuk, dey tuk us to Pelman, Jawjah. I never wukked in de fiel’s none, not den. Dey allus le me nuss de chillens.

Den I got married. Hit wa’nt no church weddin’; we got married in gran’mammy’s kitchen, den we go to our own log house. By an’ by mah mahster sol’ me an’ mah baby to de man what had de plantation nex’ to ours. His name was John Lee. He was good to me, an’ let me see my chillens.

I nevah got no beatin’s. Onliest thing I evah got was a li’l slap on de han’, lak dat. Didn’t hurt none. But I’se seen cullud men on de Bradley plantation git tur’ble beatin’s. De whippin’ boss was Joe Sylvester, a white man. He had pets mongst de wimmen folks, an’ used t’ let ’em off easy, w’en dey desarved a good beatin’. Sometimes ‘e jes’ bop ’em crost de ear wid a battlin’ stick, or kick ’em in de beehind.

You don’t know what’s a battlin’ stick? Well, dis here be one. You use it fer washin’ close. You lif’s de close outa de wash pot wid dis here battlin’ stick; den you tote ’em to de battlin’ block–dis here stump. Den you beat de dirt out wid de battlin’ stick.

De whippin’ boss got pets ‘mongst de mens, too, but dey got it a li’l wusser’n de wimmens. Effen dey wan’t too mean, he jes’ strap ’em ‘crost de sharp side of a bar’l an’ give ’em a few right smaht licks wid a bull whip.

But dey be some niggahs he whip good an’ hard. If dey sass back, er try t’ run away, he mek ’em cross dey han’s lak dis; den he pull ’em up, so dey toes jes’ tetch de ground’; den he smack ’em crost de back an’ rump wid a big wood paddle, fixed full o’ holes. Know what dem holes be for? Ev’y hole mek a blister. Den he mek ’em lay down on de groun’, whilst he bus’ all dem blisters wid a rawhide whip.

I nevah heard o’ nobody dyin’ f’m gittin’ a beatin’. Some couldn’t wuk fer a day or so. Sometimes de whippin’ boss th’ow salt brine on dey backs, or smear on turpentine, to mek it well quicker.

I don’t know, ‘zackly, how old I is. Mebbe–wait a minute, I didn’t show you my pitcher what was in de paper. I cain’t read, but somebody say dey put down how old I is undah mah pitcher. Dar hit–don’t dat say a hunndrt an’ nine? I reckon dat be right, seein’ I had three growed-up boys when freedom come.

Dey be on’y one sto’ here when I come to Tampa. Hit b’long t’ ol’ man Mugge. Dey be a big cotton patch where Plant City is now. I picked some cotton dere, den I come to Tampa, an’ atter a while I got a job nussin’ Mister Perry Wall’s chillen. Cullud folks jes’ mek out de bes’ dey could. Some of ’em lived in tents, till dey c’d cut logs an’ build houses wid stick-an’-dirt chimbleys.

Lotta folks ask me how I come to be called “Mama Duck.” Dat be jes’ a devil-ment o’ mine. I named my own se’f dat. One day when I be ’bout twelve year old, I come home an’ say, “Well, gran’mammy, here come yo’ li’l ducky home again.” She hug me an’ say, “Bress mah li’l ducky.” Den she keep on callin’ me dat, an’ when I growed up, folks jes’ put de “Mama” on.

I reckon I a heap bettah off dem days as I is now. Allus had sumpin t’ eat an’ a place t’ stay. No sech thing ez gittin’ on a black list dem days. Mighty hard on a pusson ol’ az me not t’ git no rashuns an’ not have no reg’lar job.

Bradley, Duck, Sylvester,

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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