The Secret History: Black Women, White Babies
Source of photographs: Vanishing Georgia, Digital Library of Georgia
Oral history of Priscilla Butler, from Susan Tucker, ed., Telling Memories Among Southern Women (LSU Press, 1988) 20-26:
I was born in Escambia County, Alabama, on the old Clinton plantation. My mother was … You know, it’s the funniest thing — I can’t find no record that she ever was born or that I was ever born. I tried to trace it back, when I got my Social Security.
I guess it might have been some mix-up or because my mother was nothing but a child when I was born … When I was very small, I know she would go wait on people with new babies. She’d go wait on Miz Whoever-it-would-be. And send money back.
And so they all felt it was best that I be with my grandmother. I don’t know why exactly. It had to do with me being born out of wedlock and everyone knowing I was the child of one of those Clinton boys — the white people that owned the plantation. But I don’t know the whys of it.
… So when my mother died, it wasn’t anything unusual for the white man to come down and tell them how to settle the affairs. Well, Harry [Clinton], the one who had the coffin house, he let his brother know, the one who was my father.
So my father told his youngest brother to come see about me, told Andrew to come. All through my life, Andrew played a major role. He always came for my father. See, my father was old enough to be my daddy, and Andrew wasn’t. If my daddy had come, that would have kind of pointed to him. My daddy was the lawyer one in the family. He as considered more professional than the rest of them. They had a lot of boys and everybody knew I was crossbreeded but nobody could lay their fingers on just who it was.
See, that’s just the way things had been. Everything is to protect the good name of the white men. But they didn’t give a hat about the black women.
… Anyway, that day Andrew said to my aunt, “We want you to take Priscilla because we don’t want her to nurse nobody’s babies until she’s nursed her own.” My aunt said my mother had asked them for that promise. “And she is never to get out in the field. And whenever she needs something, you come over to the store and knock and you’ll wake me up and we’ll let her father know …”
So after that, I was raised with the best of everything. But I never did want anything to do with my daddy. My husband had to blow on me cold to make me be nice to him. A long time after I was grown and gone, he and his chauffeur came here once the day after Christmas. That was the first time … If he came, he’d always come the day after Christmas. And he’d bring a great big old apple box. It’s got the tier between the layers, and it had on one side, filled with apples; other side, oranges and raisins that be on little stems.
My daughter was at the door that first time he came. He said, “Is your mother home?” And she said, “Yes sir, Mister.” He said, “Don’t you ever call me ‘Mister.'” He said, “I am your Grandfather, and always when I come here, you call me Grandfather.”
…But I still didn’t like him. I didn’t really hate him, but I didn’t cultivate a friendship for him to think that he was on the same level of society as me or that I was on the same level of society with him.
I just don’t know why. I didn’t feel he was better than me or I was better than him. I felt that the society that I lived in and around that it didn’t want anything to do with me. On account of I was a mulatto, and I guess I blamed him for that.
… Here in Mobile I was working for a certain lady one time — this was when it first come that you could go in and sit down and eat hotel food with the white people — and so she told me, “Now you know we loves you and we respect you to the highest. You raised my babies from the time they been in the world. But you know, I wouldn’t want your grandson to marry my granddaughter,” and she went on to say what would happen.
I said, “Well, we both feel the same.” I says, “You don’t want that and I don’t either.” I say, “But I’m gonna tell you something, Miz Mimi, you and your sister have told me quite a few times about your feelings, or be talking when I’m present. And you’re not talking about green people; you’re talking about black peoples.” I said, “Now I don’t enjoy hearing it.” I said, “But as long as I’m gonna work for you, I guess I’m subject to it.”
I said, “But I’m going to tell you something about my hometown, where I was raised up.” I said, “There is a church there, one church there, that the white people go to, and you go over there, you going to find nothing but white people.” I said, “But now there’s Shiloh Baptist church there, and there’s St. Joseph’s Methodist Church, and there’s Holy Hill Church.” I said, “That’s three churches.” I said, “Black peoples go there.” I say, “And it’s just as many people in those churches three time, multiplied by three for that one white church.” I said, “But when you walk in those churches, you’ll find black people, brown ones, tan ones, red ones.” I said, “You keep looking, you’ll find them as white as you is.” I said, “You know black man didn’t do it.”
I said, “Well, what have we had to do? Accept it.” I said, “White people would kill black people for not accepting it.” I said, “Now no one would like to see it straightened out more than me …”
… I went to work for this lawyer [in Mobile] and they paid you ten a week, and oh, that was a lot of money then. But darling! You stayed there. If they wanted to have a conversation around the table, you didn’t act sour, didn’t rattle those pots and pans. And maybe it be nine-thirty before you’d get out of the kitchen. And oh, my dear, you’d been there since six-thirty in the morning.
… But I was glad when I didn’t have to work there more. And why I didn’t work more was on account of we had a run-in. Because my aunt she needed help getting insurance money from her son dying. They wouldn’t pay, and finally, he got them to pay, Lawyer Scott. He put the money in the bank in his name though.
He said he was just taking his 4 percent out slow. My aunt she accepted that. She was raised up where Negroes were supposed to do whatever boss told you, you accepted that. She thought she’d get it in time.
Well, a year went by and no money for my aunt. I quit there. And I called Miz Lucy Meyers. She was a white lady, and she would do all she could for the Negroes because the white people didn’t recognize her husband altogether as being white. His mother had had two colored children before she married his father, and the white people, for that, wouldn’t let those children go to school.
She asked me about my father’s people and who they were and say, “You know, time now to come up and talk straight about it.” So she got in touch with Andrew, my daddy’s brother. And Andrew called on Lawyer Scott and fixed it.
He was stealing her money! And some of those whites, I don’t know! I never felt quite like I could trust any of them. Not even Andrew, who played the dear one, always coming for my father. No, I didn’t trust the ones that were family or the ones I worked for, neither one. Now Andrew he died not long ago. He’d been down sick. His cook was named Willie Bell, and Willie Bell let me know about it. She called and said he’s been asking for you and asking for you. I kept on avoiding it, till finally my husband said, “Why don’t you go?””
So he carried me other there one Sunday, and when I got there, that doctor had just given him some kind of sedative. I was at the door on the porch, and his wife asked me, “What is your name?” I said, “Priscilla.” She said, “Ain’t Joe your uncle?” See, she didn’t know her husband was my uncle, too. She was talking about my mother’s brother that I told you all the white peoples loved. I said, “Yes ma’am.”
Say, “Well, you the Priscilla he’s been asking for.” Because Andrew and my father had a sister named Priscilla, too. And says, “You waited a mighty long time to come.” I say, “I admit that.” And pecans began falling on the house, on the roof. I told her I’d better go so she could close the door and he wouldn’t hear the noise of the pecans on the roof. He was right down the hall there.
So I left and he died that week. Well, I didn’t see him, so I never knew for sure if I would have trusted him in the end. We knew each other most all our lives. And I later heard through the grapevine that I cheated myself out of something, some money or some land, by not going earlier. But you know, some days I care and some days I don’t.
© 1988 Susan Tucker