Ernastine Cobb escaped a life of segregation and sharecropping in Fountain, North Carolina in 1960 by taking a bus to New York, only to endure more obstacles.
In her first four days in the big city, she fought off the advances of her lesbian housemate and moved to Norwalk, Connecticut. Charles Cobb, Ernastine’s husband, took his own life at the age of forty-seven when he learned he had cancer, leaving Ernastine and their two grown children to cope without him.
My interview with Ernastine and the time that I have spent chatting and quilting with her have left me with a lasting impression. A small African American woman, who at the age of seventy seven, has lived a life worth retelling and sharing with others. Despite her small stature, Ernastine is a woman with a very big heart.
Ernastine’s big heart allows her to forgive the white kids for spitting at her, the white folks for setting their dogs free to chase her and enduring the loss of her husband because of suicide, with a quiet acceptance.
I feel indebted to have met and befriended Ernastine Cobb, she has changed my life and I thank her and will always remember her for it.
Ernastine Cobb Interview
April 29th 2011
LL: All right, so the focus of the interview, the main things I want to focus on, there’s three of them.
EC: I wouldn’t do one for Anthony.
LL: You wouldn’t! Oh, I can’t wait for him to see this! I’ll say, ‘Guess what she said!’
EC: Oh, that’s going to be up there? (Points to flip camera)
LL: Yeah. So, there’s three things I’m going to talk to you about,
I am going to talk to you about where you grew up, I also want to talk to you about the Civil Rights Movement, because as an African American female born in 1934, is that right? You’ve seen a lot of changes.
EC: Yeah sure.
LL: And I’m also going to talk to you about how you came to Norwalk and how you got involved in the Peace by Piece quilting. So let’s begin by, where were you born?
EC: In Fountain, North Carolina, well just in North Carolina.
LL: In North Carolina. In what year?
EC: In 1934.
LL: Did both of your parents work?
EC: Yes. On the farm.
LL: I should say, this is Ernastine Cobb. It’s a beautiful name by the way, Ernastine.
EC: Well you know, it’s not many people, no body else in my family, on either, not in my grandmother’s family, my grandfather’s family, or anybody else in the family that has an Ernastine.
EC: I’m the only one in the family and my grandmother lived until ah 92, grandchildren, and all but nobody named one Ernastine.
LL: Your grandfather lived ‘til he was 92?
EC: My grandmother.
LL: Your grandmother lived ‘til, and no one else has the name Ernastine? It’s an unusual name, it’s lovely. Is any of your grandchildren, great grandchildren?
EC: (Shakes her head to indicate no.)
LL: Nobody. Huh? It’s a beautiful name. So your parents worked on a farm?
LL: You and I talked about this previously. It’s a hard life working on a farm?
EC: It was hard. I mean we would get up in the morning, ah? Say around five o’clock say, and we’d go to the fields or whatever you know, and work and we would come back in the house about twelve, have lunch, we’d go back at one. Then we’d work until the sun was down.
EC: So then, once we, ah, came up out of the field it’s like feeding the chickens the hogs, and getting in wood, you know the wood for the night. Cleaning the lamp shades an all such a’ that stuff.
LL: You cleaned the lampshades? Why did you clean the lampshades?
EC: Because we didn’t have electric lights.
LL: So what did you have?
EC: We had oil lamps.
LL: Oil Lamps. How would you clean an oil lamp?
EC: With ah? Paper.
LL: Really? You’d just use paper to clean it out?
LL: And that was your job every night?
EC: Well between me and my sister.
LL: So it was just you and your sister?
EC: Me, my sister and a brother.
LL: Okay, so there was three of you.
EC: Well my brother like, he would help my father like feed the hogs and so we also had a car. And so they’d do that. My mother in the kitchen would start cooking, my sister and me we had to bring in the wood for the night because we had fireplaces and heaters. We didn’t have any electricity at all.
LL: And that was typical of families in, what was the town’s name again?
LL: Fountain. That’s a pretty name for a town.
EC: Yeah, Fountain, North Carolina.
LL: And most families didn’t have electricity? But you had a car?
EC: Ah. Yeah, before my father died he bought the car. But, before that we travelled by mule and wagon.
LL: Did you really?
EC: Yeah we used to go to church and ah, you know. But, mostly I remember my travelling with my grandfather, you know, going back and forth to church and other places on the mule and wagon. And, I can’t really hardly remember my father driving the mule and wagon much. But, anyway, that was the main way that people travelled, you know? Back in ’34 and up to, I guess it was in the ‘40’s, I guess.
LL: And that mule just wasn’t transport. He also did work on the farm?
EC: Oh yeah. He did, they used him in the fields, you know, for plowing.
LL: Plowing the fields yeah?
LL: What kind of farm work did you do? You mentioned hogs and chickens. What kind of grains and crops did you plant?
EC: (Laughs) About everything. We did cotton, tobacco, peanuts and corn.
LL: So it was a big farm?
LL: How big was the farm? How many acres?
EC: Ah. We did sharecropping. You know. So the white man owned the land.
EC: And so it’s like, if it were the field were three acres like, the white man had three and a half.
EC: Ah, had one and a half acres and my father had, would tend one and a half acres.
EC: There wasn’t such thing as one and a half acres; the field was huge like ten acres or something like that.
LL: So explain to me what sharecropping is? Did your parents own the land?
EC: No, no. The white man owned the land. And, the white man paid for everything, you know, like the seeds and the fertilizer and all of the stuff that needed to grow that crop, these crops. Then at the end of the year, when it come time to sell it, why, he would figure out, well, all the bills he paid for tending that farm. My father had to pay half of it. And, I tried to show my father, you know, after I got to be a teenager, well it was my stepfather then because my father died when I was seven years old. So, he left my mother with the farm, a big farm and so one of my uncles came to live with us and help my mother for the rest of the year, you know, to tend the farm. So, when I was nine years old, and one morning we was chopping weeds for my mother near the cotton. So, my mother came back and she showed me how to do it So, I was going to be smart and I didn’t want to do it. So I was chopping the cotton there down. So, she came back and she said, “I’m going to show you one more time and you’d better not chop this cotton.” She said, “I only want you to pull the weeds around the stalk of cotton.”
LL: You were taking down the crop?
EC: Yeah, and that’s it. So, I started working when I was nine years old.
LL: Nine years old, wow! Very young.
EC: Yeah nine years old. Yeah. So, it was me, my sister, brother, my mother that were on the crop. But, then she had a brother that came to live with us, you know, that did the plowing and all the heavy work that my brother weren’t old enough to do. You know we really worked hard. From sun up to sun down. We raised in the garden, you know the vegetable garden, we raised tomatoes, we raised beans, we raised peas, we had cucumbers, most everything. We even raised pop corn.
LL: So, but going back to the sharecropping. Did your father, and then your stepfather, they sold some of the crop?
EC: Oh yeah.
LL: And then that’s how they paid back the white farmer?
LL: What was the white farmer’s name? Do you remember?
EC: Ah, it was Raul Dilda. R A U L
LL: R A U L
EC: D I L D A
LL: D I L D A. Was he a nice man?
EC: Yeah, he was nice. But, he cheated my father, you know, the way the white always do to the blacks.
EC: As I said that’s one reason why, ah, doing my study back in slavery, that’s why they didn’t want the black people to read.
LL: That’s correct.
EC: And so looking back into the history, nearly everything that was made or invented was did by a black man, but he had no money to put himself into business so white men took credit for it.
LL: Yeah? So before I move onto civil rights, because you obviously are somebody who knows about the civil rights movement, who has been interested in it. Am, somebody told me that you were baptized in a river.
EC: Yeah, and not a river! Do you see that picture up there?
LL: Yeah? Let me just get the camera. Can I bring the camera over to the picture?
EC: Sure. I was baptized in a swamp. What we called it.
LL: A swamp?
EC: Yeah. It wasn’t really a river.
(Camera shows picture of a river baptism)
LL: Oh my goodness! So tell me, have you been to other baptisms of people being baptized in rivers? Or swamps?
LL: They don’t still do that do they?
LL: And you don’t remember it? Did you have to be old enough to walk into the water yourself or were you carried in?
EC: No you walked, just like you see right there.
LL: Oh! So you remember!
EC: Yeah! I remember it.
LL: How old were you?
EC: I was about nine. Nine or ten. Somewhere between that age.
LL: And what religion were you baptized into?
EC: The Baptists.
LL: So Baptists always used a river baptism.
EC: Yeah. You know, people always said, “Weren’t you all afraid there might be a snake or something?” You know, but ah, I don’t know, nothing ever happened, you know. To tell you the truth I didn’t go to the doctors until I came here.
LL: Really? So you have had a healthy life?
EC: Yeah. Well, you know, it was sort of healthy because I used to think that my grandmother could go out and just pull a leaf off any tree and boil it with some water and put a little sugar in it and give it to me, no matter what your problem was, it left. (Laughs)
That’s the way I used to know. My mother, when we used to have a cold and, oh God, if you ever see the light come on in the bedroom, I knew what was coming and I used to almost smother myself to death. ‘Cause I didn’t want it. She would come in with a teaspoon of sugar and she’d put, I think she said about three or four drops of kerosene in it. And we had to eat that spoon of sugar.
LL: How did that taste?
EC: But we didn’t cough any more.
LL: Really? Kerosene and sugar?
EC: Mmm. I mean, I guess they really…I used to talk to a lady I used to work for. And we used to have lunch together days, and I would be telling her about this so she got so interested that she said to me, she was going to Manhattan Ville College in New York, and she said to me, “Ernastine,” she said, “Do you think if I went to North Carolina with you once that I could get some of the old ladies to talk with me and tell me how this came to be,” and I said, “Yeah.” So, my husband and I we drove down and she and her sister flew down. And, they stayed at the hotel. In the morning, we would go from the hotel and take them round through the country and show them how we used to slaughter hogs and you know, cure the meat and ah, how we would harvest tobacco. That was the worst crop of them all.
LL: Why was tobacco the worst crop? Was it messy?
EC: Yeah it was messy, and the one thing, the weather never got too bad to work with tobacco. You had to, well when it was growing up, you had to chop it, keep the weeds out of it. Then it would grow like flowers from up in top. So, you had to go out and you had to pull those out. And little shoots would come out near the leaf and you had to go back in and…..
LL: So you had to prune it to keep the growth?
EC: Yes, and there was always something to do in tobacco.
LL: That’s a lot of work.
EC: So, then once it grew up tall and it started turning a sort of yellow, then the men go out in the field and they break the yellow leaves off and they’d bring it up to the barn, and we had to string it on sticks you know? And hang it in the barn and cure it out and then when they finished it was about a two month job.
LL: That’s a long time.
EC: And then, they’d hang it in the barn and they had a furnace run through that way. They had to use wood ‘cause the farmers had to go in the wood and cut down trees, and they let them dry out. And, they would make a fire in the furnace in the barn that would cure the tobacco.
LL: Oh so you had to let it dry out?
EC: You had to let it dry out, after it had dried out, that was after the process, you had to get it out of the field get it all dried out. Then you had to go through a process what they called grading it. So, you’d put the lightest looking here in a pile, the next grade, and the leaves that were dark brown.
LL: So was that like good, not so good, bad?
EC: Yeah. And, after that, you had to gather as much as you could in your hand and then fold one of the other leaves and wrap it around it. Make it in bundles. Then you make it in bundles, you had sticks about this long. (Indicates by widening arms to about 18-20 inches) So, you put it on the stick, you know, so they put the stick on, kind of like the quilt that we have over there. And, we had to separate them and put them on this stick then after that you had to take them off and you had to press it we called it. My father-in-law made it, and ah? It’s like ah? A wide piece of wood, about wider than this table, and then it had a piece on top. But then, the lid, you know, the top piece was made like a lid. And, what happened to it, you had to pull it down.
LL: Lower it down to flatten the whole thing?
EC: Yeah, and press it.
LL: I understand.
EC: Then, my father would take it to the warehouse, the tobacco warehouse where they sell it. So at the end of the season, after you sell it all, then the white man figure up how much the seed cost, the tobacco, the fertilizer, the this and the that and then they figured out how much the sharecropping cost. My father was entitled to half of it. And then, he’d say what his part was for the tobacco, and what my father’s part was. And, it also was the same thing for the peanuts.
LL: So the white farmer was always wheeling and dealing for nickels?
EC: Yeah. Now when we worked for, in ah? The white man had a daughter, what was the same age as I was. Tobacco was the only crop we worked in together. The other crops the white man hired someone to do his and we had to go into the field and pick the cotton and shake the peanuts up out of the ground, pull them up out of the ground, shake the dirt out and stack them and stay in the field ‘til they dry, and all such as that. But when we worked in, when I worked in the white man’ tobacco, he paid me half price. When his daughter worked with my daddy and the other man that lived on the farm, with tobacco, she got paid the same price the grown-ups did.
LL: Why was that? Because you were an African-American young girl and you were given half of what the white girl was earning?
LL: That’s pretty, pretty bad.
EC: Yeah, it was bad. And, after I started going to high school I kept telling my father, trying to show him how the man was cheating him. And, my father said, “Oh well, just let it go.” And so, ah, when I was in grade school we had to walk about three miles to school no matter how the weather was. And, we carried lunch in, well I had ah, well kind of like something candy would come in. My mother would make biscuits, like the kids from town, the white kids, they used bread. You know, loaf of bread. But, we always had biscuits.
LL: Homemade biscuits.
EC: When we got to the place, I guess the white kids, some of them had a black lady, like a maid that lived with them and they started to liking biscuits. But, I don’t think, I don’t know if the kids never liked them or what but the kids never did have biscuits. But, we didn’t go to school together.
LL: Well I am glad you mentioned that because when I was doing a little background research I realized that the schools were segregated.
EC: Yeah, they were segregated.
LL: So you went to an all black school?
EC: Yes, all the way.
LL: What was that like Ernastine?
EC: All the way through high school I went to an all black school. And, we used to be walking, and the white kids would pass us on the bus. And, they would make little of us, you know, throw things out at us, you know?
LL: So the white kids were on the school bus, but black kids were not allowed to be on the school bus? You had to walk?
EC: No. We had to walk.
LL: What were the teachers like? Were they black women and men as well?
EC: No, all black.
LL: All white. (Incorrect, Ernastine said all black) And how did the teachers treat you.
EC: The teachers was good because they were going through the same things we did.
LL: So, because you went to a segregated elementary school and a segregated high school, Rosa Parks, did that happen in, let me see; desegregation happened in 1954. So, you would have been 20 years old. It didn’t happen right away.
EC: I graduated in 1955, no, I graduated in 1952.
LL: 1952, so you would have been 18 in ’52 and 20 in ’54. So the superior court brought in you know, that desegregation was outlawed you couldn’t separate the two groups. How did that make you feel?
EC: Oh it made me feel…you said that they couldn’t separate them?
LL: You could no longer separate them, you could no longer have blacks going to one school and whites going to the other, you had to mix both groups together into one school.
EC: I felt good about it, but at that time I was coming out of school, I never really went to school with whites.
LL: So when you were 21, Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus. That’s a significant part of civil rights. Do you remember that?
EC: Oh yeah I remember that.
LL: Talk to me about where you were when you heard that story.
EC: AH? Where I was? Ah?
LL: Or when you first heard about it how did it make you feel?
EC: I felt good, I really did.
LL: It must have felt good to a black woman to know that a black woman was taking a stand against what was happening.
EC: Yeah, because as I said, that’s the reason I left home. Because I kept trying to show my stepfather how the white man was cheating him. And we worked hard all year long and when the end of the year come, after selling the cotton, the peanuts, the corn, the tobacco and then you see you just come out even or either he would give him two hundred dollars or something like that.
LL: Yeah, after all that hard work.
EC: After all that hard work.
LL: So you were being cheated?
LL: And especially when you return to the fact that the white girl was getting paid twice what you were getting paid.
EC: Yeah and like when I was in high school I used to ah? On days like when I’d come from school? And ah, I would have to go work with the tobacco, you know like the dried tobacco I had to go and work at their house to pay for my graduation ring and my cap and gown you know for graduation and everything. And, on Saturdays, I used to go, you know they had a big yard and I had to sweep that yard with a broom like with the twigs you used to cut down in the woods, and tie them together to make brooms.
LL: The switches? You’d take them and make a brush to sweep the rooms?
EC: Yeah but this was sweeping the yard.
EC: And so for me to have some money to spend, cause like on a Saturday afternoon me and like the other girls on the farm that lived down the road from us or something, we would get together, if our mother’s would let us, and we would walk into town, you know? So in order for me to have money say to go to the movies or buy popcorn you know? Just a little.
LL: Just a little spending money, yeah?
EC: I had to sweep, go there and sweep their yard. And, I would sweep that whole big yard.
LL: For how much?
EC: For about a dollar and a quarter.
LL: How big was the yard? As big as this complex?
EC: Well not big as the whole complex. Say for instance from that building, the end of that building there to about along here and then you know it go across and back that far.
LL: How long did it take you to do the job?
EC: Oh, it took me about close to, well over an hour and a half.
LL: An hour and a half, for a dollar twenty-five. Wow!
EC: Yeah. And, my mother used to do their wash, once a week. And, she had to scrub their clothes on a scrub board.
LL: All by hand, yeah?
EC: And sometimes they would give her three dollars or either, they just like you know, they used to kill hogs you know and salt the meat down in brine to keep the meat through the year. They used to do the same thing like that we did and then she would give my mother either an old piece of meat you know. Kind of smelt bad.
LL: You mentioned going into town with your friends. Any white friends?
LL: You just didn’t mix? It just wasn’t done?
EC. No, no.
LL: Wow! So let’s move on to, to me what I think is the most significant part of civil rights. What would you say is the most memorable, in a sad way, historical moment of civil rights?
EC: What, when they started the civil rights?
LL: Well, I am thinking of Martin Luther King being shot.
EC: That was really sad (shakes her head) but ah, knowing about the way blacks was treated and all, you know, as I look at Obama, President Obama today. It’s the same thing with him. I’m glad he was elected as a black man put in the Whitehouse. But the torture that he’s having to go through with, you know I feel so sorry for him for that. But the thing of it is, and ah, I don’t have anything against white people even though the way I was treated, but the thing of it is, knowing that the white man never wanted the black man equal to him, that’s why they put him through so much torture and headache. But, I pray for him all the time, but its one thing I love about him is what they say about him what they do to him, he don’t let it shake him.
LL: Yeah. I agree.
EC: He just keep, he smile and he just keep going you know. And, the thing of it is, they are trying to bring him down. But, he’s strong. And, I said ah, I feel like, that God put him in this position and if God put him there, God going to see to him staying there. And, they can’t harm him. But that’s why they, the reason they killed Martin Luther King because he was bringing us out of all, I said the darkness, you know, that we have been going through. Cause I can remember a lot of things happening during the time that I was growing up.
LL: Do you want to share some of them?
EC: What happened to the blacks and for a lot of things that they didn’t do. Cause there was a young guy, this man hired him to work with him on his farm.
LL: He was hired to work on a white man’s farm?
EC: Oh no! They hired you to work because they paid you much of nothing. You know, but this guy, he stayed on the farm. He was talented, in some ways that the white man liked, so he let him sleep, he gave him a bed in the barn where they keep the hay for feeding the mules and the cows and everything. That’s where he had to stay. So one of the white man’s daughters she came to like the black boy. And so, when he’d be out milking the cows and out doing everything she’d go out and she was saying, I bet she just wanted to be friendly. You know she came up when the segregation stuff was coming to an end.
EC: And so she just want to be friendly with the guy cause he was nice and did things for her cause she would have him making her jump ropes and making her swings up in the tree and this and that.
LL: She wasn’t racist. She just wasn’t a racist. She didn’t see color.
EC: No. And so ah, she would go out when she would get up in the morning and she’d go looking for him and he’d be milking a cow, she’d go sit out there and look at him milk the cow He’d let her milk the cow and just whatever she asked him to do. She just sort of followed him around. I think she was just interested in something that he father wouldn’t take time to do. He probably didn’t know how to make those swings from up in the tree.
EC: And so, one day, ah, he was in the barn, he was polishing the shoes, then she came to the door and she asked him what was he doing, and so he told her I guess and so she kept standing there talking to him. So her father, he was inside and he looked out and he saw her out there with him and so he went out. He scolded her to make her come from out there where she was and she told him and she said “No! I want to stay out here with him cause he’s going to teach me how to milk the cow.” And, because she wouldn’t ah, really leave she was about I don’t know, about 13 then.
LL: And how old was the man?
EC: Ah, he was about 29 and so do you know that night the white man had got a bunch other men. Well they had the Ku Klux Clan back then.
LL: I…I…(in complete shock here)
EC: And they did some horrible things to the black man, and black people.
LL: Have you ever seen them? Have you ever seen the KKK?
EC: Oh, yes.
LL: You have?
EC: Yes, there’s still some of them down there. And so, he and some more men went in that night, this guy had laid down to go to bed and they tied him up, they took him to the woods, they tied him to a tree and they beat that boy so bad. (Shakes her head) It was a shame. And, he wouldn’t take him to the doctor, after they did it, and ah, I don’t know. Another man that lived on the farm down that side of the farm, they say he was asking the white man where was this boy, he hadn’t seen him for two or three days. And so, the same little girl, she said, “He’s in the barn, and he’s all bloody,” and everything. She told it. So the white man went sure enough he found the boy in the barn and they had beat him up and all. He and about here other men went and they threatened the white man and demanded that he take that boy out of the barn and take him to the doctor. And, not only that, I know of two people that they hanged and killed, you know?
LL: And were they people that were close to you, were they family members?
EC: No, they weren’t family members but they were around in the same area, where we lived.
LL: That had to be terrifying, to grow up with that?
EC: It was, it really was. And, you take, my son, he really didn’t grow up with that, and when this movie came out, Roots?
LL: Yes, Alex Haley’s Roots, I remember.
EC: My son cannot stand to see racist pictures. Because he heard us talking about things that used to happen.
LL: It’s real, you lived that.
EC: Yeah. I lived that. And, he cannot stand to see a racist movie. When Roots first came out, he was going to Tracey school and for four days straight they called me at work I had to leave work and go bring him home.
LL: It upset him?
EC: He was fighting, with the white kids and all. And so, you know. Yeah, and the white kids, used to, we’d be walking to school and they would pass by us and they would try to spit at, you know, spit at us and ah throw things and ah…keep doing this all year.
LL: How do you forgive people for doing that? How do you forgive people?
EC: Ah? I don’t know, but I had it by growing up with a real, and a real religious grandmother and mother, and the rest of my house and all. So ah, that’s the way that I guess I come to kind of overlook it somewhat. I’ll never forget it. You know, and the horrible things they said, we used to be walking to school sometimes and we’d pass the white people’s yard and they’d sic the dogs on us. We had to run in the fields or run up behind trees to try to get away from the dogs.
LL: But, I think you definitely hit the nail on the head when you said education. That’s the darkness that you mentioned when they weren’t allowing you to be, like when your parents, obviously didn’t get the same chances at education as you did. That’s why he never challenged the white farmer. But, you went to elementary school, you went to high school, you could read, you could add, so it began to make sense what was happening.
EC: Yeah. I saw what was happening and I tried to show it to my stepfather. My stepfather he said he went to school three days in his life.
LL: Three days?
EC: Yeah. And another time the white man his father told him “You know those kids aint got no business going to school they got to stay here and work on the farm.” And that’s what this man get my father to try and do for me. Now my sister she dropped out in the ninth.
LL: Ninth grade?
EC: My brother dropped out in the tenth because they couldn’t go to school like a full week. You know when it was harvesting time.
LL: They had to work on the farm? Right?
EC: And then they didn’t have the clothes to wear, cause I used to, I had two dress skirts and one was wool. My mother used to make all our clothes out of bags that the feed for feeding the hogs would come in.
LL: Your skirts were made out of the feed bags?
EC: Yeah, well the two skirts that I had were bought.
LL: Were bought, so what was made out of the feed bags for the hogs?
EC: The other dresses and the skirts that we wore to school.
EC: We didn’t go to the store and buy outfits until I was about twenty-four.
LL: So let’s move on to how you ended up in Norwalk. How did you end up here?
EC: Ah, (laughs) the same guy I told you about, I was piecing together a quilt one day. And, his family lived about a mile down the road from my family, you know where we lived.
LL: Was this the guy who was beaten up by the KKK? Which guy is this?
EC: No, oh the guy that was beaten up by them. He was nothing in my family. I just know of him.
LL: So who is the guy with the quilt? Who is this guy?
EC: Oh he’s, just another family that were living further down the road on the farm.
LL: In Fountain?
EC: Yeah. So any way, my father used to, after the corn dried in the field we had to break the ears off and throw them in a wagon and bring them to the house and unload the wagon into the barn. And then, you go back and you keep doing it until you had finished the ten acres of corn.
LL: So the leaves were taken off (misheard ‘ears’ for leaves) the stalks were put into the wagon? You kept doing that over and over again?
EC: Yeah, so you could take the corn, take it to the gin, what they used to call it but it was the mill. You know that grind up the corn?
LL: Yes, I have heard that before.
EC: So this boy was working for a company at the grinding mill. And, he would travel by truck to pick up corn, you know that was grown by my father, in the barn, and take it to the mill.
LL: To the gin.
EC: To the gin. And they would grind some that we got corn meal from it, and then my father was able to sell some and so, I don’t know. It was, it was ah, about nine days after, he came and he saw me piecing together a quilt. He asked me “What ya doing?” I said, “I’m quilting,” he said, “What you quilting for?” He knew about quilting, you know, cause that’s what all the women did. Like during the winter the men still had to go in the woods to cut wood, cut threes down for putting aside for curing tobacco next season. You know, things like that the men still worked outside during the winter and they swabbed, what they called swabbing was cutting down the bushes around the edges of the field and all on the ditch banks. But, the women in the winter they keep house and that’s when they started quilting, and baking and canning. In the garden we used to raise beans and peas and we had a peach tree an apple tree, and my mother, we used to plant beans and peas and all like that in the garden that we would eat during the summer. And then, she would leave some out there to let them dry in the pod and we would, before the hard winter came, we would go and put them in a burlap bag. And she would hang them up around the porch or somewhere and then when the winter come, one day if she wanted to cook beans or peas, we would take a pole or a stick or something and we would beat the beans you know, in that bag. Then, we would take it out, and we had a little pot that we would scoop them up out of there and hold them up, like this. And there would be a little sheet on the ground, so when the wind would blow, the wind would blow all the shell away because they’d be dried out and the peas would fall down on the sheet.
LL: So you didn’t have to shell them?
LL: They just came right out?
EC: So we ate fresh green beans and peas in the summer. But then, my mother would plant beans and peas in the field and let them dry so we would have them in the winter.
LL: So it was like naturally letting them dry, the peas were preserved inside the pod?
LL: So, how did you end up moving from Fountain to Norwalk?
EC: OK. Before this same guy, about nine years after I met him, he asked me what was I quilting for and I said “For the two of us!” I was teasing with him because we went to school and all every day. Coming from school he used to tease me and we used to tease him because he wouldn’t walk on the side of the road, he used to walk over by the ditch, cause he was always looking for frogs and things and all. We used to call him “Frog boy!”
LL: Right, right! Oh, I remember this story!
EC: You know we were just friends like and I really don’t exactly know how we kind of started liking one another. But I know the first time I gave him a date we all had what you’d call a barbecue at the barn where we used to do tobacco. And so, we had hot dogs and marshmallows and such as that and all of that. And so, he kept asking me for a dance and so I danced with him. And we started talking and so he said ah, ah, “Can I come and walk the time with you on some Saturdays and go to the movies?” (Laughs) And I said, “Oh! What you think that we want you to go to the movies with us?” And he said, he had sisters too….
LL: Were you playing hard to get?
EC: (Laughs) I guess so! And so, he had sisters too but they was older. And so, he kept on, so finally, I don’t know exactly, how we really…, but we started liking each other. And so, he lived in the little town, they moved from out in the country to the little town that we used to go to. So, I know how it all started. So, as I said we used to get together, me and three other girls who lived on the farm used to walk to town, which was about two and a half miles. And so, if we had money, we’d go to the movie, and so that’s the way I started with him, we used to go to the movie on a Saturday and sit in there and kiss. (Laughs) If the time, it started getting dark, my father would pick us up and bring us back, you know my stepfather then at the time. And then, we really started liking one another by going to the movies on Saturdays. And by him living in the town, and after the crops was in cause the people that was in the town they would come out and help on the farms, but you had to pay them but, so that’s the way they did a living. And so, he left because he couldn’t get any work to do. He came to Virginia, you heard of them farms where they picked potatoes?
EC: So he came to Virginia and that was what he was doing. They call them ah, seasonal…
LL: Migrant farm workers?
EC: Yeah, yeah.
LL: He was a migrant farm worker?
EC: Yeah. So he came to doing that. So, I had a cousin that left North Carolina and he had a brother that lived here in Connecticut. So he saw Charles once so he said “Man, you should come to Connecticut, you know, get you a good job paying you good money.” So he came, two times he came back to Fountain and he kept saying to me, “Why don’t you come to Connecticut and get you a good job?” I don’t know, do you ever remember about the hat cooperation that was here?
LL: No, but I have read a bit about the history of Norwalk so I know about it. Right?
EC: So my husband worked there, he was a hat trencher, they called it, you dipped the felt hat in this real hot water and you had a mould to put it on and then he had a piece a still wool, like something, that you had to keep rubbing around it to smooth it down and shave them.
LL: Now please tell me that you married this lovely man that came back to Fountain and said, “This is your husband.”
EC: So the second time he came back he says, “Why don’t you marry me and come back to Connecticut and get you a good job?” And I said, “You got to be crazy!” And so, I don’t know, I got so upset with my stepfather about how this man was cheating him. And so, I said, “If you don’t make nothing this year I am leaving!” So my stepfather told my mother, she said, “Oh she’s not going to stay, she’ll be back.” So Charles sent me money. So I had never been to New York, I had never been out of the area where we lived. So my Uncle took me to Rocky Mountain, North Carolina and I got the bus.
LL: When? What year was that?
EC: So my stepfather had three sisters living in Long Island, New York. So I was coming to stay with them, but Charles was here in Connecticut.
LL: He was in Norwalk? He was working in the hat factory at that point?
EC: Yeah, and I went to stay with them in New York and the first three days that I was there I went to work along with my stepfather’s sister, I went with her to work. She was doing house cleaning. And they was rooming with another lady. So one night we was having dinner and the lady said to, well she was not my sister, my stepfather’s sister, she said, “You know Ernastine can stay with me here tomorrow, I don’t have anywhere to go. She can stay here with me.” And so, (small laughs) the next morning I got up and I went into the bathroom to take a bath, a shower. And all of a sudden, I saw the knob turning on the door, and I look around and there was this lady. And she came in the bathroom. Here I am, a little country girl. (Laughs quietly)
LL: Was she a lesbian?
LL: Oh my goodness.
EC: A little country girl, never been to a big city or anything. I didn’t even know anything about lesbians, I really didn’t. And this lady she started feeling my breasts and everything and I’m saying, “Get away!,” you know, “Keep away!” And she’s saying, “Oh, I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to be friends with you and all.” And I was frightened to death.
LL: Was she a white woman?
EC: No, she was black. And so, I must have weighed ninety-four pounds and I must have had a fit because I was really frightened. And, it really is a true thing, when you really get frightened…
LL: Strength comes?
EC: Strength comes from somewhere, but I gave that lady a really hard time in that bathroom that day. So I ran in the room and I locked the door. So when I got dressed I went out, never had been to New York, never had been anywhere, you know?
LL: Yeah, it’s a big city you are coming from the country.
EC: And there was cement steps, you know, anytime, they have the blocks on each side?
EC: I went out there and sat on them stoops from ten thirty in the morning until four thirty that evening. Until ah?
LL: You did not feel safe in that house?
EC: No! I was never staying in there with that lady. (Laughs) So, I sat out there until my stepfather’s sister came from work. And I said to her I said, you know, “I want to call Charles.” And she said, “Why?” And I told her about the lady. And I said, “So why didn’t y’all tell me about the lady?”
LL: So they all knew?
EC: Yeah they all knew, but she didn’t tell me, She said, “Well I didn’t want you to go back home, I wanted you to stay here.” So then, I remained with her. So, when I knew that Charles was in from work, I called him. And, he said to me, he says, “I don’t know exactly where you are,” he said, “but before day tomorrow morning I will find you.” And sure enough, he had another guy, he had a car, that he knew and a cousin of mine here. So they got in the car, and came to New York.
LL: Tell me how you ended up doing the quilting project?
EC: Well, I think Betty’s daughter and Lizzy I guess, anyway Betty’s daughter had asked us if we would like to work on a project like this to help keep the kids off the street so we accepted. And after we started three or four women from over here asked if they came and started too and then the children came in, so it just took off. And from that we just started quilting and that’s been two years.
LL: How long have you lived here Ernastine?
EC: October will be ten years.
LL: Ten years.
LL: How long have you been in Norwalk?
EC: Fifty years.
LL: Fifty years! What was your husband’s name?
LL: And where did he work?
EC: He worked at the hat cooperation.
LL: At the hat cooperation. And where did you work?
EC: I worked at Carraday for a while I worked at, ah what’s the place’s name across the street from….Swank.
LL: Swank? Am I saying that right?
EC: S W A N K, Swank. Then from there I started on domestic work. I did domestic work for about twelve years.
LL: Did you like that?
LL: Why did you like that?
EC: Because I got paid every day. (Laughs) You want to know the truth right? Because I got paid everyday!
LL: That’s a good answer.
EC: Because you know at that time my husband had a good job, so I like doing that and it was quite an experience for me, raising other people’s three children. So when ah, my husband died, so then I had to get another job where I had insurance and everything so that’s when I went to the Marriot.
LL: The Marriott.
EC: Hewitt Associates is what they called it.
LL: How many children do you have?
LL: And what are their names?
EC: Velma Dickson and Jeffry Cobb.
LL: Wave at them.
EC: You saw him!
LL: Do they live locally.
EC: Yeah, they live in North Carolina.
LL: Thank you Ernastine, it’s been a pleasure!
EC: Oh, is that it?
LL: Do you want more?
LL: Say goodbye!
EC: You want to know how long I was married?
LL: Oh, tell me?
EC: Twenty-five years.
LL: Twenty-five years married, so your husband died young? How old was he?
LL: What happened?
EC: Suicide. Yeah. He found he had cancer and he came from a family that said they wouldn’t suffer, so he found he had cancer and he couldn’t deal with it. So, he did it.
LL: That changed your life?
EC: Well, it changed it in one way and then in another way it didn’t. Naturally, I couldn’t imagine it and I don’t know why I didn’t go almost crazy. It was just the goodness of God that kept me from going crazy. Yeah.
LL: And your kids were young?
EC: No my daughter was married, my son was in his twenties, my son was twenty, twenty-one. He died very young.
LL: God help him.
EC: As I said, God took care of me through it.
LL: And you have remained positive.
EC: My doctor came up the next day and he kept coming back and checking my pressure. God didn’t even let my pressure go out of control. And I tell you, I was just a zombie. I can’t hardly explain what really, the funeral and all? I really can’t remember what went on with the planning of the funeral and all. My niece, my son must have took care of it. But ah, I don’t know. But I went back after a month into the same house that I stayed in for fourteen years. I slept in the same room, I had his spirit to visit me several times and never in a way that frightened me.
LL: So you have actually seen his spirit?
LL: And does he tell you things?
EC: Yeah, the last time he came to see me he said, “Hey, it’s time for you to get you a man now.” I said, “I don’t need one I have you.” He said, “No. You can’t have me anymore.” And I said, “Why, you have another woman?” And he said, “No, but you can’t have me no more.” That’s exactly what he said!
LL: So you never remarried?
EC: I never intend to. But I had a good marriage. It’s not that I didn’t have a good marriage, it’s just that I don’t want to be hurt like that again. I am afraid that I might get married and something might happen, I might lose that one. But I never want to go through, you know, death of a person, you know?
LL: That you’re close to?
EC: That I really was close to if you know, so I just don’t want to go through that.